It has to be said – this is one of the most overrated, needlessly celebrated games I’ve played in nearly 30 years of gaming. Don’t misunderstand, Witcher 3 isn’t “awful” – not by any means. It’s just that it’s over-hyped and gets way more praise than it should. It does seem like CDPR is subject to their own Moore’s Law when it comes to the quality of their games, though. Witcher 3 is the best yet.
Graphically The Witcher 3 is one of the best games to come out, ever. Each different zone has its own unique geographical locations and an art style to go with it. Skellige is covered in rocky shores, fjords, snow covered mountains but also thick forests, hills, watchtowers and mountain strongholds. White Orchard has a lot of familiar terrain from Witcher 1; Velen is a mucky, swamp covered wasteland full of recent battlefields where the mist hangs thick and villages are built like fishing outposts right on the water, but it also features the major city hubs of Novigrad and Oxenfurt with their harbors, streets and marketplaces bustling like an Assassin’s Creed game, as well as featuring a lot of caves, fortresses, elven ruins and sprawling mountain landscapes. Touissant is an idyllic vision of France or Italy, the most colorful (sometimes ridiculously so) of all areas in the game. And Vizima serves as a royal, classy juxtaposition to the rest of the game which is rather dirty. One things for sure, even without mods, Witcher 3 is a screenshotters dream – especially combined with Nvidia Ansel out of the box.
It’s just a shame that the graphics got repeatedly downgraded so it could actually run on the consoles (and allegedly fit within budget.) Worse, even with mods it’s impossible to get that look back. You can get close, with lighting changes, and assuming your machine can handle 4K plus mods. CDPR claims the assets used in E3 2013 and 2014 trailers were the same as what launched with the game, but there’s simply no way that’s the case if you take a look at this.
Make no mistake – they downgraded the graphics, severely. Most of it is lighting because they changed the rendering engine (alleging even PCs couldn’t handle it) but they changed geometry and actual textures as well as the camera and even the scale of buildings. Marcin Iwinski discusses the controversy in this EuroGamer article.
“Maybe it was our bad decision to change the rendering system,” he mulls, “because the rendering system after VGX was changed.” There were two possible rendering systems but one won out because it looked nicer across the whole world, in daytime and at night. The other would have required lots of dynamic lighting “and with such a huge world simply didn’t work”.
Not only did they do this to the environment, but they changed a lot of other assets – the swords from the trailers aren’t in the game, at all. Witcher armor sets like Viper and Bear have been altered significantly in color and in design from their promotional images. Sword scabbards for Wolven swords were completely changed. Many characters appearances have either been changed since Witcher 2, don’t match the promotional images, or flat out don’t match the lore at all (which isn’t too big of a deal). Iwinski’s claim makes sense – they couldn’t have afforded all the money spent on Witcher 3 (not really that much – $81 million – without a console release. So in order to make the product, they had to destroy the products visual quality. They already made a ton of profit just in the first few months the game was out so in hindsight it seems like bullshit, but what can we do?
Most of the improvements over Witcher 2 are cosmetic – a larger open world and better graphics, but there are significant mechanical improvements – compared to the first two games, the gameplay is far more fluid and agreable for sure.
In Witcher, Geralt could only move along roads or open fields that were pre-determined. Trees, forests and ankle high fences dotted the roads and surrounded the buildings, but it was literally impossible to vault over them or roll over them – you were simply stuck on the one path available. Fortunately Witcher 3 has done away with these mechanical restrictions. Now Geralt and Ciri can freely jump over things, climb objects, roll up and down with the elevation – even surf down mountainsides.
You also no longer have to use the same button to talk, activate objects, and attack – why the controls were ever that silly is a question that will likely never be answered. Best of all, the game no longer has any QTEs. Not a single one. For some reason Witcher 2 fell prey, because it was the first entry on console perhaps, to toxic AAA game design tropes. The entire prologue was filled with QTE’s for example.
