The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a third-person, swords-and-magic RPG set in a large world which combines a main story thread with a large number of free-roaming side quests. You play Geralt of Rivia, a witcher whose training and mutations allow him to fight monsters and imbibe potions which would be lethal to ordinary folk. Geralt wields a steel sword for earthly beasts and bandits, and a silver sword for the spectres, relicts, vampires, ogroids, necrophages, and other assorted horrors which haunt the world. He's also able to cast "signs" (simple magic) and carries a crossbow and a variety of bombs. All things considered, Geralt is able to soak up and dole out a lot of damage. Which is just as well because he's never far from trouble while he walks the path of a witcher.
Before I sour the water, let me make it clear that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is an excellent game, and that both the Hearts Of Stone and the Blood And Wine expansion packs are worth playing. Altogether I spent 234 hours playing this bundle and it contains a great deal to enjoy.
However, getting started was a major pain in the ass. As with most PC games, my first task is to reconfigure the key bindings to work with my non-standard keyboard and my non-standard layout. This is usually as easy as moving a few buttons around to suit me, but for some reason The Witcher 3 made key binding very hard work. Using the in-game key bindings menu I simply could not get the game to react properly, very probably because I use the Backspace key as my jump button and the game developers couldn't imagine anyone doing this. Even though most controls worked fine, trying to leap up to grab a high ledge just would not work. In the end I had to manually edit the game's input.settings file and make numerous tweaks before everything seemed to work. (Let me know if you want a copy of this modified input.settings text file.)
Geralt begins this adventure in a part of the world called White Orchard. Tricky as it is to get used to the many keyboard controls, White Orchard does at least seem to have a consistency about the difficulty in the few quests it offers. However, when you move on to the far larger region of Velen it is very easy at first to wander the wrong way (because you're free to roam the whole region as you please) and find yourself surrounded by vastly superior opponents against which you have no chance. And for what feels like a long time even the main story quests recommend a character level which is one or two above your current level, forcing you to hunt far and wide for side quests down at your lowly level so that you can gather enough XP to level up. Eventually you are spoilt for choice of quests that are ideal for your character level, but it felt like tough going before then.
It doesn't help that the brief training tutorial at the very start of the game is over in a jiffy and covers every combat action only briefly. So for hours I had a crossbow and bombs that I couldn't work out how to use, didn't realise that I could dodge and roll out of harm's way, and did not know how to switch between selectable tools (such as crossbow, torch, etc). The tutorial messages are archived for you to find and read later, but this wasn't immediately obvious, and it would all have been much easier if the tutorial had been stretched out to do a better job of drilling the controls into awareness and memory.
I've always disliked the third-person perspective because it makes controlling the character feel much harder than in a first-person game. And The Witcher 3 didn't help to dispel this feeling. Getting Geralt to move always feels clunky, and I think this is because the third-person perspective means you can see Geralt's feet. Sounds ridiculous, but it means that Geralt cannot just snap to a new direction (like in a first-person perspective where you cannot see your own lower body) and so he has to animate and wheel around to the new heading, which often causes delay and an irritating circling movement that can, in the worst cases, cause him to suddenly step off of a high place and fall over the edge.
On top of that, the long, sweeping sword swings and punches take time to execute, which means that you cannot suddenly block, attack, or move while waiting for the action to finish. This had me impatiently hammering on the controls trying to get Geralt to do what I wanted now rather than what I had wanted a few milliseconds ago. In particular, I found every fist fight irritating: stripped of the ability to use "signs", weapons, and potions, you're stuck with being only able to block, dodge, and swing a punch. And it always seems that whenever you choose to swing, an enemy's punch connects with your head first. I suspect that players with more patience and more experience in third-person melee combat would probably see nothing to complain about, but I found the clunky lack of precise control very frustrating.
