Modern gaming suffers from an abundance of possibility. There are so many strengths a game can have and, realistically speaking, you can’t have everything in one project. One can break down the endless possibilities into three basic categories, which include a story, an open world, and the graphics/gameplay combination. The Telltale Walking Dead series contains some great stories, but foregoes the benefits of a technological masterpiece or a wide-open adventure. A Sims game or Minecraft will let you build and explore your own world, but they don’t offer much as far as mechanics and a narrative are concerned. The Order looks and feels amazing, but the story is a mess and you can probably spend more time exploring your own house.
Some games go above and beyond to deliver more than one point of this holy gaming trinity. On average, a good or great game can afford (in terms of both money and time) to choose two of the three and play to those strengths. The Last of Us is an example of elite storytelling throughout a technical masterpiece. The story, however, is linear. They weren’t really going for an open world adventure, and Naughty Dog (as per usual) aimed for two of our three points and perfected them both. Fallout 4 presented most expansive and malleable gaming world we’ve ever seen. But they’re a bit behind in the graphics race against developers that continue to raise the industry’s aesthetic bar. And then you have the Far Cry 4’s of the world. That game looks great, feels great, and gives you plenty of land to explore. But you have no idea what’s actually going on the entire time, because they don’t either.
Metal Gear Solid V almost achieved the holy trinity. It’s the best looking game I’ve ever seen, the gameplay is tight and well thought out, and the world (while somewhat bland) is huge. But the signature quality of MGS storytelling is uncharacteristically inconsistent, almost nonexistent outside of a few memorable moments. They scratched the surface of the gaming trinity, one I hadn’t really seen since GTA V back in 2013. So why the lengthy intro? To celebrate the birthday of one The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, the 2015 game that achieved perfection.
Let’s start slow and lead off with the graphics and gameplay. I don’t want to underappreciate visuals by saying it’s easy or expected to look great in today’s gaming. But the standards are high, standards that Witcher 3 certainly lives up to. Geralt’s character model in particular is one of the most detailed and well-crafted appearances in all of gaming. That goes a long way towards character development. Our three points of the trifecta tend to help each other out when done well. Costume design builds character. Environmental design builds a world. Aside from the fact that almost every unimportant child looks the same, or how some of your friendly neighborhood strumpets look like they were made in the same factory line (not like I’d know), every named character is visually unique and all around cool in his or her own way.
The level of creativity shown towards the monsters and enemies is even more impressive in terms of sheer volume. When one beast looks and moves so drastically different from the last, you actually feel as if you’re doing a Witcher’s work in the face of new and exciting challenges. The world itself is given that same variety. Few games go beyond the same few skins for common locations and repeated settings. Dragon Age excelled in this same area about six months prior to Witcher 3’s release. Skyrim is one of my favorite games of all time, but my goodness do 99% of the dungeons look exactly the same. Witcher takes you on a tremendous journey throughout a few regions that actually feel as if you’re experiencing different nations, atmospheres and cultures. I had played for over 50 hours before the main story ended, and in one of the final sequences was brought to a location that looked completely different from anything I had seen up until that point. All the way to and through the end, DLC included, the visual storytelling never gets lazy.
Gameplay is similarly intricate, while leaving the door open to a variety of playing styles. If you’re not too into Role Playing Games and just want to button mash your way through and enjoy the story, you can happily square button your way to victory time and time again. The animations themselves can do the work as Geralt decimates his foes with cinematic quality. If you want and can handle the full experience, the game offers an arsenal of attacks and strategies that force you to approach each and every encounter in a way that provides the greatest advantage. You can light/heavy attack, block, dodge and parry away to win via steel. You can just as easily dip into various potions and compounds while cycling through the Witcher’s mystical abilities. Most importantly, gameplay should be able to convince you that you are as capable as the virtual protagonist. Shadow of Mordor isn’t the deepest title of all time, but I felt as if I was a wraith-fueled warrior pillaging Mordor’s Orc population. That was some excellent gameplay, and being Geralt grants that same satisfaction with added layers of intricate combat. The enemies stand up to his challenge, with some of the best boss battles out there. It isn’t Dark Souls in this regard, but you’ll actually feel as if you’re on the hunt. There are no predictably stale attack patterns; just a to-the-death fight against every contract or unwise killer you encounter.
