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Friday, September 30, 2016

The Witcher 3: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I've had nothing but tremendous respect for Polish developer CD Projekt RED ever since I played their 2007 debut, The Witcher. That game quickly vaulted its way into my short list of all-time favorite RPGs. Their 2011 followup, The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings, was really solid as well, and I especially admired how the middle portion of the game branched in completely separate directions depending on your choices. What they and their parent company have been doing with GOG.com, meanwhile -- picking up licenses for older games, updating them to work on modern platforms, and selling them completely DRM-free at reasonable prices -- combined with their continued support for TW1 and TW2 -- putting a ton of effort into the Enhanced Edition of both games and releasing the updates completely free -- has made them a shining example of a game company doing good within the industry and treating their customers right.

The 2013 and 2014 E3 previews for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt generated a ton of hype, leading some publications to declare it their most anticipated game of 2015. Understandably so -- how could you not be excited over the prospect of CD Projekt's masterful storytelling and quest design applied to a vast open world? I was skeptical when it was first announced that the game would be open-world, but I held out hope that CD Projekt could pull it off, given their track record of success and how much they seem to understand game design. The Witcher 3 was subsequently released in May of 2015 to universal acclaim, and shattered records for the most "Game of the Year" awards ever bestowed upon one game. I figured, at that point, that CD Projekt had defied my expectations and managed to craft a huge open-world RPG that captured all the best elements of open-world games while still retaining the unique soul and elements that made The Witcher series so great in the previous two installments. And then I actually played it.

It turns out that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is not the perfect masterpiece everyone claims it to be. It's really, really good, mind you, and I'd say it's easily one of the best open-world RPGs ever created. But that praise and distinction doesn't shield it from criticism, and the fact remains that there are a lot of critical areas in which TW3 comes up short, outright disappoints, or else simply isn't as good as it could've been. There's a lot of stuff to talk about with a game this size, so I won't even try to craft this review into a paragraph-by-paragraph flowing essay; instead, I'll break it down into specific topics and categorize them based on three of Clint Eastwood's timeless criteria: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.


DISCLAIMER

Before jumping into the full review text I want to point out that you may discover a few contradictions; I might say one thing and then later state the opposite, because some issues are a double-edged sword, with two sides to every coin, both positive and negative, and other similar idiomatic expressions, and I wanted to make sure I was covering every valid angle when I could or found it appropriate to do so. I also make a lot of generalizations because this is a long game and I can't always remember every little detail about it, even though I take a lot of notes on specific things that I notice as I'm playing. These statements are not absolutes; they're generalizations because they tend to apply a significant amount of the time, and there are exceptions to every claim. If you haven't already played the game, let it be known now that this article contains some minor spoilers, but I tried not to spoil any of the major moments. Either way, you should probably not click on any hyperlinks unless you've already played the game or don't care about potential spoilers.


THE GOOD: The audiovisual aesthetics are outstanding

The Witcher 3 has some of the best graphics I've ever seen in a video game. Mind you, I don't have a blistering rig that can run everything at UltraMaxx4KHD™, and I don't play a lot of modern, cutting-edge games. I'm also not someone who cares much about graphics; I rarely write about graphics in my reviews because I'm ultimately much more interested in how a game feels to play than how it is to look at, but in the interest of giving credit where credit is due, I must stress how good TW3 really is in this department. It looks friggin' amazing.


Draw distances can be an issue in open-world games, with things in the horizon rendered at such low detail that they look like blurry smudges, and things fading in and out of existence as you move towards or away from them. When a game is rendering a ton of things over a long distance, it has to cut corners somewhere for the sake of performance; TW3 implements these typical performance-saving measures, but it's in such a subtly smooth and effective way that I rarely ever noticed it. If I stopped for a moment and really focused on a building in the distance, I could guess that it wasn't being rendered in full detail, but everything looks so good, even in low detail, that I never gave it any notice. Shadows and vegetation extend far enough that I almost never saw the cut-off point, where the game stops rendering them, unless I was at a really high altitude looking down on everything. Even then, the transition between "grass" and "no grass" was smooth enough that it never stood out to me, and never pulled me out of the experience.

The amount of stuff that's crammed into every frame, everywhere you look, is simply astounding. Never before have I seen so much vegetation and underbrush in a video game; it's so thick in some areas you can't even see the ground beneath it. When you walk into Novigrad, the big city in the North, you find so many NPCs bustling around market squares, shipping docks, and other major hubs of activity that you can't even walk down the street without bumping into someone. I was blown away when I zoomed in on Geralt's shoulder and could vividly see every individual link in his chainmail armor. Nvidia's HairWorks adds tens of thousands of tessellated strands to characters' hair, allowing each strand to react to movement independently of one another, but even with it turned off (HairWorks is a big resource hog), hair still looks really good thanks to the multiple layered meshes that still flow and react to movement.


Dialogue scenes are really engaging in TW3 because they have such a strong cinematic style to them, not just in terms of camera angles and the like, but also in terms of "acting" and directing -- in other words, all the deliberate decisions someone had to make in terms of how a character should be acting during a scene, and crafting their animations to capture that feeling and framing the camera in an interesting way that also highlights different elements of a scene. I usually hate it when games strive to be like movies, because it tends to ruin the gameplay when an invisible game director yanks the camera and controls away from you to show you something exactly as he envisioned it, instead of letting you just be in the game and experience things for yourself. But it really works in TW3 because it's such a heavily story-driven game, and it helps to make the characters and the story itself more interesting. And ultimately, the dialogue and cutscenes make up only a small percentage of how you spend your time in the game, so they feel more like pleasant additions to the game, instead of an obnoxious detraction.

The dialogue sequences also showcase all of the great facial expressions and animations. When you think about it, the difference between emotions and how they appear on one's face can be incredibly subtle, and I'd imagine it's one of the most difficult things to do when it comes to graphic design in video games. And CD Projekt pulls it off really well, conveying several dynamic emotional ranges for a single character within just one scene. Just take a look at this conversation between Geralt and Yennefer; in just a few seconds she goes from exasperation to concern, which then becomes almost pleading optimism. She then becomes pointed when discussing what must be done, and when she mentions there being one more thing, she gives a look of annoyance before addressing it. Finally, there's that look in her eyes right at the two-minute mark, when she realizes that Geralt interpreted her instructions for how to use the detector with sexual innuendo.


The music is top of the line as well. The soundtrack uses a lot of traditional folk instruments to capture the sort of folklore-fantasy atmosphere in which The Witcher is set, and in fact, a lot of the music was actually composed and performed by a real Polish folk band that took its name (Percival) and inspiration from The Witcher novels by Andrzej Sapkowski. They actually performed an entire concert of mostly music from TW3. This song of theirs, Silver for Monsters, is used as combat music, and it has this really awesome, raw tone that just gets me so pumped, with that primal scream and the vocal chanting over top of the droning tones, pounding drums, and accented string rhythms. Other songs, like The Fields of Ard Skellig by CD Projekt's own composer, Marcin PrzybyƂowicz, are just so beautiful and tranquil that, when I washed up on the shores of Skellige, I stopped everything and just slowly trotted around on horseback in awe of the sights and sounds.


THE GOOD: All characters have personality and motivation

Every, single, character in TW3 is fully voiced. That itself is not unusual in this day and age (it's practically expected from any major studio), but the scale to which it applies in TW3 is almost beyond comprehension. According to information gathered by IGN, the script for TW3 had over 450,000 words of dialogue (supposedly four novels' worth of text), with 950 speaking roles. It took 2.5 years just to record all the dialogue. Even that, though, really isn't all that impressive; it just took a lot of time and resources. What's impressive is that every single character, from Geralt's most important and closest companions down to the most insignificant of random people asking for help by the side of the road, has some kind of personality and motivation that shows based on how they talk, and how they behave in dialogue.


When you have a world made up of thousands of people, with 950 people you can actually talk to, it's really easy for the writing to devolve into terse exchanges that simply check the boxes of what needs to be accomplished in the conversation, and it can start to feel bland and repetitive after a while. But the writing and voice acting in TW3 brings every character to life in such a believable and engaging way; even if a character is someone you'll only ever talk to once, for just a few minutes, they feel genuine because someone (the writer, the director, the actor) made a conscious decision about why a character is saying the things he or she is saying, and why a character is the way that he or she is. Not every character is totally unique or memorable, but every character fits in where they belong in the grand scheme of things, and none of them stand out in a negative way.

