GameCentral is amongst the first in the world to play CD Projekt RED’s epic new role-player, put is it really good enough to be this gen’s Skyrim?
We’ve spent over three hours playing The Witcher 3 now and yet we still feel only barely qualified to talk about it. Like Skyrim and Dragon Age: Inquisition the full game will offer hundreds of hours of gameplay, and it’s only towards the end of our play session that we began to get a feel for what makes The Witcher 3 stand out amongst its peers. But that small glimpse was enough to convince us that this is going to be one of the best games of the year.
We say that now because the first hour or so of the game was not necessarily that encouraging, at least not if you’ve been following the game’s development and watching all the amazing-looking gameplay videos. We spent the majority of our time on the Xbox One version and it was immediately obvious that the console versions don’t look nearly as good as the PC. That’s completely as you’d expect, especially as Polish developer CD Projekt RED used to work almost solely on the PC, but those expecting the game to look like the trailers should brace themselves.
We also played the PlayStation 4 version, which to the naked eye looks identical – although apparently it runs at 1080p resolution compared to the Xbox One’s 900p. What was clearly visible though was a lot of screen tearing, particularly in the first hour or so; obvious object pop-in; and some surprisingly low res textures at times. There were a few bugs and glitches too, but nothing that seemed concerning given the game is still four months away (it certainly appeared more stable than Dragon Age: Inquisition did even at launch).
There’s a very good chance most of these problems will be absent in the final version but we do feel it’s important to lower expectations slightly when it comes to the visuals, especially because in normal console terms they’re extremely impressive. The character models and backdrops are extremely well detailed and the game’s open world areas are enormous, and filled with non-player characters and creatures going about their normal business.
The aim of The Witcher 3 is to make the game’s story and lore as accessible as possible to those that haven’t played the first two games, and indeed the set-up is very straightforward. You play as Geralt, who is a magic-wielding mutant known as a Witcher. Although generally disliked by the populace Witchers are usually employed as freelance monster hunters. During the first few hours the wider plot is only hinted at, but it involves an invading supernatural force called the Wild Hunt. Although the more immediate concern at the beginning of the game is a war that has left an occupying army in charge of Geralt’s usual hunting grounds.
You have direct control of Geralt at all time, and the game plays very much like a third person action game such as Uncharted or Assassin’s Creed. Although we noted that the controls were extremely loose on the Xbox One, with Geralt zipping around almost like he was on roller skates. The PlayStation 4 version was much better in this regard, although we were told that the movement algorithms for each were identical – which is not the first time a developer has complained of difficulties with the Xbox One controller Although in this case a simple sensitivity slider in the options menu should fix the problem.
As you start out the role-playing elements are not emphasised, although you do gradually earn experience with all you do – and by around two hours in we’d gone up a level and were able to pick our first additional skill. At first the game emphasises a series of simple magic spells, one of which can be assigned to a bumper button and the others accessed from a quick wheel. These include a basic fire spell, a temporary shield, and a magical trap that slows enemies down.
Actual combat is a simple range of light and heavy attack combos, although Geralt carries two swords – one for normal enemies and one for supernatural foes. The action is fast-moving and snappy, and although it’s not exactly Bayonetta it’s certainly far more engaging than the sloppy, sterile combat of Skyrim and Dragon Age.
As we pointed out in our interview with co-founder Marcin Iwiński The Witcher 3 has another intrinsic problem in that open world Tolkien-esque role-players are not a rarity nowadays, and the first hour or so of the game does almost feel like slipping on a familiar pair of shoes – as you work out the controls, take on a few opening quests, and get a feel for the combat.
But what really excites us about The Witcher 3 is the level of interaction you have with other characters. In even quite minor conversations you have various dialogue options that can lead to wildly different encounters. Some of these are as simple as whether you’re grumpy or relatively nice to whoever you’re talking to, but often it’s much more complicated than that.
Binary choices are left largely to the minor encounters and it’s once you pick up a quest that the game’s more nuanced approach becomes clear. The obvious example is an early encounter with a dwarf blacksmith, who complains that the townsfolk have begun to turn on him because he also takes jobs from the occupying army. This has led to an arson attack that has ruined his equipment, and he asks you to track down the perpetrator.
