Witcher 3 (PS4) 2015

Where do I start?

My fingers hurt. Not since, mmmm….Halo 1 on Xbox, do I recall strain pains on the hand from persistently gripping a controller. Hot swapping one from another as batteries fail on me, muscle memory having brought down the process to 7 seconds now.

I know how many hours I have spent on the game, because it tells me. It’s somewhat proud of the figure because it knows I’d be spending days worth of gaming time on it. How many? I shall not say.

If Oblivion, Skyrim, Dragon Age etc. all represent a single episode of Game of Thrones, then Witcher 3 can only be the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy as it matches it certainly in epic storytelling, but certainly trashes it in story length.

We all heard of how large the game area was, which it certainly is. But it isn’t the world itself that gives it the immense breadth, more the intricately woven story telling, seemingly from a new master school of theatre. Imagine the main story line quest of any recent, major fantasy RPG game. In your head? Well W3 simply treats them as its benchmark for the side quests.

The level of care that has gone into some of the side quests puts any other game to shame but they have been so masterfully woven into the game, you never feel ‘mission-anxiety’, something that plagues many recent games in their effort to fill players boots with quest data. It’s a real put off for me when I can’t seem to keep control of the volume of missions a player seems to collect – especially when I collect them quicker than I can complete them.

You can be plodding along on horseback, merrily on the way to fulfilling a particular fetch this, deliver that errand when someone calls out to you from the roadside. Stop to talk and next thing you know, you’re 3 hours deep into a separate, parallel side story, completely having forgotten the main reason you came across the fellow in the first place. I don’t want to spoil anything, but The Bloody Baron is the most wonderful tale in any RPG [spoiler] culminating in an ending that shocked me to the core. Everyone I’ve spoken to so far has had different versions of even that side quest.

It fits perfectly into a world that is completely and utterly alive. Farmers yelp as you charge your horse through their fields and soldier guards threaten with menace each time you stare at one. Blacksmiths hammer away in the background as kids throw stones at each other. It’s a world filled with life and routine and this scripting plays a pivotal part in a world that can, in contrast, feel eerily solitary when you do eventually venture outside cities.

I played W1 and W2 but remember absolutely nothing about them, so take it from me, you don’t need much investment in the lore or history. You learn a lot as you play through the ridiculously long campaign (100’s hours). It’s a great tale and the story is developed at your own pace, giving you ample opportunity to go off on your own tangents and story lines, developing your skills as your namesake, Geralt of Rivia the monster hunter, picking up contracts and jobs as a sword for hire.

Conversations with the plethora of characters are charming and curious, with each connection Geralt makes harbouring a strong story of their own that is noteworthy and interesting enough to commit significant player investment. Every mainline character has been genuinely fascinating, with wit, charm and comedy dialogue that has, even in the most impatient of my times, stayed my hand from the skip button as I absorbed all conversations willingly.

The women are beautifully rendered and given the testosterone fuelled nature of our hero’s pursuits, sex seems to be a mainstay currency in the world. Female companions play strongly in the game with almost all your colleagues being strong, lead cast women. Your choices dictate the relationships you have with them and can, often, lead to personal relationships, often told by way of revealing cut scenes. The men are as hardy and battle weary as the women are beautiful too. They swear, antagonise and swig booze with the bravado you’d expect from an era that promoted macho heroics – it simply suits the story, despite some utterly absurd commentary from some press.

I found myself invested into the world not only because of the very tapestry of life woven into the game, from the hustling cities to the ongoing dialogue between people, but also because of the incredible visual punch the game delivers from the get go.

It looks amazing. I’ve said this about many games and yet the bar still continues to be raised time after time and CD Projekt Red has done a commendable job of creating a world rich in colour and vibrancy that is as believable as it is alive. Vistas go on for miles into the distance with every single visual component a real, visit-able location. Trees sway right up to where the eye can see with dead calm seas being disturbed by the rare ripple a resting boat can create. Monsters and humans alike are given life with wonderfully rendered textures that are rich in detail and resolution.

It really is a joy to behold and right up until the very end of the game I was still stopping in my tracks, grabbing anyone in sight and forcing them to ‘look at how amazing this is’ as I stop Geralt atop a mountain with one leg up on a rock as he surveys what can only be described as the best looking fantasy backdrop ever rendered, as his hair sways with the wind.

Unfortunately, the PS4 simply cannot handle it. The frame-rate for one drops to unacceptable levels for what is essentially a triple A title with the play being interrupted so badly at times that it made playing the game quite fatiguing to the eye, especially in rich, dense areas such as swamps and thick forestry. Redraw rates are also sacrificed as the PS4 simply cannot draw areas fast enough, leaving voids as you approach places that appear to be clipped with no renders. Cities are the worst, greeting a hurried Geralt as he runs towards a blacksmith that just isn’t there. So you wait a few seconds as the world catches up, updating textures from low res to high res versions, adding characters, then background chatter and eventually the opportunity to interact.

I wondered deeply about this as I played through the game. If it were any other game it would have been shelved without another look, but so captivating is Witcher 3 that these foibles went entirely forgiven and instead, I looked at ways of playing through these visual imperfections and bugs.

Even the horse, Roach, is the most stupid, dumbest animal that has even been rescued from an abandoned pet sanctuary. Whistling your horse to action has it panicking into a fence, rendering it unable to approach you. Or even sometimes you try desperately to locate it only to discover it’s in a building. One time, I just couldn’t see it despite the map telling me I was practically on top of it, but then realised with utter horror, it was right in front of me. Only the game had only rendered it’s eye balls as they hovered ungraciously in front of me, as the PS4 played catchup to the rest of the horse’s body.

In addition to the above gripes, the lack of any real thought going into the levelling up system was a little disappointing. I never really felt that I was acquiring any new skills, or becoming more badass, rather I thought I was simply getting better with my character. The levelling up trees didn’t appear to give any compliment towards a rewarding progress with most of my selections becoming more and more arbitrary, even completing the game with 5 skill points that I didn’t even both spending.

The plus point to that was that I felt I was clearly doing something right with my character, but they should have either completely abandoned the system or provided something more rewarding. As it stands, it seems to do nothing other than confuse.

Aside from that, crafting is sufficiently rewarding, although I found, in typical RPG fashion, I was carrying about 300 potions I’d never used. Such is the way of these games that we are encouraged to hoard.

Despite the many issues, this is still an epic, majestic, beautifully told, superbly acted, sometimes very very funny, sometimes shockingly tragic story. It’s a master-craft of gaming expertise and you can now understand why Poland’s Prime Minister allegedly popped in to say well done to the team. That’s pretty damn good praise that and according to my experience is thoroughly well deserved.

Please buy this game and live it. It’s redefined the paradigm of the RPG and I’m so enamoured by it, even though I was pleading desperately to finish it (it became an obsession), I’m somewhat sad it’s over too. Now I await the free content they’ve promised as a way of thanking players. Is this the future of gaming? If so, get some ibuprofen gel. Your hands are going to need it.