The main characters, in particular, are fleshed out extremely well, showing all different sides of their personalities and often struggling with internal conflicts over what they want and how they should act. Yennefer, for instance, is rather brusque and pragmatic -- she's short and to-the-point with people, not caring how her words or tone might affect someone's feelings, and resorts to dark sorceries, breaking the law, and sabotaging ancient mystical relics without a second thought when it serves her interests in a more efficient manner than another alternative -- but most of her actions in the game are guided by a deep love and concern for Ciri and Geralt. While others typically only see her as a cold, manipulative witch who's always scheming behind people's backs, usually for her own self-gain, we see her getting into whimsical pun battles with Geralt, crying out when Ciri is in danger, and yearning to put the sorceress politics aside and settle down with Geralt and grow old together.


THE GOOD: Recurring characters keep the story connected

Most of your usual friends from the previous games like Vesemir, Lambert, Eskel, Dandelion, Zoltan, and Triss make appearances in TW3 and help you out on your main quest of finding Ciri, and most of the main characters stay with you over the course of the entire game, coming and going as quests and meet-ups call for their presence. A lot of side characters end up involved in multiple quests that take place in different acts of the game, which helps to build a rapport with them so that you care when they're involved in later events, because it's something happening to someone you know and care about. Similarly, a lot of characters you meet and help out over the first half of the game come back to help you later when you have to cash in a favor for a favor, which lets you see how people's situations have changed since you last saw them 50 or 100 hours ago.



THE GOOD: Three different endings

Multiple endings is kind of a standard thing in RPGs because it's one of the prime ways developers can show different outcomes for your actions, to show that your decisions had a significant impact on the game. This happens all the time with individual quests, but a lot of games still tend to force a single outcome on its main story. The Witcher 3 allows you to experience one of three different endings, which is nice in and of itself, but what's really impressive about the three endings is that their seeds are sown throughout the entire game, with each ending being the culmination of several small, seemingly insignificant moments. This isn't a matter of simply playing the game and then picking one of three branching paths near the very end; you're stuck with your outcome based on decisions you made previously, and you never could have known, at the time, that the decisions you were making were actually going to influence the ending, which I feel makes the endings much more natural and organic, because the ending is based on how you role-played Geralt over the entire story, not just at the very end or at obvious critical branches.  


THE GOOD: The world feels real

With a lot of these big open-world games, there's a common tendency for the worlds themselves to feel phony and artificial because the designers just churn out landscapes and paste a bunch of content all over the map with little concern for how anything relates to anything else, why things are the way they are, or how the world exists and operates independent of the player character. The world in TW3 has a very precise, hand-crafted feel to it -- there's something interesting to see everywhere you look, nothing feels like it's been copy-pasted, and everything exists for some kind of purpose. What's really interesting, though, is how much backstory and atmosphere you pick up just from all the subtle, ambient details.


Following the events of TW2, the kingdoms are now waging war against each other, with the Nilfgaardian empire trying to push its control further south. The game doesn't beat you over the head about being a war game, however -- you simply see the effects of the war, never actually taking part in it, as if you were any common citizen. You see scorched battlefields where the dead are left to rot in their suits of armor. You see villages that were once raided by invading armies, still struggling to recover. You encounter wounded soldiers from either side seeking refuge in an abandoned shed, or about to be lynched by villagers. You see squabbles and brawls in bars over which kingdom's insignia should be on display. You find a ton of currency from the previous regime, which is completely worthless until you take it to a bank to exchange for real money. It's a cohesive theme that permeates almost everything in the game, and it gives you a strong feeling that, even though you're not actually seeing the battles being fought, this war is serious and is taking its toll.

A lot of times video game worlds feel like playgrounds or theater stages built solely to accommodate the main player-character. This is still true of TW3, as it is, ultimately, with basically every game ever created, but the amount of stuff that happens around you in TW3, sometimes beyond your control or whether you're there or not, really helps to make the world feel more real, natural, and immersive.


THE GOOD: The world shows signs of dynamic elements

With worlds this big, they tend to remain pretty static throughout the game, rarely reacting to your presence in any kind of significant way. This, I imagine, is because the sandbox nature of these games typically requires that the designers allow for any possibility at any time -- if you change the world-state too much, or too drastically, then it could start to conflict with other quests. The Witcher 3, being itself one of these vast open-world games, can only change the world so much and still allow you to access all of its content, but it still manages to change its facade over the course of the game, sprinkling in enough changes to make the world seem like it's reacting to your presence and even affecting quests in a few ways.


The biggest examples center around the city of Novigrad. With King Radovid turning the city upside down in search of witches to burn at the stake, he eventually puts the city under lockdown while you're away so that, when you come back, the guards deny your access unless you can produce a gate pass. Later, if you complete a side-quest to help the mages sneak out of town, the witch hunt sets its sights on non-humans, and you're greeted with elves and dwarves being executed outside the main gate as you return to town. If you've completed that side-quest before getting to a certain point in the main quest, then it affects your options since your dwarven friend Zoltan is no longer able to roam around the city, because he's afraid of being lynched by the city guard.

Similarly, your actions in one area can affect your interactions somewhere else nearby. When you arrive in Velen, the point in the game when they take the training wheels off and let you loose in the giant open world, your first objective takes you to a local tavern to gather information. Once there, you're confronted by some of the Bloody Baron's henchmen, the self-proclaimed ruler of Velen whom you have to go through to progress the main quest. How you deal with his henchmen affects your relationship and interactions with the Baron before you've even met him, and can make the initial goings tougher or easier when you finally make contact with him.


THE GOOD: Fast-travel and horseback from the beginning

The size of the world map in TW3 is supposedly bigger than Grand Theft Auto V and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim combined. I'm not sure I believe those numbers, but I do know that TW3 is pretty damn big. With a world that big, there need to be measures in place to help you get across it quickly and conveniently, because it's not very fun to have to spend 10 minutes at a time holding down the "forward" key to get anywhere. On the other hand, you don't want to make alternative means of travel too quick or convenient, because you want players to feel rooted in the game world and not continually skip by it. The Witcher 3 perfectly balances these two issues with its inclusion of fast-travel and horseback, both of which are available to you from the very beginning of the game.


Fast-travel is restricted to the use of signposts, which are present outside of cities and villages, and also found at major roadside intersections. If you want to warp somewhere instantly, you have to make your way to a signpost first, and you can only warp to other signposts you've already discovered. You therefore have to explore the entire world on-foot -- even if you warp somewhere, the signposts aren't at every single location on the map, so you still need to get to your final destination the old-fashioned way -- which helps you to become more familiar with the world and feel more physically attached to it. And yet, getting around without the benefit of fast-travel is never a tedious, time-wasting endeavor because you always have access to your trusty horse companion, Roach. Just whistle and she'll run in from somewhere off-screen, ready to help speed you along to your next destination.


THE GOOD: Interesting quests with engaging storylines

Most of the quests, whether they're part of the main story or trivially inconsequential side-quests, have something interesting going on, with some reason for you to care about seeing them through to their conclusions. In one quest, you accompany Triss to an elegant, high-class masquerade ball. You're there to help an alchemist get out of town before the witch hunters come for him, but all you really do is walk around talking to people, not even making a lot of important decisions. It's a pretty simple quest in terms of gameplay, but it's fun just to be there witnessing the events, listening to conversations, and simply appreciating the unique atmosphere.


One of my favorite quests, "A Towerful of Mice," has you working with the sorceress Keira Metz, who wants your help lifting a plague-like curse that's afflicted Fyke Island, where the former lord of Velen and his daughter died. The island itself has this really ominous, spooky vibe about it, with you using a magic lamp to hunt for ghosts and piece together the island's history. Eventually, you meet the ghost of Annabelle, the lord's daughter, who asks you to take her bones to her beloved, whom you discover lives in a nearby fishing village. With her bones buried by her lover, the curse, she says, will be lifted. At that point you have a couple different options about how to proceed, both of which result in a somewhat tragic success.

I remember one quest in which a village asked me to help defend one of their people from bandits, and I rolled my eyes at such a cliche premise, but went along with it. The bandits showed up and their leader tried to explain her side of things, but I wasn't going to be persuaded that easily and fought them off. It turned out she was a werewolf, and upon looting her corpse I discovered a letter from her parents that gave her an entire backstory. She was born of a human and werewolf, and lost both of her parents to a show-trial execution because one of the villagers snitched on them. Her parents wrote to her before their deaths telling her that they loved her, that they believed lycanthropy was not a thing of evil, and implored her to lead a good life. She was just out to avenge her parents' deaths, and I felt kind of bad about killing her. What I thought was going to be a simple one-and-done, forgettable quest ended up having a surprising amount of narrative purpose to it.


THE GOOD: Tough moral dilemmas

There was a time when games had a bad habit of portraying moral and ethical issues in pure black or white -- you're either Adolf Hitler or Mother Theresa, with no room for anything in-between. When The Witcher came along in 2007, it made a deliberate effort to blur those lines into more realistic shades of gray with no clear right or wrong -- just two choices, and two different outcomes. The Witcher 3 continues to carry that torch by frequently placing you in situations when you have to make a tough choice, which adds a lot of extra weight to the gameplay and forces you to think long and deep about what you're doing.


