Along with a small number of Polish journalists, I was warmly welcomed into the heart of CD Projekt Red for a first look at The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Since its presence at E3 earlier this year fans of The Witcher Saga and RPGs alike have been eager to know what to expect from the third installment of the series; my initial impression is that they will not be disappointed. Wild Hunt will mark a significant departure from the saga’s previous titles, specifically in two ways. The first is that this game will be set across a sprawling, open world, the biggest of any of the series. The second is that the story-telling, the heart of every Epic fantasy, will be entirely non-linear. It is anticipated that Wild Hunt may well redefine our expectations of RPGs and it is evidently the pride and joy of the Polish-based studio.
I write “pride and joy” because it is readily apparent how excited the team at CD Projekt Red are to be producing this game. As I mentioned in a previous interview, from the moment you step into the Warsaw-based studio it is evident that the company loves their product. It’s not just the suits of armour or the towering posters of the franchises hero, ‘Geralt of Rivia’, that betray this but the throngs of beaming staff eagerly working away in their various roles of shaping this epic adventure. And it is Epic. The workload in producing a game not only thirty-five times larger than the Witcher 2 but also three times longer in terms of game play (100 hours) is immense. During a tour of the studio we are told that as much as 20 hours go into the design just of each monster (and there will over 80), countless hours are also being spent to ensure that NPCs are more readable from facial expressions alone. Despite this workload, no matter how grueling or indeed, tedious the task, everyone seems genuinely excited to be working on this game. It is indeed a labour of love at CD Projekt Red.
Returning to the conference room, we are joined by gameplay producer Marek Ziemak who, as the room is darkened and a Witcher 3: Wild Hunt game menu appears, talks us through the next 40 minutes of what I can only describe- without hyperbole – as breathtaking game play; and this was only pre-alpha build. From the first moment we see Geralt astride his white horse in a land reminiscent of Iceland; I can see why the staff at CD Projekt Red are so proud of their work. Visually, the game is stunning. Small trees and mountain heather sway in a wind – that I swear looks salty – as Geralt rides towards a castle perched at the top of a road framed on one side by a sheer drop and the other by a cliff face, carved by the (possibly salty) winds. Riding will be essential in the new game with distances so vast that it will take 40 minutes to ride from one side of the game world to the other. There’s also of course, the possibility of sailing.
From what I saw both means of travel appear effortless to manage. In fact, it is surprising that hitherto there has been so little discussion on how seamlessly Geralt takes to Horseback in The Witcher 3. I am always sceptical of horses in RPGs, particularly in a fantasy setting and to be honest, with the exception of Red Dead Redemption, the last decent horse mechanics I experienced in an RPG were way back in Majora’s Mask. That said, horseback works for Geralt; the familiarity with third person control provides and obvious advantage for The Witcher 3 compared with the incongruity of say, Skyrim’s 1st person/3rd person horse riding dichotomy…
To return to the demo, we continue to follow Geralt as he meets an old friend in the before-mentioned precipitous keep. At this point as Geralt and friend discuss some of the important points of the game’s main quest, we are told to expect a new conversation system in the saga’s third installment. At this stage it can only be hypothesised how this will translate, however given the focus on reading facial dispositions, we might expect to see something along these lines. That said, the character animation at this pre-alpha stage is incredibly fluid, with the few conversations we were shown more cinematic than in previous installments. A definite sense of momentum is also maintained in the few sequences shown during the demo, again, moving away from static shot, reverse shot conversations seen in previous games.
The goal of creating a fluid, cinematic experience informs much of the design of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. With a sprawling, entirely open world, significantly larger than previous Witcher games, the game’s designers are presented with a vast palette to work with. As lead quest designer Mateusz Tomaszkiewicz concludes; “this gives us opportunities to do things that we couldn’t do in The Witcher 2”. This is seemingly both as much a challenge as it is an advantage, Tomaszkiewicz continues; “This vastness is like a double-edged sword. On one hand you have this vast space you can use, on the other you have to remember the pacing of the quests.” One of the challenges of this open world and one of the main driving forces behind both quest and level design in The Witcher 3 is to change the motivations behind questing. Rather than players being given quests, Wild Hunt will attempt to have players find quests. Part of this means creating a world that actively encourages players to roam, seeking interesting landmarks, tracking particular monsters or following sounds heard off the beaten path. At one point during the demo, a commotion can be heard just off the main road. Turning aside from the main quest, Geralt discovers a house beset by a group of bandits. Choosing to interact may have an impact on later quests or maybe nothing at all. Geralt may choose to continue riding, which in itself may have consequences. Gamers familiar with previous Witcher games will be happy to know that the consequence system remains in the third installment of the saga. The feature that will of course have a significant impact on this system is that story-telling in The Witcher 3 is non-linear. Therefore the order in which players undertake particular quests will have additional consequences over the course of the game; an ambition that no doubt will be the product of countless cluttered blackboards full of cause and effect models.
Monster hunting has also been significantly revamped. Rather than traipsing into a particular location at a particular time, Geralt will now have to track his prey, investigate for clues in the local flora and fauna and even enlist (or perhaps incite) the services of the locals in the pursuit of a single monster. Of course finding the beast is only part of the challenge as at some point it is likely Geralt will have to put one of his swords to the test and that is another mechanic that has received an upgrade. Players now have at their disposal a combat system designed with the responsiveness of a dedicated fighter. From what we could see from the pre-alpha build, this will lead to some exciting combat, with players able to seamlessly weave sword strokes and magic while dancing around their foes. The new cinematic style of combat, also means that combat also appears visually dynamic, time slowing periodically to allow a closer inspection as Geralt performs a particularly devastating counter attack, for example.
To conclude, from what I have seen of The Witcher 3; Wild Hunt I can understand the anticipation that this game will bring RPGs into a new era. For a demo that is only in pre-alpha, I was simply blown away. Even at this early stage, it should be said that this game is a testament to the dedication of the team at CD Projekt Red to producing the best possible product for their fans and indeed, to the obvious enthusiasm and genuine passion they have for this work. We can only hope that it’s not too long before we get a chance to see more.