22 June, 2015

Review - The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, More Than A Few Imp-erfections

The Witcher 3 is a dark fantasy epic, filled with scheming elves, vengeful spirits, cruel men, and ambitious women. Its tales are delivered with peerless form, it is a crying shame then, that in order to experience such delights, one must play the game.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

The world of The Witcher 3 is one of grand breadth; coloured by myth and magic, it festers with corpse eating monsters, its skies filled with savage flyers of feather and scale. Yet for all its fantastical elements, The Witcher 3 remains firmly rooted in a dank, miserable reality, where every good Samaritan is really just another devil in disguise.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt NovigradThe Witcher really doesn’t shelter you from the wretched, from the down-trodden, it doesn’t hint at the sadistic pleasures of its characters, it shows them unabashed. It is to the game’s credit then that it sells it all well, at no point did I feel like I was seated in front of a parade of tragedy. It is simply how the world is; one minute Geralt, the (male) white-haired protagonist, may walk dejectedly from a prostitutes bed, the next he may be tracking a possessed foetus; it is raw and genuine. There’s racism, misogyny, religious persecution and it all feels as sickening in game as it is in reality.

The writing and dialogue of The Witcher 3 is by far its greatest element. While I frequently found my time with The Witcher 3 to be something far less than enjoyable, I can level nothing more than compliments towards its fantastic characterisations. The role of a Witcher is one of mercenary busywork, albeit perilous monster-slaying, Geralt fulfills contracts for coin. Such quests have been the bread-and-butter of pretty much every traditional RPG, yet The Witcher manages keep such tasks interesting, surprising even. Without the stellar writing, there would be no compelling reason to undertake the quests, but even the most mundane jobs can twist and evolve in unseen directions. Characters are humans (or dwarves, elves, but you take my point), complete with flaws and complexities, some you may empathise with, while others seem irredeemable, in your eyes of course. There is simply no clear delineation between good and bad, it is all a matter of perspective. It is this depth and attention to detail that makes The Witcher 3, an open world game, so impressive.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt velen

Before starting the adventure, you have given the choice to simulate a save of The Witcher 2. I chose to do so, having completed that game and played part of the first Witcher. That was perhaps the wrong move; it quickly became apparent that I could barely distinguish my Kaedwens from my Redanians. Aside from asking some extremely specific questions, as to the choices made in The Witcher 2, the game does a good job of setting the scene without drowning you in history. It also helps that Geralt, has a history of amnesia.

Yennefer is a prime example of how well The Witcher contextualises the player. Yennefer is a character that has been discussed, though never seen in previous Witcher games, she has a long, intimate history with Geralt. In the early hours of the game Geralt is pursuing her, following her trail alongside Vesemir, a fellow Witcher and close friend, facts that the game makes organically apparent. You encounter her fleetingly in a dream sequence, but that's not enough to cement her in your mind. While other games may leave it at that, The Witcher is far more cunning. You hear much of Yennefer; her appearance as Geralt questions locals, snippets of their relationship through friendly jibes from Vesemir, even her smell. The game really builds up a very natural connection, and a powerful personality for a character barely seen on screen. When Yennefer finally appeared, she was established, a completely fleshed out member of the Geralt’s inner circle. She is sharp-tongued and believable, with Geralt she shares an electric, at times seemingly toxic chemistry, their relationship feels real in a way so many of the others simply don’t.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt ciriThe game doesn’t always treat the storytelling well though, very early on you receive the quest to find Ciri, a very important woman with a history with Geralt – not quite the same history every other woman seems to have with him. You are given three quests, each directs you to one of the three large open-world areas, but each has a level requirement. You are immediately aware that you’re not going to find your target in the first two areas at least, nor for a few dozen levels. It sounds minor, but to me it is hugely detrimental flaw, that could have been avoided entirely by not surfacing the later quests until you had progressed far enough in a given area. During the hours of suffering you’ll read about shortly, my motivation was torpedoed by the realisation the next real step in the story was twenty or more hours away. The ‘Ciri’s story’ sequences and the other characters you meet along the way are necessary, but I should have never been allowed to see the seams, it made so much of what I was doing feel meaningless.

