When you go to preview a game at E3, you go in knowing full well that what you’re seeing is an idealized version of reality, not reality itself. First, you—sweaty, slightly uncomfortable you–get ushered into some bombastic, colorful booth or an intimate, behind-closed-doors meeting room. Whichever one it is doesn’t matter, because both locales are designed to do the same thing: make the moment feel more important.
The floors will be thickly carpeted. The people will look sharp. Everything and everyone will smell nice. The handlers will offer you a comfy seat, or a snack, or a beer. It’s usually a good beer too, not that cheap American stuff. They’ll try to loosen you up, because having a good time means having good memories. The hope is that all those good feelings surrounding the experience of getting a “first look” at a particular game will translate into your thoughts of the game itself, which should be isolated from everything else.
This past E3, CD Projekt Red wasn’t an exception to this tradition. They opted for the behind-closed-doors route, herding journalists like yours truly into a compact showroom at the very top of the Los Angeles Convention Center. They’re a group of Polish game developers, so before they started their 45-minute preview of their next Witcher RPG, they offered us some good Polish beer. We declined.
After everyone was settled in, a couple of devs dimmed the lights and started the demo. One played the game, while the other commented on what was going on. And within minutes, it became clear that CDPR didn’t need to offer beer, or an exclusive meeting room, or anything else that would make the preview session feel more significant than it was. Its game, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, looked good enough to stand on its own.
It’s unabashedly a sequel—it takes place in the same world as The Witcher and The Witcher 2, and you still play as the same series hero, Geralt of Rivia. He still has the same long gray hair, gruff personality, and range of weapons and magic attacks. You still use a variety of potions to buff yourself in combat. That combat is mostly a refinement of the tactical, anti-hack-and-slash style of the previous game. The aesthetic is still of the classic RPG, European, Game-of-Thrones-style mold.
This is to say that The Witcher 3 appears to be sticking to what made its predecessors good in the first place. Existing fans should like it. But the reason The Witcher 3 left such a good impression was because of just how much CDPR is packing on top its already successful formula. If the next generation is to be about addition more than newness—which is the route the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One seem to be taking—then this game exemplifies that line of thinking to a T. It wants to be the “do everything RPG,” if you will, focusing on reinvention rather than innovation. That has its downsides, but The Witcher 3 looks promising enough to make up for any flashes of familiarity.
It stars with the narrative, which picks up after the events of The Witcher 2 but still aims to be something of a tabula rasa. The web of political intrigue and deception has been largely discarded, CDPR says, in order to provide a more intimate tale about Geralt himself. The old kingdoms are fighting, and the world, as it so often is in these kind of games, is on the brink of ruin. As this is happening, Geralt goes after a new enemy in the supernatural group of beasts known as the Wild Hunt. He has a personal stake in taking them down, though details are understandably being kept mum for now.
The setting, meanwhile, is open-world now, and is split into various regions that each come with their own culture and style. Together, it’s said to be 35 times bigger than that of The Witcher 2. (“Bigger” is a trend here.) It’s gorgeous. The game runs on the developer’s brand new RedEngine 3, and it shows—if you’re the kind of guy who gets excited about environmental effects, character design and a real-time weather system, you’re probably going to get excited about The Witcher 3’s environmental effects, character design, and real-time weather system.
You can traverse the world by foot, horseback or boat. Yes, boat. Sailing across the choppy seas looked especially well done, and CDPR noted that the weather will have an impact on certain events in the world (don’t sail when it’s raining, look out for wolves at night, etc.). CDPR is heavily playing up the “living” aspect of the world, meaning that citizens within the setting will move around and live their own lives when Geralt isn’t nearby. There are options to fast travel and set up camp as well. None of this will require any loading times.
But most importantly, CDPR claims that it is focusing on always giving players something to do while they traverse the land. It says The Witcher 3 will offer more than 100 hours of gameplay in total, the majority of which will be devoted to the main story but will also be bolstered by side quests and Geralt’s monster hunting escapades. According to the series’ lore, Witchers hunt beasts by trade, so attempting to submerge players in Geralt’s daily life only makes sense.
Most RPGs like this distinctly separate “major quests” from “minor quests,” but The Witcher 3 wants to blur that line completely. Our demo was from the middle of the game, and entirely revolved around world exploration and one optional side quest. CDPR has littered the setting with various points of interest to investigate and monsters to fight, with the hope that players will enjoy themselves without a clear objective to follow. It wants to avoid the Skyrim trap of faffing about and collecting plants in between large-scale battles; instead, the idea is to keep the intensity and detail high at all times.
Near the beginning of the demo, the CDPR rep led Geralt to a worn down tower off in the distance and decided to see if there was anything of interest nearby. Once he got there, he was attacked by a beast best described as a large mutant mix of a bull and a moose. He was a big fella.
CDPR says that there are no out-and-out bosses in The Witcher 3, but creatures like this are essentially mini-bosses of their own, ones that take time and careful tactics to defeat. There’ll be 80 of these roaming baddies in the world overall, all of whom have their own settings and unique traits. Some of them—like the wolves Geralt fought towards the end of preview—will coordinate with each other and attack in swarms. What we saw certainly fit with the idea of tearing down that usual RPG hierarchy of “important battles” and filler fights.
