Though it would usually be a piece of information reserved for the middle or even end of an article, let this serve as a preface: everything in the demo was pre-alpha footage. Slapped across the border of the demo in faint white letters, it was CD Projekt RED‘s way of reminding us that this footage was nowhere near the final build of the game. But even in those early stages, The Witcher 3 was still one of the most visually striking and technically impressive games of E3. This is truly next generation stuff.
The Witcher 3 will finally end Geralt of Rivia’s story. Players who have spent the past two games with the white-haired monster slayer will be treated to an expansive vision as the arc concludes. Because Wild Hunt is the final game in this trilogy and because it is a next generation title, CD Projekt RED is pulling out all the stops to deliver their uncompromising vision of an open-world RPG. The Witcher 3 sports a world 35 times larger than the second game, 50 hours dedicated to completing the main quest and 50 hours to complete all the side quests. This all culminates in three different playable epilogues which are set in twelve different world states, translating to 36 possible endings.
Our demo began with a village on fire and under attack. The people of the world are not only under the threat of the invading Nilfgaardian army but the spectral hordes of the Wild Hunt. We see Geralt riding a horse to a meeting where he hopes to speak with a survivor of the recent Wild Hunt attack. The Skellige archipelago, where our demo takes place, is an environment brimming with the familiar territory of fantasy RPGs. Wooden houses and stone roads are surrounded by countryside and fishing wharves. Geralt is merely one person among many, and villagers will go about their lives unless the player interacts with them. When reaching the coastline we are told that the game features an improved economy. Items have different values based on location. Fish will sell better further inland or in territories that don’t have a large fishing economy. Hunters not only sell and trade animal pelts but are one of the best ways to find crafting materials.
Then we see Geralt jump into a small boat and sail away. This is done seamlessly without loading times. We’re told there will be no loading at all when exploring the massive world. A world map is pulled up to give a quick look at the scope of the game. The one island we were just on is surrounded by several smaller ones, which is just a section of the total explorable world. As Geralt sails through the realistic waters it’s easy to notice the game’s amazing draw distance which is coupled with the fact that any visible area can be accessed over the course of the game.
Like any good open-world experience, fast travel is available for any previously accessed area. In this case we take a quick trip out of the ocean and to the top of a hill overlooking the waters Geralt was just in. The presenter took a moment to allow Geralt to meditate which also causes time to pass faster in the game. We watch a few day/night cycles pass and see the weather change as well. Here is where the demo went from impressive to mind-blowing. As the sun rose and set, shadows danced realistically across the terrain. NPCs and creatures will also act differently depending on things like time of day or the weather. Don’t expect to stumble into a bustling village during a storm; and don’t go sailing either because the waters can become too choppy for small boats. Werewolves will become stronger during full moons. Some things might even be caught unaware while sleeping. These touches take the world from static to completely immersive.
As Geralt continues to explore the countryside, he stumbles upon a group of bandits attacking someone. Choosing to fight is completely up to the player but either choice could lead to unforseen events later in the game. The world is full of events like this to ensnare the player. A small monument might lead to unknown treasure or a new quest. While exploring a small area off in the distance, Geralt runs into a fiend – a hulking, stag-like beast with three eyes. We get another look at how combat works in the game. Building off the combat mechanics established in The Witcher 2, CD Projekt RED wanted Geralt to feel like the ultimate monster-slaying badass. Instead of rolling out of the way, Geralt now sidesteps and dodges. Animations are very fluid and combat no longer pauses to use things like spells. Combat animations can be interrupted, so chaining attacks will feel more natural with improved timing. Currently, the combat doesn’t seem to be completely balanced but that will obviously change in the final build. After a drawn out battle where the fiend partially clouded Geralt’s vision with its third eye, it ran off after sustaining damage. In a situation like this, the player has the opportunity to not only track the monster down but learn more about it as well, including how to resist the influence of its magic eye.
As the demo continues, the presenter moves onto the next quest phase. After obtaining the information about the Wild Hunt that he needs, Geralt goes to leave but is interrupted by a villager yelling about some kind of death. This is where CD Projekt RED’s excellent storytelling comes into play. In a completely non-obtrusive way, they merge the main quest with a side quest. Obviously the player has the option to ignore claims of another attack for the main quest but because the side quests are woven so well into the narrative, it becomes hard to ignore.
Geralt is informed that deaths keep happening in this small village. The elders believe it to be an evil spirit while everyone else knows it is a monster. For the right price Geralt offers to hunt down the monster while also becoming involved in the village’s inner turmoil. Using a new mechanic called Witcher Sense (think the Batman: Arkham series’ Detective Mode), Geralt is able to find clues as to what the monster is. The monster is called a Leshen and it is actually linked to a young girl in the village. Killing the Leshen will only cause its life force to be sent into the young girl. Just like in previous installments, moral choices will be present in The Witcher 3. They won’t always be black and white, however, and in this case Geralt can try and convince the villagers of the true situation or just kill the Leshen without drama for a quick payoff.
The actual fight with the Leshen takes place in a dark forest with the winds blowing individual branches around. Able to move quickly by transforming into a flock of crows, the Leshen is an intimidating opponent and attacks Geralt by shooting branches up through the ground. Though it is just one of the many monsters players will face over the course of the game, the chilling atmosphere and excellent design might mean a boss fight in any other game. The attention to mood is hard to beat.
Our demo concludes with Geralt returning to the village having defeated the Leshen. However, it turns out a group of younger men decided to murder the elders, believing them to have known about the monster the whole time. Disgusted, Geralt takes his money and a quick cutscene states that the villagers rioted against each other and destroyed themselves only three months later. It is this kind of dark and adult narrative that the series has always prided itself on.
E3 aimed to build on this promise of the next generation with a few killer titles and some impressive new consoles. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt gave many titles a run for their money by truly feeling like a game that is only possible on the next generation. Further proof? During the demo, the game was played on an NVIDIA Titan card. Only a few minutes into the demo it crashed. A few minutes later, after being booted up again, the computer playing the game crashed. This was in no way a bad thing. If anything, it made the game seem that much more incredible. 2014 can’t come quick enough for what is sure to be the definitive open world RPG experience.
For more on The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, be sure to check out Gaming Illustrated’s exclusive interview with Game Director Konrad Tomaszkiewicz.