The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is brimming with open world content, but unlike its many competitors, exploring doesn’t feel like a chore.
The Witcher 3 leverages good content design and beautiful environments to ensure the enormous amount of content spread across its huge open world feels like a pleasure rather than a penance.
Yesterday I wrote about how The Witcher 3 has a really unforgiving difficulty curve and frankly unfriendly interface, like unto that of early 2000 PC exclusives. I also said it was worth swallowing, and today I’d like to tell you why, apart from the inherent pleasure of overcoming challenges, I think you should give it a go.
To put it frankly, The Witcher 3 is one of the best implementations of open world game design I have experienced ever since GTA 3 made long checklists of optional content a must-have in triple-A publishing.
Sidequest discovery and completion feel much more satisfying and natural than just responding to icons popping up on the map, but even the visit-the-icon gameplay is pretty good.
Most open world games are a bit of a chore, I find. At first you’re super excited to see what’s happening outside the main missions, but after an hour or two you discover that it’s mostly just following waypoints to collectibles secreted in otherwise featureless landscapes, irritating fetch quests that make no sense in the context of the world, and repetitive actions clearly designed by a totally separate team to the one that created other elements of the game. None of it seems necessary.
CD Projekt RED hasn’t made an open-world game before, and I think that’s why it’s done such a good job this time. No, really: the quests you encounter out in the wilds are generally written like traditional RPG sidequest lines. They’re often triggered by events in the main story, and lead naturally off those events. For example, in the course of the main story you meet up with Keira Metz, who accompanies you on a quest to try and find out where Ciri has gone, because she’s has business dealings with someone who knows Ciri.
At the end of this mission, she asks you to help her retrieve an item from the dungeon you’re just about to exit, which was promised to her by her business associate. See? It makes total sense to do it then and there. As a result of this quest, Keira asks you to come visit her sometime, and if you do so you can elect to embark on a short sidequest series.
The only difference between this system and that of traditional RPGs is that you can wander off at any time and come back when you fancy it, when you’re at the right level, or when you happen to be passing through the area; there are only a very few circumstances where advancing other quests will close off sidequest lines, and they’re pretty well signalled. (For example: if a character has days to live, crack on with that quest rather than doing main story missions, yeah?)
All this makes sidequest discovery and completion much more satisfying and natural-feeling than just responding to icons popping up on the map, but even the visit-the-icon gameplay is pretty good. There’s a lot of it, but none of it feels like a hassle. You’re trotting along and you see a Monster Nest pop up; it takes just a few moments to deal with it and reap the rewards.
Many of the icons result in pretty good rewards – the opening of a new fast travel point, some good loot, or a chunk of XP – which makes them very much worth doing, especially as they’re usually short and self-contained. Checking them out as you stumble across them gives your character a terrific boost, and level gating means you’re discouraged from exploring the whole map (a very daunting prospect) as soon as your arrive somewhere. It’s very rare that there’ll be any icon that won’t be within a short jog of a level-appropriate quest, meaning you naturally fill out the map as you follow the main and secondary questlines.
Most of the encounters at points of interests are designed in such a way as to feel like little mini-narratives, too. One example is a Point of Power in a graveyard very close to the starting village. You are very likely to ride through here on your way to a main story objective, and if you pause to check it out, a Wraith appears and hands you your unprepared arse on a platter.
Most of the encounters at points of interests are designed in such a way as to feel like little mini-narratives.
This encourages you to remember the spot and come back later, when you’re kitted out to battle the creature, and can grab the buff (and, on first visit, Ability point) from the Place of Power. When you try to kill the ghost, though, it vanishes into a crypt, and suddenly you realise that what looked like a bit of set dressing is a doorway leading underground. Venture down, and you’ll be well-rewarded – and kick off a valuable sidequest.
Another example is a Place of Power near where you have to complete your first Witcher Contract. You’re likely to stumble across it as you scour the countryside for the ingredients you need to make an Oil to use for the contract, and it’s guarded by a bear. It turns out you need bear fat to make the oil, too, and the Place of Power provides a buff to the very Sign you’re most likely to use against the target of your contract. Isn’t that a satisfying bit of synergy?
But even the very generic icons – bandit camps, monster nests, guarded treasures – are pretty fun, providing you with more instances to practice your combat skills, and often tying in with nearby treasure hunts.
While you’re on the hunt for this gaming goodness, the environments themselves are a real pleasure to explore. Somehow CD Projekt RED has managed to build much more natural-seeming landscapes than most games manage. The geography and vegetation line up in ways that feel like geology and biology arranged them, rather than a designer aiming to funnel players between important locations with corridors made of canyons and impenetrable tree lines.
Points of interest cluster together naturally, or string out along natural boundaries, rather than appearing at perfectly punctuated intervals. it’s almost as if – gasp! – CD Projekt tried to build a realistic environment (towns here, fields here, roads here, forest here) and then worked out what sort of gameplay it might engender, rather than sculpting the world to fit a checklist of necessary inclusions.
The sunsets and sunrises are almost always spectacular, and the contrast between the long, inky shadows and molten gold beams of sunlight was enough to bring a lump to my throat on many an occasion.
Plus, it’s beautiful. Like, so ridicuously beautiful. The vegetation blowing in the wind, which ranges from gentle breeze to howling gale, is a small but delightful touch. The sunsets and sunrises are almost always spectacular, and the contrast between the long, inky shadows and molten gold beams of sunlight was enough to bring a lump to my throat on many an occasion. Even stomping through swamps is excellent, although those of you who didn’t grow up in one may find them less delightful.
The weather effects are perhaps a bit too frequently dramatic to allow you to really appreciate their variation, but it’s pretty amazing to see the world darkening around you and trot out of some trees to look across the landscape below, watching a lightning storm roll in. Perhaps the only thing that makes these effects better is that both Geralt and NPCs react to them. “Storm coming in. Great,” Geralt muttered to himself, and as the first drops fell and the wind picked up, I myself shuddered and pulled my hood up.
The dramatic effect was somewhat spoiled, in a magnificent way, when I rode past a guard a few minutes later. “If it don’t stop raining my arse will rot off,” he said, conversationally.
When I first started playing The Witcher 3 and thinking about the upcoming guide I felt a kind of despair whenever I looked at the world map and saw the bazillion icons demanding my attention. Within a few days my attitude had completely changed; I was no longer dreading a checklist slog, but excitedly wondering what was around the next corner, and anticipating the adventures I’d have there.
That’s not something I felt about Dragon Age: Inquisition or Assassin’s Creed: Unity, as much as I enjoyed both of those games, and to me it demonstrates that CD Projekt RED’s open world debut has set a standard for the genre.