By Tom Tolios / June 8th, 2015
Signs, the five magic abilities from previous games in the series, make their return here and retain the same properties as they did before, but they can also be augmented to function differently or more effectively by leveling up. While not engaged in battle, the abilities are readily available to you if you need to use them. During a fight, there is a Stamina meter that is drained when you use a Sign, and you have to wait for it to fill up again before you can cast another spell. Each of these abilities can be improved or modified through level progression, gained mostly by completing quests. Once a Sign is enhanced, you have to equip the enhancement on your skill tree in order to gain the benefit of the extra effects during play. There are 12 total slots in the skill tree — in four groups of three — which can be further enhanced by equipping various mutagens you get from dead monsters, which are locked behind level caps. You probably won’t be using all 12 slots for Sign enhancement, but it’s nice to know the option’s there if you choose to build your casting abilities up.
In addition to Sign upgrades, you can also improve your sword fighting skills. As mentioned above, imbibing potions can enhance your fighting parameters temporarily, but each one you drink will increase your toxicity level, and there is a limit to this in order to prevent players from just stacking every buff they can add on. By leveling up certain abilities, you can improve Geralt’s toxicity threshold. Additionally, you can buy abilities that cause potions to react differently, last longer or grant added effects. Finally, there are persistent buffs that can be bought such as improved vitality or faster health and stamina recovery while fighting. The skill system is so varied that you can customize your Witcher to either be a melee combat machine, a spell-casting sorcerer supreme, a potion specialist or any combination you choose if you prefer to have a more varied skill set. But don’t worry about being locked on any specific path of character growth. Abilities on the skill tree can be swapped out at will, so you can customize the character as needs merit. It’s a very generous character leveling system and seems well aligned with the entire theme of a Witcher’s focus on dealing with specific threats in the way that best suits the situation.
There are times you’ll engage in fisticuffs in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Usually these are for tournaments either for coin or to be granted an audience with a particular NPC to advance the story or a quest. When boxing, you’re not permitted to use any abilities or items, so it’s just you and your dukes. Sometimes you have to face multiple foes at the same time, occasionally in cramped quarters. The unarmed fighting isn’t what I’d consider a strong point of the game’s combat mechanics, but it has a combo system, parrying and counterstriking that’s still fun overall. Once you get familiar with how unarmed combat works it becomes more satisfying.
At certain points in the game where you learn about Ciri’s activities, you’ll get to play as her in flashback chapters that enlighten you on the matter. When it’s time for her to fight, Ciri plays differently from Geralt and has a unique set of abilities you can employ to overcome the challenges you’ll face as her. Whereas Geralt is a fighter with a lot of weapons and monster-killing know-how at his disposal, Ciri doesn’t rely so heavily on tools or potions. She’s lighter, faster and can move around the battlefield by shadow shifting, leaving green trails of energy in her wake. She eventually gets her own set of powers that are a lot of fun to use, but, unfortunately, our time with her is limited. It’s for the best overall, as this is Geralt’s story and his gameplay is far more robust and varied. Still, I can’t help but think what CD Projekt Red could do with a game where Ciri is the main character, or at least has a bigger role in current events rather than appearing simply in fragmented memory sequences. CD Projekt Red recently revealed that this is not the end for The Witcher series, but only the end of this particular storyline and trilogy. Maybe we’ll have a chance to see more of this ashen-haired whirlwind the next time around, or maybe even DLC. CD Projekt Red, if you’re reading this, please give us more Ciri!
The crafting and potion brewing systems are deep and nuanced in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, so much so that you can get lost in them for hours if you’re not careful. The way it works is that you gather loot from fallen enemies and from bushes, flowers, crates, barrels and chests all over the countryside. Be careful looting in cities or in areas with armed guards, because if you take something while they’re watching, they’ll attack you. Herbalists and merchants also sell many of the raw materials you may need, as well, and they’ll also sell formulas, blueprints and diagrams, some of which can also be found in chests and on corpses all over the land during exploration. You can mix potions all on your own, but you’ll need to find a blacksmith or armorer of suitable skill to craft your gear for you, with the higher level formulas requiring you to seek out the true artisans of the trade.