World design is decent in the game, but it’s hard to call it “on point.” As a lot of developers do when placing a story in a huge world that’s already established, like LOTR or Warcraft, they did a fair amount of changing the geography. For example, the layout of Tretegor, Oxenfurt, and Novigrad is all wrong. They redesigned the geography for no other apparent reason than to facilitate the inclusion of usable boats in the game. Compare the world map above to the actual Witcher 3 map below. Oxenfurt and Novigrad are far apart, Tretegor isn’t even a thing, and half the zone is water. Surely the OG map didn’t forget to mention there was a ton of water. On top of that, basically nothing in the lore exists in-game. Cidaris doesn’t. Gors Velen doesn’t exist, many towns or fortresses don’t exist or have been renamed and the best part is, the map is completely wrong in the first place. The Pontar and La Valette castle from Witcher 2 are actually directly south of Novigrad, so the geography of Witcher 3 makes no sense – even within the game universe.
Almost as if to mirror that they just made a bunch of shit up, the game world is packed with meaningless “points of interest” that more often than not don’t even have a quest attached to them, or start a quest, like the tens of dozens of hags guarding merchant-fodder chests. On the rare occasion you stumble upon an area that does have a story, it usually ends up being a tease and the quest ends just when it was starting to seem cool. Really the only map areas of slight consequence are those that used to be villages and have been overtaken by bandits or monsters. In which case you might luck out and a half-crappy herbalist merchant will live there in the future. Even the villages are much the same way, and there are SO many villages that most of them have no personality or unique attributes. You will never go to most of them again, either, after doing their quests. Oxenfurt, Novigrad, White Orchard, Kaer Trolde, Kaer Moerhen, these are the places you’ll spend the majority of your time, other than running in and out of Crow’s Perch all the time to use the master armourer. The worst part of this is, almost the entire bottom right of the map south of Oxenfurt is just empty, useless scenery. The Nilfgaardian army camp has a few quests, but east of that is just water and empty land bordered by an invisible wall.
Worst of all, so many of the quests are boring. The quest chains, parts of the story that are worth the time spent writing them, are few and far between and they almost all involve direct continuations of individual character’s plots from Witcher 1 or 2 – Triss, Keira, Dandelion, Roche, Radovid, Sile, Shani, Thaler, etc. Everything else amounts eventually to a rinse repeat of “Go kill this variation of wraith or vampire or draconid or thing.”; “Go hold your witcher sense button for 8 minutes and run in generally a straight line until you’ve followed an annoying scent or trail of bootprints” or “Use this inorganic item to do a thing”, and then come talk to a person to get 5 orens and 12 xp and regret ever caring. It doesn’t add depth to the world, in a large chunk of scenarios. It’s just busy work. There are so many quests, too, that you couldn’t possibly do them while they are relevant enough to give more than 12 xp, because another quest will make you level up first. Meaning you will ultimately be running around at level 100 doing quests, even with scaling turned on.
The music is repetitive ad nauseam. The exact same music plays in the exact same situations all the time and it’s not even as charming as when Final Fantasy did it. Fortunately, there are a few respites such as “Berries and Lilac Sweet”. There are only so many times you can hear “na na na na na na na nehnehnehnehneh nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nehnehnaynehneh” before you no longer even want to attack anything. To that end, every single song in this game will get stuck in your head for eternity. It’s not that the music is bad – it’s great – but there’s no variety and most of the soundtrack never plays.
The story itself receives way too much praise for being slightly above average. Yes, it’s better than your Call of Dutys, but this almost entirely comes from a cliched over-reliance on portraying all characters as filthy, rude, disrespectful, duplicitous, officious, pompous, paranoid, asinine, vulgar, stupid, cowardly, and/or any combination thereof. Trying to emulate George RR Martin by making people get raped, murdered, tortured, or betrayed at every possible turn does not give your story the same quality. Don’t take that as an insult to Sapkowksi – because he literally had nothing to do with this game. He did not write anything for it. On top of this, for a Polish game – Witcher 3 is utterly covered in British and American references ranging from Monty Python to Quentin Tarintino. At times it comes off as hilarious, others it’s just stupid.
