When CD Projekt RED announced the latest delay for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, the reaction from fans was one of disappointment, but also gratitude. "Waiting longer sucks," people said, "but it’s better than getting a broken, incomplete game."
I thought very much the same thing, and after playing a preview build of the game, this attitude feels vindicated. The Witcher 3, as I played it, is feature complete and great to play, but with a lack of polish that I don’t think could have been cleaned up by the previous February 24 release date.
But let's start with the game's strengths.
There has been a lot of noise about the size and scope The Witcher 3’s open world, and for good reason - this is one of the best-designed open worlds I’ve visited. The build I played covered the early parts of the game, and after a short tutorial, I was dropped into this massive map, with everything it had to offer at my fingertips.
Actually, "dropped" isn’t the right word; "guided" might be more accurate. One of the problems I’ve always had with the likes of the Elder Scrolls series is just how overwhelming they are. You’re thrown into a massive environment with very little structure to guide your actions. Sure, some people thrive on this, and more power to them - but it never takes me long to get bored.
The Witcher 3, meanwhile, caters that audience, while also offering a more linear, structured experience for those who prefer that. An expertly crafted main questline keeps you on a path from A to B, but you’re free to deviate from it at any time. In three hours with the game, I never once felt overwhelmed by the game’s scope, which is more than I can say for any of its contemporaries.
Speaking of deviating, one of my favourite things about The Witcher 3 were the sidequests. RPGs cop a lot of flak for mindless "fetch quests," but they’re non-existent in Wild Hunt. Instead, all the sidequests are basically smaller-scale versions of the same design philosophy driving the main quest lines, with the same attention to quality. One of my favourites had me investigating a ghostly presence in an abandoned town, involving a lot of detective work to figure out what kind of ghost it was, and then to cut whatever was tying the vengeful spirit to the physical world.
Which brings me to one of my favourite features in The Witcher 3: Witcher Sense. Geralt can use his heightened senses to scan the environment for clues, similar to Detective Mode in the Arkham games. It adds a new layer to exploration, and gives the quest designers an exciting new mechanic to use - an opportunity not squandered.
All the sidequests are basically smaller-scale versions of the same design philosophy driving the main quest lines, with the same attention to quality.
This goes some way to making up for surprisingly lacklustre combat. Where Witcher Sense perfectly captures (and improves upon) the Arkham series’ Detective Mode, battles in The Witcher 3 feel like a lazy attempt to recreate Arkham combat. It’s similar in design, calling on players to balance attacking with defensive parries, but it lacks the kind of rhythm and impact that makes Batman’s fights work. Even with a few different spells at your disposal, fights frequently devolve into mashing square or triangle (light attack and heavy attack, respectively) until whatever you’re fighting is dead. An intriguing upgrade system, in which you have limited space to equip earned upgrades, but can swap them around between fights, goes some way to moderating that, but not far enough.
The Witcher is a series that, for all its praise (and it gets a LOT of praise), it’s often been the subject of criticism for how it portrays women - something that it looks like CD Projekt Red have taken to heart, to some extent. Not only does The Witcher 3 have Geralt of Rivia’s apprentice, Ciri, as a playable character, but it looks like a lot of effort has been put into making supporting characters - and women, in particular - as deep and well-realised as possible. It’s refreshing to see questlines in which the key players are women, and really interesting, well-written women at that.
On the other hand, it still clings to the “male gaze” that’s so common in games like this. Case in point, the opening scene has Geralt taking a bath, while his love interest Yennefer sits at a vanity nearby, entirely naked, brushing her hair. The camera in this scene takes every opportunity to focus on Yennefer’s bare ass, going as far as seating her in a particularly awkward position to make her bum as visible as possible. But, when Geralt gets out of the bath? Every effort is taken to obscure and hide his butt. It would almost be parodic, if the scene had even the slightest hint of self-awareness.
I mentioned earlier that I’m glad the game has been delayed, especially after playing the preview. There is still a ways to go as far as optimisation goes, with some screen tearing, clipping, and the occasional bug. Enemies could do with some further balancing, and the idle dialogue from NPCs is decidedly repetitive - though I’ve been assured this won’t be the case in the final build.
The extra few months should give CD Projekt Red the time they need to deliver a truly polished game. And, even if I’m not crazy about the combat and the male gaze, what The Witcher 3 does well far outweighs what it doesn’t. Bring on May 19.