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The Witcher 3: hands-on with the RPG of the year

Getting to know a bawdy hero; Geralt of Rivia's third outing is accessible, untamed, and dripping with story. Warning: some spoilers are inevitable.

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"The Witcher 3 is horror and violence. It's charming, witty and cheeky. Like Geralt, it knows what it wants and it's going to grab it with both hands."

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt begins with Geralt in the bath. Feet up on the rim, stark naked, legs akimbo. A small creature drops into the water and tries to crawl up Geralt's, erm, plughole. He isn't down with that, and his naked companion, Yennifer, chuckles at his raised eyebrows. There's a blatant close up of her lovely rendered arse cheeks. Geralt, we learn, is horny. But Yennifer wants him to run a few errands before he's getting any action.

Welcome to the lustful, bawdy world of The Witcher. There's no apologies for content here; it's flesh and blood and sword and sorcery.

I had four hours to play The Witcher 3 - the first time anyone outside of developer CD Projekt has played the game - and I wasted no time in diving in. From Geralt's chambers you can take a look at the vista outside; the view from the balcony of the snow-topped mountain range is nothing short of breathtaking. But there's not really time for sightseeing. There's work to do, and this first section of the game has our hero training Ciri, a young apprentice keen to learn the ways of a Witcher.

The lip syncing is off which is probably the first of a few things I find slightly jarring, more noticeable because the faces of the characters are so good looking. The dialogue tree is pleasingly clear - no arcane choices that lead you down paths you didn't want or expect.

The controls are easy to understand too. I played on PC but with an Xbox One pad as the keyboard and mouse set-up hasn't been perfected yet. Combining sword play (Geralt carries two; one for humans, and a silver blade for monsters) with magic is intuitive. It's easy to effectively combine flame, stun and explosive attacks with parries and hard strikes, but that's not to say enemies are a push over. More of that later.

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After the Wild Hunt appears (led by the skull-faced villain you'll have seen in promotional art) and kidnaps Ciri, Geralt is whisked off to the future, looking for both Ciri and Yennifer. It's only just begun and The Witcher 3 moves at a cracking pace.

Outside in the open world is where the real spectacle of the game begins to set in. One of the first encounters is with a massive griffin, which tears apart a dead horse before flying off with blood dripping from its claws. Geralt and his companion give chase riding a horse, and it becomes one of those simple pleasures I haven't found since Red Dead Redemption. Pelting through the wild on horseback doesn't seem like it will ever get old.

It's only been 15 minutes and already the game has set itself out in front of me. The Witcher 3 is horror and violence. It's charming, witty and cheeky. Like Geralt, it knows what it wants and it's going to grab it with both hands.

"I'm looking for a woman. Smells like lilac and gooseberries"

If the opening sets the scene and tone (without being bombastic, I should add), Geralt's time in a nearby tavern fills in some of the subtleties of the game. Here it's a case of talking to the locals who have no time for a Witcher. They reluctantly field questions and help fill in back story. Stepping outside of the pub and following a brief dust-up with some locals, a wander around this small settlement reveals paths to a nearby garrison, swamp, farm, river and scrubland. It's through this varied landscape you'll find your main quest - to hunt the griffin terrorising the locals - and pick up side quests to bulk out Geralt's stats.

That main quest is split into smaller parts - find a stinking herb that attracts the creature, talk to the local hunter who found some recently maimed bodies - and again there's this effortless rolling progression to a series of events and encounters.

Once you track down the hunter, for example, you'll begin using Geralt's tracking skills, following bloody footsteps up to a nest. Further investigation will reveal the creatures sex and age, it's reasons for attacking and state of health - all of which fill in colour about the world. If this is a simple "go here, kill the thing, bring back proof" quest it sure is well disguised through meta-goals, lore and storytelling.

There's also a neat little twist on fantasy cliche; when Geralt hears the hunter has been cast out from the village he assumes it's because the man is a werewolf. He's not, it just turns out he's gay and the villagers are old fashioned. Geralt shrugs it off, because it really doesn't matter. Additions like this tell me the writers care about the characters they're creating, and in turn I think the player will too.

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"Skipping side quests misses the point of an open world RPG. You're encouraged to explore, get lost, out of your depth and accidentally find hidden loot."

Following that path will eventually take Geralt to the showdown with the griffin, an encounter that you should not take lightly. It's here that he picks up a crossbow, but that's no substitute for levelling up. Those intending to run through The Witcher 3 will be in for a shock. Side quests are there for practical reasons and anyone thinking they can go full-pelt at a creature without learning new skills will get knocked to their ass in a puddle of their own blood. As I said earlier, combat in The Witcher 3 is accessible but it's not easy.

Besides, skipping side quests misses the point of an open world RPG like this. You're encouraged to explore, get lost, out of your depth and accidentally find hidden loot. You'll be helping the villagers with their complicated little lives. If you're coming to The Witcher 3 for adventures, you're not going to be short-changed.

What I like about the monsters that a Witcher hunts is that they have a story and a reason for being. I'm not simply trying to banish a ghost. The spectre that haunts the well has a specific attack pattern that I can counter with the right equipment, but she's also a victim of heartbreak. Using Geralt's detective skills again I find the scene of the crime, the reason for her murder and a solution to honour the jilted lover. And because of all this I care.

This isn't of course the finished game. There's work to be done on optimising the code to reduce pop-in and frame-rate issues, the menus are baffling and, frankly, ugly. And from the PC build I was playing the save system still needs fixing properly.

But all of that is detail that we have to trust to the developer to fix. And I do. I've spent hours in the company of the level designer and the lead QA chap and the CEO of the company and their passion shines through. After more than four solid hours playing the opening of The Witcher 3 all I want to do is jump straight back in. I've barely played the previous games but I don't feel lost here. I understand the world, I want to know more of its characters, I want to hunt those weird creatures and I'm gunning for that hideous griffin. You don't need to play The Witcher 3 for 100 hours to see this is clearly a very accomplished game. You just need some uninterrupted time in the company of Geralt and his rowdy companions and you'll feel right at home.

More on The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is out for PC, PS4 and Xbox One May 19. Matt went on a press event to assist writing this piece, with publisher Namco Bandai paying for travel, food and accommodation.

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