Considering how smart the CD Projekt RED developers were in every other aspect of the game, I imagine they knew that this third installment would be an introduction to the franchise for many new and incoming fans. It was my first Witcher game, as is the case for most people I’ve spoken to about it. I feel as if the game welcomes new players and catches them up to speed without something as telegraphed as a “previously on” segment. Before long, it was as if I had been playing the entire series, aside from most likely missing a few cheeky references to their previous games. With that said, I also feel the game wasn’t dumbed down at all, and still provided a meaningful leap forward for returning fans expecting Geralt’s biggest and best adventure yet. This all contributes to the world building aspect of our trinity.
This was the Witcher’s first crack at a full-on open world game. Given what we’ve now experienced from Wild Hunt, I couldn’t picture the franchise ever being anything else. Today’s technological capabilities have unlocked the franchise’s full potential. As mentioned earlier, the world feels dynamic and alive. And that’s not just because of Geralt’s real-time growing beard. Because his beard grows based on the passing of time in the game, separated by story moments where he has to shave. That’s a level of detail that’d give the Super Mario Bros developers a heart attack. The geopolitical tension, wars and overall presence definitely takes a backseat to Geralt’s more personal journey, but still provides a quality secondary set of storylines that are cumulatively better than most primary plots we see in today’s gaming. Even one-off side quests like Geralt getting drunk to lure an alcohol-based vampire is more entertaining with a better narrative structure than the entirety of Destiny. Caring about your protagonist and the top to bottom cast is essential but, once you also care about the world as a whole, you are fully immersed in whatever you’re watching or playing. Traversing the land to discover new places with Roach, when he cooperates, can be as fun as any fight in the game.
In case you’re not already sold or remembering the game fondly, the storytelling is the aspect of Wild Hunt that far exceeds anything else we’ve discussed here. The combat, graphics, and world are all great but they can be individually matched by other games out there. But the only games that match this level of narrative genius are stories that are maybe one third of the duration and don’t include any side quests. BioShock will forever be the gold standard of video games becoming art, and it should be. Without that game we’d still be mindlessly clearing levels, stopping at the door of video game fun without nudging it open to see what lies beyond. This legendary story is also less than twenty hours long and contains one continuously developing plot. The Witcher 3 maintains a similar level of quality writing over the course of 100+ hours, countless quests and nearly infinite dialogue. The number and amount of storylines makes Game of Thrones look as if they could probably do a little more with their time.
Geralt follows the poetic irony of a hero chemically drained of all emotion who of course carries more depth than anyone you’ve ever controlled. He forms meaningful connections, of all kinds, with the supporting cast that carry the already pleasing fantasy themes of monsters and magic. There is no shortage of humor and heart, with a tonal balance that outshines most movies. The pacing between large-scale events or action and smaller, character driven moments avoids both the overexposure to grand spectacle and any risk of boredom. I’ll beat the term character development to death while discussing this game, but only because it is the greatest strength in a sea of great strengths associated with this game. The dynamic dialogue, filled with endless options, allow the player flexibility while never straying from Geralt’s core personality and values.
Witcher 3 isn’t the most casual game, and the commitment required to make real progress can be intimidating. But if you’re not the type to shy away from that sort of thing, or you’re just open to great games of any kind, then this is absolutely worth your time. Games today will attempt to sell you 40% of a finished product, then another 40% through DLC over the following twelve months. You end up with well over a hundred dollars towards less than an entire game. Witcher 3 gave about a game and a half upfront, then quality expansions that function as a solid sequel. You can get your Witcher money’s worth on Gwent alone, a card game within a game that provides more enjoyment than entire games elsewhere. Preordering has been made out to be the devil of modern gaming, but that’s a ridiculous movement. You just need to know where to put your money. A quick guide to preordering: if it’s Rockstar, Naughty Dog or (after this title) Projekt RED, do it. Anyone else, maybe take your time and read some reviews. Movement over.
It might just be a perfect storm of development mastery and my personal taste, but The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is my all-around favorite game of all time. This is a very happy anniversary to celebrate, because after a full year the game is still relevant with plenty to offer. The Blood and Wine expansion is only twelve days away, and will add a storyline that rivals the main campaign in sheer runtime. I cannot sing the praises of this game enough, and it’s nice to watch a finished product deflate every negative stereotype that weighs down the reputation of modern gaming. You can’t just look at Call of Duty and whine about how far we’ve strayed from Ocarina of Time. In many ways, gaming is better than ever, and titles like The Witcher 3 make that statement possible.