Platforms: PC | Xbox One | PS4
Developers: CD Projekt RED
Publishers: CD Projekt
The world is in chaos. The Empire of Nilfgaard ravages the kingdoms to the North and, worse still, there's talk of the Wild Hunt -- a ghostly, ghastly, spectral, deadly force of myth and legend -- being seen, though few have lived to tell of its sighting. The trail goes colder by the day and a grizzled Geralt has little time to tarry or delay. The renowned monster hunter leads are slipping away and the hunt for the Hunt is becoming more and more difficult.
He comes across a cluster of armed men preparing to string up a frail, seemingly innocent woman. His companion urges that they push on. Geralt has other ideas. The men die quickly; the woman is set free. Geralt's response to his questioning companion is simple: "I'm killing monsters," he growls.
Choice and consequence, the uneasy balance balance between morality and necessity, these are the foundations upon which CD Projekt RED's outstanding RPG series -- The Witcher -- has been built. That means choice in combat, choice in exploration, and choice when it comes to dealing with problems, interacting with characters, and often deciding the fates of those you meet, shaping the world around you with your decisions. CD Projekt understand the unique potential of this medium far better than some.
It is for this reason that I was almost shivering with excitement as I sat down to receive 40-minute presentation on The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Three-quarters of an hour later, I had dubbed it my game of the show in spite of it being one of the first things I actually saw at Gamescom. In the end, it was only beaten by Titanfall, and that's only because I couldn't get hands-on in this case.
In the demo we saw, Geralt is on the search for the sole survivor of the Wild Hunt's last appearance -- the complete obliteration of a township following the appearance of a ghost ship. The town, Dalvik, has been burned to ashes, and Geralt must track down Bjorn, who has become something of an outcast. He's lost his son, no-one believes his stories, and to the outside world he appears to be more than a little off his rocker.
Story is, as always, a huge part of this Witcher title, and CD Projekt's Marek Ziemak stopped the presentation momentarily to hit us with a few figures.. The world is enormous, a seamless map that is reported to be thirty-five times larger than that of The Witcher II, although one should remember that game was ostensibly made up of smaller pockets of landscape rather than having a huge, systemic environment.
Immediately, though, Ziemak was quick to note that the size is nothing without quality and density, and that it's here that the developers have really tried to make the world of Wild Hunt feel lived in and vibrant. Skyrim wasn't mentioned, but it's clear that Bethesda's knack for creating expansive game worlds that encourage exploration and are liberally sprinkled with things to see and do has had some lasting impressions, and that's no bad thing. So we have an economic system in this game, where commodity prices can rise and fall depending upon where you are; Geralt can now leap onto a horse's back or get into boats to hep him get places quicker; fast travel is back, so you can flit around the map instantaneously provided that you've visited the location in question beforehand. There will be, according to Ziemak, upwards of 100 hours of "emotionally intense experiences".
A tangential detour has a brief look at the combat system, which has been refined and revamped to allow for "dynamic and spectacular control over Geralt's blades and actions". Ziemak talks of the team wanting to create points of interest that attract the player's attention out in the open world, using geographical landmarks, building constructions and ruins, and other aesthetics methods and tricks to pique the curiosity of the gamer.
Geralt heads for a ruined tower in the distance atop a hill, and is attacked upon reaching the summit by one of the game's many Special Beasts. This one -- part stag, part bear, part dragon? -- has a range of special attacks, with the AI for many of the beasts Geralt will encounter being crafted in bespoke fashion from scratch. The Steargon (not its real name) has a psychic third eye that can hypnotise our hero, changing the world into a shadowy realm of stark, black swirling clouds. The creature cloaks itself, only its glowing third eye visible, and Geralt must adapt until the hypnotic power wears off.
It's visually stunning stuff, although we're none the wiser as to whether or not the combat in this game will actually be an enjoyable improvement over that of the previous game, but it points towards something far more interesting: we'll be able to properly walk in Geralt's shoes and become the titular Witcher. Monster hunting is very much the order of the day in Wild Hunt, and Geralt can now track beasts for bounties as his character should. This dynamic world is bristling with unique creatures and marauding fiends for Geralt to take down and sell off, and thus for the first time, we'll be able to roam a fully open world, taking beastly bounties and ridding townships of their monstrous menaces.
Returning to the matter of running down the Hunt, Bjorn tells of his brother's murder and suggests that the trail heads east towards the town of Hindersfjall. But again there's an opportunity for the main story to get hijacked by a side interest. Following the trail, Geralt comes across the body of a man hung from forest roots, his body brutalised and mangled. The denizens of a nearby town are in turmoil: the more spiritual folk of the village believe that this has happened because the forest spirit has not been properly revered, and that more offerings should be made lest the situation get worse. The more secular members of the village are all for hunting down the creature and putting it to the sword.
Geralt could walk on, and ignore this brewing drama, but he doesn't, and offers to help... for a price, of course. The options for the player begin to unfold. Side with the priests and this little sub-narrative will go off in one direction, possibly avoiding combat, at least with the monster itself. Side with the hunters and Geralt might find himself inadvertently at the head of a secular revolt. For the sake of the demo, Geralt follows his nature and heads out after the monster. Here we a little of the new tracking mechanism, with an overlay (not unlike Ezio Auditore's Eagle Vision) helping to pick out claw marks, blood splatters and a trail of corpses. The clues, along with a sporadic gauntlet of wolves, lead Geralt to a forest totem and he uses his bestiary to identify the creature in question: it is a Leshen, a magical spirit that has bound itself to one of the villagers as well as using the forest to feed it energy.
Back at the village, Geralt needs to determine the agent that Leshen has chosen; alas, it appears to be the girlfriend of the secularists' leader, Sven. He tells Sven what the situation is and leaves the matter in his hands. There's a monster to vanquish.
The route to Leshen's lair is marked with totems that need destroying, and guarded by more wolves. A murder of crows highlights the way through the forest from totem to totem, and the forest sprouts dangerous looking vines and roots that block Geralt's path and cause him to trip and stumble as Leshen leverages the power of the forest and turns nature against the Witcher. When the beast does appear, it is surrounded by a snarling pack of lupine friends and it teleports in a puff of squawking crows. Even so, it is no match for Geralt in the end.
The Witcher returns to find the village bloodied and battered. The secularists have rounded up and slaughtered the priests for good measure, and Geralt leaves with his money and a few parting , pithy words that suggest little has changed for the village in spite of this coup. Three months later, we are told, the village is raided and all of the inhabitants are brutally butchered.
That's a half hour, in-depth side-quest with some real consequences. A community might get wiped off of the map depending on what options you decide to take. A forest will be forever changed by your actions. You can ignore it, of course, and gallop onwards on your main quest, but if you want a deeper experience, if you want to sink yourself deeper into the multiple interwoven narratives of this world, you can. At any time. Of course, it remains to be seen if CD Projekt RED can make this vast world as dense and as vibrant and diverse as our imaginations are feverishly envisaging, but if they can, if they can actually pull off this overwhelmingly ambitious feat, then they won't have just arrived in the big leagues, they'll have put everyone else to shame.
What we saw was simply breathtaking, and it has the potential to be the best RPG we've seen in over a decade.