By the time I played the game (eighteen months after release) the developers had fixed most of the bugs reported by early players. But that made those which remain all the more frustrating. In a couple of abandoned settlements it proved to be impossible to liberate the area despite killing all of the monsters/bandits/beasts which had scared the villagers away. And countless times I had Geralt stood right next a lootable object, but the word "Loot" would blink up only briefly, and it was impossible to find the right position and angle to actually loot the goodies. These were always minor stashes of low-value items, but it was still annoying. And a bug in Gwent (a turn-based combat card game) means that if you opt to replay a match after a draw it then becomes impossible to choose which cards you take from the discard pile, making it very likely that you will lose the replay.
In a few places it proved to be easy to fail a quest and not realise until later, for example by accidentally wandering into a scene which triggers a quest and then wandering off without knowing that failure to complete it there and then will lock the quest out as failed.
It's also very easy to make the "wrong" choices during the game when talking with your adopted daughter Ciri and not realise this until many hours later when you are punished with what most people call the "bad" ending. At one point you can either choose to tell Ciri to relax or you can start a snowball fight, and failing to start a snowball fight can mean the end of all life in the world. Fair enough that in real life we never know where our seemingly trivial decisions will take us, but the reason we play video games is to have the ability to choose our preferred fate, and not be subject to what feels like random chance. While the "bad" ending is fairly kick-ass, it's also sufficiently depressing that I loaded a save file from about twenty hours earlier in game time, and replayed the entire end of the main storyline all over again, just to make the "correct" choices in order to get a better ending.
The game is a satisfying mix of character interaction and combat (though you can choose to play the game with more of a focus on one or the other if you prefer). Your main quest is the hunt for people dear to you, but alongside that you'll find plenty of people trying to enlist your help with problems that only a witcher can handle. These witcher contracts reward you with coin, and the loot and experience you pick up along the way is vital in getting your character to the point where you can take on the later main quests and the higher-level monsters you'll bump into as you travel around.
Each time you reach a new character level you can select new abilities to activate, and these provide a varied and powerful set of bonuses which let you focus on your preferred methods of combat. And at higher levels you can wear better armour and wield better swords. While you find plenty of items of armour on your travels, the best armour is usually the stuff you have crafted for you. These custom items require that you have a crafting diagram, sufficient components such as steel and leather, enough coin, and an armourer, blacksmith, or craftsman of sufficient skill. For a long time you'll be without some or all of these requirements, but eventually it'll all come together and you'll be able to choose your preferred gear from a long list. You can also add runes and glyphs to your armour and swords to boost them with additional defensive or offensive properties.
Geralt can cast "signs" which cause a blast of air (Aard) or a wave of flame (Igni), create a magic trap (Yrden), wrap Geralt in a protective shield (Quen), or confuse/stun an opponent (Axii). These can all be cast in the midst of melee combat, and give a great deal of advantage. Even the most fearsome monsters can be put off their stride by this box of tricks, and most human opponents are left in terror and agony when a blast of Igni leaves them in flames. All of these "signs" can be enhanced or given alternative modes by activating upgrades.
Perhaps most essential to a witcher is his ability to survive toxic but powerful potions and decoctions. These give Geralt a temporary boost, allowing him to see in the dark, deal more critical hits, drain health from opponents, carry more weight, and so on. Before these are available you must find the recipe for them, gather the required ingredients, and then use the "Alchemy" page to mix them together. Once you've created each potion or decotion once, you need only meditate in order to restock your supply (though you cannot meditate during combat, so you can find yourself without any left unless you pace yourself). Very similar to his stock of potions, Geralt can also use alchemy to mix together bombs which can assist during combat by removing a monster's ability to transform, or poisoning, burning, or blinding the enemy.
Geralt's adventures in The Witcher 3 take him to several lands, through town and country, across sea and desert, and entwine him in plots as grand as the fate of the world, and as mundane as the hunt for a missing goat. Often your choice of response in each situation will alter the outcome for those involved, and in some quests it's possible to miss something and come to entirely the wrong conclusion. The main story quests provide a sense of epic importance, and the many side quests offer an assorted mix of more grounded tasks to keep you busy. Whether fighting The Wild Hunt or hunting for that lost goat, the dialogue and pacing make every quest feel worthwhile.