At one point you come across a Nilfgaardian soldier about to by lynched by three locals; if you choose to stay out of it and let him be killed, you can check his corpse and find a letter on him that reveals him to be an honest, well-intentioned family man who was deserting the army to go back to his wife and child. If you decide to stand up for him, before learning any of this, then you have to kill the three villagers in self-defense, and Geralt makes a comment to the soldier, when he expresses his gratitude, that if he hadn't have gotten involved only one person would've died instead of three. In this situation, knowing the two outcomes, would you choose the option that results in the loss of less life, or the one that saves one life you know to be good at the expense of three others that you don't really know?

In another quest, you come across another witcher from the school of the cat, who slaughtered an entire village after being cheated out of payment for a contract and getting stabbed in the side with a pitchfork. The guy was clearly way out of line and did not warrant killing all those innocents, but when faced with a decision, I couldn't bring myself to kill him because I didn't feel like it was my place to judge him. Later on, you meet up with some old friends who're conspiring to assassinate King Radovid because his madness is leading to a lot of civil unrest and war-torn bloodshed, and you have the option to go along with their plan or back out, and I struggled big time trying to figure out if regicide was really the right choice or not.


THE GOOD: There is a ton of content

The Witcher 3 is a long game, with a lot of stuff to do in it. It's so long that it took me 134 hours over the course of three-and-a-half months to "finish" the base game. I know for a fact that I haven't done 100% of everything there is to do in the base game, and I haven't even started the two DLC expansions (which now come bundled in the $50 "Game of the Year Edition") that supposedly add another 20-30 hours of content, each. That's an insane amount of value for your dollar. And it's not just the amount of content that creates that value -- it's the fact that it's all quality content, with everything feeling hand-crafted and serving a specific purpose.


THE GOOD: A buttery-smooth, well-polished experience

I started playing TW3 over a year after its initial release, so it had received extensive patching long before I even started playing, and even received a few major updates while I was playing, one of which was a major overhaul of the user interface. I can't vouch for how the game felt at launch, but in its current state, TW3 ran buttery smooth for me and felt totally polished and 99% bug-free.


In similar games of this size, it would not be unusual to find a bunch of small graphical imperfections like floating objects, missing textures, misaligned seams, and so on, but I never noticed anything of this sort, with just three or four exceptions. Likewise, it would not be unusual to encounter weird glitches like animations spazzing out, or characters getting stuck running in place, or enemies clipping through walls. Again, I never encountered anything like this, with just a handful of small exceptions. These are the kinds of utterly tiny, insignificant imperfections that would usually slip through a less-diligent or less-resourceful team's quality assurance process, and there's barely anything of this sort in TW3.

In 134 hours, the worst things I ever experienced were: (1) a completed quest that never moved itself from the "active" to "completed" tab in my quest log, (2) a quest-giver from a completed quest got stuck with the yellow exclamation-point next to his name and on the mini-map, (3) a treasure chest underwater that I couldn't reach because an invisible wall prevented me from diving any lower, (4) one occasion when I couldn't climb onto my boat because I kept dropping back into the water when the climb animation finished, and (5) a stretch of time when Roach's tail disappeared from the game, before returning in a patch. That's not to say there weren't other issues, but anything else was so insignificant that it never bothered me and never took away from that smooth, polished feeling of the game.


THE GOOD: I really like the Skellige isles

The bulk of the game takes place in Velen and Novigrad, which consist of one giant map with zero loading zones. Both of these areas have good atmospheres and theming (Velen's murky swamps and dreary half-dead forests really bring out its reputation as "No Man's Land"), but I found myself especially enamored with the Skellige isles out west, which evoke a strong Nordic vibe with their snowy mountains and honor-bound clans of warrior-societies. As I mentioned in the audiovisual aesthetics section above, the landscapes are a thing of beauty simply to gaze upon, especially in conjunction with that wistful music.


Skellige also sets itself apart from the other regions of the game in terms of its gameplay mechanics. The mountainous terrain gives each island a lot of vertical space to explore. Each island is itself a relatively small, confined space -- this helps to guide exploration so you don't feel like you're wandering aimlessly along a vast landscape -- but they're ultimately more satisfying to explore because they cram more complexity into the folds of a smaller space. The vertical levels hide a bunch of content out of sight, on the other side of a mountain face, or underground, or in the folds of a ravine. Everywhere else in the game is mostly a matter of seeing something on the horizon and just making a beeline for it, but Skellige really stimulates your curiosity because you never know what you're going to find until you find it, which had me constantly in this wondrous "what's out there" kind of mood.


THE GOOD: Lots of tie-ins and references to TW1

One of my biggest issues with TW2 is that it didn't really feel like a Witcher game to me because of how much it strayed from the themes and gameplay mechanics that were established in the first game. The Witcher 3 feels pretty similar to TW2, in terms of gameplay and presentation, but I really appreciate how much effort CD Projekt went through to tie TW3 in with TW1. It was really nostalgic to go back to Kaer Morhen and spend time catching up with your fellow witchers Vesemir, Eskel, and Lambert, and it was cool how that whole section of the game dealt so heavily with what life is like as a witcher, and how it shed new light on things like the trials of becoming a witcher. The central plot of TW3, meanwhile, is actually laid out by a specific line of dialogue said by the King of the Wild Hunt to Geralt in TW1. There's also a really neat easter egg in the bookshop of Novigrad in which you receive a letter from one of the main characters of TW1.



THE GOOD: Humor and easter eggs

You wouldn't expect, in a world as serious as the entire Witcher saga, to find as much humor and fun off-the-wall moments as there are in TW3. Geralt himself can be a wise-ass at times, dropping witty one-liners, insults, and dry puns at the drop of a hat. You're in for some smiles any time you interact with a troll, and basically any quest with Dandelion is sure to end up with some kind of theatrical absurdity. Other scenes go in hilariously unexpected directions depending on what you do, like if you try to romance both Yennefer and Triss, or if you decide to get drunk with Lambert and Eskel. All-the-while you run into a ton of easter eggs and pop-culture references, probably my favorite of which involves a quest to shut down the Defensive Regulatory Magicon (DRM) of a mage's tower by using Gottfried's Omni-opening Grimoire (GOG).


THE GOOD: Elaborate journal, beastiary, and quest entries

There's a ton of information to process in TW3, and thankfully the user interface is a Godsend for helping you keep track of everything. From the menu, you can access detailed character biographies (helpful in case you forget who certain characters are, or if you've never played the previous games and therefore never met them, and want to learn more about them), beastiary entries that let you read up on the lore of all of the Witcher universe's unique monsters, and quest entries that narrate each step of the quest in the form of a story. None of this is absolutely essential for the game, and it all has zero effect on the actual gameplay, but it's a really nice touch just to have this information available if you desire to enlighten yourself more.



THE GOOD: A more useful inventory screen

The Witcher 1 had a pretty solid grid-based inventory system that let you see everything at a glance, just by looking at the icons for every item, with bigger items taking up more spaces in the grid. Then, for some reason, TW2 turned the inventory into a text-based list with abstract item weights attached to everything. It was a pain and a bother to use. Thankfully, CD Projekt have gone with a more TW1-style inventory this time around, giving us grids with graphic icons for items, and even allowing us to sort items by tabs like in TW2. It's a small thing to be sure, but since you spend so much time dealing with your inventory in this game, it's a nice quality of life feature that the inventory screen be sleek and easy to use.


THE GOOD: Custom map markers

This is something I've been asking games to do for a long time, and very few actually do this; The Witcher 3 lets you put custom markers on the map to keep track of things you've found but need to remember to come back to later, as well as waypoints to help set your own personal destination on your mini-map navigation. The markers can be yellow exclamation points if you think it's something quest-related, blue inverted triangles if you simply want to mark a spot, or red skulls if there's a strong enemy in the area. With a world this big, it's a tremendous blessing to be able to place your own reminders, because without them, it would be near impossible to remember where everything is that you want to come back to.



THE GOOD: Alchemy is much more accessible

A lot of people complained about the alchemy systems in the first two games, saying they were too convoluted, too inaccessible, and just generally not very appealing gameplay options. CD Projekt took those criticisms into consideration with TW3 and revamped the system to make potions and blade oils a viable option for all playstyles. Potions, blade oils, bombs, and decoctions are a lot easier to brew, and maintaining your supply is almost effortless, automatically refilling everything as long as you have alcohol in your inventory when you meditate, meaning you can focus your efforts on just playing the game (and using your alchemical creations) instead of spending a bunch of time hunting down resources and staring at a menu screen to brew everything all the time. You don't have to invest a bunch of points in alchemy to make good use of potions, and you can brew them anywhere and use them at any time.



