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From the moment it made its debut at the E3 2013 event, I thought the next Witcher game looked special. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt had an air of confidence attached to it, convincing everyone who laid eyes on it that it would be an epic open world role-playing game. Well, now it’s here we can see whether CD Projekt RED has managed to deliver a much needed Game of the Year candidate or whether the curse of being the third in a trilogy holds it back as being ‘more of the same’.

This isn’t the first Witcher game I’ve played but given how little time I have invested into them, I basically went into this third outing with a lack of witching experience. Hence I’m playing this one as sort of a standalone effort. Anyway, this is the story following Geralt of Rivia, a witcher whom is famous for slaying all manner of evil monsters and devious humans across the land, on his journey to track down people close to his heart whilst also destroying the Wild Hunt. The King of the Wild Hunt is attempting to find someone before Geralt himself gets this common person of interest… Ciri. The King will use his horde of ghoulish riders to terrorise anyone in the Wild Hunt’s path.

The whole game is played out as a free roaming open world adventure, so as you can expect the world is pretty big. Actually, scratch that, it’s bloody huge! One of the first noticeable things after the well worked in tutorial (it introduces you to a few characters whilst seamlessly integrating the learning the ropes bit into part of the story) is the map of the world showing each area you’ll eventually journey through. To put it into perspective for you, it took around ten hours just to finish off exploring the smallest of the four lands, White Orchard which is essentially a prologue. This is down to not only the sheer size of the land but also the amount of main quest objectives, side quests and various places of interest to discover.

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There are smaller areas within the world that you’ll visit but White Orchard, Velen, Novigrad and the Skellige Isles are the big ones that’ll eat up all your time. The world really is your oyster, but obviously it’s best not to run before you can leap and so the handy suggested character level for attempting certain quests and such makes life a bit easier. Do your own thing and risk bumping into a pesky wraith way above your level or end up stepping into a bandit’s patch being outnumbered; explore at your own peril.

This brings me to my first negative point though as there have been reports of some problems regarding XP rewards for completing quests; something which I have had the misfortune of experiencing first-hand. The developers designed the game to reward less XP for quests that are so many levels below your own, which is understandable because defeating puny enemies probably shouldn’t be worth much. However this has been affecting enemies and quests above your own character level (which again is supposedly by design – bad design in my opinion) as well as those within these level limits. This means that at certain stages of your journey you may get into a bit of a rut as to where to get your XP fix without having to go grinding it out in small doses by farming enemy spawns. Yawn.

For a role-playing game that’s a pain in the arse and even though CD Projekt Red aim to fix the problem of incorrect/no XP for those within the level range, at the time of writing this they haven’t. Even with the latest patch, 1.04 on Xbox, it still isn’t completely sorted. There’s nothing worse than having to manually save every two seconds just in case you pick up a XP bugged/erroneous quest, but at the moment it’s got to be done.

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That’s the major downside out of the way, so now I can focus on the good stuff and I’ll start with the story quests. Well I’m not going to spoil any of the plot but I will say these are amongst some of the best quests I’ve embarked upon. They may require those witcher instincts to do a spot of tracking or to clear out an area inhabited by an evil spirit. These might not sound groundbreaking, however when you couple the enjoyable objectives with the brilliant story cutscenes then it’s a well made match. I noticed early on how during interactions for side quests even, the sun and the shade effect on Geralt or an NPC was carried out beautifully. It’s these little things that make a difference. The voice acting is right up there with the crème de la crème of voiceovers simply because the voices suit their respective characters perfectly. Never once was I bored of hearing the tales that were being told.

Combat is an important aspect in keeping the excitement alive and that’s done by putting you in Geralt’s shoes. Not literally and no, not in first person mode either, I mean more in a mental capacity. You need to know your enemies to determine how to tackle them; whether that means parrying, dodging, casting specific signs or swinging one of your two swords, your knowledge of their weaknesses is your ultimate strength. To help in battles, details of the beasts you face will be placed in your Bestiary (like a glossary); but you’ll need to either defeat it or read about it in an in-game book first. They don’t just hand it to you. Battles can be frantic with the amount of options at hand but it becomes second nature once you begin to think like a witcher. It’s also a lot more fluid than what I remember from Witcher 2, especially when switching between signs, casting them and then attacking with a sword.

