The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt Review for Xbox One
Words: Ian Dransfield
Many people might leap to compare The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt to other RPGs like Dragon Age: Inquisition, or place it next to its predecessor for sake of contrast. There’s nothing wrong with that – the game has many elements in common with Bioware’s epic, and obviously it carries on the tale of Geralt and company, so it’s going to be useful to see what’s changed from one game to the next. But a comparison we’ve found very handy – and apt – in getting across how The Witcher 3 plays is, simply, this: it’s like Red Dead Redemption, but with magic.
That’s not just to say you ride a horse and it’s in an open world, of course – though both those things are true – but also that Wild Hunt has the same feeling that Rockstar’s cowboy classic had. There’s an atmosphere of liberty to both experiences that we’ve not felt in many other games – you pick a direction, give your horse Roach a little dig in the ribs and off you go. Destination? Nah, no point. What happens on the way? No idea, but it’ll be fun finding out. What if it’s the wrong way? It’s never the wrong way.
Wild Hunt’s world is gigantic, dwarfing the likes of Skyrim and GTA V, and while there’s a fair bit of open space, it never feels empty. Whichever way you do end up going, you’ll run into beasts and bandits; abandoned shacks and hidden treasures; mysterious deaths and mystical beasts – playing for dozens of hours, you won’t run out of things to do. Admittedly that won’t appeal to those who want a streamlined and concise RPG to work their way through, but therein lies another area where The Witcher 3 shines.
The main story missions driving Geralt through the world tell a fun (and often very dark) tale of the man trying to find his adopted daughter, Ciri. These missions are heavy on cut-scenes and spread the action wide across the entire continent, doing a great job of forcing you to see almost everywhere and do almost everything that’s possible in Wild Hunt. Playing through this way and ignoring everything else might be the way you want to play it – and you can – but, well, it’s wrong. And you will, very likely, end up getting sidetracked because you’ll keeping thinking: “Oh, I wonder what’s over there…”
One of these sidetracking elements is actually something CD Projekt Red was bigging up most before The Witcher 3’s release – Geralt’s witcher contracts. These see you hunting down a beast, ghoul or other such abomination that has – usually – been terrorising a local village. It’s understandable that these aren’t the main tale being told in Wild Hunt, as that would make the game a series of boss fights and not much else, but once you’ve played that mandatory griffin hunt at the beginning, you’ll have the taste. Soon enough you’ll find yourself onto your tenth contract, infinitely wiser about what’s expected of you and how to deal with a problem, but enjoying it no less. Following footsteps and analysing bloodstains like a medieval Batman might sound like it gets boring after 20 hours, but it really doesn’t – and taking down a giant beastie is immensely satisfying, no matter how many times you’ve done it.
The main reason the satisfaction never dies is thanks to the combat – much improved from The Witcher 2’s confusing mish-mash of PC and console controls. Wild Hunt’s Geralt is as balletic as he is deadly on the battlefield. A simple mix of slow/quick attacks, short/long dodges, blocks and parries, ranged attacks, and signs (magic) all comes together to make every battle fun, engaging and rarely a walkover. Strategic elements return, like the oils you can apply to blades to make them more effective against particular types of beast/ghost/bloke. Potions can be ingested to improve abilities in a number of different ways – while at the same time poisoning Geralt, thus limiting how many you can chug during a fight. The strategy isn’t overwhelming and the action has a steady pace throughout the entire game, meaning you won’t suddenly be left behind by a new enemy’s ability – you’ll know how to get around it, or at the very least that there is a way around it.
This progress as a player is matched by Geralt’s progress as a character – it wouldn’t be an RPG if that weren’t true. But it is true, so the usual suspects – items to collect, weapons to get from the smithy, upgrade runes to attach, new powers to learn and mutagens (buffs) to apply all come into play. While you might soon tire of picking up broken rakes out of boxes round the back of a peasant’s shed, you won’t tire of finding new Gwent cards. Oh, Gwent.
Gwent is the card game played by many of Wild Hunt’s denizens – a straightforward Magic/Hearthstone-alike, it is easy to get into and even easier to get maddeningly addicted to. Each match sees players draw 10 cards from their deck and try to hold more power on the board in a two-out-of-three rounds situation. Along the way there are special cards, environmental debuffs, strategic losses and a lot of irritation when the AI pulls out two 10-powered ultra-cards in a row. It is, to put it another way, absolutely brilliant. Let Gwent wash over you and you will genuinely find yourself hunting as many people down in the game to play it against as you can – which is handy, as there are a few quests covering the Wild Hunt’s best players and the rare cards you can pick up from them.
It’s quite strange to think about all of this relatively innocent fun – card-collecting and hunting down the Gwent masters – when The Witcher 3 takes place in a world that’s so utterly rotten from top to bottom. Sure, the lush greenery of the wilderness is gorgeous at times and the aforementioned feeling of liberation is a wonderful thing – but Geralt encounters some genuinely terrible people, creatures, and situations throughout Wild Hunt. And that’s without even mentioning the questionable number of nude ladies and the sex on a stuffed unicorn. Yep, it’s a game that earns its 18 certificate.
Wild Hunt does hit some hitches along the way – mainly due to it not quite being the technical masterpiece it was being sold to us as pre-release. The complaints about the Xbox One’s resolution – 900p sometimes dynamically upscaling to 1080p – will annoy some, but we didn’t find them to be a huge pain. Other little technical hitches pop up, like… pop-up, subtitling typos, Geralt glitching on, in, and through objects, a cumbersome UI that reacts rather slowly to button presses and interactions that demand you face the exact right way, have the item and button prompt showing in full on the screen and then ask two buttons to pick up a very common item. Alright, it’s not end of the world stuff, but when you’ve put in 50 hours it does become supremely irritating.
Another let-down in The Witcher 3 is some of the content relating to women. Now The Witcher as a series doesn’t have the best of reputations when it comes to the female gender (in the first game they were literally collectable items), and the third game does generally do a hell of a lot better than what we’ve seen previously. But… it’s still questionable, at times. Why no woman is capable of buttoning up a shirt we simply do not know, and the speed at which the story resorts to the ‘they’re violent against women therefore they are bad’ trope would be funny if it weren’t such a horrible (and lazy) topic. Does the criminal underworld chief involved in countless illegal, violent activities around the city really need to be shown with five or six dead women in his room to put across that he’s ‘bad’? No, because we’re smart enough to figure that out from the other things he does.
With those caveats registered, though, it’s difficult to do anything other than recommend The Witcher 3. It’s a true epic, a clear labour of love for its Polish creator and another great title to pick up for your Xbox One. Plus Geralt’s beard grows in real-time, automatically making Wild Hunt one of the greatest things that has ever happened in videogames.