The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Hands-On Preview 2015 #1
"Even better, if you see it, you can visit it. …Geralt is now capable of jumping and climbing, and every area I explored could be fully traversed."

When I sat down in Namco Bandai's offices to spend a few hours with a hands-on demo of The Witcher 3, I was expecting to experience only a small self-contained area or short chain of quests. Instead, I found myself thrust into huge areas of its open world, able to explore, side-quest and hunt a variety of monsters. I spent nearly four hours with the title, and oh what an adventure it was.

Two sections of the game were available for play: the prologue and a later mid-game area set on the snowy Skellige Islands. The prologue featured some content you might have seen in some recent trailers, namely the griffin hunt. It began, however, with a stunning cut-scene set amidst a huge battle, with Geralt following clues to track down missing sorceress Yennefer. Little about the story was revealed during my playthrough, but I did see a vision of the Wild Hunt and a playable flashback with Ciri as a little girl. As you would hope, the script was tight and the storytelling expertly crafted.

Once the gameplay section of the prologue began in earnest, I could ride around the countryside on Geralt's horse Roach (well, he calls every horse Roach), and explore however I liked. Following the main story set me on the trail of a griffin that had been terrorising the locals. Talking to NPCs for clues and information were a necessity, and tracking down the beast required putting my Witcher senses to the test. As in past games, Geralt can focus his senses to empower his hearing, smell and sight, which was vital for following footprints or trails of blood.

When engaging enemies, combat was fast-paced and challenging. In some ways, the mechanics felt like a sleeker version of what The Witcher 2 offered. Steel and silver swords return, along with Signs, ranged weapons, and various items. These could be set into quick slots from the main inventory menu and switched between on the fly during combat. Geralt could sprint, dodge and use heavy and light attacks, all of which were needed to defeat difficult encounters. Even regular foes, such as Drowners, could cause trouble if unprepared or under-levelled. Spending time researching monsters, reading the bestiary, and creating appropriate potions and oils were a must to bloodily cut enemies up and achieve victory.

While most of the monsters were equal or slightly higher in level to Geralt, there were a few that far surpassed his abilities in the demo. In the Skellige Islands, I encountered a massive frost giant and a fiend at nearly double my level. If I was unprepared, they would kill me in one hit, but by employing tactics such as a Quen shield, I could last a little longer. Still, I was vastly outmatched and I did flee from combat... dozens of times. Unfortunately, trying to move, run (X on PS4) and control the camera all at the same time was difficult, adding a level of frustration to escaping and general movement. Likewise, Geralt had an overly-sensitive turning circle, and navigating him through tight areas is more irritating than it should be.

Aside from the main quest and monster hunting, the areas I visited allowed me to find and complete various side-quests in the countryside. I tracked down a band of criminals, recovered a lost lockbox, chased down a murderer, banished a spirit, competed in a horse race, and even broke into a woman's house to recover her frying pan. Quests could be found by speaking to various people Geralt encountered (conveniently marked with an exclamation mark on the mini-map), by finding certain items, and through the familiar quest board. I barely scratched the surface of them in the few hours I had. In fact, I was informed that the whole of Skellige Islands (a massive area filled with quests and nearly a dozen towns) was an optional area! Truly astounding considering the size of the quest line I completed there.

Quest objectives were interesting and varied, and all served to add greater atmosphere to the already impressive world building. The attention to detail in the world and its residents was astounding: all NPCs had daily schedules they follow, and I found them farming, out hunting game, sheltering from the rain, and even soldiers peeking on women bathing. The world felt truly alive in a way few video games manage to succeed. Even better, if you see it, you can visit it. If I spotted the crumbling ruins of a castle on top of a mountain, for example, I could travel there by climbing the side. Geralt is now capable of jumping and climbing, and every area I explored could be fully traversed. This allowed for plenty of hidden areas to discover that were filled with treasures or tough monsters. Geralt died far too easily from falls though, and I found it tough to determine what drops would kill him. I encountered very few load times, and they were all brief.

After finishing up with the prologue, I was sent to the Viking-styled Skellige Islands (a point not normally available until later in the game). There I followed a quest line to discover who let loose berserker bears on a meeting of the various houses, resulting in the bloody deaths of dozens. I could team up with either of the children of Crach an Craite to investigate the scene of the crime or hunt down likely suspects. Depending on which side I chose, the quests and the story's ultimate ending changed. It's clear that choices made throughout the game will have fairly significant effects on the outcome of events and quests.