THE BAD: Alchemy is oversimplified

By streamlining alchemy to make it a more appealing gameplay option, they removed almost all of its depth and complexity. Potions now have zero negative side-effects, so there's absolutely no reason not to use them, and you no longer have to stop fighting to uncork a potion and actually drink it, meaning you don't have to worry about positioning yourself and finding the right moment when you can afford to drink a potion -- you just press the hotkey and the effect triggers instantly. There's no more variety in brewing a potion by mixing your own ingredients with dominant substances to create special versions with bonus secondary effects, and you only really have to brew a potion once, because from then on everything will automatically replenish every time you rest, as long as you have a single bottle of alcohol in your inventory, which you find everywhere in your travels -- in other words, there's virtually no cost for brewing and replenishing your supplies. Similarly, there's no consequence for applying oil to your blades, so you may as well run around with a constant damage boost and swap the oils out every time you start a fight against a new enemy type. 


THE BAD: Horrible first impressions

I was really put-off by TW3 at first; everything felt like a horrendous mess. Movement controls felt stiff, clunky, and unresponsive, causing me to constantly bump into things and struggle simply walking through a doorway. The intro features a ton of heavy-handed tutorials that pause the game in the middle of the action to bombard you with walls of text explaining how things work. The HUD looked so cluttered and busy that I didn't really understand what was going on with all of it. And the combat was so rough trying to get a feel for everything that I spent 15 minutes dying and loading my save, just trying to survive the first fight that happens literally seconds after you finish the tutorial and are finally let loose in the world.


Were I not a seasoned gamer with the patience to endure rough starts and put in the time getting used to things, I might not have made it past the opening 30 minutes. Maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration, but I didn't feel comfortable with the game until I was an hour or two into it, and didn't really start enjoying myself until about two or three hours into it. In the grand scheme of a 134 hour playthrough, those first couple of hours are pretty insignificant, but it's never a good thing to start off a new experience on bad footing, because some people might not have the patience to stick around until it supposedly "gets better."


THE BAD: Game balance is non-existent

Typical game balance involves easing the player into the game by making things slower and simpler at the start, giving you time to figure out how the game works as you start getting your feet wet, and then slowly increasing the difficulty towards the game's ending so that, as you become more experienced and develop greater mastery of the game, it gets harder to match your increasing skill level, thereby pushing you to get better over the course of the game.

The Witcher 3 is almost the exact opposite of this; it starts the difficulty out at its absolute hardest, right from the start, and maintains a decent amount of challenge only for about 10-20 hours. Around that 10-20 hour mark you start crafting your first set of witcher's gear and unlocking enough skill slots to finally get some decent bonuses, thereby resulting in a steep drop-off in difficulty as the game instantly gets easier, and continues to get progressively easier over the entire rest of the game.


While it's true that there's some satisfaction in getting stronger and eventually breezing your way past all the obstacles that were giving you so much difficulty in the beginning, that point happens so ridiculously early in TW3 that it's more pitiful than satisfying. It's like playing a game of basketball where you're up by 60 points at halftime, and don't even need to play the second half. I started out on the hardest difficulty, "Death March," and had to take it down a notch almost immediately because the game was kicking my ass so badly while I was still struggling to get a feel for the combat. But then, about 30-40 hours in, the supposed hard difficulty ("Blood and Broken Bones") started to feel more like easy mode. I considered bumping the difficulty back up to Death March, but felt like that would just prolong every fight by simply inflating enemy health values.


THE BAD: Combat is shallow and boring

Combat has never been all that sophisticated in this series, but it's mindlessly simple in TW3. Melee combat, at its core, consists of five main actions: fast attack, strong attack, parry, dodge, and roll. That's not a bad foundation to work with, but sadly it all boils down to button-mashing; every fight against almost every enemy basically amounts to spamming fast attacks and hitting the dodge button when an enemy is about to attack you, then going right back to spamming fast attacks. There are exceptions, of course, such as if an enemy has a shield, or if it's a weird monster with a unique special ability, but you spend the vast majority of the game fighting the same basic enemies over and over again, all of which fall victim to this simplistic, repetitive pattern of attack attack dodge, attack attack dodge.


Enemy AI is just so simple that you almost never have to deviate from that successful pattern, because most enemies behave exactly the same. It doesn't really matter whether you're fighting a wolf, a bear, a drowner, a nekker, a ghoul, or even a werewolf because they all just come straight at you and do some generic close-range one-or-two-hit attack. Against most enemies, you don't have to worry about what type of attack they're doing, or where they're aiming it -- you just dodge or parry when you see them telegraph an attack. Meanwhile, you don't have a lot of different attack options at your disposal; with only two types of sword attacks, the system is even further limited by the fact that there's hardly any reason to use strong attacks because they're so much slower and are therefore easier for enemies to interrupt, while fast attacks do roughly the same damage-per-second and are harder to interrupt because they keep enemies stun-locked longer.

The inclusion of potions, bombs, blade oils, magic signs, and a crossbow are supposed to add extra depth and variety to the system, but these aren't particularly exciting options, either. The crossbow is insanely under-powered and only ever worth using to knock airborne foes out of the air, or to one-shot underwater foes. Blade oils and potions are all passive stat-boosters that don't change the gameplay all that significantly, with the exception of the Blizzard potion that slows time around you, while you move at normal speed, for a time after each kill. Bombs can be thrown like a grenade to cause damage or special effects to an area, like freezing enemies in place, or preventing the use of magic, which can certainly be helpful against large groups of enemies or against tougher boss-like enemies, but I rarely felt the need to use them, even in hard mode.


Magic signs would seem like they're more fun, since there are five of them and each one gets an alternate casting mode (for essentially 10 different signs), but they, too, become shallow and repetitive after just a little while. As a pure mage, I discovered that signs made combat even simpler and more boring, because I spent basically the whole game using Aard to knock enemies down and kill them with a one-hit finisher, or spamming Igni as often as possible and dodging until my stamina regenerated enough to cast it again. Against some of the stronger enemies in the game, it was faster and more effective just to cast Quen and reflect their damage back at them instead of actually fighting -- I just stood there and let them kill themselves. As with the melee combat, every single fight was just a matter of repeating the same basic strategy, rinsing and repeating until everything was dead.


THE BAD: Gameplay doesn't evolve as you level-up

A cardinal sin for an RPG, it doesn't feel like your character evolves as you get stronger. You can invest in 80 different skills, most of which have 2-5 tiers of investment that unlock extra effects as you put more points into that individual skill, thereby allowing you a ton of freedom to customize Geralt into your own unique build. The vast majority of these skills, however, are passive modifiers that don't actually change your gameplay; deal 5% more damage when using fast attack, blade oils now have a 3% chance to poison enemies, extend the duration of Yrden sign traps by five seconds, etc. Sure, they all make you better and stronger at the game, and these skills have a tremendous cumulative effect as you rack up more and more of them, but few of them add new abilities to the game. For the most part, the skills simply make you more effective at what you're already capable of doing.


Once you gain access to the crossbow a few hours into the starting area, you'll have seen and experienced 90% of what the combat system has to offer. From that point on, the only variety comes from different bombs, potions, and blade oils you unlock, but again, with the exception of a few bombs and potions, these are mostly just passive stat boosters. Of the 80 skills, only 9-10 of them introduce new abilities; five of these are the alternate sign-casting modes, which can be unlocked relatively early, while the two new melee attacks, whirl and rend, are buried deep in the skill tree. The only skill that does anything new outside of combat, meanwhile, is the Axii skill "delusion," which lets you jedi mind trick people in dialogue, and can also be obtained pretty early in the game. As a pure mage, I unlocked all of the game-changing skills in that tree about a quarter of the way through the game and just passively watched my stats go up for the remaining 90 hours.


THE BAD: Progression is slow and unrewarding

The rate at which you play the game, exploring the world, completing quests, and so on, doesn't match the rate at which you level-up and gain skills. The Witcher 3 is an incredibly long game with a massive world to explore and a ton of content to complete -- people spend an average of 100 hours playing this game, but the leveling system feels like something from a 50-hour game that's been stretched to fit a 100-hour game. The game's scale is so big that progress feels incredibly slow; I sometimes played for 6-8 hours at a time before achieving a new level.

But just leveling up doesn't make a huge amount of difference in the game. For starters, each individual skill point, which you gain every time you level up or discover a Place of Power, is relatively insignificant, typically only providing a 3-5% boost in something. Secondly, those skill points are worthless unless you've unlocked enough skill slots to "equip" your desired skills. You typically unlock a new skill slot every two levels, but that rate slows down as you level up; from level 18 onward (roughly halfway towards end-game level), it takes four levels to unlock a new skill slot, meaning you go anywhere from 16 to 24 hours at a time accumulating skill points that you can't actually use, and thus not actually progressing.


