Unlike its predecessor, The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt doesn’t exactly come screaming off the starting line. Compared to The Witcher 2, where you’re immediately plunged headlong into a sexy story of intrigue and betrayal, this main quest can seem mundane, even perfunctory at times. But each time I stepped off the well-beaten path to blaze my own trail, it turned into a wild, open, exhilarating fantasy roleplaying experience, rife with opportunities to make use of its excellent combat. Even after over 100 hours with The Witcher 3, it still tempts me to press on – there’s so much more I want to learn, and hunt.
The Witcher 3 is as dense and deep as the other two games in the series in terms of RPG mechanics, and the overwhelmingly massive open-world environment has at once made that depth more intimidating, and in the long run, more rewarding. It’s difficult to express just how huge and open this world is: verdant, rolling fields liberally dotted with swaying foliage of every shape and size fill the space between loosely connected, ramshackle townships where people struggle to scrape by. A full day/night cycle and dynamic weather pull it all together, cementing The Witcher 3’s landscape as one of the most authentic-feeling open worlds I’ve ever seen. A handy minimap points you where you want to go, which might seem like a crutch, but honestly, without it, I’d have been hopelessly lost. That a world this size still feels so purposeful, and full of things to do is quite an achievement.
The one caveat on all that though, is the technical performance on the PS4 version I played for review. 30 frames per second was sometimes too much to ask, transitions between The Witcher 3’s two main maps are just a bit too long, and minor glitches do pop up from time to time. None of it ever impacted gameplay in any meaningful way, thought it did compromise the beauty of the experience ever so slightly.
This new open-world map obviously has ramifications for the structure of the story, and though there are flashes of greatness, the main story is ultimately the least fulfilling part of The Witcher 3. You might call it another case of The Elder Scrolls Syndrome. Our tale begins as a multi-continent search for Geralt’s long-lost lover Yennifer, and Ciri, his surrogate daughter. My single biggest issue though, is that it never becomes much more: the overly long main story is essentially just Geralt running errands for people in exchange for information on Ciri’s whereabouts. It effectively maintains focus and momentum, but it feels more like a wild goose chase than an intriguing mystery to unravel, like the one we got in Assassins of Kings.
Thanks to lots of excellent dialogue and voice acting there is some emotional payoff along the way, but it’s mixed in with too much padding in the form of meaningless fetch quests and collectathons. Every time I felt like I was on the verge of an interesting revelation, I’d have to suddenly stop to escort a goat, or search for a lost, narcoleptic dwarf. Heck, even Geralt can barely hide his frustration with the constant parade of menial tasks at times.
It’s also worth noting that though you will get along fine without playing the first two games in the series, without the context provided by the Witcher novels, Ciri is more or less a complete stranger until the last quarter of the journey, which made it difficult to care about finding her as much as The Witcher 3 expected me to – especially given the slew of intriguing characters who are relegated to supportive background roles.
Thankfully, they all get chances to shine once you venture off the beaten path, and that’s where The Witcher 3 gets nearly everything incredibly right. Depending on your decisions in The Witcher 2 (which can be handily recreated via some dialogue early in the game), you’ll see lots of familiar faces returning to play a role in Geralt’s search, and once they have, they offer you a secondary line of quests that typically provide far more interesting scenarios to dabble in. Underground turf wars, assassination plots, love triangles, and unexpected alliances are all part of these optional romps. They’re all so meaty and full of rich story content that they feel like they should have been part of the main story.
The same can be said for a lot of the side quests you pick up in the field as well. Aside from the bevy of standard side-quests, monster lairs, and bandit camps generously littered about The Witcher 3’s gargantuan land mass, you also get a bunch of monster-hunting Witcher contracts to persue. Geralt’s quarry ranges from ethereal wraiths that need to be made tangible before you can harm them, to Foglets who conceal themselves in thick smog, waiting for a chance to strike. The payoff here is twofold: in keeping with the lore, these represent your most reliable stream of income, which is refreshingly significant due to an appropriately stingy in-game economy.
The other upside is that, more often than not, these hunts and other side activities provide interesting insights into a land being destroyed by war, and the many forces that play a role in shaping it. Best of all, you’re one of those forces. It may not shift the main story’s conclusion in monumental ways, but I often returned to places I’d visited earlier to find that a seemingly small decision played out in a very big way. There is no morality meter, no paragon or renegade rating. In the grayscale world of The Witcher 3, there is only cause and effect; the decisions you make, both big and small, can legitimately change the world around you – far more so than most games that make similar claims.
Character progression and equipment choices are equally impactful. Relative to The Witcher 2, I found that Witcher 3’s RPG systems have been streamlined in some ways, and made more complex in others. In both cases though, the result is the same: a better experience. Simplifications to how you restock and use potions and oils makes them feel more practical and immediately useful, as you no longer need to meditate to do any of it. Sure, the old way was more in keeping with Witcher lore, but in a wide open world, it makes less sense to expect players to predict and prepare for everything they might come across in advance. On the flip side, there’s a wider variety of powerful, interesting potions than ever, including those that greatly enhance mounted combat, and others that restore health as you cast spells (or Signs as Witchers call them).
Speaking of Signs, they’ve been improved across the board with alternate casting modes, and a wider variety of upgrades, making them impactful in every fight. It’s actually entirely viable to build a sign-focused Geralt. I played him a lot like a Jedi actually, able to influence people’s minds in conversation, a powerful long range “force” push, and the ability to reflect crossbow bolts back to the sender (a returning ability that’s been made far more usable). The new skill system provides a good deal of flexibility while still rewarding players who want min/max for the best builds, and weapon and armor crafting is as deep and nuanced as ever, if not more so.
All of this shines through in The Witcher 3’s responsive, brutal real-time combat. Where combat in this series has up until this point felt vague and even a bit clunky, here it’s so fluid and satisfying that I walk around hoping for bandits to jump me just so I can repel their attacks with magical barriers, parry their blows with uncanny precision, and relieve them of life and/or limb with the occasional gory flourish. The Witcher has always done a great job of making me feel that I’ve outsmarted my foes, but for the first time here, controlling Geralt feels tangibly badass with every successful fight.
Though the straightforward and fetch-quest-heavy main story overstays its welcome, the option of joyfully adventuring through a rich, expansive open world was always there for me when I’d start to burn out. Even if the plot isn’t terribly interesting, the many characters who play a part in it are, and along with the excellent combat and RPG gameplay, they elevate The Witcher 3 to a plane few other RPGs inhabit.Vincent Ingenito is IGN’s foremost fighting game nerd. Follow him on Twitter and argue with everything he says about them.