At first this just seems like an excuse to teach you how to use Geralt’s Witcher sense, a sort of detective mode that allows him to track footprints and trace the arsonist’s journey. Since he ended up getting waylaid by monsters this proves very easy, but when you catch up to him he attempts to persuade you to leave him be. We elected to take him back to the dwarf though, who to our surprise called over some nearby guards. And despite our assumption that he was just going to be fined, or at most arrested, the arsonist was instantly marched off to be hung from the nearest tree.
This left the dwarf perfectly happy and willing to offer us a discount at his shop, but the speed and rough justice of it all left us somewhat dumbfounded – as we realised that both our actions and our dialogue choices had unwittingly lead to the arsonist’s death.
The main story focus in the opening hours is the attacks on the village by a nearby griffon, and this also turned out to be a showcase for the game’s much more realistic portrayal of human (and otherwise) nature. A local army commander turns out to be a perfectly reasonable man, despite being part of the occupying force, and agrees to pay you for tracking down and hunting the griffon. For it’s part even the griffon has a reason for its actions, as it turns out that its mate was killed by a bungled attack on its nest.
Although you can get into scraps with passing creatures whenever you want, or encounter them as a part of ordinary side quests, taking down the larger monsters is not simply a case of going to a waypoint and waving your sword about. You have to research the griffon first, studying its nest for clues and then visiting the local herbalist, who sends you off to collect ingredients for a lure (and also has a dying patient who you can choose to heal with one of your potions – which have the potential to cause her an even more agonising death if they don’t work).
The game allows you to decide when you’re ready, and after being given a crossbow to use when the creature is in flight we finally decide to take it down in an open field just outside of town. Actually, the griffon proved relatively easy to defeat, although that may be because we’d become increasingly cautious about combat after dying numerous times in earlier battles.
The Witcher 3 is more difficult at the start than most of its peers, but it’s no Dark Souls and seems to strike just the right balance between challenge and frustration. After completing the griffon mission we were also given a chance to play a later section from the game, where the character is at level 15. This was set in and around a gloomy-looking castle, with much tougher dragon-like enemies.
By this point Geralt has learned a lot more spells and abilities, as you take on fellow magic users who have to be handled very differently to a griffon. The more we played The Witcher 3 the more impressed we became, and we’re quite aware that what we’ve seen is only the tip of the iceberg. At certain points, for example, you can play as female character Ciri, but although we saw her as a child in the prologue that was it.
In fact considering we were told we’d seen ‘about 2 per cent’ of the game we can only imagine what else lies in store. With or without our caveats about the console versions The Witcher 3 is a stunning-looking game, but what’s most encouraging for us is that we still find ourselves more excited about the gameplay and the character interaction. Whether The Witcher 3 will end up as a classic role-player to stand alongside the genre’s very best we can’t say with certainty, but so far all the signs are there.
GC: Actually, that was one of the things I was worried about because the previous games have a rather grim tone. I like that he’s relatively neutral when you start with him.
MI: It’s a very real world. It’s a mature story in a medieval world, and the medieval world, as we all know from the history, was never nice and rosy. Having said that the decisions are almost like in real life, sometimes you think you’re the good guy but the consequences are different.
GC: But it does frustrate me that there’s very little middle ground in gaming, between the tone of GTA and Animal Crossing. It tends to be one or the other. I’m playing a fantasy game, but why is the fantasy always that you’re a psychopath?
MI: No, it’s not! We are story driven, so there’s a certain story that we’re telling, but Witchers are done neutral. Generally done neutral, as per the stories, and then you can choose your path really. So as you’re a professional monster slayer, and you’re a mutant who’s killing monsters for money, you’re not the kind of guy that everybody loves. But you can do good things in the game if you want, it’s really up to you.
Actually, we are known for mature story and, I’d say, more believable consequences than good versus evil kind of games. So I think that’s the coolest part of The Witcher.
GC: I think so too. Although I’m always wary of people using the word mature, because in gaming it usually means the exact opposite.
MI: Mature in terms of treating grown-ups with respect, so it’s not like you’ll kill all the evil guys and everything will be great and you’ll save the kingdom. This is not a fairytale, the world is real with regards to people going about their business. Not something where they’re like, ‘Hey, I’m the bad guy because I look like a bad guy’. Maybe he looks like a bad guy but deep down in his heart he’s a great guy, and maybe he’s just showing his bad side – like we all do, probably. [laughs]
MI: He’s a captain, he’s got his own business, his own agenda. And I think that’s what gamer’s really love about our games.