Unfortunately that isn’t the only problem with the story – far from it, it’s the least egregious problem. Compared to Witcher 1 and 2, the most interesting aspects of the story are simply absent or nullified. Where Witcher 2 saw the fracturing of the Northern Realms, civil war in Temeria and political jousting between the multiple factions of Aedirn, Kaedwen, Redania and Temeria, and the involvement of Nilfgaard, all of that is moot now in Witcher 3. Temeria has been conquered and the only political intrigue remaining surrounds Redania, in exactly two quests. There is some in Ard Skellige, but once again its resolved within a couple of quests. None of this intrigue pervades the entire game and sets a context for the events. It seems funny too that, while the beginning of Witcher 2 saw a Geralt who wanted nothing but to get away from war, Witcher 3 sees an enterprising Geralt capitalizing on the war. What changed?
On top of that, a lot of the intercharacter relations and the conversations driving them in Witcher 2 seemed somehow more authentic than in Wild Hunt. Part of this ties in to the way Witcher 3 commits one of the mortal sins of RPG dialogue. A lot of the dialog options in the menu do not match what Geralt actually says. Mass Effect and Fallout 4 specifically were habitual offenders with this design, and it just seems odd that it would be a point of contention with those games, but it’s never brought up when discussing Witcher 3.
Another thing that seems unignorable is the absolute lack of consequence for certain actions, namely the romances in the game. There are 5 main characters you can romance, as well as some minor characters and probably girls in the brothel. You can romance literally all of them, and it’s never brought up with any other character. The only one who cares is Yennefer, because it’s a mandatory part of her storyline, and her reaction is the same regardless. You can romance both Yennefer and Triss but both will leave you. Otherwise, you can fuck everyone. Also just like the first two games, you can rampantly steal everything in the entire world as long as it isn’t directly in front of a guard, with no consequences. At least in a game like Elder Scrolls, they’d toss you in jail or die trying.
On the topic of story, don’t even get me started on the FF13-like recap of the story every single time you have to load a fresh save or travel between countries, at least while still doing the main story. That practice never should have made it into the 2000s, period. Dandelion won’t shut up, and it makes you wish you could kill him. There’s no setting to turn this off. Just a mod aptly titled “Shut the fuck up!”. It shows a remarkable disrespect to people playing a 300 hour long game when you basically assume they can’t follow the story without constant synopses.
The biggest problem with this game is that Hearts of Stone by itself was single-handedly better – in all regards – than the 200+ hours spent on the base game. And the sad thing is, Hearts of Stone didn’t even add much to the game – just enchanting and ofieri gear and literally 2 or 3 long quest chains that were all tied together. But those quests were great. The same can be said about Blood and Wine.
Lastly, Witcher 3 is a game that gives a lot of incentives to use mods. Whether it’s random encounters mod or new game ++ to extend the replay value, 4k texture packs, lore-appropriate fixes like Yennefer’s eyes which aren’t the right color, or making merchants less useless just like in Skyrim and Oblivion where they all have too little money on hand – there are plenty of great mods and great reasons to use them. Unfortunately, the game is very unstable as a modding platform. Anything that alters any scripting in the slightest way is almost guaranteed not to work and will cause compile errors on your game, not to mention force you to reboot because the game will be unlaunchable afterwards. Worse yet, many of these modders stopped working on their content long before 1.31 came out and haven’t been seen since. That blows, because the best mods rely on scripting, and all of them break the game.
Overall the game is a decent RPG simply for the fact that it has a ton of content, but have no illusions: 75% of the content is brutally boring and copy pasted. By the end of my first playthrough, I’d never been so happy to finally get to the end of what became such a painfully tedious game. The expansions were the high point of this game and you can’t help but wonder how they did such a good job with the expansions, but such a mind-numbingly boring job with the actual game.