Visually, The Witcher 3 is a marvel. Characters are interesting to look at, and their facial textures have great detail, such as sun and age spots on the elderly. Geralt is particularly impressive and, while it won't be possible on the console versions, I was told that every single hair on his head has its own physics on the PC version. In the environment, light filtered through forest canopies was gorgeous, and the varied terrains made exploring them all the more enjoyable. There was the usual snowy terrain, open plains, ragged badlands and farm-covered plains, but The Witcher 3 took it a step further. There was not just one kind of these but, like in real life, many different sorts of them. There were sparse forests with heavy undergrowth and small trees, forests with huge canopies that create an almost indoor area underneath, forests that are tightly packed with pines, and so on. Just experiencing all these varied locales was one of my favourite aspects of exploring. The accompanying music was absolutely beautiful, particularly the Celtic-sounding vocals in the Skellige Islands. The animation quality was also impressive, but sometimes suffered with awkward transitions or a struggling frame-rate. Very distant land also looked a little bland on the PS4. However, with a few months still before release, the CD Projeckt team have time to iron these hiccups out.

And in case you hadn't realised it yet, The Witcher 3's world is massive. During the prologue, I took a look at what I thought was the world map and thought it looked pretty decent: a dozen or so small towns, lots of interesting landmarks, and a good variety of terrain. Then, I zoomed out. What I had thought was the world was only one tiny province, and there were a dozen others like it or larger. If the entire game is filled with as much content as the prologue and Skellige Islands were, then CD Projekt's claim of 100+ hours of game-time sounds modest. Fortunately, with such a large world, there is a fast travel system. Instead of jumping from place-to-place at any time, however, Geralt can only fast travel to places he has visited before by interacting with various sign-posts found in the world. Roach's AI is quite clever too, and by holding down X (PS4), he would stick to the roads and require no input from the joystick to move forward.

Wild Hunt looks to be the most impressive game in the series by far; a worthy end for Geralt's story. While I enjoyed both previous titles, they didn't pull me in like The Witcher 3 did from the word go. If you've been looking forward to its release then you have nothing to worry about, no matter what platform you are buying it on. Its world is huge and filled with content and life in a way The Elder Scrolls could only dream of. It's dark, violent and intriguing, and if it hasn't been on your radar yet then it should be now.

Hands-On Preview 2015 #2
"...the Witcher 3 creates and suspends in virtual space as if by sorcery. The almost creeping feeling that every one of these peasants and soldiers and children has a life of his or her own."

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt seems like a game tailor-made for me. CD Projekt RED isn't interested in making a conventional RPG. The developers won't include features like multiplayer just to be able to put it in promos. There's not a monster in the world, not an NPC, not a dungeon or a house, that doesn't fit into the world organically. The Witcher 3 isn't about grinding, looting, getting the best skills, or maxing your level, although you could do all those things; it's about living another life. A few steps into the world, and I knew I wasn't going to want to leave it. Once there, this May, I might stay forever.

What impresses me most about the Witcher series is the presence of poetry, romance, and humanity in what many would call a dark fantasy setting. It could easily be overly silly or nihilistic in its dark and "mature" intentions, but there exists a certain glow to the world that prevents it from feeling like darkness for the sake of darkness. This isn't grimdark, depressing and bloody and limitlessly cynical. What I love isn't the gore or the horrors of war or the hideous monsters or the treachery of humankind — and that's all there, believe me — but the way the sun sets, the sunflowers, the swallows, the joy of a feast, the poetry of magic, and the way every NPC's face tells a story. There is so much beauty and light in Geralt's world, and that makes it worth saving from monsters both inhuman and human.

No other game has accomplished the sense of verisimilitude that the Witcher 2 and, from everything I've seen, the Witcher 3 creates and suspends in virtual space as if by sorcery. The almost creeping feeling that every one of these peasants and soldiers and children has a life of his or her own. That they love, hate, fight, suffer, weep, eat, drink, and dream. It's a combination of excellent character models, facial expressions, non-verbals — a pause, a gesture, a look — and dialogue that creates this feeling of a living world. The world and its people don't revolve around the hero as they do in most every other fantasy RPG; Geralt is merely one among the many, capable of being swept along by politics, war, greed, and madness like any other person. But he tries to have a firm footing. Mostly, it's up to you.