GC: Historically you’ve been primarily a PC developer, so I expect many console gamers won’t know you or your games. What do you hope they’ll think you’re like? What kind of impression do you want them to have of you and your game?
MI: Our intention is to let people tell their own story in our world, yes? Experience the world as they see fit. And I was walking around the room and looking at how people play and for me it’s very personal. Playing a game is a very personal experience, and honestly I hate when they put me on rails and it’s like chut-chut-chut, the train has arrived, end of the game, thank you!
MI: Here, you can experience the world as you see fit. I’ve played maybe 30 hours of the game and I spent it running around and playing side quests, because I wanted to experience the nature, I wanted to chase the wolves, fight with the bears, and do some smaller side quests. And then I’m coming back to the story. Always on the horizon the game will be telling you, ‘Hey, there’s an interesting place here!’ but maybe you just do another quest and you don’t care about that. So it’s freedom in an open world with a great story, and people can attack it from any single angle they see fit.
GC: One problem you have though is that open world games are very common now and it was with a certain weariness that I opened the map to be confronted with all those dozens of little icons. Although at least I didn’t have to climb a radio tower to unveil them.
GC: But given how formulaic certain elements of the genre have become did you find yourself purposefully trying not to be like these other games? Of ensuring change almost for the sake of change?
MI: I think it wouldn’t be fair to say that we are trying not to be like other games. We are just doing our thing and it’s what we’ve been learning and mastering from Witcher 1, which is how to tell a great story. That’s what we’re doing. So obviously with Witcher 1 and 2 you have the story being closed in certain chapters, so ‘Hey, thanks for finishing chapter 1, here is chapter 2. And it’s a different location’.
Here it’s way more complicated, but still it’s our way of storytelling, I believe it’s very different and the consequences are different. It’s really up to the gamers to judge, and hopefully after these three or four hours you’ll have your own judgement too.
GC: I must say it’s difficult, because it really did feel like I was only getting a proper taste of it right at the end. But I agree it did seem as if the moral ambiguity and the amount of dialogue choice were the key differentials.
MI: Definitely, definitely. We are telling a story in an open world. So how it works, you go out there and we hit you with the story and then you run around the world for 40 hours, you’re a professional monster hunter so you slay monsters, you get assignments, you level up, you do some small side quests. Fine, we’re okay with that.
But then in many different areas that you visit the story will wave at you and say: ‘Hey, here is the story! You want to see what happens next? You want to get maybe better loot?’ So we’ll be tempting gamers to return to the story and some gamers will just progress through the story and they’ll say, ‘I’ve completed The Witcher: Wild Hunt’ and that’s a very different experience.
GC: I think in terms of the game’s profile so far the first thing most gamers will think of when it’s mentioned is the graphics. I mean looking at it here [there’s a monitor showing the PC version on the desk] it looks amazing.
MI: [laughs] That’s one of the things we spent a lot of time on, because we don’t see a reason why story-driven RPGs should be worse than FPS. I think it’s a very exciting moment, with the next gen especially. People have these new machines, they have the new HDTVs; they don’t get excited about what they see on screen.
GC: But the truth is that obviously the console versions don’t look as good as the PC. Do you not worry that if everyone’s been looking at the PC gameplay videos they’re inevitably going to be disappointed by the reality of the console versions?
GC: It’s not necessarily a criticism of you, but consoles aren’t magic.
MI: Yeah, so it’s always a compromise and I can go back to the time of The Witcher 2 on 360 and it looked like the PC version running on medium. So, the PC, that’s the nature of the format – it’s scalable up, but let’s ask ourselves: how many people have the rig that is like six times the price of a console? Not that many. And I think you will have lots of fun with our game. Having said that, all the console gamers will just enjoy it on the consoles and I think the game still looks amazing on the consoles.
On the PC, one thing to add, it will be scalable all the time, so if you cannot afford the rig today maybe in a year or two years you will be playing Witcher: Wild Hunt on the uber settings, yes? Which is probably the most expensive rig ever made, as of today. [laughs]
GC: I just imagine someone playing the game for the first time, as I did, and being slightly let down by the graphics and then finding out that the gameplay is actually better than they imagined. I mean that’s not just you, that’s the industry in general putting an unfair emphasis on visuals all the time.