Blacksmiths and armorers are the only ones that can repair your gear (although repair kits can restore some of the damage in the field), which decays over time as you fight, so it’s a good idea to get familiar with a spot or two on the world map that provides convenient access to these particular NPCs because you may be returning to them often. The sheer breadth of the crafting system is so expansive that it’s almost ridiculous how much thought went into it, easily the equal of those found in most MMOs today. I consider this one of The Witcher 3’s purest virtues because CD Projekt Red is doing their best to make you feel like a part of this world and the complex crafting system is just one more interface to help them accomplish that. It’s not necessary to craft, but, as in real life, the more time you take to do something right, the greater the rewards will be for your efforts.
I found character navigation and interacting with the environment to be among the few areas where The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt stumbled. The controls are sometimes sensitive, and all too often Geralt would jog in a wide circular path when I wanted him to simply turn back to look at or gather an item. And, if that wasn’t cumbersome enough, i had to have your camera adjusted properly so anything you want to examine or pick up was both visible on my monitor and in Geralt’s field of vision. So, even if Geralt was facing the item, if I didn’t swing the camera around to see where he was looking, I couldn’t initiate the interaction. I think CD Projekt Red would benefit greatly from taking a look at how console games dealt with these mechanics. It’s not a crippling problem for The Witcher 3, and most players will quickly adapt. But I still say turning around and picking up flowers should be easy on your first try.
The music in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is sheer bliss, a masterful arrangement of Slavic folk music that evoke a true sense of culture and whimsy when you are in cities, villages or settlements, melancholy when you are traversing the war-torn countryside, eerie chills when you are slogging through marshes or exploring dark caves and earthen purity when traversing across plains lush with tall grass or along the base of snow-capped mountains whose highest peaks that have never known a mortal’s presence. The battle music features pounding percussion, aggressive chords and power vocals by Polish folk band, Percival, to put you in the moment and create a palpable sense of dread and tension that is rare for video games, television or even movies. The sound design is equally sublime. As you navigate the countryside, the singing of birds, bleating of livestock and huffing of woodland beasts help to give the world a teeming life force. The wind howls, the thunder rolls, lightning cracks with jagged suddenness. Farmers till, widows weep and the hammers of artisans clang on anvils as you pass by. The comments of passersby will amuse players to no end and further pull them into a world that is brimming with character.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is absolutely gorgeous to look at, from the individual blades of grass underfoot to the swaying of trees as stormy winds buffet them back and forth. The characters, buildings, landscapes and monsters are exquisitely detailed. Armor and weapons appear weathered and battered, as though from battles their owners were lucky to have survived. This game also has persistent dynamic effects that help breathe life into the world, changing it up and keeping you filled with a sense of wonder the whole way through. The sheer scale of the world is massive and evokes a pioneer spirit in me every time I boot the game up. You will want to explore the world Geralt of Rivia lives in despite how violent, dark and dangerous it can be. Its malice is only matched by its majesty.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a game that comes along once a decade, a singular accomplishment that transcends the medium. Its core elements are, when looked at plainly, present in other games of the genre. But they lack the pure gestalt of The Witcher 3 Wild Hunt; more than any other game ever made, this is far more than the sum of its already considerable parts. It’s a mammoth effort and it shows the heart and soul of developers that worked diligently to make not just the best video game of 2015 but the best video game ever. It comes together flawlessly. It’s revelatory in how it shows the human capacity to create a work of art unlike anything we’ve ever seen before despite feeling familiar in so many ways. It’s a real game changer, not because it does anything differently, but because it’s a wake up call to a AAA industry struggling to remain relevant in an era of growing consumer cynicism. It’s almost scary how well this game ended up. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to play an RPG again without comparing it to The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. There is no higher praise I can offer than that.
Review copy provided by publisher
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