Before we go on, some context; I played the game from launch day to completion on 03/06/15, on the PlayStation 4. I am aware that CD Projekt RED (the developer) is actively patching the game. Everything in this review was my experience with game at the time I played it; it would be unfair of me to judge it on anything else, and that includes post-launch patches that were late to the party. 

When people are talking, it’s wonderful, truly. It’s just about anything else I take issue with. Firstly, controlling Geralt is what I imagine driving a tank while intoxicated would be like, if the tank ran on leaky inflatable treads and had the tendency to leap and pirouette of its own accord. Every movement I had direct control was a hassle. We’re not talking complex tactical manoeuvring here; I’ve slain giants that require less effort than negotiating a pair of market stalls. There is a tangible disconnect between controller input and Geralt’s response, which probably isn’t helped by the truly deplorable framerate. But before we bust into that industrial-sized can of dirt eating worms, let’s first talk about candles.

If I allowed expletives in reviews, there are more than a few I’d find a way of weaving into a vitriolic rant about those forsaken candles. Geralt, being Witcher and all is quite capable of casting signs, such as; Igni, which causes flames (and the framerate to drop), and Axii, a breeze which extinguishes said flames. Hitting ‘X’ (or ‘A’ on the Xbox) will also ignite and extinguish certain environmental features, including candles. Now ‘X’ is also the primary interaction button, used for looting, talking, opening doors, and so on. You see the issue forming? A room filled with detail and candles is a greater ordeal than most of the combat scenarios, including boss fights. Pair this with the tumultuous framerate and general inability to perform any precise motion, and you have a truly awful experience.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

Now that framerate is something worse still. While Assassin’s Creed Unity had wholly unacceptable performance issues, I don’t recall wanting to throw up while playing it. On the PlayStation 4, The Witcher’s framerate is either; locked at thirty frames per second and completely acceptable, or dredging it at twenty, very much not acceptable. Areas like a perpetually misty bog, or even the city of Novigrad, that even if you mainline you’ll still spend hours in, were in my experience pretty much locked at the lower framerate. The experience left me physically sick each time I played in such locations, forcing me to limit my play to an hour or so at a time. The Witcher Sense, which zooms, blurs and distorts the screen didn't help matters either and it is frequently necessary. Dodgy framerate during large, flame-rich set piece moments, I can totally understand and honestly forgive, which is good for The Witcher, because it suffers exactly that too. But in reality, the performance issues are so widespread, and so noticeable, they are impossible to gloss over as a minor inconvenience. 

There are also significant other visual issues; plenty of texture pop-in, especially in building-rich areas like the city of Novigrad. Furthermore, several times I encountered strange flickering and the complete disappearance of some textures and objects. I didn’t have any issues with the size of the text or interface elements like many people seem to have had, but I do sit within half a dozen feet of my TV. However, the menus are illogical, particularly the vendors and blacksmiths, who can perform multiple roles from inside the interaction menu. The inventory is the worst offender; slow to load, cumbersome to navigate, it doesn’t offer any sorting or filtering options. Crafting and to a lesser extent alchemy isn’t difficult to work out, but it is certainly not intuitive.

The same can be said for the combat really, though you are greeted by a rather unfriendly wall of tutorial text early on. The Witcher’s combat is awkward and unwieldy; all I want to do is swing a sword, but Geralt would rather court his foes with pirouettes than actually hit them. Sea-based combat is worse yet. While diving beneath the waves Geralt’s only defence is his slow-loading crossbow, only really viable when a water-guzzling foe is swimming right at you. Oh and Geralt loses all sense of direction the moment he hits the waves, I found holding every button on the controller simultaneously was the only reliable way of guiding Geralt back to the surface for air.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Fighting the beautifully grotesque fish-ladies with wings, who fly, swim, and tear chunks off your weedy little sailboat, is a terrible experience, that people should probably play, just to realign their thoughts on what is truly frustrating game design. While on the boat the enemies are usually flying above sea, meaning they take an inexplicably greater number of crossbow bolts to put down, hitting them really only serves to stun them. Stun them as they near the boat and you can slice them up with melee attacks, except when they pull the sides of the boat; the grizzled ballet-master will align with the damaged sections and leap off into the sea with each strike. Also, they hunt in packs, during one mainline mission this exact fight occurs involving eight of the flying nightmares.

