It was made perfectly clear one year ago that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was going to be a genre-pushing RPG, with the developers at CD Projekt Red taking their mainstream momentum and hitting next-gen systems running. With a game world and density that puts that of The Witcher 2 to shame, it came as less than a surprise when the publisher announced the game would be delayed into 2015. But after seeing even more of Wild Hunt at this year's show, there's no question that the finished product will take a run at toppling even the most established RPG giants. And it's doing it based on a single thought: if it isn't broken, don't fix it.
The project leads made it clear during their last E3 2013 showing that Wild Hunt was aiming to exceed even the loftiest expectations, drawing inspiration from several of the industry's most acclaimed RPGs to bring an end to this chapter of hero Geralt of Rivia's life. But even with so much emphasis placed on the open world's sheer size, The Witcher 3 has some hefty story expectations to live up to as well.
The blend of cinematic and gameplay footage released ahead of the show finally pulled the veil from the game's story, pitting Geralt up against the supernatural marauders known as the Wild Hunt. But a straightforward plot has never been CD Projekt Red's style, and the team made that fact abundantly clear in their second opportunity to detail the wealth of options and gameplay styles they intend to support. And even if the Wild Hunt await Geralt at the end of this tale, he's got work to do before he arrives.
The world of mainstream RPGs has seen some significant streamlining in recent years, which helped set The Witcher 2 apart from the pack; mastering combat, magic attacks, explosives, crafting and traps gave the developers more room to craft engaging battle scenarios, and made the game a hit among hardcore RPG players. That core combat system remains more or less intact in the series' third chapter, but it's the world surrounding battle that CD Projekt Red feels deserves some attention.
The prior 45-minute gameplay demo teased just how massive Wild Hunt's environment really is, boasting towns and countrysides that dwarf its predecessor. Size may be a feature to tout in marketing, but a sprawling game world is nothing without content to populate it, and in that respect, the developers have put their extra time to work. The new demo follows directly on the heels of the Griffin fight chronicled in the E3 trailer, confirming that Geralt's mission will be more meandering and complicated than 'story-driven' RPGs tend to be.
On the surface, the tasks being faced are straightforward enough: Geralt kills a monster for one of his contacts, who in turn offers information regarding the "ashen-haired" girl he is attempting to track down. One quest leads to another - as tends to be the case in open world, quest-based RPGs - but compelling characters and intriguing mythology helps elevate the proceedings from simple fetch quests. Not to mention that this mission ends with a moral choice that makes those of The Walking Dead seem cut-and-dry.
Dispatching a monstrous werewolf and its four-legged accomplices is all well and good, but when the major threat claims to be fighting an even greater evil, players will be forced to make a choice: trust the people in the world around them, or give in to distrust and decide they know better? That decision's impact on the larger story is impossible to tell in the moment, but the painful choice is what will keep players glued to their controllers.
The gameplay is still gripping moment to moment - with the added ability to shatter beehives to confuse enemies, or ignite swamp gases to help turn the tide of battle - but even in this brief glimpse at the game, it was the strange fiction and unexpected choices that make the experience both thrilling and excruciating. The theme of Geralt functioning as a 'monster hunter for hire' is alive and well, with a large portion of the game presumed to rely on the witcher's ability to do what everyday citizens cannot (for a price).
Yet those concerned that a game world filled to the brim with scripted content and side-quests (a term than the developers prefer not to use) will become too overloaded with parallel story lines, CD Projekt Red has sidestepped the issue deftly. What may seem at first to be a trivial quest - although affecting the lives of several in-game people - can quickly be revealed as integral to the larger story, bringing Geralt one step closer to tracking down the mysterious young woman he's after; and with the Wild Hunt presumably hot on her heels, all roads lead to one heck of a showdown.
Story, complex moral choices and a nuanced plot is what helped The Witcher 2 stand apart from its competitors, and the same looks to be at work with Wild Hunt. There may just be more of it this time around; and although the team is still keeping its story under wraps, gamers who craved the sprawling endlessness of Skyrim's questing but felt that game fell short on keeping interest through writing and mythology will find their hopes answered in this next-gen RPG.
By helping to flesh out the lives of the men and women that act as the pulse of the game's world, The Witcher 3's designers have given fans a level of control they may have craved, but will no doubt come to regret: how easy will it be to play the hero when you possess the power to change hundreds of lives for better or worse? Only time will tell.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt releases February 24, 2015 on PC, PS4, and Xbox One.
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