Even then, once you've finally ground-out four levels to unlock a new skill slot, you may find yourself in a position where new upgrades don't even benefit you that much. After 80 hours, having still not been to Skellige or even completed chapter one, I found that I just had no reason to upgrade anymore. My sign intensity was already so off the charts that upgrading my signs any further would just give me diminished returns, and branching out into one of the other two skill trees (physical combat or alchemy) would result in less benefit from my mutagen slots (slots tethered to skill slots, which further enhance your stats if you equip skills from one tree in sets of three with a matching mutagen) until I could make another 10-14 levels to unlock more mutagen slots.

Finally, it's kind of disappointing that, of the 80 skills you can choose from, you can only ever equip 12 of them, meaning you hit a soft level cap at level 30 and can no longer equip any additional skills. You can still learn other skills, but you're always limited to only having 12 at a time active. Normally I like that kind of thing in games, because being limited to a smaller portion of what's available forces you to really think about what you're doing, weighing the pros and cons of different abilities and forming your own more-specialized build, but it feels almost criminal to spend so much time in this game building towards such few abilities. It makes me especially concerned going into the two DLC expansions, because that's potentially another 30-50 hours of slowly leveling up and not getting to feel any reward from any of it.


THE BAD: The world is too big, with too much content

I know I praised the game earlier for having so much quality content and for being such a good value for your money, but there are two sides to this coin, and in the case of TW3, having such a big world and having so much content in it can also be a bad thing. When you create a world this big, there's necessarily going to be dead space because you can't fill every single square foot with interesting content; the world is as big as it is to create a more realistic sense of scale and geography, but that comes with the consequence of spreading everything out and forcing players to spend more time traveling across it, and to spend more time than really should be necessary searching for the good and worthwhile content.


For every hour I spent doing a fun quest, or tracking a unique monster to its lair and having an epic showdown with it, or discovering some cool area off the beaten path with a hidden treasure chest, I spent half an hour wandering around the wilderness picking flowers and generally finding nothing of interest. A lot of times I'd discover a cool-looking place that simply had nothing going on in it. I'd sail to a uniquely-shaped island to find nothing at all. I'd find an unmarked village and there'd be nothing there. Even major landmarks on the map, like the Wolven Glade or the Devil's Pit, for instance, had all these interesting structures that looked like they should've been part of some quest, but ended up serving no purpose whatsoever.

On the flipside, I frequently ran into situations when I was being overwhelmed with quests and things of interest popping up from everywhere, all the time. In trying to get to a quest marker across unexplored terrain, I stumbled into a bandit camp and had to defend myself, and ended up picking up a quest to find a family sword. So I figure "I'll do this quest since I'm here," bring up the journal, and discover it's pointing me far away in the opposite direction. So I head that way and stumble into another quest because a cyclops ambushes me on the side of the road. So I investigate the area and find a note which sends me off in yet another direction to complete the quest, at which point I give up and ignore both of quests I just picked up, opting to go back to what I was doing originally. I ended up accidentally completing one of these quests some time later after I'd long forgotten about it, having stumbled into the area and talked to an NPC without having the quest active in my journal to know that he was part of a quest I already had.


The effect of having so much content in one game is that it dilutes the overall experience. With a game this size, some of the content is just going to be better than all the rest, and a lot of other stuff is going to end up being completely forgettable. Even though nearly every quest has some kind of decent setup and characterization relative to other games of this scale, a lot of these less-significant side-quests pale in comparison to what else is in the same game, or compared to smaller, more tightly-focused games. And yet, you never know what quests or points of interest are going to be outstanding or mundane until you complete them, so you basically have to do everything you come across if you want to experience all of the best that the game has to offer, which means wading through a lot of relatively boring content to get to the good stuff.


THE BAD: Exploration is unrewarding

As a result of the world just being too big for its own good, exploration doesn't feel all that rewarding. The thing that makes exploration satisfying in games is that feeling of discovery you get when you find something off the beaten path that others might possibly miss, thus making your experience potentially different from someone else playing the same game. These discoveries can be cool quests, special loot, or just fun easter eggs, but a lot of stuff that you find in TW3 ends up being either completely worthless or completely pointless.

All of the best gear in the game, for instance, is witcher gear that you craft yourself, and then upgrade over the rest of the game. I made my first set of witcher gear at level 11 and eventually realized that nothing I was ever going to find in my adventures would ever be better than what I already had, which somewhat hurt my motivation to go out exploring. Most of what you find, loot-wise, is just worthless junk that only exists to clog up your inventory as vendor trash, or blueprints for gear you won't be able to use for another 20-40 hours because the level requirements to use them, once crafted, are so much higher than when you find them.


Meanwhile, you get so little experience for killing monsters and discovering locations that you can spend several hours exploring and make virtually no progress towards leveling up. And with the map as big as it is, you spend a lot of time running all over it just looking for content, sometimes in vain. I'd often spend 5-10 minutes at a time running around an interesting-looking area finding nothing but useless plants and maybe a few random crates full of junk, or some random low-level enemies. So, you either put up with spending all this time aimlessly wandering around, or you cut to the chase and just follow the marked points of interest on your map that tell you where basically everything worth finding is before you've even been there -- useful for cutting down all the wasted time, but they make exploration feel like accounting, like you're just going around checking boxes off a list.


THE BAD: The world doesn't feel alive

Earlier I praised the game world for feeling real and showing signs of dynamic elements, but that doesn't mean it always feels alive. There are thousands of NPCs in this game, but 95% of them can't be interacted with in any kind of way whatsoever. I'd sometimes run across entire towns populated with dozens of people, not a single soul of whom could I talk to, at which point I sat around wondering "What is the point of this town being here?" There's a ton of content in this game that only exists to serve one, singular purpose, and is otherwise completely useless unless you pick up the one quest that will trigger it, including things like named characters you inexplicably can't talk to, or locked doors that you can't open, or in such cases as Fornhala and Kaer Muire, entire towns and cities without a single person to talk to or thing to do in them.


In keeping with the open-world nature of the game design, the world has to remain in a type of status quo at all times so that all content can be accessed at any time, which means, for the most part, the world sits around idly waiting for you to show up before anything happens. Everything just sits around in its prescribed state waiting for you to come along and put things in motion; the normal state of the world is almost completely disregarded when you start a quest, as it spawns and de-spawns everything as necessary. I can't criticize that point too much because it's almost unavoidable in this type of game, but I think the world would've benefited from some more random events to keep you on your toes and to introduce elements that require a timely response if you want to see how they play out.


THE BAD: Simple, repetitive quest mechanics

The quests in TW3 may have a lot of engaging storylines or characters in them, but the actual mechanics for solving quests tend to be pretty shallow and repetitive. A strong majority of quests follow a simple formula of "talk to the quest-giver, go to the location, investigate using your witcher senses, fight something, and return to the quest-giver." Other quests consist of a lot of straightforward dialogue where you just walk to the objective, watch long cutscenes, cycle through all dialogue options, watch more cutscenes, walk to the next location, and repeat. Occasionally, they'll throw some kind of utterly trivial, pointless, unrelated fight at you just to give you something to do between walking to your next objective.


Witcher senses, in particular, feel like a lot of missed potential. On the one hand, it's cool that you can press a button to hone in on things a witcher's heightened senses would pick up on, that we as mere ordinary humans would never notice, like animal tracks on the ground or scent trails, but this takes a lot of self-satisfaction out of the quests because you're not actually solving the quest yourself -- you're just pressing a button to highlight the solution and following a dotted-line to its conclusion. And unfortunately, witcher senses are a mandatory part of the game, they're not just there as a crutch for casual gamers who don't want to put in the work figuring things out for themselves; you have to use witcher senses to solve these things because there's literally no other information to go off of. Without them, you'd just be bumbling around aimlessly, hoping to stumble into solutions randomly.

There's a major quest in Novigrad, for instance, in which a main character is nearly murdered by a serial killer, and you're sent into detective mode to find out who's behind the killings. This is a quest ripe for Sherlock Holmes-esque deductive reasoning, in which the player has to assemble the evidence in his own mind and come to his own conclusions about how it all might relate to different suspects who each have their own alibis and possible motives, like you do in TW1 when you're trying to figure out who's working with Salamandra. Instead, you simply use your witcher senses, follow the trails, exhaust all the dialogue options, and let yourself be dragged by the nose to the obvious culprit. How straightforward and mundane.


THE BAD: Decisions often feel trivial and unimportant

While it's true that you can make a lot of important decisions that can affect the outcomes of major characters and even lead you to one of three different endings, most of the decisions you make in TW3 have little effect on anything, either because the outcomes are utterly inconsequential and only exist for role-playing purposes (which is totally fine, I suppose -- it's better than having no choice at all) or because you actually, in fact, have no choice at all and are forced to do exactly what the game intended all along, regardless of the fact that you were given an apparent "choice."


