The Witcher 3 is the best RPG we've ever played.
It’s not easy (or right) to sum up an entire game, especially one as humongous as The Witcher 3, based on one quest/side quest but I’m going to do just that. About ten hours into the game, you will come across a quest that will require you to cross paths with the Bloody Baron, a warlord who has taken over a small part of the game world. The way the Bloody Baron’s story is told by the game and the way it weaves in and out of the primary, secondary and side quests, is the pinnacle of video game storytelling and a quintessential representation of the overall game.
The Witcher 3 has now been out for more than a month and has been the subject of an unbelievable amount of critical and popular praise. If you’re interested in this game, you’ve probably read all the reviews, so I’ll try not to bore you with the regular rigmarole. Instead, I’ll talk about some great and not so great things about the game to give you an idea of why you should absolutely play it and what you can expect from it.
Just to clarify, there’s a difference between a game’s story and its storytelling. While the former is the game’s overall plot, the second is how that story is told and the intricacies of the relationships between the characters that help give the story weight. I’ve often found that the way big games handle stories is limited. On one hand, you have the Bioware games that often put a world-ending catastrophe in front of the player who, more often than not, is the only person in the game world who can prevent the aforementioned catastrophe. On the other, you have games like Shadow of Mordor, that put the player character on a path of vengeance where the big baddie waits at the end.
The Witcher 3’s writers obviously have an innate understanding of its protagonist, the monster hunting Merc-Witcher, Geralt, because there’s no great evil or disaster laid out before him at the beginning. Instead, the game begins with Geralt being hired by a father to find his daughter, someone who the Witcher has a personal connection with. Even now, about 90 hours into the game, the plot hasn’t touched upon any huge disaster. Sure, there’s the mention of an upcoming mythical everlasting winter, or ‘frost’ (Now, where have I heard that before?), but it hasn’t taken the form of an important goal for Geralt. Even the titular ‘Wild Hunt’, a mysterious army of dimension hopping elves, show up here and there, and all Geralt is expected to do is run the hell away from them.
Instead, the story unfolds so organically, it’s enthralling. You have no idea what’s going to happen, so every bit of the story right before you, the choices, the people, are the only things you care about at that moment. Honestly, I haven’t played a game that employs storytelling in this manner; even a great game like Portal made it apparent that you were supposed to solve the puzzles with the ultimate goal of escaping the facility where you’re being held captive. The fact that the endgame is invisible in the Witcher 3 helps you enjoy it so much more.
I mentioned the Bloody Baron quests earlier, and I must reiterate how spectacularly powerful that portion of the game is. It’s symptomatic of the fact that CD Projekt RED knows how to tell a story inside a game and utilise the unique qualities that come with the territory. Most games are happy to emulate movie storytelling, and that’s why you keep hearing devs boast of ‘cinematic storytelling.’ Now, unless you’re making a three hour long game, and script it tightly to fit into that timespan, you will have sections of gameplay where you have to suspend your disbelief to actually enjoy the game. For instance, in Dragon Age: Inquisition (my GOTY 2014), where you have a terrifying world ending macguffin literally in front of you most of the time, you’re still expected to help a farmer find his herd of ‘druffaloes’ or race a horse. The Witcher 3’s storytelling does away with this problem.
The way the Bloody Baron’s story is told also exhibits how to use RPG tropes to effectively tell a story. The Baron is introduced to you through a primary quest, which then branches into a couple of secondary quests that run parallelly, some of which are then are reintegrated into the primary questline which culminates in a supremely depressing ending (although, you can make different choices and get a different ending), which still remains loyal to character personalities and motivations. In this way, almost every sidequest is important to you, even if it may end up not being so to the main story.
The Witcher 3 also has the meat and potatoes ‘find this treasure’ and ‘kill this monster’ quests but they’re always quick to resolve and don’t require pointless slogging through vast areas of the map whose sole purpose is to pad the ‘xxx hours of gameplay’ stats that game publishers are so happy to spout.
