It doesn’t take long to realize that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a special game. Just like Witcher 2, Wild Hunt features an early cinematic introduction that ranks among the best I’ve seen since the first time I played Final Fantasy 8 in the late 90s. As soon as the game gives you the controls, the sumptuous visuals and stellar voice acting and writing draw you in, while a sedate early section proves a good way to familiarize yourself with Wild Hunt’s controls and dynamics. The Witcher series has always had a distinctive feel to its gameplay, and Wild Hunt is notable for excellent pacing and a strong sense of weight to its movement.
This is never more apparent than when Geralt is traversing the game’s stunning landscapes on horseback. Witcher 3 sensibly gives you a horse from the beginning, and your mount, Roach, is a major part of the game’s early going. Wild Hunt’s graphics are nothing short of beautiful: its colours are incredible, with sunlight, weather, trees, plants and earth combining to create some of the most stunning vistas I’ve witnessed in a game. Seeing it all on horseback is the perfect perspective. The score is also a delight–alternately mournful and wistful and a perfect accompaniment on your travels.
The game’s brooding atmosphere and weighty control system give your movement and actions a sense of significance and deliberateness that is quite unusual. Geralt is a strong lead, more engaging, less sleazy and (T. informs me) more handsome than he was in Witcher 2. We’re used to being able to create our own characters in these games now, of course, but there is something to be said for having a well-written, dedicated lead for a change. Geralt is generally a morally ambiguous sort of anti-hero, and although you can decide how exactly you want to play him, he’s the perfect fit for Wild Hunt’s dark and tragic fantasy.
As a Central-Eastern European take on the traditional fantasy genre, Wild Hunt stands out somewhat from the usual and more familiar Anglo-American interpretations. But one of its most interesting aspects is the relatively earthy and realistic depiction of serfdom and feudalism. As you travel through White Orchard, the game’s first proper area, you’ll see peasants toiling over tiny plots of land. Sickness and disease are prevalent due to the masses of unburied corpses from a recent battle nearby; the bodies of deserters hang from trees by the roadside; political tensions are high due to the Nilfgaardians’ occupation of Temeria. Side quests explore various sordid aspects of feudal life, and some of the tragedies that befall peasants who fall foul of their masters.
Combat is fast-paced and visceral. The game avoids the mis-steps of Witcher 2, the early stages of which were ruined by a maddeningly difficult combat and a bizarre decision to lock central combat techniques behind a leveling system. Wild Hunt provides a wide range of combat options and encourages you to investigate its many crafting trees. The crafting and other menus can be a bit daunting at first, but new mechanics are introduced slowly enough that you’re not quite overwhelmed. Meanwhile, there is an exhaustive bestiary with a lot of well-written text that provides even more context and background. This is a very well-conceived and crafted world, and one that looks like it will reward you handsomely for your time.