The Witcher 3 is CD Projekt RED’s coming out party. And they are just getting started.
It’s very rare to find games that generate the amount of anticipation at a consistently high level that I have felt for Wild Hunt over the past two years. Sure, I’ve been excited for games before, who hasn’t? As I run my eyes up and down the shelves of my video game library, many titles across a multitude of gaming generations stand out that generated that same feeling before they released:
- Dragon Age: Origins
- Fallout 3
- Mass Effect
- Red Dead Redemption
- The Last of Us
- Deus Ex: Human Revolution
- Final Fantasy XII
- God of War
- Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
- Dark Cloud 2
- Freedom Fighters
- Rogue Galaxy
- Kingdom Hearts
- Syphon Filter
- Star Wars: Episode 1: The Phantom Menace: The Game (I was very young and inexperienced then).
As far as living up to the hype I had for them, these games had varying levels of success. They ranged from “exactly what I’d hoped they’d be” (The Last of Us, Red Dead Redemption, God of War) to “Good but the hype weighed it down” (Rogue Galaxy, Dark Cloud 2, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Mass Effect, Final Fantasy XII) to “my fanboyism really got the best of me” (like I said, young and inexperienced). For all the games I’ve ever sat on my hands in excited anticipation over, Wild Hunt is much different than the rest.
Three years ago, I played The Witcher 2: Assassin’s of Kings for the first time on Xbox 360. I wasn’t a PC player at the time, as I was still using a Mac Book Pro I had bought in 2008 (a situation I have since rectified). So my only method of playing the latest games was via console. I had long admired The Witcher series from afar, first being captivated by the original game’s opening sequence back in 2007 during my undergrad days, but I had never played it.
It was a curious thing. I had never played any of the games, or read any of the books, yet for some reason, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Something about the world, the characters and tone just kept it in the back of my mind. In many ways, I was like a shy guy with a crush on someone who couldn’t bring himself to tell them how I felt. So I just sat on my feelings, until Assassin’s of Kings came to Xbox 360.
When I finally got to play the game, I really liked it. It wasn’t necessarily love, but the game was legitimately good. Part of that was my fault for putting the game on such a pedestal. I still loved the style and wanted to learn more about the world, but I had a hard time understanding the references to events, places, and characters in terms of context. The game never really eased me in, it just assumed I knew what was going on. But I kept with it and played the game all the way through to the end.
As much as I enjoyed the game, I couldn’t help but feel a distinct lack of freedom, which I felt collided with the fact that Geralt of Rivia’s character is more or less a drifter who had been all over the world. Not to mention that for a guy who labels himself as a “Professional Monster Slayer”, the game didn’t quite bring his monster tracking to the forefront, instead using side quests as a means of eliminating monster nests while the main focus stayed on the world’s politics. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy this set up. Quite the opposite.
I loved Geralt’s neutral stance, the emphasis on grey areas, and that the “villains” of the world weren’t so diabolically evil that there was no way to fathom seeing their point of view. These are things that a lot of modern story lines (never mind games) haven’t been to willing to fully explore. Heroes are generally so sickeningly good with their “I can’t stand by while (Insert villain name here) hurts innocent people/burns the village/destroys the world” speeches. Seriously, what do The Avengers get out of saving the world from Ultron? Gratitude? Barf. This is not to suggest that those kinds of stories can’t work, it’s just refreshing to see a form of media throw off the shackles of sensitivity and trust its audience to handle its content with a mature and rational mind.
At the time I was playing Assassin’s of Kings, I was getting my Master’s in Game Development so naturally I discussed my experiences and thoughts on the game with others in the program. I kept coming around to the idea that the series would serve to benefit from the mechanics of an open world. Everything about The Witcher and its world just made sense for that to be a natural evolution. Horses to travel with, different monsters residing in different areas of the world, not to mention actually seeing these parts of the world rather than hearing about them and actually relying upon Witcher contracts to survive and upgrade.
There is also plenty of armed conflict between countries in the narrative and seeing its devastating effects on the land and daily life of the people would only serve to enhance what the story is trying to tell its audience. Rockstar’s Red Dead series started as a good linear 3rd person shooter on PS2 and Xbox (Red Dead Revolver) and skyrocketed into one of the greatest games of all time (Red Dead Redemption) on PS3 and Xbox 360 when it went open world, so why couldn’t CD Projekt RED achieve the same kind meaningful progression?
Fortunately the gaming gods were on the same page, and like clock work, the March 2013 issue of Game Informer magazine issue #239 was released and introduced Wild Hunt to the world as its Cover game. I read every line of that preview and couldn’t believe my eyes. Meaningful progression in video games is so hard to find these days with yearly iterations. Indie games help to break up the monotony and tone out the big executives touting how the next Assassin’s Creed/Battlefield/Call of Duty/etc will be “revolutionary” and/or “unlike anything that’s ever been done before”. But ultimately, most video game series so often stagnate into doing what they are comfortable with under the pressure of big budgets, that it only serves to hurt the quality of games that audiences every where are given to choose from.
In the hours that I have spent with Wild Hunt, it’s safe to say that CD Projekt RED has succeeded in achieving meaningful progression. The game is a masterful balance between using what has worked before and evolving on its own systems to make it feel new. In an ideal world, there would be more Wild Hunt-like jumps in series progression. And maybe someday the status quo won’t be enough to be profitable and the industry will be forced to adapt to new consumer expectations. Wild Hunt is one of those rare great games that achieves the perfect myriad. Although it could have and still have beaten most if not all of the competition. But for now, do yourself a favor, and get lost in the world of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.