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2015’s Best Games: The Witcher 3

To round off the year, we’re taking a look back at our favourite games of 2015 – it’s been a hell of a year! Next up, it’s CD Projekt RED’s gigantic RPG…

A lot was made of the scale of The Witcher 3 in the run-up to release, and with good reason. To call this game ‘pretty big’ is like describing the moon as being ‘quite far away’, and without courting hyperbole, there’s no accurate way of describing the sandbox CD Projekt Red has laid on for this epic RPG. It’s stupid, frankly, just how big this game is and if you should decide to avoid the bulletin boards that fill in the blanks on the map and turn off the objective markers, it’s fair to say that you’ll be lost for months – if not years – in this sublimely realised fantasy world. And we’d wager a fair amount of coin that you wouldn’t regret a single second, either.

Whereas GTA V starts you out smack in the middle of its biting satire of big city life and culture, The Witcher 3 instead dangles its well-realised urban ‘metropolis’ (if such a term can even be applied to a place where buildings are quite probably held together by little more than shit and dreams) as something to strive for, just as the game’s poor are likely looking to do in order to escape their pitiful existences in the wilds. While our silver-haired hero may be exempt from it on paper, this is a world of suffering, of acceptance, of putting up with less-than-ideal circumstances and playing the long game. And it’s all the better for it, even though our stoic hero may not notice such at first.

A tricky combination of a lack of exit play and rampant poverty leads many NPCs to put their life’s savings on the line in order to have closure, or justice, or vengeance, or whatever, seen through to the bitter end. Unlike Telltale‘s pretend moral choices, you actually get to decide how much this matters here – Geralt is supposed to be this stone-hearted mercenary, sure, but countless decisions will draw you in and even make you question and shift the witcher’s stance on issues, often to the point that morality is being played against you as some kind of trump card. Every neutral choice you make seems emotionally detached from the perspective of the characters you’re learning to love; every invested choice makes you feel too involved with the side in question. There’s no black and white here – the game is one seething mass of grey area and the more the story is allowed to play out, the more you realise just how much your binary moralising may have screwed you over. Indeed, certain events seem designed to highlight poor judgement towards seemingly positive characters and others towards negative ones. Learning who you can trust and who you can’t is the lesson here, and it must be said that learning the hard way is often the most fulfilling.

Fortunately, combat isn’t something you’ll have to learn the hard way, since most will already be adept in this form of battle. Controls have been tightened up a hell of a lot since the franchise last appeared on console and the result is something that sits between the accessibility of Assassin’s Creed and Batman Arkham games, and the Souls series. Juxtaposed as the two forms may seem, it actually works – parry timing is more demanding than anything in AC, for instance, but still relaxed enough to support the idea that Geralt is supposed to be a master swordsman. It’s the usual two-button action combat set-up, with light and heavy attacks joined by evasive manoeuvres, ranged options and even a little magic. Depleting a foe’s stamina will cause them to drop their guard (a crucial trick to exploit against bastards that hide behind shields), and a perfect parry can also give you the opening you need to land a killing blow. As in the Arkham games and their many copycats, there’s a satisfying rhythm and flow to encounters, a comprehensive bank of perks available under the hood allowing you to tailor combat to the way you want to play. All five Signs have their uses in different situations but levelling them all simply isn’t practical, making it important to quickly identify and grow the few that best fit your play style. Signs also see a little use outside of combat, breaking objects to reveal secrets or even using Axii to pull Jedi mind tricks on fools, something you can become really quite adept at with a few well-placed upgrades.

Using Axii to charm your way out of sticky situations is just one example of CDPR’s impressively flexible approach to quest design. Action-RPGs frequently fall into the trap of relying on repetitive fetch quests and mob hunts and while there’s a lot more variety here in terms of tasks, even those that sail closer to the standard template offer interesting quirks and options, many even presenting non-violent solutions to problems a blade initially seems deigned to fix. Bribery, mind tricks, subterfuge, counterfeiting, charm, favours… you name it, chances are you can do or use it at some point to get out of a fight and conversely, trying to worm your way out of something can, on occasion, only serve to make it worse. CDPR takes things to the other extreme of occasion too, making great use of Geralt’s heightened senses for tracking missions that feel fresh and chucking expert curveballs for mission archetypes destined to blindside anyone who goes in purely expecting to hunt monsters.

Equally bold is the team’s unwavering dedication to complex and mature subject matter, but even more impressive is that there’s rarely a misstep in how they are handled. Geralt is flung headlong into the midst of some serious issues and generally speaking, both the issues themselves and the characters involved are presented in as respectful and believable manner as you’d hope. There will inevitably be the same kind of outrage directed at The Witcher 3 that so many mature games receive when notable moments are taken out of context but in the game, nothing is any more gratuitous than you want to make it – if you will frequent medieval bathhouses and brothels or have Geralt talk a special someone into the sack, you should really expect the punchline to be of the adult variety. Sex, drugs, violence, crime… it’s all here and it’s wonderful to see that CDPR is capable of both addressing and dealing with these topics in a relatively mature manner and yet still finding time to be playful with them on rare occasions, almost like GTA does but with far less liberal use of the Satire Hammer.

It’s not often that we get as excited for locations as we do for the people and events that fill them but exploring this giant of a game has elicited just that feeling of wonder in us. There’s a genuine sense of place to this world, fostered by believable mapping, smart use of regional dialects and rich variety. Approach Novigrad and buildings grow fancier, quality of life improves, patrols get more common and wild monsters grow sparse, these observations building the closer you get to the game’s main city. Similarly, swamplands and mountainous areas tend to be much more treacherous than well-trodden country roads, thick with beasts and hazards and only populated by the hardened, the insane and the impoverished. Regional differences can be as little as a quick canter away and come in all shapes and sizes, from new flora and fauna to discover to a completely different cultural standpoint on key political issues that makes people interact with you very differently to those in other settlements, often also based on your choices and actions up to that point.

On pretty much every level, The Witcher 3 is a remarkable achievement. Its world is massive and a genuine thrill to explore; characters and dialogue are entertaining and engaging; missions are so varied as to put the game’s peers to shame; combat strikes the perfect blend of simplicity and depth; optional material can extend the length of the game to hundreds of hours and comes in all shapes, sizes and flavours. Oh, and it looks amazing, with only the odd slight chug during busy moments and areas detracting from its visual splendour. If this adventure drags you in as it has us, you won’t need another game for months – this superb RPG adventure will be all you need. A game about hunting monsters that we absolutely love… who’d have thought it, right?

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