The Witcher 3: the next generation of open-world RPGs

Wild at heart

Size isn’t everything, of course, yet it’s hard not to be impressed by the scope of Geralt of Rivia’s latest adventure. Polish developer CD Projekt Red originally boasted that its world was over 30 times the size of its predecessor, and 20% larger than that of the sprawling Skyrim, yet a recent GDC presentation suggests that’s a conservative estimate. The developer claims that the game’s two biggest cities, Novigrad and Skellige, each take up an area of over 60 square kilometres. If true, that would make it over three times the size of Bethesda’s game.

The worry when you’re dealing with a world of this scale is that you don’t have enough to fill your sandbox with. That certainly doesn’t appear to be an issue with Wild Hunt, which will feature a 50-hour central narrative and an array of side objectives that should double that tally. Unlike many of its peers, you won’t be asked to kill a specific number of a certain enemy, nor should you see a pop-up to inform you that you’ve collected a given total of berries or flowers. Every quest – whether it’s crucial to the narrative, or a seemingly insignificant optional aside – will have its own narrative reason for being.

Geralt is much lighter on his feet, capable of slick dodges, parries and showboating pirouettes.

These additional tasks are often woven into your main objective: you won’t necessarily have to wander off the beaten track to find them, as they’ll occasionally be stumbled upon when you’re en route to the next story mission, or while tracking a creature you’re aiming to slay. You might, for example, walk into a clearing in the middle of tracking a fleeing gryphon and find yourself in a fight to liberate a settlement from bandits.

Such interruptions are a handy way to get to grips with the game’s reworked combat mechanics before taking on tougher foes. In the two previous Witcher games, Geralt wasn’t necessarily the most agile of combatants, often more sledgehammer than scalpel in the way he took down opponents. This time he’s leaner, quicker and more manoeuvrable: while there’s still plenty of hacking and slashing, and blows land with brutal force, he’s also capable of slick dodges, parries and showboating pirouettes.

Geralt isn’t the only returning character – you’ll see several other familiar faces on your quest.

There’s still a satisfying weight to the swordplay, but the new Geralt feels much lighter on his feet. He’ll also be able to use a variety of potions, while his range of spells are more potent than ever – and he can switch weapons mid-scrap, too, firing bolts from a crossbow to bring down airborne enemies. Outside combat, there are other benefits to Geralt’s newfound spryness. He can leap over gaps, clamber up rocks and vault over any other environmental obstacles that lie between him and his target.

When it comes to the game’s core monster hunts, meanwhile, you’ll be asked to prepare well before you tackle the beast in question. You’ll need to find out more about the creature’s strengths and weaknesses, and locate the right ingredients to mix potions that will give you a fighting chance. Each unique monster will have a different method of despatch, so you won’t be able to rely on the same tactics to win. Going in armed with nothing but a sword and a hefty dose of bravado will, more often than not, get you killed.

Visual and audio hints will let you know when you’re on the right track, as Geralt uses his Witcher abilities to sense his prey. It’s a little like the detective mode from the Arkham games with a more naturalistic feel: blood traces from wounded beasts will be highlighted, for example. You’ll even be able to use these skills during combat, as Geralt is able to gauge where his opponent’s frailties lie. It won’t be quite as simple as attacking the glowing weak spot for massive damage, but it’s another way of gaining the upper hand.

This is a world where your journey should be as memorable as the destination.

Even beyond learning about your foe’s weaknesses ahead of time, there’s a strategic element to battles. Cut off a limb, and your opponent’s move set will be significantly restricted, for example. Alternatively, you might prefer to back enemies into a cul-de-sac, or even tempt them out into the open, depending on their fighting style. You’ll need every advantage you can get, as the threats Geralt faces are deadlier than ever. Monsters will respond to changes in the environment, from weather effects to the time of day: there are some creatures you’ll want to take down before night falls, and that’s before you cross paths with the eponymous Wild Hunt, a group of wintry spectres said to be harbingers of death.

Your actions will have profound effects upon the game world. Slay a beast that’s been terrorising a village, for example, and the hamlet’s inhabitants may emerge to see the corpse for themselves. This, in turn, will affect Geralt’s reputation within the world, potentially changing how people react to his presence. There’s a dynamic economy, too, with prices fluctuating depending on your location and any recent changes within the world.

The game uses CD Projekt Red’s own REDengine 3, which features HDR rendering for more realistic lighting effects.

These are just some of the elements that make The Witcher 3’s world feel truly alive. Even setting aside the mechanical ramifications of your activities, there’s an astounding sense of place. Towns bustle with activity, offering a convincing illusion of life: this might be nothing more than a series of clever AI routines, but it looks entirely natural in motion.

And while we’re all after more from new generation hardware than pretty pictures, it’s impossible to deny the game’s aesthetic impact. It’s hardly gaming’s first dark fantasy world, but the level of detail, the vivid lighting and weather effects and the fluidity of the animation are almost unparalleled. This is a huge open world that simultaneously offers a rare feeling of intimacy, and one where your journey should be as memorable as the destination.

The result is a game that promises to be as systemically deep and rich as it is visually spectacular. Whether The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt can maintain its grip over 100 hours remains to be seen, but already this looks like it could be the new generation benchmark for the open-world RPG.