MI: I really think people will love the graphics. I think on the consoles we are raising the bar as high as it’s possible. So on the PC it’s just additional stuff, if you have the latest NVidia card you will have better fur, yeah? But c’mon, how many people… that’s a certain core audience and that’s our heritage. We come from PC and we really respect these guys, but I play a lot of it on the console and I love it. It looks great on my huge TV and it’s just easier, yes?
It doesn’t require me to put a rig together. I probably will do that when the game is out, I’ll take one from the company because obviously I’d like to see it. [laughs] But I think a lot of people will be playing it on the consoles and I think there’s nothing much they’ll miss.
GC: Has developing the game with an eye to the consoles changed your design approach at all? Because purely PC gamers do have a very different mentality to console owners.
MI: They do. From Witcher 1 we are progressing. Originally we were a PC studio, so Witcher 1 was a very core game. I don’t want to say hardcore, as I don’t like that expression. Very core game, very demanding. Then The Witcher 2 we tried to ease the immersion curve. And The Witcher 3, really, looking at the consoles, we want to welcome the more general players with open arms.
And we say, ‘Hey, it’s easy to play, it’s hard to master’. So if you’re a novice maybe just play through the main story. We’ll help you with everything, we’ll teach you everything, and you don’t have to go deep into the RPG systems. No problem. Maybe along the way you will start getting into it, you will enjoy it, so will you become a more experienced gamer.
Having said that, on PC especially, we’ll have a lot of the core guys who will master every little bit of crafting alchemy, and we have a lot for them. So I think easy to play, hard to master – that is what we are aiming at.
The prologue, which you have played, that’s our sort of immersion playground. It’s getting into the story, showing you how the systems work, and this is the thing we are putting a lot of effort into, because honestly speaking in Witcher 1 and 2 it wasn’t done as well as we would’ve wanted. And I think this is the benefit of us developing on consoles.
GC: Other than graphics I think the other thing people will know you best for at the moment is your approach to DLC. I think that won you a lot of fans, but where did that attitude come from? It’s clear that other publishers see DLC and season passes as nothing more than a stealth price increase.
MI: [laughs] You know… I’m a gamer. Although we are a publicly listed company the company is run by gamers. Maybe old school gamers, okay? To be fair. And really we base all of our decisions on what we would like to see in games, what we expect from games and how we expect gamers to be treated. And that’s exactly what we would like.
When we buy a game for full price you’d like to get some post-release stuff for free. And I know very well how it works on the business side and it’s very easy to make a sword that takes a couple of hours and then peddle it out for, I dunno, five quid. And then you sell 10 thousand of this sword and your bottom line looks great, but I think it works against you in the long term.
So we never said everything for ever is free, but if we decide to charge for content we’ll charge for really meaningful triple-A quality story parts. And that’s like going back to our heritage, the Baldur’s Gate and the Fallouts, they had expansion disks. That’s what you’re supposed to charge for, yeah? You get 10 or 15 or 20 hours of an adventure and you put a price on it and gamers are happy.
And sometimes, you know… because I think the problem with the word DLC is it’s been really devalued. Because DLC is an eight-hour adventure and at the same time DLC it’s horse armour, yeah? So what really is DLC? If it’s a good value proposition for the gamer, that’s how we look at it. Sometimes we buy stuff like The Last Of Us additional content, we spend our money very happily, and that’s fair. So it’s really looking through the gamer’s eyes on things.
GC: I remember when you made your DLC announcement. It was around the same time as the Mario Kart 8 DLC but also the £20 Destiny expansion. That’s a huge difference in the way companies are treating the concept.
MI: It’s our way to say thank you to gamers for buying our game. And, you know, maybe that will encourage them to tell their friends that it’s cool. It doesn’t cost much to do, why not do it? It’s good!
GC: Do you think other publishers might copy your approach? They always seem eager to copy each other’s anti-consumer policies, but never the more gamer-friendly ones.
MI: I think there’s way too many companies driven by Microsoft Excel. [laughs] And I think that’s the answer to your question, really.
GC: [laughs] I think you might be right there. Okay, that’s great. Thanks for you time.