Game Review | The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Game summary: Geralt of Rivia, a monster hunter for hire, embarks on an epic journey to find his former apprentice, Ciri, before The Wild Hunt can capture her and bring about the destruction of the world. (IMDb)
To start, a little bit about my history with the Witcher series and why I rate this game in particular so highly. I played the first Witcher, enjoyed it a little, but it never really grabbed my attention and I didn't finish it - even getting a free upgrade to the current Enhanced Edition hasn't been enough to get me to go back for a second attempt.
Then there's The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, which I definitely enjoyed more than the first, but again felt it was lacking a certain something. I did finish it, but didn't particularly enjoy the experience and never made it past the first section of the game when attempting another play-through. Again, even another free upgrade to an Enhanced Edition wasn't enough to inspire me to continue.
When The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt came out, I didn't exactly rush out to get a copy. Not finishing the first and forcing myself to finish the second wasn't exactly the best prior experience. Even the phenomenal reviews and scores the game was getting wasn't enough to sway my opinion - the second game had been extremely well-received too and I hadn't thought that worthy of such praise.
Even when it started racking up Game of the Year awards by the bucketful, I wasn't moved. It didn't matter how many people praised it, my previous experience of the series was enough for me to ignore it all. Eventually, it took the game going on sale over a year after release before I finally decided to return to the world of Geralt of Rivia.
There I was, going into this game with an unimpressed opinion of the franchise and expecting the praise it had been receiving to be overblown hype that it didn't deserve. I was wrong. So, so wrong. The Witcher 3 didn't just turn my opinion of the series around, it completely shattered them. All the praise and awards lavished on it, setting the expectations sky-high? It surpassed them with ease.
I am so glad that I didn't end up ignoring this game entirely, otherwise I might've missed out on one of the single greatest games I've ever had the fortune to experience. Oh, and this was despite me not paying attention during the tutorial at the start and not knowing one of the most important abilities in the entire game until I was over-two thirds of the way through!
Yes, I had unknowingly been making the game much, much harder than I needed to and yet still loved just about every moment I spent with the game. The Witcher 3 was so good that even an idiot like me, not making use of all the abilities available, was still able to enjoy it more than any other game before and since.
I don't say that lightly either - but this game really re-defined to me what games could be, and how much they could surpass even other forms of media. As an example: I passed the 60-hour mark of playing time and decided that I should really just finish off the main story and get on to another game, movie, TV show, book or anything else as I had only been playing The Witcher 3 for two months.
I finally finished said main story after 76 hours - with around a quarter of the side content still to finish - and was so sad about having to leave that world and those characters behind that I didn't touch any other form of fiction for a month. Any time I went to start something new, all I could think was: "What's the point? It's not The Witcher 3."
That's how good The Witcher 3 is: I had gone in almost wanting to dislike it, certainly not expecting to, but finished the game and loved it so much that I couldn't imagine engaging with another world of fiction because I knew whatever I picked simply wouldn't match up. That's why I've given this game the score it has and why I couldn't possibly score it any differently - it's simply that good.
Hell, it's 'weakest' part is the combat and even that's still pretty good, despite what some may claim. There are plenty of people who are fans of other series that like to use the combat being not as mind-blowingly excellent as the rest of the game as a stick to beat The Witcher 3 with, but it's a criticism that doesn't really work.
Combat in this game is of a similar level of competence to Spec Ops: The Line - another title that excels narratively but doesn't have this particular part of the gameplay match up to its storey-telling capability. For both games, their combat systems are good, but not great and there are plenty of other titles out there that far surpass both titles with regard to this particular area of gameplay.
What these critics don't take into account is just how good the rest of both games are, especially so with regards to The Witcher 3, which is far more about the characters, the world they live in and how your choices as player can hugely affect what happens. Other games may have better combat, but they lost out in just about every other in which you can judge a game.
I'll even acknowledge that The Witcher 3's visuals aren't anything to write home about in terms of technical achievement, especially with five years of advances giving more recent games a significant advantage. But while these games may have the upper hand thanks to technology advancing, they similarly lack the art direction and visual design of this game.
The Witcher 3 also has two advantages over many games that don't sound particularly 'sexy', but help maintain the immersion to keep you interested in this world: detail and consistency. Unlike Red Dead Redemption 2, which is probably the single best-looking game available right now, CD Projekt Red had to create this world effectively from scratch.
The maps you cross aren't just digital recreations of real world locations, all of the terrain and geography; plant and animal life; rivers and lakes; and mud and stone had to be designed. And to achieve such a high level of detail that landscapers have praised the game for how accurate this fictional world is to real life and over such a colossal area is incredible.
It's not just the visuals either, with the audio design also playing its part in giving locations their own identities. The music plays the biggest part of this, with the soundtrack consistently excellent and giving not just areas, but characters and story arcs their own unique identity - as an example, the theme that plays for the Crones of Crookback Bog remains memorable dozens of hours after your last major interaction.
