The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt owes more than a nod to Bethesda’s Skyrim.
I went to see The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and had a great time. I went in a fan of the books but not very experienced with the first two games. I came out with The Witcher 3 top of my gaming wish list – and, weirdly, a really strong urge to play Skyrim.
Before I got hands-on with the game, CD Projekt RED and Namco Bandai gave me a little run down on what I’d be seeing, when I could talk about it, and other such administrative matters. During this presentation, the local PR representative jokingly (or perhaps seriously) called Witcher 3 a “Skyrim killer”.
Do not take that as an official quote; we were absolutely off the record, and the rep (a genuinely enthusiastic RPG fan whose Dark Souls record puts yours to shame) was just giving their own personal opinion. It’s not like some Namco Bandai big wig woke up sometime in 2013 and thought to themselves “what we really need is a game capable of knocking Bethesda’s best-selling RPG off the throne”, because thankfully, the RPG world isn’t like that.
Unlike the shooter and MMO spheres, where publishers fall over each other scrabbling for market share, the limited play time of RPGs mean competing titles tend to share overlapping audiences rather than fight for the attention of a limited pool. The Venn diagram of Witcher, Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age fans, for example, is probably three circles so closely overlapping that you need to print it at quite high resolution to see the edge of two of them.
But it’s still an interesting comment, because Skyrim did something very cool for RPGs: it made them mainstream again. That’s not to say RPGs haven’t been selling strongly for decades, because of course they have, but Skyrim was a genuine, balls-out blockbuster, selling over 20 million copies and smashing records for both Bethesda and Steam.
We live in a post-Skyrim world, and it’s a world where RPGs can afford to go big rather than go home.
We live in a post-Skyrim age, and it’s a different world to the pre-Skyrim era. It’s a world where RPGs can afford to go big rather than go home. It’s probably thanks to Skyrim that we have the excellent Dragon Age: Inquisition, or at least for the fact that EA was willing to spend so much money on it, and it’s hard not to conclude that BioWare was inspired by Bethesda’s achievement in some ways – the amazing landscapes for one.
Given that the comparisons are going to be made eventually, let’s just go ahead and make them. Apart from the obvious differences like perspective and setting, how does The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt compare to Skyrim?
Starting with Oblivion, Bethesda started getting serious about making its NPCs behave more like real living creatures. Instead of standing around aimlessly except when required to do something for a quest, Oblivion and then Skyrim’s NPCs have daily routines – they work, eat, sleep and travel. The Witcher 3 also takes this approach.
I’ve already talked about this in my feature on how the world of The Witcher 3 feels alive, but Wild Hunt’s characters have even more detailed, interesting and realistic lifestyles than their counterparts in Skyrim. Elaborate routines and complicated relationships join superior animations and greater diversity in character design to make you feel less like you’re attending a cardboard cut out convention.
Telling your own story
I like to kvetch about my journal filling up with side quests, but do you remember the first time you played Skyrim and as soon as you hit your first major hub you found dozens of leads waiting for you? Whether you pursued the main quest or not, there was always something meaningful to do – something that felt like more than filler.
This questing model is one of Bethesda and the RPG genre in general’s greatest strengths, and CD Projekt RED was absolutely right to pick it up and run with it, building on its efforts in earlier games. Now that Geralt has that glorious open world to explore, I predict you’ll have a heck of a time remembering that you’re supposed to be finding Yennefer, battling the Wild Hunt, securing the succession of a throne, tracking down a murderer, becoming a master card player, crafting a new coat, banishing a gh- what was I doing, again?
But in The Witcher 3, you feel less like you’re following a set storyline than in Skyrim; your actions and choices make a more significant difference to the world than which soldiers are standing at the end of one battle. Even just within main quests, you make choices that dramatically alter your experience.
In my session I was skipped forward to a quest on Skellige, where I witnessed the slaughter of several clan members by bears. Afterwards, I was given the choice of helping either of two siblings – the brother wanted to go track down and punish someone immediately, while the sister wanted to stay and figure out what had happened and who was responsible for it.
I chose to stay and perform what I insist on calling “CSI: Skellige” – tracking down clues, talking to people and exploring. There was no combat, but if I had chosen to go with the brother things would have been very different.
“You would have had a completely different quest,” quest designer Philipp Weber told me.
“The brother doesn’t use his head that much. You’d not investigate that much. You’d get to a cave where all these berserkers live, and it would be more centred around fighting and not as much CSI.”
On top of that, the sibling you choose to assist ends up ruling the area – which has consequences later in the game.