The range of enemies and villainous characters continued to impress me as just when I thought I’d seen the ugliest and most powerful beings possible… another one is usually lurking around the next corner. Some of the most interesting foes can be found via a witcher contract but some you’ll just come across during exploration. Harpies are pretty cool to face off against, as are other flying beasts because it takes a different strategy and more precise timing to defeat them. You can expect to see freaky Necrophages like Drowners and Ghouls, Specters in the form of Noonwraiths and Nightwraiths or even the more normal sights of Wolves and Bears, to name just a few. It’s not like some games that have limited variation; instead it throws up new species quite regularly which really shows great creativity.

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Story quests and side quests are aplenty but sometimes I wanted to wander off the beaten track for a while, whether by foot or on horseback (the novelty of riding Roach soon wears off). This is where the places of interest, picked up off the notice boards in the villages, come into play. Denoted by a “?”, once you get close by you’ll get a nasty or pleasant surprise as it could be a monster nest or a treasure trove. Other options include it being a bandit camp, an abandoned site or a power shrine to draw an ability point from. All these interesting places alongside the quests make it all too easy to get distracted and sucked in where one hour of play turns into three. I can honestly say I never switched it off due to boredom.

As with all RPGs, levelling up your character and his abilities is vitally important. Putting the occasional XP problem aside, when ability points are earned there are a decent amount of slots to upgrade. It all depends on your personal play style but you can add to your vitality, make your sword swipes more powerful and even turn a blast of the Igni (fire) sign into a stream of fire. The fact that you’ll only open up a limited quantity of slots to put these upgrades into means you have to get picky and match them with a suitable mutagen for the best results. You could even switch abilities in and out depending on your upcoming battles. It looks and sounds more complicated than it is.

Alchemy and crafting makes use of all the seemingly useless yet inventive materials you pick up from dead bodies and out of chests. Using the concise ingredients lists you can create potions and bombs whilst you’re out and about, however crafting the armour or weapons needs a smith. This makes looting every location of the utmost importance, although the action of looting get’s pretty annoying at times. It’s a rather inaccurate activity due to having to place Geralt in just the right spot for the A button to respond. Any junk you don’t want to use or can’t craft can go straight to a merchant; different merchants will offer you fluctuating prices which means you have to judge whether it’s worth it or not.

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Last but not least on the massive “things to do” list is the most relaxing part of The Witcher 3 because you get to sit down with people to play some cards. Gwent is the name of the game and although rather confusing at first, it turns out to be a really clever strategic mind game. There are times when you may have to throw a round in order to ultimately win the match. It’s tough until you grab additional cards from the shops or by winning; nonetheless it was worth sticking at it by virtue of a pace change from chopping down monsters.

Visually I was often lost for words when high atop a hill, gazing across the land during a sunset. Sadly it isn’t all sunshine and daisies, in fact after the release of each developer’s patch there have been more visual glitches and they’re only getting worse. At first I could overlook the odd floating body or seeing Geralt hovering over his horse, but when Geralt’s face goes all weird and stretches out to the point where you can’t even see what’s going on… that’s unacceptable.

It’s a sour note to end on for what could have been one of the best games I’ve ever played. To be fair, putting all the XP problems, Geralt getting stuck in places he shouldn’t, infinite loading screens and visual issues aside… The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is still a really addictive RPG. I was fortunate enough not to find any game breaking problems, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t worried that I’d encounter something unfixable that couldn’t be solved by loading another save file. This made me more on edge than being in an eerie swamp listening to prowling Hags and that was scary enough.

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The story encapsulated me into the witcher life, the action hooked me in and the scenery amazed me at times. This is a very mature game with subject matters that can be quite sad at times and brings up a couple of moral conundrums. Chuck in the odd bit of nudity with a special mention to some not so shy rabbits making love and you’ll realise many parts of ‘normal’ life are present in this fantastical experience.

I hung on when the problems tried to push me out of this awesome little world. So, If you can, just wait a month or so for the developers to get the bugs and glitches under control. Then allow The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt to welcome you in for a long lasting journey. And don’t worry if you’ve not played the series before, this does work as a standalone adventure.

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