At one point in the main story, I thought I had a chance to effect a major branch in the main quest line, to pursue a hint of Ciri's whereabouts by pursuing either Dandelion or Triss and Yennefer. I decided to go with Triss and Yennefer, because that seemed like the more logical guess -- nowhere had I heard, previously, that Dandelion even knew Ciri, and I knew that Triss was in the city and that Yennefer had a history with Ciri -- only for the game to say "That was the wrong answer, you're gonna go after Dandelion for help."

Meanwhile, a lot of your dialogue options are considered plain-out wrong, according to the script. In one major conversation after finding Ciri, I said I didn't want to get the Lodge of Sorceresses involved because I didn't trust them and was told "Too bad, we're doing it." Ciri then protested, saying that she should have some say in things and that she can take care of herself, so I said "You're right," and was promptly told "No, she needs to be kept completely out of danger." She got angry and ran off, so I said "I'll go after her," and was then told "No, she needs to work this out on her own." This was three things, all in a row, where the game slapped my wrist and said "no you're wrong, this is how this cutscene is going to play out," and I was left to wonder why I was even given a choice if nothing I said was actually going to matter.


THE BAD: A lot of restrictive gameplay

Like with the dialogue options, there are a ton of instances in the ordinary gameplay when the game forces you to play a certain way, either by arbitrarily restricting your actions or by preventing you from doing anything else. Every now and then you run into situations where the game just doesn't let you run, and you have to walk to your next destination, or you end up in places where you can't jump, draw your weapon, or cast signs. Particularly infuriating is how combat is a completely different gameplay mode from non-combat; while in combat you can't jump or interact with anything, which often led to me getting stuck in places because I couldn't jump or climb a ladder to get to the enemy so I could kill it and get out of combat mode.


I remember one time when I walked into an NPC's house and found it being ransacked by bandits who then attacked me, and the game forced me into a fist-fighting mini-game. When I tried to draw my swords, or cast signs on them, that familiar message popped on screen reading "You can't do that here." And I thought, "Why not? They're bandits, I don't want to give them a fair fight or take it easy on them." It's annoying when any game does this, but I think it's even worse in an open-world RPG, the whole point of which is having the freedom to play the game how you want, which is not always the case in TW3.


THE BAD: The main story bogs down like crazy

The game begins with a pretty clear and concise objective: find Ciri. Finding her is not that simple, however, as you have to go to every single region of the Continent and speak to a variety of people in each location, usually doing some obligatory sub-quest for each and every person you find just so they'll point you in the next direction. This premise is fine for a little while, especially while you're dealing with the Bloody Baron's questlines, which prove to be some of the best in the entire game, but it really bogs down when you get to the big city in Novigrad.


So you're supposed to be looking for Ciri -- someone in Velen tells you she went to Novigrad, so you go to Novigrad and turn the city upside down looking for her. Someone tells you that Dandelion might know where she is, so you look for Dandelion and find out he's gone missing. That initiates a sub-quest to find Dandelion, which takes you to a guy who might know where Dandelion is, which initiates a sub-quest to help him to find someone else before he'll tell you where Dandelion is. Once you find out where Dandelion is, you need someone else to help you get there, which involves another sub-quest to find that person.

In 100 hours of searching for Ciri, I'd searched for Yennefer, searched for Keira Metz, searched for the Baron's wife, searched for the Baron's daughter, searched for Dandelion, searched for Whoreson Jr, searched for Triss, searched for Dudu, searched for Hjalmar, and searched for Cerys, and still hadn't found Ciri. Throughout all of that, it gets really hard to remember that everything you're doing is so that you can, eventually, find Ciri, because all of those arbitrary sub-quests put you so far off-track from your original goal that you almost forget about her.


THE UGLY: Meandering pace

The whole point of finding Ciri is that the world is at risk of an apocalyptic event should the Wild Hunt ever catch up with her, and she's also Geralt's adopted daughter whom he cares deeply about and doesn't want to come to any harm. Seems like a big deal, and yet the game (and the rest of the world and all of its inhabitants) don't really care if you find her or not. Geralt, meanwhile, is content to lie around brothels and pursue a life becoming world champion of a collectible card game instead of looking for his daughter. The main story is at odds with the core gameplay design, with the meandering pace of the open-world design taking a lot of narrative thrust out of the main story and basically every other quest. It's good that one have the freedom to choose where to go and what to do, but I feel like it detracts from the overall experience when there's always something new popping up to interrupt your progress and distract you from what you were doing, because you can't give the proper amount of focus and attention to everything all the time.



THE UGLY: Movement controls feel weird

One of the hardest things to get used to, besides the general rhythm and technique of combat, is simply moving Geralt around. Geralt has a significant weight to his movements, with momentum affecting how he starts moving, comes to a stop, and even changes direction. This has the benefit of making you feel more realistically rooted to the game world, but it also makes simple tasks like walking through doors or turning around more of a nuisance than they should be, since it takes so much effort to get Geralt moving to make minor corrections to your positioning, and Geralt's momentum will frequently make him stop short of what you expected, or push him further than you intended to -- which, on numerous occasions, led to me falling off a ledge and dying on impact. You can turn this movement scheme off and enable an alternative system, but then Geralt stops feeling like a real person and just floats around like a video game character. In the end, I just got used to the default movement scheme, but it still caused me some hassle every now and then.


THE UGLY: Clunky combat controls

Input-queuing is a system that lets you press a button in the middle of an action and have that second action play out immediately after the first action has finished, used in a lot of fighting games to help process a lot of fast inputs fluidly. The Witcher 3 doesn't seem to do this at all, meaning if you want to cast a sign or swing your sword after coming out of a dodge, you have to wait for the animation to finish before pressing the button, else the input won't register and you'll find yourself standing there awkwardly for a moment before realizing Geralt's not actually doing what you told him to do. This matter is made many times worse by the inconsistent combat animations; in an effort to make everything flashy-looking, Geralt will randomly launch into different kinds of attack animations of slightly different lengths, thereby making it much harder to anticipate your next button press because you never know what Geralt's going to do. The inconsistent targeting system doesn't help, either, with Geralt randomly targeting and attacking enemies you never intended, likely moving you out of position and exposing yourself to enemy attacks.



THE UGLY: Witchers aint got time for these trivial tasks

Witchers are not altruistic paladins crusading for the good of all humanity, protecting the down-trodden and the oppressed while fighting for social justice. They're monster-hunters for hire. They stay out of politics, mind their own business, and don't intervene unless there's significant pay involved. And yet, you basically have to be an altruistic paladin if you want to experience as much game content as possible, or else you'll end up just skipping a lot of quests and events altogether, missing their stories, experience points, and rewards. Geralt shouldn't have the time (or the interest) to do menial chores for people, and yet the bulk of quests in the game consist of doing simple favors for random people that any non-witcher could be doing. Why, for instance, is Geralt of Rivia, the White Wolf, the Butcher of Blaviken, stopping by the side of the road to help someone fix shrines, or looking for someone's stolen horse? If you were to play as a true witcher and only do the monster-hunting contracts, main story, and favors for personal friends, you'd probably end up skipping over half of what the game has to offer.



THE UGLY: No penalty for stealing from people's homes

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, also known as The Witcher 3: Petty Theft Simulator, is a game in which you can steal everything that isn't nailed down, from every peasant and noble citizen's home, right in front of their eyes, with no repercussions whatsoever. This is part of the reason the world doesn't always feel alive, because no one makes any reaction to you barging into their homes and taking everything off their shelves. The only time it matters is if you steal within sight of the city guard, but that situation almost never comes into play because the city guard isn't stationed inside people's homes, and a lot of containers that are within sight of guards aren't marked as personal property, so the game doesn't consider it stealing when you loot their contents. It's not a game-breaking issue, but it does break my suspension of disbelief that no one cares about their personal property.


THE UGLY: Too much useless junk cluttering inventory

You loot a ton of stuff in this game, most of which is completely pointless junk like forks, plates, broken rakes, or melted candles, to name just a few, or components like plants, leather, minerals, and monster parts used in alchemy and crafting. Everything in the game technically has a use; junk can be sold to shopkeepers to increase your income, or can be dismantled to form crafting components, which are themselves used to create new gear and other, more advanced crafting components. The problem, here, is that you're simply bombarded with an excessive, overwhelming amount of stuff, most of which you'll never actually use, and then it just sits around cluttering your inventory. I actually reached a point in the game when I had so many crafting and alchemy items that the game would lag out for a few seconds every time I opened that tab of my inventory screen.



