Near the village of White Orchard, there’s a Nilfgaardian outpost. The outpost’s captain wants me to kill a griffin that’s menacing the countryside. I’ve got other things on my mind, though. There’s a swamp next to the outpost; the map says that in that swamp, there’s a powerful monster guarding untold riches. I want that loot. But I can’t get to it. I keep getting messed up by a pack of wolves.
The five hours I’m getting with The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt is my first experience with the Witcher series. I don’t tell the Namco Bandai rep, but he still tells me (politely) that you should check out the tutorial. I think he knows.
The combat fundamentals aren’t difficult to understand. Light attacks, heavy attacks, parries and blocking are all conventional single-button affairs; magic is limited to a semicircle of status spells, more useful for keeping combos alive than anything else. You get a crossbow shortly after, but I couldn’t find any quirks on its point-shoot base. There are also grenades, but they’re really hard to aim.
The combat has its wrinkles, though. Take the Transistor-esque skill tree. After purchasing skills, you activate them in slots: three in each of the tree’s four sections. Each skill-set has a colour and if all skills in a section share the same colour, their effect is amplified. However, unlike in Transistor where combining functions resulted in visceral changes to combat, the differences are largely incremental and less exciting: understandable, really, for a role-playing game that visually and formally references D&D descendants like Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights.
There’s also alchemy, which I’m told is a returning feature, but it’s one of those systems that’s too broad and fickle to get your head around in four hours. Otherwise, combat seems pretty meat-and-two-veg.
But I’m still getting owned by these bloody dogs. This combat is not easy, and I feel clumsy. I get better: I manage to take down the wolves, and later I bring that griffin crashing back to earth. But I never feel comfortable in Geralt’s skin, and that seems intentional. Fighting is fast and messy, consistent with the grimy ‘feudal Europe but magic’ aesthetic, and though there’s definitely scope to become the dextrous warrior the game insists you are, it seems appropriate that every battle feels like you’re scrambling up a cliff-face without any climbing gear.
The quests I play are relatively evenly-divided between combat and a fantasy riff on CSI. In these investigations, you trigger your Witcher Senses to examine glowing objects and locate blood-red tracks. I muck in with one of these investigations on Ard Skellige, a wintry peninsula called home by an assortment of Scottish stereotypes: some bears have gotten into the grand hall at Kaer Trolde and killed a number of heirs to the throne, and the King’s daughter is convinced that something’s afoot.
But it’s not really an investigation on my part; I fall into a pattern of being told to look at something, activating my Witcher Senses, looking at that thing and waiting to be told what to look at next. I admire the attempt to get away from rote quest design, but this feels simple and narrow. Hand-holding.
Writer Jakub Szamalek’s referred to this Witcher in other outlets as being a “personal story”, as opposed to a political one. That’s not to say the game has no interest in games of thrones: espionage and factional warfare are in the blood, wholly inescapable. That stuff is less definitive, though, instead informing the personal arcs.
It’s a very Spielberg brand of personal, mind – father-child relationships, doing best by one’s family (surrogate or otherwise) – but it permeates everything, from the central throughline of Geralt pursuing his reckless young student Ciri to sidequests about injured daughters and tensions in occupied communities. It works, and I’m eager to see what variations they can play on that tune.
It’s hard to say that the game lives up to that other buzzword Witcher devs have been bandying about, though: ‘adult’. The game’s still unsteady on issues of gender and sexuality. I stumble across a handful of relatively well-rounded women in Temeria, from a shady healer to the aforementioned King’s daughter, a savvy and proud woman resigned to dealing with sexist shit.
And the game’s first scene involves series regular Yennefer being a badass, but the very next scene undermines her in a male-gazey dream sequence, the camera lingering over her nude body but cutting away before it can objectify Geralt equally. That would be less of an issue if the rest of the scene was more impressionistic, in line with dream logic, but it rigidly conforms to the game’s aesthetic, a third-person camera hardly subjective to Geralt. While CDP is stressing that Witcher 3 is taking a more mature approach to sexuality, particularly women’s sexuality, than the series is otherwise known for, the preview doesn’t exactly sell that.
What the preview does sell is its production design. About two hours in I get to go on my first monster hunt, a clever, slow-burning mash-up of the two dominant quest styles. Bathed in a full moon, I pursue a griffin – that griffin, the one menacing the countryside - piecing together its tragic origin story and collecting pond-weed for bait. As morning breaks, Vesemir and I face down the griffin on a sprawling farm, firing off arrows as it circles a nearby windmill. The skies are smeared with blood-red clouds, and the effect is grandiose, even mythic. The lighting is immense, and it remains consistently so, playing on the earthy, scarred landscape in beautiful ways.
Coming to Witcher 3 fresh, it’s difficult to pinpoint all the ways it differs from its predecessors. It’s much bigger, and the broad horizon emphasises that, beckoning to the hardy (or foolhardy) adventurer. It’s also much prettier, but you know that because it’s working with better tech; graphical power is easily quantified. Otherwise? Hard to say. But it does look like a highly accomplished exemplar of the action RPG in 2015 – rich in appearance, dense in lore, exciting, frustrating, and a little problematic all at once.
The card game rules, though. I would play a stand-alone Gwent game.
◆ Adam Goodall travelled to Sydney courtesy of Bandai Namco Games.