I played a little over three hours of the Witcher 3 and I can't possibly tell you everything I experienced. And I won't. To do so would be to spoil some of the pleasure of discovery you will experience on May 19th and for weeks afterward. But there are some things you should know.

1) It's not a "seamless" open world.

This was initially my biggest, well, really my only, disappointment. The game world is split into various regions, each of which is massive and, yes, free of loading times. So each area is perhaps seamless, but the entire world is not. Think Dragon Age: Inquisition rather than Skyrim. Riding down a road only to be met with a "You've reached the world's end" warning was disheartening. But it's really only a matter of expectations.

Consider: would you rather explore one region of the world or multiple? Would you prefer to stay within the confines of say, the capital Novigrad and its surroundings rather than experience the majesty of the Skellige Isles and various other locales? I'll trade a truly seamless world for more varied environments any day. And you'll hardly notice, because the areas are immense. It really is at least 35 times bigger than the Witcher 2.

And: no load times once you're in an area. That means walking into buildings, into dungeons, into another section is load screen free. It's a wonderful, liberating feeling, and even fast travel load times are short and sweet.

2) You will hunt monsters. Many monsters.

The meditative investigate-and-prepare witchering from the first two games makes a strong return. It's more prevalent and developed than ever, and it often forms the bulk of quests. Those who didn't like the preparation required for fights in the Witcher 2 will be dismayed at the level of preparation necessary for survival in Wild Hunt. Others, like me, will be delighted that every encounter is memorable. You feel more like a monster hunter than ever before, in large part due to Geralt's witcher senses. He can track smells, sounds, footprints, and he can extract all manner of information from his surroundings. In the demo, for example, he examined the corpse of a griffon to determine information about its still-living mate, which was terrorizing farms. He learned its type, sex, and age, and he had plenty to say about the implications of each: all essential details for an authentic fantasy world.

Although I didn't experience many of the hunts, the developers say they vary widely to ensure the hunt never grows stale. In addition to the griffon, one of the monsters I hunted was human, and this naturally required quite a different approach. I didn't see many big choices in my time with the game, but an emphasis is still being placed on player choice and consequence. As we saw in the E3 2013 demo, some of the hunts bring Geralt to a decision as well, and I was told that even inaction is in itself a choice, with potentially heavy consequences.

3) The writing is sublime.

I judge a game's writing by how closely I pay attention to its dialogue. When playing Wild Hunt, I wanted to hear every bit of dialogue for fear of missing something. Every person feels alive, with his or her own history, motivations, and desires. These aren't characters; they're people, both a means and an end in themselves. Some of the voice acting doesn't match the best in the industry (thanks for spoiling us, The Last of Us), but everything I heard was above average, particularly for inessential NPCs. Much of it was excellent.

Even small side quests seem compelling. I found an old woman shouting outside the window of a house. She wanted to go in and get her frying pan — the only one she had — but she was afraid because someone had stolen it and now there was a noxious stink coming from inside. What could have been a dull fetch quest was instead a genuinely funny one spiced with a hint of intrigue. When I found the pan, the charred basin had been scraped clean to make ink for a mysterious letter: a link to another quest, perhaps?

There's not much to say except that this is some of the best writing in the industry.

4) Landmarks abound.

Not in the sense that each area has x number of towers and each one shows you the location of items or quests, but that there are neat things everywhere. Sometimes the neat things are there for the sake of being there, because it makes sense for the world. Placing something in a game for its own sake, as a means and an end in itself, is a lesson of which many developers and level designers should take note.

I stood on the intestines of a beached whale and fought bandits in its bones. I climbed a hill to a windmill. I found a crypt but couldn't get in. I swam across cold waters to a lonely island and narrowly avoided a flying beast over the water. Harpies swooped down and swarmed me on a mountain path. And I didn't even get to enter any of the game's dungeons, which I'm told range from a single room to nearly the size of — and I quote — "a city." I found a couple, but they were closed with mysterious, teasing doors. The minute-to-minute experience is full of little stories like these, and those are what make a good game.

5) Swim, jump, run, gallop to freedom.

