Posted by Zac Elawar on Feb 15, 2014

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt Hands-off Impressions

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Back when CD Projekt RED started development on The Witcher, released for PC in 2007, the team consisted of a mere 20 employees. Now, with the third instalment in the series poised to become the biggest RPG of 2014, the Polish developer has grown to employ 220 of the most talented individuals in their respective fields – that’s an immense growth spurt, the benefits of which are being reaped on The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

I was extremely excited to be able to attend a live, 40 minute demonstration of the title by the studio’s Head of Marketing and PR, Michał Platkow-Gilewski, and QA Analyst Łukasz Babiel, both of whom also answered questions in an open-floor forum format following the conclusion of the demo. They opened with a brief presentation, getting us up to speed on the adventures of Geralt of Rivia, although everyone in the room was quite familiar. I nominated The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt for Most Anticipated title in our 2013 Game of the Year Awards after all (the fact that it didn’t win should not be held against me!). And let’s get your most burning query out of the way up top – no, we were not enlightened as to the release date of the game. It looks like we will have to wait a little while longer before that piece of information is divulged. Sorry fellow monster hunters!

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The portion of this 100 hour epic (50 hours of side-quests, 50 hours of main quests) we were treated to takes place about halfway through the central plot. ‘The White Wolf’ has set off to meet an old friend named Crach, who is Jarl an Craite, part of the Skellige region – a rugged, wind-swept archipelago, the design of which was inspired by Norse and Celtic mythology. The Jarl might have some pertinent information relating to the reappearance of the Wild Hunt, an unstoppable spectral force that Geralt – and the player – knows all too well. Yet, the threat of being plunged into a world of despair due to these ghostly riders isn’t the only one plaguing the Northern Kingdoms, with the powerful Nilfgaard Empire striking a deadly blow and inciting another war that has already taken its toll, with little end in sight. The anarchic No Man’s Land has been ravaged by conflict before, and Skellige, as well as the port city of Novigrad, are preparing to ensure they do not suffer the same fate at the hands of a global Nilfgaardian onslaught. Geralt arrives on horseback at Craite’s city gates, and meets with Crach, who communicates the destruction of the village Dalvik, burned to the ground at the hands of the Four Horsemen-like Wild Hunt. The sole survivor of the raid, Bjorn, escaped to Fayrlund, and so that’s where Geralt is headed next.

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The sheer scale of the game world – 35 times larger than that of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings – is evident even in navigating the Jarl’s castle; Geralt had to descend a long flight of stairs just to reach a wooden elevator operated by a network of pulleys, evocative of a medieval contraption. Michał expressed how the development team needed to add new forms of transportation to better and quickly traverse the various environments, from the aforementioned lifts to boats and, finally, horseback riding. On the way down, the player has a moment to appreciate the detailed, living world and the impressively far-reaching draw distance. The world feels alive, organic and natural, to the point where weather changes actually affect people’s behaviours. For instance, if it is raining, villagers will run for shelter, and if it’s deathly cold, they will seek a source of warmth. If faced with an attack, they will defend themselves, whether you are involved or not. Approaching storms can be spotted from afar, and will eventually reach you, affecting your steering ability and wreaking havoc on your vessel. The new economic system in place sees merchants charge more for fish the further they are from the sea, for example. And if the fisherman providing said fish run out, they will set sail to catch some more. Also, depending on whether it is broad daylight or night, certain creatures may go into hiding, awaken, or even become stronger/weaker.

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Moving onwards, our guests took the opportunity to explore a little off the beaten path, so to speak. They pointed out Points of Interest, which are littered throughout the map. These locations are not necessarily pivotal to specific quest-lines, but may feature an abandoned shack or a shipwreck like the fishing village we were shown, inviting the player to examine their surroundings, learn more of the lore and perhaps discover hidden items. Soon, we come across a group of bandits about to set fire to a lone, occupied cottage atop a hill. The player can choose not to intervene, but Łukasz and Michał deemed it about time we saw some action. Here, we get our first glimpse at the revamped combat mechanics. Initially, Łukasz selects his sword from a scroll wheel that also holds all of the Witcher Signs, however the latter are conveniently able to be quick-swapped between on the fly without having to enter any interface element or pause combat. Immediately noticeable is the increased speed, fluidity and responsiveness of the Geralt’s swordsman skills, which play out from a selection of 96 new animation sequences, from parries to stabs and slices. Sign usage is also faster, able to be utilised fluidly as an integral part of your offensive arsenal. Each of the five Signs now have a primary and secondary application, i.e., the Igni fire blast can be held to develop into a flamethrower.

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After easily dispatching of the three ransackers, we get back on the horse (literally) and spot what looks like a short, abandoned tower. Unfortunately for us, a Fiend is roaming the area and we’ve walked right into it. Fiends are big beasts with horns reminiscent of antlers, who charge at you with little warning, but get stuck in solid objects shall they miss the target. They sound like your basic charging foe, right? Sidestep them and you’ll be fine… but there’s more than meets the eye with the Fiend. In fact, that’s just it… it has a third eye. And it uses this third eye to pull you into a darkened vision of the surroundings, in what is almost like a hallucinogenic effect. It eventually wears off, but does a great job in disorienting the player. As Łukasz demonstrated for us, casting a Quen forcefield around Geralt is advantageous here, knowing that this particular enemy likes to charge and considering that, in the altered state of the world, you would not be able to see it coming. Once enough damage is dealt, the Fiend flees back to its hideout, resulting in a prompt for Geralt to follow its tracks and finish it off. Łukasz chose to move forward, finally making our way to Fayrlund and Bjorn. The man was visibly distraught (for good reason), but also frustrated that no one would believe the tale he was spinning… except for Geralt, that is.

