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‘The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt’ is the new benchmark for role-playing games

Geralt will travel through muddied villages and larger, if no cleaner, cities during the events of "The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt."

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By MICHAEL S. DARNELL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 29, 2015

There are certain video games that, by quality, success or a combination of both, serve as important milestones for the gaming industry.

Some of these, like “Super Mario Bros.” and “Grand Theft Auto III,” are important for how they shaped the future of gaming. Others, like “Halo” and “Half-Life,” are more widely known for how they moved their respective genres further.

When it comes to open-world role-playing games, the bar for success has long been set by Bethesda’s “The Elder Scrolls” series. Love them or hate them, every open-ended swords-and-sorcery game was sure to be compared — usually unfavorably — to “Morrowind,” “Oblivion” and “Skyrim.”

But thanks to CD Projekt RED, Bethesda will find itself in the unfamiliar position of having to make the inevitable “Elder Scrolls VI” measure up to the new metric for success. This being, of course, the recently released “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.”

It’s difficult to pick one aspect of “The Witcher 3” to talk about first, because they’re all equally impressive and factor into the untouchable quality of the game. Personally, the most important part of any role-playing game is the story, so I suppose I’ll start there.

“The Witcher” tells the story of a monster hunter named Geralt of Rivia. In the first game, he awakens with no memory and spends the next two games chasing a woman he once loved through a muddy, dark world besieged by war. Throughout his journey, Geralt moves through the lives of dozens of characters, often having to make choices that irrevocably change not only their lives, but the landscape of the entire world.

“Wild Hunt” picks up where the second game left off, with Geralt finally in possession of his memories and a clear path to his lost love. The kingdom players had come to know over the last couple of games is no more and the world is at war.

As the game opens, Geralt learns that his adopted daughter, Ciri, has returned from parts unknown and is in great danger. He goes off to track down the two women who have mattered the most to him. Some segments will have players take the role of Ciri for a bit, but this is still Geralt’s tale. His travels will take the Witcher from the small villages to enormous cities, each consumed by war in their own ways.

Other games have attempted to tell a similar story of a kingdom at war, but “The Witcher 3” is the first game to do so successfully. The story isn’t told through a couple of cutscenes, or bits of exposition nestled in between quests to find wandering cows. It’s told through the fresh battlefields that litter the world, through the pockets of soldiers still fighting and through the aftermath of the war that touches nearly every interaction with the world’s inhabitants.

It’s an incredibly detailed world, with a story told in an exceedingly mature fashion. As an aside for newcomers to the series, the game is absolutely not for children and features rampant violence, plenty of nudity and other adult situations.

While pursuing his goals, Geralt may stumble across a war orphanage in the middle of a swamp or across a muddied battlefield on the outskirts of a town with fewer people than houses. What makes a lot of these little moments special is that they’re usually not tied to any specific mission or quest. They just exist as part of the world and they exist in ways that make sense.

As he travels through this war-stricken landscape, Geralt will have to make choices that are often morally ambiguous. Even the choices that he makes that seem to be correct will often have ramifications later on down the line.

This is not the “save the puppy” or “kick the puppy” type of choice that has permeated role-playing games recently. The choices are grayer than that and the outcomes are never immediately foreseeable.

I’m still agonizing over two major choices I made, one of which lead to a fairly big disaster that changed a substantial dynamic of the game’s world.

Without spoiling too much, the “Wild Hunt” also manages to wrap up three games worth of character development and plot line in a way that should be satisfactory to most. True to the nature of the series, even the happiest of the multiple endings is bittersweet, but longtime players would have it no other way.

Before you get to the end of Geralt’s tale, you will first have to journey across one of the biggest game worlds to ever exist in a single-player role-playing game. It dwarf’s “Dragon Age: Inquisition’s” world, both in scope and in depth. Geralt’s world is one that was crafted to give the illusion that it’s a real place, with real-world sensibilities.

The villages and cities of the “Wild Hunt” are spread out and arranged in ways that make sense. Cities will have multiple message boards where Geralt can pick up side quests, whereas some of the villages will have none. Those little touches make the world more believable than any other fantasy game out there.