The freedom is delicious. If the Witcher 2 felt restrained and occasionally claustrophobic, Wild Hunt feels perfectly liberating. Navigating the sometimes mountainous terrain is now quite easy, and you really can go pretty much anywhere you can see. You might take a boat to an island, but you can also swim, above or under water. I can't wait to discover shipwrecks or caves beneath the game world's lakes and rivers. You can also use the crossbow underwater, which suggests that there might be something nasty lurking in the world's waterways. Geralt's horse is always a whistle away as well. But be careful when taking the horse into combat. You can swing your sword from his back, but he might be too afraid to remain in combat. If so, he'll toss you from his back and you'll be face-to-face with the enemy. I even hear there are horse races.

6) There's a collectible card game, called Gwent.

Worried that 100 hours isn't enough time to spend with the game? Maybe the card game Gwent will let you extend that for another 20 or 30. It's a fully playable mini-game, but the best part is that you can collect cards in your travels, found in the world or won from other players, and build your own decks. It's a game in a game, and I can't wait to play in the tournament!

7) It's not all about the story.

The crunch is there right along with the fluff. Many liked the Witcher 2 for its story and world building, but I think the Witcher 3 will be known for everything, including its combat. The battle system is very similar to the Witcher 2's, although it feels sleeker, faster, and more capable. Different enemies require different strategies, as well, and the difficulty level on Normal was just about perfect. I had a particularly good time fighting shield-bearing bandits. My normal strikes didn't work and my magic was only partially effective, so I made a quick roll to the side and sliced the first one up. I'm pretty sure I cut him in half, diagonally. The other one lost his head. Geralt has equipment, alchemy, skill trees, bombs, crossbows, potions, and special moves limited by an adrenaline bar. There are plenty of containers and corpses to loot for crafting materials as well as armor and weapons and customizable crossbow bolts. The game also features a realistic economy; you can buy goods at a low price in one location and sell them at a higher price elsewhere, where the demand is higher.

8) You don't need to play the first two to experience Wild Hunt properly.

The developers stressed that Wild Hunt is a standalone adventure. They were also sure to mention that those who have played the previous games will find familiar faces and other links to those experiences. Hopefully there weren't any sacrifices made to account for accessibility in the storyline. But the fact that you can import your save game from the Witcher 2 implies that none were made. For those without a save file, there will be a way to select which decisions you would have made in the predecessor. Exactly what method they'll be using to accomplish this was not revealed.

The story picks up where the second game left off: with Geralt tracing his long lost love Yennefer. He can do that now that he has much of his memory back. That's only the beginning, however, and the real bulk of the game revolves around finding his adoptive daughter Ciri, who is also a playable character. The developers were extremely passionate about Ciri and her role. It sounds like you'll get precious few opportunities to play as her along the main storyline, and they might not be enough. She plays differently than Geralt as well, but this wasn't part of the demo. She might be strong enough a character to carry on the franchise.

I'm pretty sure Dandelion is one of the familiar faces, too, and I can't wait to see what trouble he's gotten himself into this time. I'm hoping Zoltan will make an appearance as well and hasn't been killed by the Brekenrigs...

9) Get it on PC (if you can).

Surprise surprise. Play Wild Hunt on your PC if it meets the requirements. The graphics are better, as is the framerate, both of which are less impressive on the console versions. I saw all three and played both PC and PS4 versions. The PS4 version experienced one or two framerate stutters, and the Xbox One version appeared to be the worst in that regard. Distant characters and environments were a tad muddy on all versions, although the PC version didn't have the odd pixelated effect on distant characters. To get a better idea of what I mean, you can see the effect in the PS4 version of Dragon Age: Inquisition. All three versions are beautiful, however, thanks to the art design and level of detail, and this is probably my favorite RPG to look at.

The game is gorgeous, and the use of color and light put other similar games to shame. This isn't the muted grays, browns, and greens of The Elder Scrolls, nor is it the garish comic book stylings of Dragon Age. The character models and faces are particularly impressive and small details like varying degrees of wind in the trees and flocks of birds make the world breathe.

10) It could have been released on time.

But the developers wouldn't have been happy. Screw the shareholders who want the game out the door as promised; the Witcher 3 isn't done until CD Projekt RED says so. I was pleasantly surprised at how few glitches I came across. I expected a certain level of instability, but it seemed well optimized on the PC and fairly bug free. The horse was a bit difficult, I saw one typo, and an enemy disappeared in one segment, requiring me to reload a previous save, but everything felt and looked quite stable.

