Until E3 this year, I had never played a Witcher game. In fact, it was only this year that I even discovered what - well, who - The Witcher was. If you're a diehard fan of the series, I'm very sorry, but if it helps: I am currently downloading both the first and the second games on Steam to make up for lost time.
If you're like me, and haven’t really followed the series, Witchers are monster hunters who receive special training from childhood, and their bodies are modified to give them supernatural abilities to aid in their battles. The Witcher 3, like the previous two games, focuses on the best-known Witcher from this world, a man named Geralt of Rivia.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt will actually be the final installment in Geralt's story, but will not follow on from The Witcher 2. The Witcher 3 will tell Geralt's personal story as the Empire of NIlfgaard and the Wild Hunt invade the Northern Kingdoms.
We were shown around 40 minutes of gameplay from partway through the game, as the developers from CD Projekt Red highlighted Wild Hunt's new features, engine and story. The demo began in Skellige, an archipelago inspired by Celtic and Norse mythology. And it looked absolutely stunning - a valid description of all the areas in the world we were shown. We were on the biggest island in the archipelago, which, we were informed, was bigger than the entire world of The Witcher 2. How big does that make the entire game? Thirty-five times bigger. A world big enough that it takes 40 minutes to ride on horseback from one end to the other. Pretty huge.
From here we hopped in our boat (yes, our boat, with a little sail and everything) and headed to investigate news that an entire village save one man had been wiped out by the Wild Hunt. We didn't have to spend forty minutes sailing the entire way to our next destination, but were able to use the new fast travel mechanic instead.
Before they followed up the story side of the demo, the developers took the time to show us a little of the game's open world. We were wandering through some very pleasant countryside, complete with deer and rabbits; when we came across a small cabin surrounded by bandits. We proceeded to hack them to bits. CD Projekt Red told us they had attempted to build the combat mechanic to have the "speed and precision of a dedicated fighting game." Geralt's animations were incredibly fluid, and the fight had none of the clunkiness you might have come to expect from a game of this size and scope.
After clearing out the bandits, we wandered off looking for trouble. Boy did we find it. We stumbled across a ‘fiend’. A terrifying half stag half…fiend? creature that didn't look friendly. At first the combat was fairly simple: the enemy charged us, we dodged, then stabbed it in the back. So far, so standard. But then, the monster hypnotised Geralt. I know, right?
Using its ‘third eye’, the fiend is able to hypnotise the player and disappear from view. You're then attacked from a random direction, having to react and dodge to avoid taking damage. Geralt countered this using the 'Igni Sign' - trying to set the monster on fire with magic.
The Igni Sign worked well to stall the monster, but Geralt wasn't able to get the kill. Eventually we were hypnotised again, and the monster used the chance to escape. If we had wanted, we could have attempted to track the monster and kill it, but we were on a deadline.
The developers took us to the village and the sole survivor of the attack, but our questions were interrupted. Someone was found murdered on the outskirts of the village, supposedly by the local woodland god. The villagers explained to Geralt that they had not been able to make sacrifices or offerings to him, and he was taking vengeance. Geralt, of course, knew better and explained this was just a monster, and that for the right price, he would take care of it for them.
But there were two factions within the village, unable to decide on which course of action to take. The elders wanted Geralt to leave, fearing he would further anger the spirit; and the younger villagers wanted to pay him to kill the monster. The player is given the choice as to which part of the village to side with - he can kill the monster, or simply leave. We were told choices like this feature prominently not just in the central story arc of the game, but even here in simple world gameplay.
For the sake of the demo, we chose to investigate and kill the monster. We headed into the forest looking for signs that might tell us exactly what we were dealing with. This gave the developers a chance to show off the newest addition to the game, "Witcher Senses". The easiest way to describe these is as a reimagining of the Detective Mode mechanic in the Arkham series of Batman games.
When the Witcher Senses are activated, they can be used to track monsters. The world is greyed out, but trails or telltale signs of monsters appear in bright red. Using these signs we found discovered the monster terrorising the town was a 'Leshen'. A Leshen will always pick a victim and draw on its life force. Unless that victim 'leaves the area', the monster will never die.
We return to the village, and report our findings. The leader of the younger faction is emphatic - find who is in league with the monster, and kill them. Using the Witcher Senses again, combined with our Journal (basically a wiki of monsters and their traits), we do so. It turns out to be the faction leader’s love interest.
We reported this to him and he was shaken, but resolute. And so she was killed. I was a little confused here, because Geralt and the developers used the words "leave the area", but the faction leader used the words "kill". There seemed to be no way to correct this misunderstanding, which was odd. But the Witcher series is known for its ‘shades of grey’ morality system. There is never a clearly good or bad decision. By killing this woman, we may be able to save this village, but is her life worth that?
With the woman dead, we moved into the forest to flush out the Leshen. We did so, but a pack of wolves fought alongside him. They moved and attacked like a pack might - encircling Geralt, attacking from multiple sides at once. Eventually we overcame them, and faced off against the Leshen. Weakened by our previous efforts, the fight was not particularly tough. But we had spent a good twenty five minutes working to the point where we could ‘easily’ defeat this one monster. And the developers stressed: this was not a boss, this was not part of the main narrative, this is just something to do in the world.
Returning to the village, all is not well. There seems to have been a coup in our absence, and the elders of the village are no more. This was another reminder of the harsh morality of the world, and that life here does not revolve around the player or their actions. Life continues in our absence, and just because we intervene, all does not turn out well.
To emphasise this aspect of the living world, we were given a sneak peek into the future of the game and the village. We returned later to find the town deserted - even with our efforts, the village was not safe, and was wiped out. Geralt is still a hero, but in a world that doesn't really seem to respect traditional heroes.
The demo ended with some amazing visuals from across the world of The Witcher. We were told the game would be out in 2014 for Xbox One, PS4 and PC. The Witcher 3’s realistic morality system, its stunning visuals and deep combat system got me hooked. Now I just have to hope that The Witcher 1 & 2 are good enough to tide me over.
I design games and enjoy thinking about how they work. Shorter opinionated blatherings can be found on my twitter.