Less than a minute after Chad D’Cruze, the man responsible for keeping Dusty Cartridge’s front-of-house pretty and shining, reached out for interest regarding a preview in Sydney, there was already a small dispute.
We’re big fans of The Witcher series here, Calum and myself especially. Unfortunately for Calum, however, his interest wasn’t fast enough to beat my lightning-quick reaction post of “PLEASE PLEASE OH GOD PLEASE”. Pro tip for all you budding writers: don’t feel bad about Facebooking on the toilet during your day job.
Calum summarised his disappointment by betting The Witcher 3 would probably be the best RPG of the year, a statement I wholeheartedly agreed with. And after being treated to nearly an hour of gameplay at Namco Bandai’s offices in Redfern, it’s a position I’m very comfortable holding.
The Witcher 2’s plot centred around the constant political machinations of the day: squabbles between kings, battles between men and sorceresses plotting to control it all behind the scenes. While trying to recover his memory and track down the rival Witcher responsible for the slitting of Foltest’s throat, Geralt constantly found himself at the behest of others. This time around, Geralt himself – the man, not his skill as a sellsword – will be the primary focus, along with the relationships he makes as he tracks the Wild Hunt and finally confronts his past.
After a brief presentation, our small clique were treated to a 45 minute slice of gameplay from roughly the middle of The Witcher 3’s proceedings. Geralt, adamant about tracking the Wild Hunt, travels to an island equivalent to entirety of The Witcher 2. Lukasz Babiel, a QA Analyst with CD Projekt Red, revealed that the traversable terrain in The Witcher 3 is 35 times larger than Geralt’s previous adventure.
It’s not just the geography that’s grown. When watching Geralt converse with Crach, an old friend who steers our protagonist towards the Hunt, CDR’s added graphical refinements became even more pronounced. I’ve always been impressed by The Witcher’s balance between landscapes and fine detail, but the Polish developers have raised the bar even further here.
Geralt’s hair, for instance, was more textured, more realistic. The fur on Crach’s chest it’s not at the Monsters Inc. level yet, but even without the side-by-side comparison I could see the various ways Geralt’s ponytail would sway in the wind. First it blew as a block, then split in separate ways, all to one side, calmed down, to the other side and split again.
It’s such a small, miniscule detail and yet it’s so remarkably impressive. It shows the amount of love and care CD Projekt RED are prepared to inject into making Geralt and his surroundings more than a mild fantasy, a world you can become invested in. That attention to detail can be seen throughout the world: the pixel-perfect shine of the puddles as Geralt tracks a woodland spirit through a forest, the way the branches bend and break the sunlight as they sway with the wind, the way the lightning and thunder made its presence felt on random intervals.
The most astonishing aspect: our presentation is merely pre-alpha footage, the build shown off at E3 (according to the command line visible on the projector screen before the game launched) and yet the sheer level of refinement was as impressive as a full release.
Like the previous games, there’s plenty of smaller villages and encounters that you can engage with or ignore at your will. Spying a small shack beset by bandits, the developers opted to intervene, partly to break up the monotony of travelling via horseback and also to show off some of the additions to the new fighting system.
Geralt is, as always, an expert swordsman, but his casting ability has been beefed significantly in the sequel. Each sign now has an alternative mode of fire. Igni, for instance, can be cast as a one-shot fireball or a sustained stream. Geralt can target individual enemies or objects with Aard, or he can slam the ground Mortal Kombat-style for a handy AOE knockback attack. The best part: you can now quickly switch between two signs, rather than having the game briefly grind to a halt.
Another battle with a major monster showcased the added depth to fights. After dodging and copping a few slashes to the side, a beast uses its third eye to shroud Geralt’s vision. The developers use what they call a “protective” sign to recover – I’m presuming Quen, but I never saw it cast – before using Igni’s flamethrower mode to burn the third eye to pieces and return the battlefield to normality.
Stripped of its trump card, the beast fled to its cave. Geralt can use his Witcher Sense to follow the traces of blood (or footprints – anything of note in this visual dimension appears in red) but instead we move on to a small village, where Geralt finds himself between a divided village.
With residents perishing by the day to a woodland spirit, later identified as the teleporting treant-like leshen, Geralt is forced to choose which side to support. Either choice results in conflict, as does so many things in the Witcher universe, and neither battle ends well. But the story doesn’t simply end with the completion of the quest. Several hours, after you’ve moved on to another troubled part of the world, the game throws up a flashback showing the aftermath of your decision.
Despite not having touched a controller all day, I left the Namco Bandai offices nothing short of impressed. CD Projekt RED, without a shadow of a doubt, know what they’re doing.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is set to be released sometime in 2014, on the PC master race, Xbox One and PlayStation 4.