Our 45-minute hands-off demo begins several hours into The Witcher 3, with Geralt taking a trophy – the head of a Griffin he’s just slain – back to Novigrad, the largest city in the game. He’s looking for a girl with ashen hair for reasons that aren’t clear to us, and a spy called Dijkstra apparently has some useful intel.
The four-district Novigrad is a bustling expanse full of inhabitants and – according to CD Projekt Red – a huge amount of optional content. Explore its underbelly, meet the right people, and you can procure black market goods, for example. However, doing certain actions will remove the option to complete other missions, so players should be careful how they behave.
Walking into the pub where Dijkstra sits is a seamless affair with no loading screen, and following a brief conversation conveyed via cutscene, we’re told the girl is far away – somewhere in the southern swamps of No Man’s Land.
The journey there is 15-20 minutes of full-speed gallop, but we’ve visited the area before, so fast travel from the outskirts of Novigrad is available. Now amid the marshes, Geralt’s Witcher senses – which highlight objects of interest and amplify nearby noises – lead him to Johnny, a Godling.
Johnny is the size of a five-year-old child, but has gaunt grey skin, a weathered face, hare lip, and large yellow eyes. Most importantly, he’s mute, but signals for Geralt to follow him. Soon, we see our first taste of combat.
A few Drowners – dead adventurerers whose bodies were dumped in the swamp only to resurrect – set upon Geralt from within the mists, but they are easily dispatched with a fluid combination of spells (signs) and sword swings. Soon after, we get a peek at a new weapon – a crossbow – as it is used to halt the flight of some pesky Harpies mid-way up a mountain.
At top of the mountain, we see the scale of the game world – a grand vista of waterfalls, forest, and mountains. “If you can see it, you can travel to it,” says one of the developers. In the Harpies’ nest is a vial filled with a bluish liquid. Johnny drinks it to regain his child-like voice, and leads us to where he last saw the ashen-haired woman – a house where he greets an old woman with a song, and addresses her as “Gran”.
After some convincing, she agrees to let Geralt talk to “The Ladies”, who are summoned via a painting in her hut, and who possess her in order to talk to The Grey Wolf. The dialogue and voice acting in this and all interactions we see is terrific, conveying nuggets of world- and character-building and setting a mystical tone, while keeping things clipping along nicely. The lip syncing in particular is much-improved from that in The Witcher 2, but the game overall is also much prettier.
One developer in the room explains the influence Grimm fairytales had on the world, and that feels totally spot-on. This is a strange and grotesque place full of danger, but it’s intoxicating, and you won’t want to miss even the smallest of details.
The Ladies give Geralt a mission: he must take an ornamental dagger the Ealdorman in a nearby village, and then they can perhaps help with his main quest. Back in the swamp, Geralt fights off some bandit attackers, igniting swamp gas near some with his Igni (fire) spell, while stunning others before closing in for some brutal dismemberment. Bandit blood darkens the waters, and we move on. After some formalities, the Ealdorman also gives us a mission: he tells of a dark presence nicknamed the Whispering Killer that is murdering any children that stray from the village. Geralt dutifully heads into a forest to find it. After dispatching some Waterhags – submerged creatures that spring from under the water – he uses his Witcher sense once again to follow some tracks, and hears wolves in the distance.
This prompts the player to prepare for battle by meditating, and he also takes some mutagens which boost Geralt’s combat abilities, but which can have side effects. All the while, the dark presence whispers to The Witcher, urging him to turn back. The best part is that Geralt isn’t even immediately hostile as you’d expect – instead he tries to reason with whatever-it-is, even as he battles a werewolf and the wolves it summons.
The voice grows stronger as Geralt enters a cave, and after a brief swim he locates its source: a twisted tree-like organism with strange swollen red pods and foot-long spikes protruding from its branches. Sensing its doom, the creature claims it is an innocent spirit trapped within the tree, and the player is given an option to defy The Ladies and spare it. He chooses to destroy it anyway, along with the giant crabs it summons for defence.
The quest complete, Geralt heads back at the village, but the outcome is unexpected. The Ealdorman uses the ceremonial dagger to cut off his own ear, which he lays on a special stone. That drags The Ladies – giant, contorted, bloated creatures whose gnarled claws are the only things visible due to their head-to-toe clothing – into the world. Their tone is more hostile than before but after a revelation I won’t spoil, the demo is over.
At the start of this year, we put The Witcher 3 at number eleven in our 65 Most Anticipated Games of 2014 list. That's a strong recomendation, but an arbitrary decision to keep sequels out of the top ten prevented it from coming in any higher. So let’s get this out of the way now: were The Witcher 3 still coming out this year, it would be number one, arbitrary rules be damned. That it’s coming out early next year will likely make little difference: it’s still number one.
That’s simply because what we’ve seen so far looks simply incredible: a game whose world-building, narrative, gameplay, presentation, and lore will likely propel it not only into Best of the Year lists, but also into Best RPG of All-Time lists as well. It really does look that good. Needless to say, The Witcher 3 was the best game I saw at E3, hands-down. February cannot come quickly enough.