Still, we'll be glad for the delay when the game finally comes out, polished and gleaming. They're also still balancing and re-balancing the game. When asked about the max experience level, they couldn't even give me a straight answer because it wasn't decided upon as of yet. They assured me, however, that it would be very difficult to reach the max level, though of course, that's not really the point, is it?

My time with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was preciously brief, but I'm sort of happy about that. I want the rest of it to be a surprise, to be experienced in the full version of the game as it was meant to be experienced. Wild Hunt was already my most anticipated game of the year, and I can gladly, joyously say that that hasn't changed now that I've had my hands on it. There's such a sense of discovery and wonder waiting to be beheld that I feel fit to burst from my skin!

Did we not answer all your questions? Take them to the forum and Andrew and I will try to answer them as best as we can.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt releases on May 19th for PC, PS4, and Xbox One.

E3 2014 Impressions
"There's a rhythm and beat to it. And you know what else has that? Poetry."

CD Projekt RED is putting everything they have into The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, perhaps because this is Geralt's final adventure. It deserves to be everything that The Witcher embodies, but bigger, better, more emotional, and more technically impressive. The trajectory of Geralt's story — from humble origin to incredible sequel to next-gen open world — has been just as grandiose as the view of capital city Novigrad from a distance, which is just one of the many wondrous sights shown during the E3 2014 gameplay demo.

Kyle: CD Projekt knows how to build a world and tell a story. You can tell they have novel writers on the team. They approach storytelling with subtlety, a rarity in this medium. We were shown two characters interacting — Geralt waiting patiently nearby for answers — and their dialogue implied a hidden relationship: these characters have a history, and it's hidden from the player because it's also hidden from Geralt. In most games, characters are defined by their relationship to the protagonist, but in Wild Hunt, they're defined by their relationships to each other, the world, and the war. Sometimes Geralt — and the player — can only wonder at the nature and details of those relationships. This is world building. This is storytelling.

Rob: There is certainly a depth to the writing that few games fully realize. There are great pauses and moments of reflection, with the character's facial expression saying more than a line of cleverly written dialogue can fully convey. We know CD Projekt can create wonderful characters and stories, but what strikes me most about Witcher 3 is how connected the whole world feels. W2 often felt segmented thanks to too many doors, loading screens, or abrupt changes of the weather, whereas 3 feels like a true open world experience. Watching Geralt walk through the city and out the gates to continue a quest without any break in the action adds a great deal to the immersion and "realism" of the world.

Kyle: I love how Geralt just busted through the door to a tavern, no loading screen or awkward animation. It's open and immersive and, I have a feeling, will feel expansive, like you can do anything. Geralt can jump now and climb a bit. He can swim. I wish you could have seen the dynamic weather system they showed last year. Phenomenal immersion.

Rob: It certainly feels like a world you can explore and fully live in. I remember you saying that you wanted to just live in this world and experience it in a fluid manner. It certainly looks like you can accomplish that playing as Geralt, but what about the main driving force of these games? We got to see a full quest, and what did you think?

Kyle: It actually seemed slightly fetchy, or maybe just meandering. Geralt had to kill a monster to get information, and then do another favor for more information, and then another, and none of it led directly to the "ashen-haired woman" (you know who it is, right?) for whom he is searching. I don't think it will be a problem though. Doing anything in Geralt's world will probably be a pleasure. The geography of the world is intoxicating. The demo began with Geralt riding a horse — trophy head on the saddle — near a sunflower farm outside Novigrad, an enormous city that appears to be fully explorable. Even if the main story were one long chain of gathering information, I would still be delighted just to walk around and explore.

Rob: I think all games, by their nature, have a bit of a "fetchy" element to them, especially RPGs. I was struck by the interesting story being told with the quest. A young boy-like monster who lost his voice, three delightfully disturbing witches with amazingly awful designs, and a choice to be made at the very end. It goes a long way towards assuaging my fears that Witcher 3 will be just another open world game with the same types of mission designs over and over. It feels narrative based, and, hopefully, the choices always matter in some way.

