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The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
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.

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