The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is an intimidating game. It's one of the largest open world games we've ever played, with a plethora of endless side content and explorative tasks. It can often feel very overwhelming, and for those of you that like to clear every icon on your map, well, you're going to have your work cut out for you. The Witcher 3 is at its best when you choose to stray off the beaten path and explore your surroundings at will. That sense of wonder and discovery oozes from nearly every inch of its beautifully-detailed world, and it's what makes it such a memorable and awe-inspiring fantasy RPG experience. Each time you pick up the controller, there's always something awesome to see and do, even after you've seen everything the main quest has to offer.
If all of that sounds quite daunting to you, then you're absolutely correct — it most certainly is. Those already familiar with the first two games may already know what to expect here, but for anyone new to the series (like this reviewer), it's hard not to cower at the sheer size of The Witcher 3's massive world maps. That feeling tends to subside somewhat once you begin trekking through gorgeous fields, watching the trees sway back and forth in the wind while the shining sun scatters its rays through every inch of foliage. Coupled with a complete day/night cycle, realistic weather effects, and interesting people to converse with, it's clear that developer CD Projekt RED outdid itself to make as engrossing of a world as it possibly could. This is an absolutely beautiful game that will make you frequently stop what you're doing to take that perfect in-game screenshot.
It isn't all lilacs and gooseberries, though. On the performance front, The Witcher 3 runs well, but there's a constant feeling that it might be pushing the Xbox One a bit beyond its limits. For the most part, the game maintains a pretty solid frame-rate, but it does tend to jump around sometimes, particularly during combat with multiple enemies on screen. A recent patch for the Xbox One version has locked it down to 30 frames per second, and while it does smooth out the gameplay, a few areas still tend to chug along. However, outside of some minor pop-in and odd stuttering during cutscenes, The Witcher 3 is still a remarkable technical achievement on Xbox One.
"This is an absolutely beautiful game that will make you frequently stop what you're doing to take that perfect in-game screenshot."
The Witcher 3 has a great opening, filled with enough intrigue to get both series' veterans and newcomers interested in Geralt's search for his lover, Yennefer. A complex-but-straight-forward tutorial eases players into the world, and before you know it, you're off to do whatever your heart desires. Quite surprisingly, though, after chasing down a few main quest missions in a row, we found ourselves growing a bit tired of the repetition. Many of the core story missions tend to fall by the wayside, with many of them repeating the same structure of having Geralt gather information on the whereabouts of either Yennefer or Ciri, his surrogate daughter. You'll travel from place to place or region to region, talking to new people, completing a fetch quest or two, and then be on your merry way. If someone were to simply play The Witcher 3 for its story and not bother with the side quests, it simply wouldn't be as satisfying of a campaign. That isn't to say the main quest doesn't offer a fair share of cool moments; it's just that players will be doing a major disservice to themselves if they ignore the rest of what the game has to offer.
Only by taking the time to explore each of The Witcher 3's incredibly vast maps will you really begin to see the game come together. Each major town you come across has a notice board with a number of optional tasks Geralt can choose to do. These can range from lending a hand to a helpless denizen, finding a lost item, tracking down hidden treasure, or even coming across one of the many useful Places of Power to upgrade one of Geralt's skills. Probably the most lucrative of all — in terms of extra gold and XP — are Witcher contracts, which involve hunting down a specific creature or beast. Early contracts will have you face-to-face with a giant griffin terrorizing the town of White Orchard, a ghostly Moonwraith haunting a well, or a rather difficult creature that hides itself in a thick, travelling fog. Finding all of the question marks on your map becomes important when playing on normal or higher difficulties, as many of the core objectives don't always result in the high XP gains needed to level up for the challenges ahead. Each side quest also has a suggested level required to complete it, so you'll always know which quests you should tackle first if you're in need of grinding.
Recurring characters from past Witcher games will make appearances during secondary quests that further flesh out the overall story. (Don't worry if this is your first Witcher game, though, as players are given the option to simulate important events from prior games — through dialogue options — at the beginning of the adventure.) We couldn't help but be reminded of Mass Effect 2's loyalty missions when taking part in some of these quests, and more often than not, they were some of the most compelling missions in the game. It's just a shame that they're relegated to the background, and can easily be missed if you don't go looking for them.
"Only by taking the time to explore each of The Witcher 3's incredibly vast maps will you really begin to see the game come together."
Making yourself stronger isn't only about obtaining XP; you'll also need to quickly grasp the concepts of crafting and alchemy if you ever hope to take down some of the more difficult monsters. With so many systems to manage in the game, it's refreshing to know that when it comes to equipping Geralt with the best gear and items, it's surprisingly easy. At practically any time during the game, even in combat scenarios, you can pause to bring up a number of useful menus. If you're running low on health potions, you can brew up a new one in a breeze, so long as you have the necessary ingredients, of course. Facing a tricky enemy with an obvious weakness? Mix together an oil that you can apply to your sword, and you'll finish them off in a few slashes. Having the ability to immediately restock what you need during an intense fight is, literally, a lifesaver. Meditation — which can heal you just by moving time a few hours ahead — is also quite handy if you know you're outnumbered and severely low on health. Combat can get pretty hairy sometimes, especially when you're just starting out, but keeping yourself equipped with potions, oils, and the latest Witcher gear will ensure you always have a fighting chance.
While keeping your weapons in tip-top shape and making sure you aren't running low on restorative potions is a must for any wannabe witcher, it's the magic spells (or Signs as they're called) that shake up the swift and enjoyable combat. Geralt comes equipped with a number of useful Signs — both offensive and defensive — that will surely give you a leg up on your opponents. Igni shoots out a fireball against your enemies, setting them on fire and doing massive damage; Aard unleashes a telekinetic blast that pushes enemies away; Axii allows for temporary mind control, making you feel like a graduate of the Jedi Academy; Quen places a protective shield around you; and Yrden can trap anyone inside its field to slow down their movements. All of these spells can be upgraded over time, essentially making them more powerful and useful later on in the game.
All of this accumulates into something truly magical when you've mastered everything at your disposal. Your first bouts of combat can be very frustrating, especially since you've only just begun to learn the ropes. But as you become more and more familiar with the mechanics, tackling multiple enemies at once sort of becomes something akin to a dance. There's still a bit of clunkiness to overcome, but combat in The Witcher 3 is fluid, responsive, and strangely addictive. It truly feels like you're gradually getting better with each successful victory. Before you know it, you'll be reading enemy movements, learning when to counter, evading and dodging, throwing spells, and slashing monsters like it's an everyday occurrence.
Despite a main quest that meanders a bit too frequently, The Witcher 3 excels at giving players an unbelievably large and beautiful open-world that is brimming with meaningful things to do. While the scope of the adventure may often leave players intimidated and overwhelmed, CD Projekt RED has crafted The Witcher 3 to be its most accessible game yet. If you stick with it until the end, you'll be blown away by its engrossing world, riveting characters, and deep combat system. It's a crowning achievement from the developer, and it's a definite contender for game of the year.