Kyle: Those three ladies were incredibly disturbing. I love that the developers aren't afraid to be weird in a way that some people will find alienating. It fit right in, though. As far as choices go, there are over 50 different end states, so I'd say player decisions will matter. Of course, one decision might not alter the entire second act like in the second game (I hope not — I want to see everything), but I think we'll see some very different outcomes to Geralt's journey. Hopefully not terribly depressing ones. If Geralt dies, I'll weep and grieve for weeks.

Rob: I'm guessing one of the endings will leave Geralt dead. Sorry, Kyle. The art direction is so stunning, but that was the case in both of the previous titles. There's a cohesiveness to the world that makes everything just fit together. We saw a city, a swamp and a mountainous region, and they all looked like a part of the same world. I think that's the main running theme with Witcher 3; nothing feels out of place or separate from the main vision of the universe. And the world is just freakin' huge! How did you feel about that overworld map?

Kyle: I felt faint when he pulled it up. I will chart every nook and corner of that map. I'm pretty sure we didn't even see the whole thing. It takes such a long time to travel from one part to the other, even on horse. We saw the fast travel mechanic, and it requires that you get to a signpost, which is a neat little detail and lets you maybe get into trouble on the way. You might want to complete one quest, but on the way you end up getting side tracked and complete another.

Rob: Getting into trouble seems to involve a lot of swordplay and magic use. I played a fair bit of the full combat mod for Witcher 2, and it had me feeling that they were going in a good direction. Geralt seems to move a bit more naturally now, easily targeting and switching between multiple enemies and carefully using magic to his advantage. I loved watching him use swamp gas to his explosive advantage with the powerful fire spell. Great stuff!

Kyle: The enemies have some neat tricks too. A swamp hag tossed muck into Geralt's face, and it actually appeared on the screen, partially blinding the player for a moment. What an amazing detail, and it's so simple! The magic looks so fun. I usually go straight swordsmanship, but I might specialize in magic. Spells have dual functions this time around too.

Rob: Oh yeah, that muck part was great. Instead of putting Geralt into a stun animation or taking away player control, you can fight through a problem and get to the other side based on your skill. What a novel concept! I think the biggest attraction I have towards Witcher 3 is the natural flow of the whole thing. Most open world games these days are boring me with their checklists, high scores and random/repeated side quests. Witcher 3 appears to be an open world game based around story, characters and the actual world. I was really happy to hear that each and every side quest has been handcrafted to feel unique. Maybe more developers should take note...

Kyle: There's definitely a rhythm to the flow of the game, from conversation to travel to combat and questing. There's a rhythm and beat to it. And you know what else has that? Poetry.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is currently set to release next February for PS4, Xbox One, and PC. Let the hunt begin then.

E3 2013 Impressions
"The game, which can occupy a thorough player for over 100 hours, is 35 times larger than The Witcher 2."

This could be IT. After seeing a 30-minute gameplay preview of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, I'm confident that CD Projekt RED is creating one of the best RPGs of any era, and if they deliver on all the potential behind Geralt's last chapter, it could be the best.

We were first shown a stunning cinematic trailer in which Geralt mused on the nature of evil and monsters. Although he stopped on the road to deliver a monster's head and collect a bounty, he can't just walk by as the peasants attempt to beat and hang a woman. He has to mettle. Old and wizened, tired of human monsters, Geralt knows that even a witcher must get involved sometimes.

The preview was a live presentation of real in-game footage and the presenter claimed that there are still "rough edges." I sure didn't see any. The Witcher 2 was beautiful, and Wild Hunt adds to it an almost unsurpassed depth of field. The vistas are astonishing, breath-taking, and the detail and lighting are evocative and magical. What little I heard of the soundtrack was phenomenal as well, particularly the return of the witcher theme and a new exploration track with haunting vocals.

After speaking with a jarl, the demo took Geralt to the seas, where he passed a raiding party's ship (the rowers' song reaching across the water). We then saw the fast travel option, which is quite appreciated in a game of this size. The game, which can occupy a thorough player for over 100 hours, is 35 times larger than The Witcher 2. Yes, it's also larger than Skyrim, although comparing the two misses a few points. Allegedly it takes Geralt 40 minutes to pass from one end of the world to the other. On a horse. The developers actually have tools to develop realistic geography. They have one tool, for example, with a single purpose: to measure where rain would gather on terrain and allow a forest to grow.