THE UGLY: Nothing to spend money on

Since you either find or craft all of the good stuff you'd ever use in the game, money has essentially no value and no purpose. The only things worth spending money on are recipes for potions, bombs, and blade oils (but these become fewer and fewer as you play the game), rare herbs that you can't find in the wild or that simply don't exist elsewhere, strong alcohol for creating more advanced alchemical substances and potions, and repairs for your weapons and armor (which becomes less of a necessity as you accumulate more and more repair kits). These purchases make up only a tiny fraction of your total income. You end up with tens of thousands of coins and nothing to spend them on, which contributes to the overall feeling of not progressing and not getting stronger that permeates the entire game, because gold is treated like a reward for quests and exploration but in reality it does you no good.


THE UGLY: Quest rewards scale down as you level up

Point of fact: you are going to become over-leveled in this game, even more so if you're a diligent explorer and completionist who does everything he can before moving on to another area. When this inevitably happens, quests that are deemed too low-level for you start giving less experience and less reward to a point when they eventually stop giving you rewards altogether. The intent, I suppose, is to slow your leveling so you don't out-level everything in sight, but that still happens at an alarmingly fast rate, even with this down-scaling, which yet again contributes to the overall feeling of slow progression. After a while of clearing these greyed-out, low-level quests from my journal, it started to feel like a chore -- a waste of time.



THE UGLY: Limited overlap between quests

The bulk of quests in TW3 are completely stand-alone and have no relation to any other quest, character, or location, and in a lot of cases where quests might appear to overlap, they're really just running in parallel with one another -- usually nothing that happens within a quest will affect anything outside of their own specific quest-line. In that regard, it doesn't really matter how you choose to solve quests because the impact will almost never carry over to anything else, except that in future plays you'd be able to choose something different and maybe see something new. This is another side-effect of an open-world game striving to be completely open and accessible, so that any bit of content can be completed at any time in the game, regardless of what else you've already done, or in other cases, not done.


THE UGLY: Long, frequent cutscenes hold players hostage

I encountered a lot of instances when the game forced me to keep playing much longer than I intended because cutscenes, dialogue, and story sequences would seize all control from me and force me to sit through everything before putting me back in control so I could save and exit the game. On one occasion, I wanted to just turn in a quest and go to sleep, but upon doing so I ended up having to sit through 20 minutes of cutscenes, and then got dropped into a five-minute gameplay segment which didn't feel right to interrupt by saving and quitting because it would've ruined the narrative pacing to delay the story's continuation by 20 hours, and then had to watch another 5-10 minutes of cutscenes before it was all finally over. On a night when I had to be up early the next morning, the game unexpectedly forced me to stay up an extra 30 minutes later than I wanted.


THE UGLY: The Battle of Kaer Morhen is a little disappointing

The Battle of Kaer Morhen is the main climax that the game spends up to 100 hours building towards, the grand culmination of your quest to find Ciri and fight off the Wild Hunt. You go back to everyone you've met over the course of the game cashing in favors so that they'll come help you, assembling a Super Team of badass allies. When you're ready to start preparing for the fight, you meet everyone one-by-one as you work your way from the entrance of Kaer Morhen up to the inner keep, and get to see what everyone's planning and how each individual will offer unique assistance. You then get to make a few decisions about what to do (brew some potions or lay traps around the castle's exterior, reinforce the walls or clear the way to the armory). But then you don't actually get to do any of the prep work yourself, a lot of stuff seems to have little to no effect on the actual battle, and the entire fight is broken into a bunch of tiny, self-contained sections separated by loading screens, cutscenes, and really specific objectives that force you to focus on one little thing at a time, one after another.


As with the dialogue and storyboarding of the main quest-line, it felt to me like the Battle of Kaer Morhen was designed to play out a very specific way, with only a couple variables changing the outcome (or the path to the outcome) in any significant way. It was supposed to be this grand, epic castle siege as you try to fight off hordes and waves of Wild Hunt soldiers, but the scale felt tiny and claustrophobic to me because you're always in these tiny, instanced scenarios: "Go here and kill that, go there and close that portal, go there and flip the lever," and so on, with no concern whatsoever for any greater, over-arching goal, because the instanced scenarios made it clear nothing was ever going to happen off-screen, and you never had to worry about possibly failing. I would've much rather preferred if the Battle of Kaer Morhen had been just one, big fight with you having to defend multiple angles of entry, perhaps with status meters indicating when a side was getting overrun, or when a wall was about to collapse, thus forcing you to react to these different situations and making your own choices, instead of simply following a linear series of events that are totally scripted beyond your control.


THE UGLY: Playing as Ciri

Occasionally throughout the main story you get to play flashbacks as Ciri, to see from her perspective what she went through at each step of her journey, while Geralt is always two or three steps behind her. Some people might like getting to play as Ciri, but I always found it jarring; you spend 100+ hours as Geralt building an association with that character and tailoring his skills and equipment to your own desires, and then suddenly the game says "Ok, now you're a completely different person, and none of the stuff you've been doing to improve your character applies here." It's kind of cool that you get to feel how Ciri gets stronger over the course of the game through actual hands-on experience, but I still found it annoying every time I switched to her, and it was kind of boring playing as her in the second half of the story when she's one-shotting everything with lightning-quick ninja moves that take no effort on your part to pull off.



THE UGLY: Gwent is pay-to-win

Gwent is a card game that CD Projekt designed and put into TW3 to replace the dice poker mini-game. It now exists as its own stand-alone game, and you could even, for a time, buy physical decks to play in real life. It's a fun little game that reminds me a lot of Blue Moon Legends, an actual card game by Reiner Knizia that I own and rather enjoy, which made me really intrigued once I realized that the card game in TW3 is actually a good, interesting game system, and not just some gimicky mini-game. That said, as it exists in TW3, Gwent is pay-to-win, which I find absolutely abhorrent.

In a nutshell, Gwent works by playing cards from your hand, which you draw from your pre-built deck, with the ultimate goal of having a higher total value of cards in play than your opponent at the end of a round. The game lasts up to three rounds, with the winner being whomever wins two of the three rounds. So, the crux of the gameplay is baiting your opponent to play cards a certain way so that you can, essentially, spring a trap on him, while also making sure that you're pacing yourself for all three rounds, possibly forfeiting a battle so that you can win the war.


The problem I have with Gwent, as it's implemented in the game, is that there are relatively few restrictions on how you can build your deck, and with different cards simply being more powerful than others, a deck that's loaded with higher-value cards will basically always win against a weaker deck. They start you out with a crappy beginner deck, and if you want to make your deck stronger you have to spend in-game currency buying better cards, or else win better cards by beating other players, which is kind of a catch-22 because you often need better cards in your deck to beat certain players in order to win better cards. I had fun playing a few matches early on, but once I realized that individual decks can be so highly imbalanced and that you have to spend a lot of money buying better cards, I swore it off and never touched it again.


IN CONCLUSION

That was a lot of criticism, both in "the bad" and "the ugly" sections, and perhaps "the good" section didn't do the game enough justice, so let me be clear at the top of my conclusion by saying that I liked The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. It has a lot of good things going for it, and it's easily one of the best open-world RPGs ever made, but that almost says more about the state of open-world games than it does about the game itself. Open-world games tend to have a lot of inherent problems, usually to do with pacing, balance, and depth of mechanics, and TW3 suffers from nearly all of them, albeit not as badly as some other games. The sheer size and length of the game, meanwhile, make all of its weaker elements stand out even more as the game drags on and begins to outstay its welcome.

I firmly believe that TW3 could've been a leaner, tighter, and more satisfying game if CD Projekt had trimmed some more of the fat and given us a somewhat smaller but more tightly-focused game. The Witcher 3 didn't need to be as big as it is, and I feel like it suffers for it. Ultimately, I like some other open-world games better, such as Gothic, Fallout, STALKER, and Dragon's Dogma to name a few, but none of those games come close to matching the epic scale or production value of TW3. It's kind of a shame that most of the praise I can give for TW3 comes with a qualifier ("it's exceptionally good for an open-world RPG of this size," or "it's better than that other major open-world game from 2011") because its characters, stories, and world are so entertaining and engaging. Sadly, its gameplay doesn't always live up to rest of its high aspirations, and it leaves me feeling a little empty when I think about how much better it could have been.


DLC REVIEWS

If you're interested in my thoughts on the two DLC expansions for The Witcher 3, check out my separate articles on each one:

The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone - Review
The Witcher 3: Blood & Wine - Review

15 comments:

  1. As for my experience, the main story was bogged down and i agree the combat is clunky. but what's important is that i have a great time with this game..playing on the 5th now.


    DWTerminator's review of this game.. he said that the game is not for everyone and not for those people who wants to level up faster and this game is pretty much a European RPG.. a kind of slow burn, slow character progression.

    will you play the expansions?