Along Geralt's travels you'll meet a lengthy roll of weighty characters, each showing strong personality and motivations. Be they emperor, king, sorceress, baron, or peasant, human, elf, or dwarf, everyone wants something from the famed witcher Geralt of Rivia. The dialogue is often great fun, rife with irony and sarcasm.
On the subject of the characters you meet, it has to be said that the sorceress Keira Metz is the most distracting character I can recall in any video game, thanks entirely to her greeting you with a topless bath scene and thereafter showing off a constant wardrobe malfunction. In fact, The Witcher 3 is refreshingly adult in its presentation: sex and nudity are common throughout, strong language is used when it fits the mood, and there are some very grim scenes at times (such as a gangster's den littered with the mutilated corpses of prostitutes). Possibly this is because The Witcher 3 is made by Polish development company CD Projekt RED; these days it often feels like Western entertainment companies shy away from sex and nudity for fear of hysterical media coverage. [On this subject, note that Japan and The Middle East have censored out the topless nudity and some of the gore in The Witcher 3.]
The graphics are beautiful. The landscape is detailed and varied, towns have real character, and the city of Novigrad is a sprawling mess of homes, shops, and plazas. And every view can be experienced in countless shades of sunrise, noon, sunset, and moonlight, depending on the time of day, and on the weather which can change rapidly from clear, still skies to black clouds, strong winds which cause the trees to sway, and lashing rain which makes surfaces and clothing wet. The detail in the atmosphere is striking and even two-hundred hours in I was stopping often to gasp at particularly eye-catching views.
The character voice acting is excellent. The body and facial animations are superb, showing every gesture, and every crease of a frown or a smile. The beast and monster designs are great, with real variety between the several-dozen different species you'll encounter.
The soundscape is rich, giving a suitable feel to the surroundings. Peasants and townsfolk openly mutter in wonder or disgust at Geralt's unusual figure as you walk past them, cats hiss in fright, children yell in excitement and accidentally reveal gossip and hearsay. Caves drip, swaying forests rustle, seas swell, the timbers of boat hulls creak, and footsteps reveal the type of surface underfoot.
The main game kept me entertained for about 170 hours, but the expansion packs add plenty more.
Hearts Of Stone is based mostly in the areas around Novigrad and Velen and sees Geralt being led a merry dance by a mysterious figure who gives off a seriously ominous aura despite the outwardly human, charming, friendly appearance. This expansion pack also adds some new runes and glyphs, and allows "runewords" to be etched onto your swords and armour, though I found "runewords" to be largely inferior to what was already available. But the big deal here is the new story quest. It didn't last very long, but it did contain some great scenes, in particular Geralt's hilarious attendance at a wedding while possessed by a rowdy extrovert.
Blood And Wine adds an entirely new region of the world: Toussaint, a wine-soaked land of knights errant, whose ruler has summoned Geralt by name to put an end to a series of murders. This expansion makes it possible for Geralt to get hold of grandmaster-crafted armour and weapons, and also adds a new mutation system which allows character points to be spent on acquiring mutations instead of the usual upgrades. Only one mutation can be activated at a time, and they did feel a bit limited, with some of them simply duplicating abilities that the standard upgrades already offer. And many of the side quests felt rather similar, usually just clearing a few monsters out of wine cellars. The expansion overall felt a little rushed and rough around the edges. But the new story quest is a worthwhile addition, introducing several strong characters and taking you through numerous colourful and striking scenes.
Despite the serious key binding problems, and the initial trouble with quest difficulty, and my disdain for the third-person perspective, and the few remaining bugs, and the ease with which you can fall into the "bad" ending, I can still do nothing but recommend this game to anyone who enjoys a mix of story and action. There is plenty to do, plenty to see, and plenty to keep you stimulated. A lot of love and care has gone into producing the world, the political and social environment are portrayed with just the right amount of depth to add to the atmosphere, and the dialogue is satisfying and often very funny.
Both of the expansion packs add many additional hours of worthwhile gameplay, so they also get my recommendation. Altogether, the combined bundle makes The Witcher 3 an excellent gaming experience.