Those familiar with The Witcher RPG series from Polish developer CD Projekt Red already have many reasons to anticipate the final chapter in Geralt’s saga. The series’ atmospheric, convincing world is now completely open, load-time free, and 35 times the size of that in The Witcher 2. But development on The Witcher 3 has not been just about adding new features.

“[In The Witcher 2] the learning curve was too hard. You got too many names in the beginning and many features were not explained very well,” admits The Witcher 3 game director Konrad Tomaszkiewicz, before hastening to add that an expanded tutorial solved that issue.

The switch to a completely open world was “very challenging”, Tomaszkiewicz continues, as it meant the game’s pacing was out of CD Projekt Red’s hands to an extent. “We want it to be the same intense experience of The Witcher 2 combined with the open world,” he says of the RedEngine 3, DX11-powered title. To negate this pacing problem, the usual main- side- random-quest system will coexist with activities such as hunting animals and other minigames.

The Witcher 3 preview

“We don’t want to give the player a quest like ‘go to this tower’ because that would be the same as The Witcher 2” says Tomaszkiewicz. Another large change is that NPCs have their own routines that are not reliant on player, and choice and consequence affect even small things this time around.

However, the improved dialogue system system is not one that features an obvious good and bad dichotomy, says Tomaszkiewicz. “If you put only black and white choices into the game you will feel that it is a fake. You aren’t only choosing between red and green choice… you need to live later with the consequences of these choices. That’s something that I think is very rare in games and takes our game to another level.”

The Witcher 3 preview
The Witcher 3 preview
The Witcher 3 preview
The Witcher 3 preview

In addition, the weather affects not only when monsters appear (hunting werewolves during a full moon is a bad idea), but also Geralt’s travel. For example: during our pre-alpha build demo a single sail three-meter boat allows sea travel, but an eye must be kept on the weather as a storm can easily wreck the vessel, and the cold sea finishes Geralt quickly.

Combat – for many a point of contention throughout the series – is also much-improved. Tomaszkiewicz says his team is aiming for smooth combat like a fighting game, and has already added many more animations to Geralt in a bid to make the combat more tactical as well as “more personal with higher stakes… like a duel”. Moreover, each button press is tied to a single animation that is less than a second long, and some attacks are now strictly directional.

Contrast this with the previous games where one attack was several moves long and players couldn’t interrupt the sequence - it’s like night and day. “Now when you are tapping the button you create sequences but you can break them if you want to dodge, parry, cast a sign… the possibilities are huge and you have full control of your character,” says Tomaszkiewicz. “It gives you more control and more of a feeling that you are the Witcher.”

Among the additional animations are new ways to dodge enemies and parry their blows, as well as two modes for each magical sign. For example, the Igni sign has a constant flamethrower effect, but there’s also a more destructive single fireball option.

There have been changes around potions too: their effects now last up to an hour, but if used constantly their toxicity will harm Geralt, with the way the game is presented reflecting his ill state.

Mounted combat is on the developer's wishlist but it's a low priority. “We are thinking about it.. we are not sure yet. It’s very tempting,” says Tomaszkiewicz. “When we finish everything else we’ll try to do it. I cannot promise anything but we will try.”

That means The Witcher 3 will feature something like 36 different endings.

We see a bit of combat in the game's 20-minute E3 demo: mostly against wolves, but there’s also a battle with a giant mutated stag-like creature whose third eye hypnotises Geralt, darkening the screen and limiting his vision. Then later, a skirmish with a Leshen – a forest spirit that is preying on nearby villagers. With over 80 creatures in the game, monster hunting is much expanded, and the knowledge Geralt acquires doing so can be used in subsequent encounters. Geralt’s new Witcher sense – detective vision, essentially – comes in handy here, but so does a bit of common sense. There's probably a reason crows are circling one particular hut in a village, for example.

Actual plot details are thin on the ground here so as not to spoil anything, but I can say that what we saw was a perfect demonstration of the game’s choice and consequence system and a great little vignette besides, despite it being a side quest. The combat is much-improved, and that CD Projekt Red managed to present such an attractive and deep game no zero load times is astonishing.

With technology catching up to the studio's vision, it seems a shame that the Geralt’s trilogy finishes here. “This is the last part of Geralt's adventures – we want to close his story here,” confirms Tomaszkiewicz. “And I can say that we have the best storyline so far. I’m very proud of it, and it will close every plot we opened from the first part, and plot that was opened in the Sapkowski’s books.”

That means The Witcher 3 will feature something like 36 different endings. But what about a game set in the same universe featuring a different protagonist? “Yes, maybe, says Tomaszkiewicz. "I hope we are not resigning from this franchise because the world of the Witcher is very rich – there are many characters and many stories to tell. I hope that we do.”

The Witcher 3 is coming to Windows PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 in 2014.