That being said, it is still very much a fantasy game. Geralt is still a monster hunter and will spend a good amount of his time hunting down wyverns, drowners, hags and vampires that look more like mutant bats than sparkly prom kings. The fantasy elements are steeped in old real-world mythologies and take some fairly disturbing, often horrifying turns.

As a monster hunter, it’s Geralt’s job to serve as the line between all the things that go bump in the night and the regular people. Both kings and paupers will call about Geralt’s services, and more often than not those services entail hunting humans and non-humans alike. There are plenty of situations where Geralt will be able to talk or buy his way out of a jam, but combat is an inevitability.

Thankfully, this time around the combat is a blast. The past two games have been great, but the combat has always weighed the series down. That’s not the case here. In “Wild Hunt,” the combat is free-flowing, with an emphasis on preparation and avoidance. There is one button for a light attack, one for a strong attack, one to block, one to dodge and one to leap away entirely. As with the past games, Geralt has access to signs that serve as his magic arsenal, and those can be used mid-combat as well.

Most of the encounters will be won by combining all of those techniques, depending on your play style. Do you cast a magic shield and just wade into battle? Do you quaff a healing potion and dance around your enemies striking only when there is an opening? The choice is yours, and there doesn’t seem to be one right answer, save for special encounters that require a certain strategy.

No matter the strategy, proper planning is necessary. Before even heading into a contract, Geralt will often have to use his Witcher senses to piece together clues that will let him know what type of creature the common folk are trying to eliminate. This works much like the detective vision in “Batman: Arkham Origins.”

Once the monster is determined, its specific weaknesses can be exploited by studying the in-game bestiary, which can be augmented by books of knowledge found throughout the world. Regardless of the specific weakness, a silver sword must be used against magical critters.

In past games, Geralt had to drink potions beforehand. Now they can be used in battle, but are still most efficient when drank before a fight, as they heal slowly over time rather than all at once. The potions, along with bombs and damage-increasing oils, can be crafted from components found throughout the world. Once crafted, the items can be refilled by meditating. On lower difficulty levels, mediating also recovers health.

Weapons and armor can also be crafted, but degrade over time. Most of the money you make will go toward keeping your gear in fighting order. In the Witcher’s world, having 2,000 coins to your name makes you a wealthy person. Very often, I found that I had to stop messing around on sidequests and do my job as a monster hunter for pay, just to keep my swords in working order. It’s a wonderfully balanced economy that imbues the world with an extra dimension rarely seen in the genre.

Honestly, that could be said about any number of the “Wild Hunt’s” components. I can’t think of anything negative to say about my time with the game. I did experience a couple of small glitches, including one PC crash, but I can say that I have never played an open-world game without some technical issues. Outside of those hiccups, I can’t think of an aspect of this that I didn’t love.

The combat has some difficulty spikes, but it’s incredibly well balanced, and serves to further the story of Geralt as a mortal being and not a one-man army.

Visually, the world is stunning (at least on the PC where you can adjust graphic options to your liking). Due to the size and expansiveness of the world, that visual prowess comes with some technical issues, like some low-resolution textures here and there, but overall it’s beautiful.

The world feels natural and lived in, populated by characters with realistic motivations and desires. Each choice Geralt is forced to make feels like an actual decision and not just a cheap way to give the player an illusion of freedom.

All parts of the “Wild Hunt” exist to tell the story of Geralt and the world he inhabits, but does not own. He’s not the chosen one, and he’s not really saving the world. Because of that, the story and the game feel more personal, more relatable and incredibly riveting.

That alone would make this a must purchase game for role-playing fans. Considering that tale is then wrapped up in engaging gameplay and set in one of the largest, most fully realized worlds ever made, “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt” has become something more. It has now become the bar by which all other open-world games will be measured against.

Bottom line: Not only is “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt” the best role-playing game of 2015, it may be in the running for best of all time.

darnell.michael@stripes.com

Rating: M for Mature
Platforms: PC (reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Online: thewitcher.com

While traveling around the world, Geralt will be able to pick up quests and specialized witcher contracts from notice boards found in towns and cities.
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