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    1. I have both expansions already installed and ready to go, I just wanted to finish and review the base game before tackling them. I'll review them separately, unless I don't have much to say about HoS in which case I'll lump them together. Probably going to bump the difficulty back up to Death March and respec to an alchemy hybrid build, too.

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  2. It's a better review than the review of Skyrim ever was.

    Still, dismissing Gwent on the grounds that it's pay-to-win? I don't know what to say.

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    1. I think Gwent is a fun and interesting game system, but the pay-to-win aspect and really lax rules for deck construction meant that it just wan't worth the time, effort, or cost for me to invest in playing it, considering how difficult the overall game is at the very beginning and how scarce money is when you're first starting out.

      Given the choice between spending my limited budget on things like equipment upgrades and supplies that will help me survive in a game that's kicking my ass, versus buying over-priced cards for an optional mini-game, I'm going to spend my money on the more practical stuff. By the time I felt like I had enough spare cash to maybe afford getting into Gwent, I'd already passed up so many matches and tournaments that I didn't want to (and in some cases, COULDN'T) go back and try to hunt down everything I'd previously missed.

      I spend a lot of money in real life on card games and board games, and I make it a point to stay far away from anything with a collectible element for several reasons: 1) they ALWAYS end up costing more than non-collectible games, 2) it's a hassle to keep up with updates and new releases if you want to stay competitive, and 3) they tend to favor whomever's spent the most money on their stuff.

      So, if Gwent were sold in real life as a boxed product with all ~200 cards in it, or followed the Living Card Game model and offered a cheaper, smaller core set with fixed expansions -- none of this randomized, blind-buy boosters packs nonsense -- and had strict rules about constructing balanced decks (cannot exceed X total power, X heroes, X specials, etc), then I would honestly be interested in buying and playing it.

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    2. In Witcher 3, buying new Gwent cards from merchants is negligible compared to winning them from NPCs. Each of them give you some card when you win with them for the first time, that's how you grow your deck. You don't lose your cards if you lose, you don't have to bet lots of money, which is why Gwent in W3 is not what a real world pay-to-win card game is.

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    3. "Gwent in W3 is not what a real world pay-to-win card game is."

      I realize that, but the point still stands: Gwent's rules are imbalanced and offer significant advantages to players with better decks. Although you CAN build your deck without spending any money on it, a player who DOES is going to have a much easier time winning games, and a LOT of cards can ONLY be obtained by purchasing them from a merchant. No matter how you got the cards (buying them P2W-style or earning them F2P-style) a player with better cards is going to have an unfair advantage, which is practically game-breaking in my eyes.

      Imagine a game of chess in which one side plays with all the usual pieces, but the other player gets to replace all of his pawns with bishops, rooks, and knights; imagine a game of football where one team gets to play with the usual 11 players on the field and the other team gets to field 16. Why would you ever want to play in one of these games, when one side has an unfair advantage and is practically guaranteed to win every time?

      Games are supposed to be about skill, putting players on a roughly even playing field where a player's skill, ability, wit, strategy, etc, determine who will win the game. There's definitely a lot of skill and strategy that comes into play with Gwent (although the computer's AI can easily be exploited), but good skill/strategy can be completely offset by simply having better cards than your opponent. You could, in real life, enact some house-rules for the sake of balance, to ensure that players' decks are of roughly equal strength, but you can't do that in the game.

      As a matter of principle, I just don't want to play a competitive game where one's stats can potentially have a greater effect on the outcome than one's own ability. Not to mention, I just didn't feel like putting in the time, effort, or money to start from scratch building a Gwent deck when I already have Blue Moon Legends sitting on my shelf, which I could take down at any time and play against a live opponent.

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    4. The point that stands is that you've admitted that you didn't play it, yet put it in the 'Ugly' category :)

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    5. I played everyone in White Orchard and the guy in Vizima with the over-powered deck, which was enough for me to get a feel for the game and also realize that the rules are not balanced. "Gwent is pay-to-win" is in "The Ugly" section of my review because I find that aspect of it 100%, absolutely, and decidedly ugly. If that's a problem to you, then I don't know what to say.

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    6. Actually the review of Skyrim was extremely good (and so is this one)

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  3. This is the first time I've played a game before you review it, and I gotta say, I'm surprised you didn't touch on the new god awful alchemy system. Whereas before you collected ingredients to make as many as you could, now you're limited to a select few uses per potion and bomb. Both of which are completely restocked with a single strong alcohol, of which I had hundreds defeating the purpose, regardless of how many potions or bombs you've actually used up. Potions last a few seconds before speccing in the alchemy tree which just lessened the feel of them being potent witcher tools. I hardly used any decoctions other than the echidna one since they were all just too situational. Oils are broken. You can use them an infinite number of times for a constant passive damage boost.

    As for the first impressions, I actually enjoyed the first few hours the most and steadily disliked the game as it progressed. I played it on Death March all the way through. Oh, and higher difficulties don't increase enemy health, at least not by any amount I could notice. They just do more damage and have more aggressive AIs. Not that it really matters. You can still kill them by button mashing and the only way I could get any challenge out of the end game was to purposely gimp myself by limiting my perks to only the first two combat rows and the first row for both signs and alchemy. Yes, I fiddled with the alternative signs but they were too OP, especially active quen.

    Overall I enjoyed the game, but it really bothers me to no end that a lot of its problems were mostly nonexistent in the previous installments. I guess less would've been more?

    I haven't started it yet, but I hear Hearts of Stone actually has an investigation quest that doesn't solve itself.

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    1. Honestly, I forgot about alchemy altogether, probably because I barely used it at all in this game and subconsciously resigned myself to it being lame and streamlined like was already happening in TW2. I may go back and add a section on alchemy into the original review at some point.

      I'm gonna play HOS and B&W in Death March with a combat/alchemy build (went pure signs on Blood and Broken Bones for base game), so hopefully that'll give me a better sampling of everything, and perhaps make the combat a little more interesting for at least a little while, if only because I'll be doing something slightly different than before.

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    2. I just finished Hearts of Stone, and there IS an investigation-type quest in it where you have to find the solution mostly on your own, instead of simply following the witcher senses to the obvious conclusion, but the whole quest only lasts a few minutes and is totally missable, depending on your choices in the main questline. However, there are a couple other investigation-type quests that are perhaps even MORE straightforward than the Novigrad serial killer quest, because at least in that one you have the OPTION to make a wrong decision (even if the right one is completely obvious to anyone with an ounce of patience and a relatively cool head).

      As for alchemy, I played all of Hearts of Stone with a combat/alchemy build, and I gotta say I have mixed feelings on alchemy. It's mindlessly streamlined to the point that there's almost no effort involved in making or maintaining your supplies (I would've preferred still needing all the ingredients every time you resupply, and making "top-up all your supplies" optional instead of fully automatic), but I think I'm ok with potions arbitrarily being restricted to X number of uses at a time because I feel like that adds some balance to the game by not being able to overstock and have an endless supply of potions/bombs/oils during tough fights or long sections of the game when you can't stop to meditate and brew some more.

      The main nuisance I had with alchemy was that, because it's all so situational, I had to constantly go into the inventory screen to switch potions, bombs, and blade oils, at the start of almost every fight. "I'm fighting a bunch of human knights? Time to switch to hanged-man's venom and thunderbolt. Now I'm fighting venomous arachas? Time to switch to insectoid oil and Golden Oriole." That got awfully tedious.

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    3. Late reply, I know.

      Well, that's interesting to hear. I just read those reviews as well.

      And don't fret about Gwent. I ignored it on my first play through as well. It's pretty good once you get into it, but everyone you play has the same deck late game with only their factions offering a real difference. Yours will be similar as well since a lot of cards become obsolete by then. Triss' card really bothers me in particular. You'll know what I mean if you ever try the mini game out.

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  4. Great review, as usual :).

    I just want to add something about Gwent that I read in a deconstruction of the game - it being pay-to-win with in-game money supposedly solves your late-game problem of not having anything to do with gold. You can just wait until that point in the game before you start doing the Gwent quests, and then buy any cards you can find.

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  5. My small review:

    Goods:-

    1. Music, the music stayed with me even after the game ended. I really like the Main Menu Song - Lullaby of the woe.

    2. Visuals, to be expected honestly. The mystical feeling and the overall impressive post processing were quite good.

    3. Loading Time, did the game even freaking load? ;)

    Bads:

    1. Combat, the combat is just bad. It is not game breaking by any means but it feels quite odd that they didn't make it any better considering the overall game.

    Not-Full Open Ended, I expected a Skyrim like open world with no loading in between location. I was disappointing. The world is leagues ahead of Skyrim in overall terms but it just doesn't feel like Skyrim's. It feels more like an Assassin Creed world than TES world if you know what I mean.

    Overall: 9/10! Loved it!

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