That being said, the combat has always been one of the more divisive aspects of this franchise, and The Witcher 3 may not change that perception. It didn’t look bad by any means—Geralt can alternate between sword strikes, magic spells, and planted traps on the fly; he can craft new weapons and armor; and he’ll have a multitude of new moves and in his repertoire. Its style is more deliberate, and it’s animated very well, but it’s hard to fully appreciate when Geralt is wildly missing attacks left and right.
These battles look like they’ll be tough enough on their own, possibly to the point of annoyance–our demoer took 10 minutes just to finish fighting the one enemy described above—so it could be problematic when players are too slow to consistently keep up with Geralt’s foes. It’s improved, but it still didn’t look as fluid as it could be. It’s a system that’ll take some time to get used to, at the very least. Nevertheless, the scale and intricacy used for these kind of random encounters was impressively unlike most action-RPGs, and CDPR says it has put some emphasis on The Witcher 3’s tutorial section to ease players into the game’s complexities.
In any event, after the beast was weakened to a certain point, it knocked Geralt down and ran away into the woods. It then became a new side quest for Geralt to eventually undertake, letting him go off and hunt down the monster for good whenever he pleases. This sort of non-linearity is another point of focus, according to CDPR. Again, the point is to make The Witcher 3 one large, interconnected experience, rather than one split up into separate segments of gameplay.
From here, Geralt moved along the countryside, wandering until he came across a town that had recently seen many of its denizens slaughtered. Geralt strolls in and finds the young and elderly villagers quarreling with each other; the older folk believe that a wicked spirit is killing them, while Geralt and the rest recognize that there is a monster afoot.
Geralt offers to track down the beast for a fee, but there’s a catch—the monster is getting its strength from a marked villager within the town. To find out who it is, Geralt uses his Witcher Sense, which is effectively The Witcher 3’s version of the Batman: Arkham franchise’s ‘detective mode.’ It can be used in combat to boost Geralt’s hearing and combat abilities, but here he utilized it to see who the monster had marked. After seeing that it was a harmless young girl, Geralt had the option of either informing the youth or the elders about how they now need to sacrifice the helpless victim. In our demo, he chose the youth before heading off to battle.
That sounds like a fairly generic setup on the surface, and to some extent it is, but the side quest’s presentation and gray morality made it appear quite similar to what one would imagine a main quest to look like. CDPR says that’s because none of The Witcher 3’s optional missions will be automatically generated. The dialogue here was wholly familiar, but that’s a little more acceptable with the knowledge that CDPR is handcrafting every quest in the game.
Anyways, it was at this point where we were shown a fuller extent of Geralt’s monster hunting capabilities. He’s equipped with his own bestiary, which provides a variety of details about each of the 80 creatures he can hunt throughout the game. Its info ranges anywhere from a brief bio blurb of the creature in question, to a rundown of its particular weaknesses in combat, to its expected size, to a description of what sounds it may make out in the wild. It looks a bit more complex and useful than, say, a Pokedex.
Geralt can better act on this information with his Witcher Sense, which he used to find out that the beast he was hunting was called a Leshen–another imaginative beast that looked like an evil tree come to life. After following its tracks and certain marked clues out in the wilderness, Geralt finally found his target. As described in the bestiary, the Leshen attacked by uprooting and manipulating the earth around Geralt as he got closer, emerging only to be taken down after another lengthy and occasionally awkward struggle. Like the first fiend, the Leshen looked to be a detailed, powerful, and slightly frightening foe. The whole act of gathering info on him, finding him, and then fighting him looked much more expansive and natural than your everyday RPG side quest.
The Witcher games have always taken a liking to moral ambiguity, though, and upon returning to the village Geralt sees that the youth have slaughtered not just the marked girl, but all of the elders who opposed them. Geralt isn’t the kind of guy to be stunned by such brutality, so he leaves the village to its ruins after collecting his reward.
Perhaps the neatest part of all of this came after the quest was finished. As previously mentioned, CDPR is playing up the “living, breathing world” idea with The Witcher 3, and that sentiment applies to the hazy moral choices you make throughout the game as well. A sort of post-quest epilogue shows that the village descended into utter chaos just three months after Geralt finished its quest (normally it would arrive after a few hours in real time). Turns out the residents of the town massacred each other after a string of events that began with the player’s decision to inform the youth over the elders. Whoops.
The Witcher is ambiguous enough that it’ll probably be difficult to tell what moral choices will lead to what results throughout the game. That could understandably get annoying for perfectionists, but it should also lead to plenty of amusement as the world gradually evolves with each decision the player makes. In fact, CDPR says that the decisions players make can bring about up to three separate endings in 12 separate “world states,” suggesting that Geralt’s final journey will not necessarily have a definite ending.
If it wasn’t already apparent, The Witcher 3 is ambitious. There’s a ton here, and there are still smaller things we didn’t even get to touch on. It’s an epic. Most of the concepts in our demo were variations of existing RPG mechanics, yes, but what we saw was a game that could very well manage to blend all of the best elements of the genre together into one near-seamless experience. It’s hugeness could get tiring, and CDPR is talking a big game, but the Witcher 3 looks to be gorgeous, stylish, deep, challenging, and simply more alive than almost anything else shown at E3.
All of this made The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt TechnologyGuide‘s favorite game of the show. And if all goes according to plan, it’ll be one hell of a way to kick off the next generation when it arrives on PS4, Xbox One and PC sometime next year. Here’s hoping the ideal game we saw turns out to be reality.