CD Projekt RED's The Witcher series has quietly been building up steam since the first game's release in 2007, working it's way to up cult classic status to become one of the most inspired RPGs of the last decade. Its 2010 sequel, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kngs, faired even better, launching to critical acclaim and elevating the franchise to blockbuster status. As a result, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, a next-gen sequel coming to PS4, Xbox One, and PCs, is easily one of the most anticipated games of E3 2013. And after sitting down with developer CD Projekt RED to see the game in action, I can see why.
Our demo began with our first real introduction to the Wild Hunt, the enigmatic army of spectres that have plagued Geralt on the periphery of previous Witcher games, and are responsible for his amnesia. A village burns as the dark, heavily armored knight of the Wild Hunt stabs a helpless citizen. One villager, later revealed to be a villager named Bjorn, is able to escape, before the camera looms on an ominous flying ship, sailing through the air towards the village.
Weeks later, and our gameplay demo begins with Geralt investigating the Wild Hunt attack. The demo immediately starts with two of the first new gameplay additions: an open world and horse-back riding. The team has spent the last few weeks making explicit references to Skyrim, and the comparisons are apt. However, the most immediate comparison my mind made was to Red Dead Redemption.
As The Witcher 3 is now open world, Geralt now requires more methods of travel. Geralt can now jump and climb over obstacles as he moves throughout the land. It seems like a subtle change, but it appears to have added a whole new level of verticality to the series. Previous Witcher games suffered from a certain "flatness" to the traversable landscape, but now it seems that Geralt can jump and climb to the highest peaks and the lowest valleys. Our demo also saw Geralt briefly commandeer and steer a boat, giving him an even greater range of motion. We were told that the game's real-time weather system could give rise to storms that could potentially crash Geralt's boat and make him have to swim to shore, but unfortunately we didn't get to see it.
Another complaint from previous Witcher titles was the lack of a fast travel option, resulting in lots of game time spent backtracking to previous locations. The Witcher 3 has remedied this issue, adding a fast-travel option for the first time in the series. Given the open-world nature of the game, this is somewhat of a necessity. CD Projekt however also noted how many purists of open-world games lament fast travel, so they've provided a happy medium by only having various town hubs being the destinations for fast travel, still providing ample room for exploration and immersion.
As Geralt approached the town to begin his investigation of the Wild Hunt, he was drawn into one of the game's many sidequests. It turns out an ancient monster called a Leshen has been terrorizing the villagers for some time, so Geralt agrees to help the townsfolk by ridding them of the monster (monster-slaying is his profession, after all). First, Geralt must track down the Leshen. He begins his investigation by heading into the nearby forest, where he must find and burn down three totems in order to make the Leshen show itself. One of the ways he is able to do this is through his "Witcher Sense", a new ability introduced in The Witcher 3 in which the world goes black and white, save for objects of interest to Geralt that remain highlighted. Similar to Detective Mode in the recent Batman: Arkham games, Geralt uses this ability to find all the totems, causing the Leshen to manifest itself and giving us a glimpse of the game's improved combat.
The Witcher 2 revamped combat from the original by making it faster and more visceral, and the Witcher 3 appears to go even further. Executive Producer John Mamais assured me that RPG fans will still be seeing stats, skill trees, and perks from potions remain staples of The Witcher series, but combat looks like it puts players even more in control of Geralt's actions, and his greater range of motions and animations goes even further to create immersion. Monsters also appear to have a greater effect on Geralt in combat, with the Leshen hypnotizing Geralt and throwing him into a world of smoke and darkness.
Given his occupation, as well as its prominence in other Witcher media such as the novels, it's surprising that monster hunting has not been more of a feature in previous Witcher video games. This is not the case in The Witcher 3, however, as creatures such as the Leshen represent the over 80 unique monsters that Geralt can track down and slay over the course of the game. According to CD Projekt RED, each of these beasts represents their own unique encounters. Indeed, "The Witcher 3 doesn't have boss fights, it has monsters."
The developers seemed to have recognized that boss fights such as the Karyak or the dragon in Witcher 2 have been a weaker aspect of the series, but I was overall confused by the "no boss fights" statement. What about the epic showdowns such as with Letho from The Witcher 2? I asked Mamais to clarify. "Oh, we'll for sure be having climactic encounters in the main story," clarified Mamais, but reiterated that there won't be boss fights in the traditional sense.
After defeating the Lechen and coming back to the village, we got to see the ramifications of our actions. It turns out that even in death the Leshen is able to possess the townsfolk, and the village leader is convinced that one of the villagers has been claimed. He gives Geralt the optional task of finding and killing this villager, and choosing to undertake this quest leads to new discoveries. I don't want to discuss the choice shown in our demo in order to stave off spoilers, but let's just say The Witcher 3 continues the series' theme of grey, morally ambiguous choices.
Choice has been a staple of the series since day one, but what about our choices in previous games? Choices made in The Witcher carried over to playthroughs in The Witcher 2. Will our decisions have any impact in Wild Hunt? According to CD Projekt RED, we better hold on to our save files, at least for the PC versions. Unfortunately for console owners, saves from the Xbox 360 version of The Witcher 2 won't transfer over to the Xbox One version of 3, but CD Projekt stated that they were exploring alternative options for console players, similar to the PS3 version of Mass Effect 2's use of a motion comic adaptation of the first game for players who missed out.
Of all the games I got to see at this year's E3, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt seemed to me to be the most "next-gen". Beyond improved graphics and presentation, The Witcher 3's use of strong, choice-driven narrative, real-time weather effects, and improved combat and other ways to interact with the game's world makes this one of the standout showings at E3. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt won't be launching until sometime in 2014 for PC, PS4 and Xbox One, but judging from this presentation, the wait will be more than worth it.