Let me just get this out of the way — I have never read any of the Witcher novels or played the two previous Witcher games. With that said, even going into Wild Hunt completely cold, I have to say that the game leaves a strong positive impression. I only got to spend about three hours with the game, but I already want to go back and consume everything I missed out on in preparation for this game. The high level of craftsmanship is apparent from right from the start.
"...sending Geralt of Rivia off on a high note."
CD Projekt Red has crafted a really smart tutorial that serves as not only an introduction to the game's mechanics but as an introduction to the game's key players and the looming threat they they must face. It opens in Kaer Morhen, a sanctuary and training ground for the Witcher order. After briefly meeting Geralt's love interest Yennefer, we meet young Ciri. She is a Witcher in training and by interacting with her and helping her train, you learn a lot about her personality and how the other Witchers view her, and it also provides a great excuse for Geralt to brush up on his combat and magic skills. I normally don't praise tutorials, but as someone who has never played a Witcher game before, it was a great and intuitive way for me learn about the world, characters, and my motivations for tracking down Yennefer and Ciri.
Once the tutorial was finished, I was immediately given a horse and set loose into the world to track down Yennefer. Apparently Geralt and her had some unfinished business. Roach, Geralt's horse, is a useful and needed companion in your adventures. Roach is faster than Geralt, can be used to engage in mounted combat, can auto-follow roads by holding down the A button, and even has saddlebags so that you can store additional items. Unlike some recent open-world RPGs, it was nice to see that horses are actually useful.
The game is fairly open right from the start. After getting to the first small village I was almost immediately inundated with optional side quests. You can pick up quests by talking to NPCs, visiting a local job board, or by opening up the map and heading to one of the many "?" marks dotting the map. It's not all busywork either. One quest, for example, had me using my Witcher Senses to track down the arsonist who burned down a local blacksmith's shop. In this one instance I tracked the culprit's footprints back to his home and confronted the arsonist. By completing the quest I gained access to the Blacksmith's goods and services and also learned a bit about the state of racial tensions in the world of The Witcher.
As I moved through the side quests and a few of the main quests I was surprised how many adventure game elements the game contains. More often than not I felt like I was a strange hybrid of a monster hunter for hire and a hard-boiled noir detective. For example, in that arson side quest I mentioned above, I had to use my Witcher Senses, this game's version of Arkham Aslyum's detective vision, to follow a trail of clues to the culprit. Once I found him, I used my Axii magic spell to put him into a sort of Jedi Mind Trick trance so that I could safely transport him to the blacksmith for punishment. I found that a lot of quests could be resolved though talking, smart use of magical abilities, and through careful investigation. It really makes the game feel less straightforward and the times when combat has to occur more meaningful. Another quest much further into the game had me investigating how it was possible that three large bears were able to enter a Jarl's banquet hall and massacre several of the guests. After carefully investigating the scene and following the clues I was able to uncover the truth behind the assassination plot. Really, Geralt's dark sense of humor, nuanced morality, and penchant for monologuing to himself lends itself nicely to his role as a fantasy detective.
Really, careful use of your senses, preparation, and information gathering are the best tools at your disposal. A sharp blade won't do you much good if you don't even know where to find your prey let alone how to make it vulnerable to your attacks. For example, early on in order to find out Yennefer's location, I first had to rid the area of a rogue griffin that had been terrorizing the locals. This was a multi-tiered quest that first had me tracking down and investigating its former nest for clues as to what exactly I was dealing with. Then I had to procure the necessary herbs to lure it into a trap. The game also recommended that I take some time to gather some alchemy ingredients, upgrade my gear, and gain some new skills so that I could be as prepared as possible for the fight. If this early griffin was any indication, this kind of planning and intelligence gathering will be necessary to take down the really fearsome monsters later on.
Combat itself feels fairly fast and dynamic. You are encouraged to mix it up by dodging, parrying attacks, tossing out bombs, and casting spells. Right before the griffin fight, I was handed a crossbow that gave me some options for dealing with ranged and flying enemies. When aiming with the crossbow, time slows down to allow you to better line up your shots. With a few upgrades and some specialized bolts, I can really see the crossbow becoming a great tool. I wish I could say more about the combat, skill trees, and loot system, but three hours is barely enough time to just scratch the surface of this massive 100+ hour RPG. What I can say is that by the time it was time to leave, I had just started to unlock some interesting skills, find some cool new swords, and start making better use of my abilities. What I had was just enough to get me through that griffin fight on my second try.
In terms of visuals, the game looks fantastic both in its graphical fidelity and art direction. I have to say that I really do enjoy the dialog and in-game cutscenes. They are not only well acted but also well directed. The menus and map are also fairly clean and streamlined and were easy to navigate. I'm normally not a big fan of pre-defined characters in RPGs, but Geralt has the perfect mix of personality and player agency. He has a strong personality, but it's one where I feel like I have a say too. With over 36 different endings in the game players should have a lot of say in how both Geralt and the world develop.
Like I mentioned in the introduction, my short time with Wild Hunt was largely a positive experience. Time flew by fairly quickly and I was disappointed that I didn't get to see all of the major side quests that were available to me. Even with four months to go, the game looks and plays solid. If CDPR can maintain this pacing and level of quality through the game's tens of hours, we won't have to worry about sending Geralt of Rivia off on a high note.