The combat has some appreciable depth; teaching you that the only way to reliably put down some monsters is to study the bestiary for their strengths and weaknesses. Doing your homework doesn’t guarantee survival, but it can shift the odds in your favour, which is necessary because you really want to reduce your deaths. Entering the world, even while fast travelling, and of course respawning from death, requires a load screen, a very long load screen. The ones I counted were well over a minute – putting Bloodborne, even pre-patch to shame.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt Skellige

The open world of The Witcher 3 is simultaneously impressive and disappointing. Early on I begun drawing comparisons between it and Red Dead Redemption; it’s an expansive, believable world, sparsely littered with areas and events of interest. The Witcher doesn't boast the seemingly spontaneous nature of The Elder Scrolls IV: Skyrim, nor does it have the variety or density of Dragon Age: Inquisition. Outside of the impressive weather system, the open world of the Witcher really doesn’t offer that much of its own, rather it usually obstructed the features I did like. Spilt into a handful of discreet regions of varying size, from monstrous to quaint, the world is really just a canvas, one decorated with a rather limited palette. On one hand it’s lack of visual diversity is its strength; it’s consistent and believable, often built as geographic locations would likely be, but it’s also largely forgettable. As part of a late-game story mission, you catch some fleeting glimpses of some very different, very creative, and exciting environments, which for me really served to highlight just how sick of the brown and green flats I really was.

The way you can traverse those flats is equally bitter sweet, Roach, Geralt’s horse will when it’s convenient, follow roads and trails automatically. But it is frequently inconvenient; Roach is content to plough straight into hedges at random, it also suffers the same sluggish movement as Geralt, and despite what the stamina meter says, it’s up to Roach when you speed up and halt. It is the worst horse. There is also fast travel to unlocked sign posts, but annoyingly only from sign posts. So you may need to ride, or sprint for a few minutes just to use the fast travel system, which is counter intuitive. However, The Witcher does innovate in its quest mechanics, again not without faults; often mission characters will match your speed, rather than stroll at a set pace. It isn’t hard to run ahead of them and go in the wrong direction, but for the most part it is a great feature that every game with escort missions should adopt.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt Cerys

Skellige, the land of The Witcher’s Viking stand-ins was surprisingly my favourite, but again, due to the writing and dialog of its people more than anything in the open world. The bullish people of Skellige wield a mix of accents from across the British Isles, being from one such island myself, I felt a wholly unexpected swell of nostalgia. I still live there, but I spend less time around the older generations of locals, who very much talk like the people of Skellige. It goes beyond just accents, it’s the dialog and mannerisms, their views and gripes. Even the architecture resembles historical sites that one could visit today, the longboats too, the attention to detail is quite wonderful. But of course, I don’t believe that players without that shared culture could understand just how perfectly the game captures these people. Coincidentally, Skellige harboured some of my favourite characters, quests, and story lines; the tone just feels so different there. This isn’t The Witcher’s attempt to recapture Skyrim, not at all, though I could completely understand why it may appear that way to someone without that cultural heritage.

There are elements of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt that I was prepared to fall in love with, and very nearly did. But then the game interrupted our swooning, its ugly, plagued head ruining the mood. Frustration and illness is unfortunately how I suspect I’ll look back on The Witcher 3; at best I tolerated its gameplay, but usually resented it. The writing, dialog, and characters are sublime, the way the game captures tones and personalities is astounding, but everything outside of those things, is left wanting. 

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