As one of the first games advertised as a "truly next-gen" experience, the expectations are high for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. After the series managed to gain a foothold in the mainstream conversation with The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, the developers at CD Projekt Red are doing everything in their power to take the franchise to bigger and better places.
With a truly massive sprawling open world to navigate, an abundance of sidequests and morally grey decisions, RPG fans may have yet another game to keep them busy for months. But after seeing the game firsthand at E3 2013, it's hard to think even they'll be prepared for what CD Projekt Red has in store.
Once again centered on the mutated magic-man Geralt of Rivia, The Witcher 3 takes place after the events of the previous game - although the developers claim that having played the first two Witcher games isn't required to jump into this release. Although there was confusion over how much this game would wrap up Geralt's story entirely, it's hard to think the developers are putting as much energy and resources into pushing the envelope without long-term plans.
Although the epic warfare and massive factions of the game's universe are some of its best known aspects, The Witcher 3 is the most personal story yet, diving deeper and deeper into the character of Geralt. By the time the game starts he is already a bit older, a bit grayer, and a bit worse for wear, hot on the heels of a mysterious spectral army known only as the Wild Hunt.
Thought to be the stuff of legends and campfire tales, the Wild Hunt has once again emerged to terrorize any in their path, traveling across the game's many territories in their floating ship, Naglfar. The larger story isn't being discussed just yet, but it became clear over the course of the demo that Geralt has personal business with the Hunt, and that few have ever encountered the otherworldly warriors and lived to tell about it. Geralt is one lucky enough to have survived, but how he managed to do it is a mystery sure to be revealed in due time.
Tracking down the Hunt means following in their wake, which will take Geralt across the truly MASSIVE game world. Only a small part of the map was shown in the demo, limited to a small chain of islands; small in the sense that the biggest of the chain was bigger than the entire game world of The Witcher 2. All told, the developers claim to have created an environment 35x the size of The Witcher 2, which, if accurate, means they're well on their way to accomplishing the task of out-shining both Dragon Age and Skyrim.
Chasing down his prey means navigating the many vistas and waterways seen in previous screenshots, and they look just as impressive as those in the last entry in the series. The developers haven't put the power of 'next-gen' hardware into sweeping improvements, but fine-tuning and paying closer attention to subtle animation (on Geralt in particular). The visuals of The Witcher 2 were already staggering, and the follow-up doesn't disappoint.
Keeping focused on the story of Geralt and the Wild Hunt may be a priority, but the developers have gone even farther in creating a world teeming with life and chances for gameplay around every corner. Geralt is a monster-hunter, after all, and will be given plenty of chances to take a break from his primary quest, and make his fortunes testing himself against the strangest beasts the wild can throw at him.
Ranging from werewolves to bloodthirsty forest spirits, the Witcher's prey will all command a hefty price, and require some homework on the part of the player. Thanks to Geralt's handy journal of monster knowledge, the player is provided with information on the enemy's weaknesses, strengths, and when and where they are most dangerous; finishing the job is up to them.
One such hunt was demonstrated by the developers, and the challenges and repercussions of playing hero are sure to be a hit with any fan of Skyrim, Dragon Age, or similar RPGs. Geralt has also recieved an upgrade since his last appearance; as one of the few humans in the game world that can sense and see magical phenomenon, the protagonist's new Witcher Senses make those skills apparent in the world.
Behaving much like Batman's Detective Mode in Arkham City, Witcher Senses can be activated, highlighting magical phenomenon and hints in the environment. That system, coupled with what seemed to be much smoother means of mixing physical and magic attacks are sure to draw even the most story-focused players into endless hours of monster-hunting. With a new fast-travel system implemented due to the world's size, the thrill of the hunt may be too strong to resist.
The Witcher 3 is still a long way away from being released, but what's being shown so far makes it clear that CD Projekt Red will be leading the charge in next-gen open world RPGs. The size and scope are more than ambitious, so if the team can deliver on the promises being made, the franchise's biggest release may still lie in its future.
The Witcher 3 will be released on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 in late 2014.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.