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Bjorn spoke of the Wild Hunt and the destruction they caused, continuing on when questioned by Geralt that they proceeded to board a ship made from the hands of the dead, familiar to the monster hunter as Naglfar. Before we could advance, a fellow villager interrupted to alert everyone to the murder of Bjorn’s own brother, Arnulf. Poor guy can’t catch a break! All gather at the site, just upon the edge of the town and the outlying forest. The scene reminds of a ritualistic killing, with the victim entwined in roots. Geralt offers his services, although the elders of the town – led by one named Harald – are adamant against pursuing what they believe to be a deadly woodland spirit. The younger members of town are spoken for by Sven, who are interested in paying Geralt his fee in order to hunt down this monster. Geralt doesn’t just jump into situations like this without a bit more info, so he heads off into the woods in order to find clues about the culprit. Using Witcher Senses, Geralt can see strange markings, as well as prints on the ground. Soon, he comes across a circles of stones brandishing claw marks. Through all the evidence, Geralt infers the identity of our killer – a Leshen. Examining the newly unlocked bestiary entry, we learn that the Leshen is strong enough to break through basic parries, can be summoned by destroying a set of totems and is invincible so long as it can feed off a “marked” soul.

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Returning to the township, the player has two options – speak to Sven or Harald. Opting for the former, we disclose the knowledge to Sven, who asks who the marked one may be. Suspecting Harald due to his inexplicable resistance to sorting out this quandary, we approach him with Witcher Senses active, but find no unusual visual traits. Unfortunately, a girl that Sven has shown interest in is the marked one, although she is none the wiser, when usually the marked one exhibits unbecoming behaviour. Sven concedes to the understanding that he must “take care of her”, lest the Leshen will simply be resurrected upon defeat, and she will be lost regardless. With that settled, it’s down to business. Geralt proceeds back into the woods, searching for three totems. A murder of crows circle overhead, signalling the location of each totem in succession. As Geralt attempts to reach and burn them with Igni, the Leshen tries to impede him in hiding, by summoning damaging roots from under the ground. Once the totems are burnt and dismantled, the Leshen appears. It manifests from the previously mentioned murder of crows, needing to be at close range in order to do significant damage with a downward swipe that knocks Geralt back. At medium range, it can summon roots just like earlier, and if you get too far away, it will de-materialise back into the murder of crows to quickly cover more distance, before re-materialising beside you, ready to break your guard.

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Defeating the Leshen is a matter of timing your evasive manoeuvres and attacks. Łukasz may have taken a beating, but he prevailed. He picks up the Leshen trophy and treks back into town, only to realize that Sven and his crew were, let’s say, the equivalent of “trigger happy”. Nonetheless, Geralt gets his pay, and soon it is revealed through a signature Witcher flashback that the town survived the Leshen by a meagre 3 months, being brutally pillaged thereafter. Michał and Łukasz detailed the alternate approaches to this side quest, such as siding with Harald instead. If that were the path we chose to take, he would suggest a sacrificial offering of a wolf on an altar, although I can not imagine that appeasing the Leshen for very long. You could also banish the marked one, but how effective would that be in keeping the Leshen away? The duo were also quick to point out that the flashback we saw is something that will be encountered hours later in the final build, though they played it immediately afterwards to give us an idea of the consequences of our actions, whether direct or indirect. What was especially great to hear is that, should you decide to revisit Fayrlund post-raid, Geralt will find it in ashes and devoid of life – this truly is a persistent world.

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That concluded our time gawking at the stunning RPG, which still has a long way to go. The version we witnessed was weeks old, maybe more, and a new renderer – with Direct X 11 soon to follow – is being implemented as we speak. Michał and Łukasz answered some of our inquiries relating to unseen mechanics and features, such as the Alchemy and Crafting elements. They stated, “The potions will work in a different way than in The Witcher 2. So now you will prepare them, you will drink them before a fight, but you can release the effect of those whenever you want. So it’s not like you’ve drunk the potion and you have 30 seconds of boost and then it wears off. You can start the fight in the moment it suits you, and if the fight proves hard, you can just release the effect through your metabolism. But if the fight is easy, you can preserve that and use it in the next fight.” They also assured us that Kinect-integration and the like will only be considered if it can offer a “cool” functionality, without breaking immersion. “We will just not use that just for the sake of having one line of the back of our box.” Finally, they elucidated to us that the inventory will be akin to a decidedly more traditional, classic grid system, and the story will have a definitive end – ergo, you will not be able to continue past end-game and tie up loose ends, yet they feel you make of the experience what you will, and missing out on one minor interaction here or there is not such a big deal. It’s your prerogative how you tackle the game.

Seeing the game in person and coming to understand what kind of herculean effort goes into creating a game of this scope and ambition is a treat. CD Projekt RED had to write new streaming technology, and adopt a more capable middleware to optimise memory use, and facilitate the humongous world, which I must reiterate is 35 times larger than that found in The Witcher 2: Assasins of Kings… an open, persistent world! It’s beyond impressive, and being a fan of the franchise, I can’t wait to actually get my hands on the title, although that may have to wait until E3. Check out the gallery of up-to-date screens below!

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