Considering how long The Witcher 3 is, you'd think that the music would begin to grow repetitive and irritating over such a long period of time, but it's integrated so well into the game that it almost becomes a source of comfort and even subconscious guidance. Velen and Novigrad have multiple different themes and you'll barely notice the transition from one to the other, because each piece of music will seem as natural a piece of the location as any of the sights.
To add to this is the background chatter of the many, many, many locals and guards that populate these areas, not even taking into account those you can actually engage in conversation. There are so many registers of speech, from extremely rough in Velen through to the students and nobles of Oxenfurt and Novigrad, then there's the Celtic influence on Skellige, where the people sound entirely unlike those from the mainland.
As for the number of people you can actually talk to? Mind-boggling is one way of putting it. Excepting the characters involved in the central plot, you will have heard the same voice actors over and over again by the time you finish the game. This isn't really a criticism though, thanks to just how many people you end up speaking to - without hiring every VA available, there was always going to be some repetition.
Then there is the main cast, starting off with Geralt of Rivia himself, Doug Cockle. I never fail to find it funny when people criticise his performance, because it's one of the most subtle voice acting performances ever. Yes, Geralt's voice is generally gruff - because that's his voice. But Cockle adds so many layers that anyone paying attention will be able to tell when Geralt is upset, frustrated, amused, sarcastic and more - it's an excellent, nuanced performance that deserves more praise.
I do want to praise so many others too, but to do so would lengthen this review far beyond acceptable limits - I could honestly write a book covering the performances of the voice actors for the dozens and dozens of characters that play major roles in The Witcher 3. Instead, I'll just list a few that I think stood out the most to me.
There's Denise Gough as Yennefer and Jaimi Barbakoff as Triss, two sorceresses and love interests for Geralt that are both appealing in their own unique ways; Richard Hawley, who voices multiple named characters but truly shines as the cunning Sigismund Dijkstra; William Roberts, Christian Contreras and Tom Clarke Hill as Vesemir, Lambert and Eskel respectively, Geralt's fellow Witchers.
In Skellige, there's Gary Lilburn, Sarah Greene and Allen Leech as Crach, Cerys and Hjalmar of the An Craite clan. I also very much liked Emma Hiddleston as Priscilla and Alexander Morton as Zoltan in Novigrad; plus there definitely needs to be a special mention of James Clyde as the 'Bloody Baron' in Velen, the central figure of the best side story ever to appear in a game.
Finally, there's Jo Wyatt as Ciri, which presented me as the player with a unique problem: I still very much identified the voice actress as Hawke from the Dragon Age series - not helped that those games and this are fantasy games. There were moments early on when I expected a more Hawke-like response on occasion, but Wyatt's good enough a performer that even that self-inflicted 'problem' become a non-issue by the end.
All of these performances are helped by some fantastic writing, which is up there among the best in gaming history. It's an opinion held by many that the central plot is the least interesting or well-written story of the many in the game, but it still far surpasses the massive majority of other games out there - just to repeat, The Witcher 3's 'low' points are still generally better than a lot of other games' best qualities.
As mentioned above, the Bloody Baron story is one of the best I've ever experienced in games, then there's the succession story in Skellige, helping the mages in Novigrad and even determining the fate of Kings. This isn't even starting on the countless smaller quests that still manage to tell unique stories with a depth and level of emotion that countless AAA games would kill to pull off even once.
I'd like to apologise for all the gushing over The Witcher 3, but I also don't want to. Even playing through it a second time was still a better gaming experience than anything else I'd played since my first time through the game. Being completely honest, this is the single best game I have ever played and I honestly can't see anything matching it any time soon.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt isn't just one of the best games of recent years, it's one of the best games ever made. The characters, the relationships between them, the world they live in and the hundreds of stories from simple, easy-to-complete quests up to longer arcs lasting hours in themselves, are among the best the medium has ever seen and remains true five years after its release. For story and character-centric gaming, this simply can't be beaten.
Why a 10/10? If the above story about my first time through the game wasn't enough of an explanation, how about my experience the second time through? I went into this game, planning to slowly chip away at it over a year or so and review it when finally complete at some distant point down the line, but that obviously wasn't the case.
It did start out that way in the introductory region of White Orchard and probably ended up the region it took me the longest real world amount of time to get through as a result. However, once the story started and I could explore the world as I wanted, I found the time I spent playing The Witcher 3 growing longer and long each session.
I've been working my way through Deep Space Nine for reviews too, but when I knew I'd have long enough free to get a decent amount of time to devote to gaming, it would be this game that I went to despite also wanting to start on Batman: Arkham City. Once again, all other media fell to the wayside thanks to how much I enjoyed returning to this world.
I would lose track of time playing this game, realising too late that I'd planned on stopping far earlier than I did. And on completing the game again - this time just short of 92 hours! - I almost felt that same feeling as I did the first time. However, I now have the two expansions to get through too, so I know I'm going to be heading back to The Continent and I simply couldn't be happier.