I later interviewed Jonas Mattsson, an environment artist, and he explained the construction of the world as "organic," a term I commonly use when critiquing level design and world building. He assured me that the player would encounter something interesting every two to five minutes, and I believe it. From a single vantage point, we could see a house on a little island cliff, a fallen ruin, roads leading away, farmhouses, mountains, a forest, and probably more things I missed. That I couldn't take control of Geralt and explore almost killed me. There are sure to be side quests, caves, monsters, and treasure along all these routes, and some of the quests randomly pop up, although none are randomly generated. The entire game is handcrafted, which gives it a feeling of immense authenticity.

When Geralt headed to some ruins, he discovered a Fiend eating a corpse on the ground. A Fiend is a hulking three-eyed antlered beast of terrifying composure — you can spot it in the E3 trailer. It immediately attacked and an intense battle unfolded. The Fiend unleashed its special attack: using its third eye to hypnotize Geralt, causing his vision to darken and blur. The effect was horrifying, exciting, and unique — probably the coolest single thing I saw at E3.

Geralt meditated for a bit before moving on with the main story and the weather turned dark. Weather, time of day, and even the moon cycle affect NPCs and monsters. Rain might discourage NPCs from going on a raid while a full moon might empower some creatures. Other monsters come out in higher numbers at night. Storms toss the seas and can even dash Geralt and his ship against cliffsides if he travels at the wrong time and place. The weather is some of the most advanced I've seen from a graphical standpoint as well. Trees bend and boughs twist, flames leap, and rain spatters the screen. Seeing a forest during a storm was almost an emotional experience.

Everything is connected in Wild Hunt, much as it is in real life. Local economies obey certain rules, for example. Fish sell for higher prices in the mountains, Jonas Mattsson explained, while bear hides and furs might sell for more near the sea where those creatures rarely appear. Story presentation is often a major weakness of open-world games like Skyrim, but Wild Hunt seeks to make that more organic and less gamey. Mattsson believes that presenting side quests in a halting manner breaks immersion, and I have to say I prefer CD Projekt RED's way of doing things. After speaking with a main quest NPC, an event immediately unfolded that was completely irrelevant and optional. This gives the impression that the world is a complex and dynamic environment.

The last major segment shown involved one of the new features: monster hunting. Witchers' work. Geralt was able to track a beast using special vision given to him by his witcher mutations. By following tracks, claw marks, and kills, Geralt was able to identify the beast: a lesher, a forest creature that can control animals and plants. Following the sound of crows cawing, Geralt located and destroyed the beast's three totems before taking on the monster itself. It appeared in a flock of crows: a woodsy being with a stag's skull for a head. He plunged his fingers into the ground to attack Geralt with powerful roots and summoned wolves and crows as well.

There are 80 different monsters of this type, each with its own footprints, telltale marks, and other identifying characteristics. An ample bestiary provides players with all the information they'll need to prepare for the battles, as will Geralt's combat skills. We weren't shown his skill trees, but we can expect the typical witcher abilities of alchemy, swordplay, and signs. Combat looks much more fluid than The Witcher 2's, and there are 96 action sequences compared to the second game's 20. Finally, CD Projekt RED has promised no more QTEs.

This might all seem irrelevant to Geralt's personal story, but Wild Hunt is sure to deliver on that front as well. Indeed, the main story begins with the Wild Hunt themselves attacking a village. Geralt is called upon to investigate. After all, the Wild Hunt is a monster. No one is said to return after encountering the Wild Hunt, but what Geralt did once, he can do again. We didn't get much information about the story, but the world is in political chaos, the Wild Hunt is on the prowl, and Geralt has yet to reclaim his lost love. There's much at stake.

When asked about influences for level design, Mattsson cited films and paintings. For Novigrad, capital of the north, he was inspired by Italian paintings tinged with what seems like a golden light. In Novigrad, that golden light symbolizes wealth. These kinds of artistic details make the Witcher games unique. There's something undeniably poetic about the games; the violence, sex, and darkness are not opposed to that, but part of it. Without the darkness, there can be no light, and Wild Hunt is full of it.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt may be the first truly "next-gen" game I've seen, and even though I mourn the passing of Geralt's tale, I cannot wait for its release next year. Best RPG — no, best game — of E3 2013.

© 2013 CD Projekt RED. All rights reserved.