A living, breathing World
The Witcher 3 takes place in a relatively generic fantasy world that mirrors medieval Europe and has cities, towns and villages with hard to pronounce names. Nothing special here. What’s great is that the world you’re exploring is currently being invaded by a foreign empire and it feels like it’s under attack. You start off the game somewhere near the South where the invasion began, and the world is packed with destroyed villages, bloody battlefields and the bodies of civilians and soldiers. As you move North towards the places that are preparing for the invaders, you start seeing fortifications but less violence and when you reach a massive city (that is perhaps five times the size of Kirkwall, the city where the entirety of Dragon Age 2 took place) still untouched by war, you see an area that maintains a veneer of normalcy.
The Witcher 3’s world, like its storytelling and characters, feels honest and grounded.
animated to perfection?
Irrespective of how good looking a game is, there’s always the problem of the uncanny valley; i.e. even the most intricately designed characters look eerily artificial. I think The Witcher 3 does a tremendous job of tackling that with the help of its facial animations. While the characters themselves look real, what sets them apart from those in other games are the subtle facial animations that they employ during conversations. The way Geralt smirks or the way he purses his lips do more to reveal his state of mind than any over the top dialogue theatrics ever could. This extends to the way the characters use their eyes as well, at one point crinkling up in mirth or downcast in sadness. I really hope that if there’s one thing that other devs can take away from this game, it’s how to execute realistic facial animations.
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The women of witcher 3
The Witcher’s 3 take on women is strangely schizophrenic unlike the rest of the game. The game is packed with female characters, many of whom are given as much importance as Geralt. You have women like Triss Merigold, who dotes on Geralt but is perfectly capable of blowing shit up on her own, Yennefer, who’s fiercely driven to such a degree that she runs the risk of being unlikable (from the player character’s point of view) and Cerys, a secondary character, who wants to lead her people. However, the game also appears to look at some women from an adolescent male’s point of view. The game is rife with sexual content and themes and while some of them are handled with maturity, some (the brothel encounters, a pointless flashback mission that takes place in a sauna) come across as gratuitous (again, like Game of Thrones on TV) and delivered only for the purpose of fan service (along the lines of the original game’s sex-card collection mini-game).
The Inventory: Klutzy
An unintuitive inventory screen is perhaps what The Witcher 3 has most in common with other RPGs. Unlike the previous game, you can’t sort your inventory based on weight or value. The inventory particularly sucks when you’re crafting because it’s difficult to find individual crafting components or alchemical elements when your inventory is packed with hundreds of things with no way to sort through them.
Movement: Lacking fluidity
For a game that does so many things so well, it’s strange that The Witcher 3 messed up the movement, especially on keyboard+mouse. Geralt appears to only be able to move in two speeds – a slow walk more suited to an 80 year old man, or a wild sprint with so much momentum that you’d think the devs wanted him to audition for The Flash TV show.
Performance: Time for an upgrade
I have a thoroughly mid-range PC (i5-4430, GTX 660, 8GB RAM) and I’m able to play the game with most settings on mid. However, every ten minutes or so, the framerates drastically dip close to the single digit mark which is annoying to say the least.
RoACH AKA the Steed that Could but Didn’t
Even though Roach is better than most in-game horses (note: I haven’t played Red Dead Redemption), it still serves to affirm the fact that games can’t do horses. Roach tends to get stuck in the scenery and is more easily scared than Courage, the Cowardly Dog.
The Bottomline: It’s brilliant
I played Dragon Age: Inquisition last year and was impressed by the job Bioware did to successfully make a well-scripted, open-world fantasy RPG. It’s a testament to the quality of The Witcher 3 that it manages to completely blow DA:I out of the water. In a landscape where open-world game mechanics have become so rote (I’m looking at you, Far Cry 4), it’s refreshing to come across a game that doesn’t rely on the same old gameplay tropes to keep you interested but instead is confident enough in its own storytelling abilities to let that be the prime focus.
If you’re a fan of RPGs or gaming in general, play The Witcher 3, it’s one of the best of all time.
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