Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Review: Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (PS4)

In recent years, I'd pretty much given up on CRPGs as a genre. They pose multiple problems from my point of view:
  • The typical CRPG "grinding" mechanic is onerous and leads frequently to player abuse. It's one thing for a game to boast 50 hours of game play or whatever leads to good advertising copy, but if it's 50 hours of "rinse & repeat", I consider that player abuse. (I consider A Song of Ice and Fire "reader abuse" for similar reasons)
  • The length of time it takes to complete a CRPG is excessive. Now, if you're 9 years old and only have money for 1-2 games a year, that's a feature. But if you're a busy parent, or have hobbies other than sitting down in front of a computer or console, CRPGs frequently over-stay their welcome. And if you end up rushing through the story because you just want to be done, then frequently those CRPGs don't have much more than the 15 hours of real game play.
  • The amount of work required to master the mechanics and min-max your character frequently takes you out of immersion from the game world, and you find yourself doing quests to level up. Alternatively, if the game scales the challenges to your level, you find yourself running to stand still, and discover that no matter how powerful you get you're never going to be high enough level that the final challenge is doable if you don't have the reflexes of the above-mentioned 9 year old.
I say this despite being (as far as I know) still the record holder for the longest running D&D game at Google. In a moment of weakness, however, I found a copy of Witcher 3: Wild Hunt for sale over the holidays and picked it up. One of the main reasons for playing games mostly on the console is that if you're unsatisfied or dislike them, you can easily re-sell them, and if you're good at shopping for sales, you might even discover that you can buy games, play them, and then sell them used for more than the price you paid!

Little did I know that once I started the game it would push all other games on the PS4 aside, and become the only game I wanted to play for the entire period of the main story. The game deals with the issues I listed above through a number of techniques:
  • The game's an action RPG. What this means is that while the game mechanics are there, you almost never have to min-max your character: how you manuever and fight during the action sequences also has a dramatic effect on your character's effectiveness. It also helps that the game doesn't let you create characters from scratch: you pretty have to play Geralt of Rivia, and you get to decide which of his abilities to emphasize, but there's no excessive freedom. I played through the first act of the game in pretty sub-optimal configuration, and only got serious about maxing out capabilities in the second act. This meant that my early game was challenging: there were more than a few fights where I had to load and reload the game after dying in order to get past an encounter. Those made me wish I'd bought the game on my PC, where an SSD would have rendered loading times moot or irrelevant, but the reality was that my PC is 7 years old and I probably wouldn't be getting more than 20fps on the PC on medium settings (which would look horrid at 1440p) anyway.
  • There's no grind. Every quest in the early game is meaningful, and even when the game throws you 3-4 main story quests at you, and you tackle them in a random order, they come together and weave tightly into a narrative which converges to your goal. This is beautiful story-telling with great game play at work. In fact, the quality of the stories and side quests (none of which are the usual "fetch an item for me" quests which litter other CRPGs) so enthralled me that I did every secondary quest I could get my hands on during the first part of the game, only abandoning that in the city of Novigrad when I'd "over-levelled" to the point where certain side quests would net me very little XP. Even then, I finished nearly every secondary quest that wouldn't get me killed repeatedly before heading off into the islands.
  • The time component is huge, with How Long to Beat estimating 44.5 hours to complete the game, which seems about right. There was one occasion in the third act when I thought I'd built up to the climax, and instead realized I had several more hours to go before the actual climax. But I didn't mind: the story's good, the game play's a lot of fun, and I enjoyed the characters and the choices.
The game's so full of denouements that they're scattered all throughout the third act of the game rather than being clumped together at the end. I thought that was very well done, providing resolution as to the fate of various characters Geralt had interacted with earlier in the game.

Overall, the game feels very much like one that a DM would layout without regards for character levels: it feels very organic, and even in the early game you can end up at a location where monsters would wipe the floor with you.

What about objections from the previous games? The first witcher game was notorious for giving you in-game rewards for sleeping with various women. That's been done away with: the romances and relationships in this game feel a lot more mature, and yes, there's a love triangle, but the consequences are much more real than in the first game. I wouldn't let the first witcher game's approach deter you from trying this game. While there are indeed sex scenes, and I could imagine that someone might try to get their version of Geralt laid as frequently as possible, the game does a great job of only delivering those only because of actions you directly chose: you could easily play a very Puritan/Victorian version of Geralt.

What's most important is that the RPG part of the game isn't neglected. Yes, it's a computer, so your responses are distilled down into conversation trees and dialog choice selection. But this is where the game being a "Geralt-simulator" makes is stronger: you're never given a dialog selection that breaks character for Geralt, and your dialog/decision choices shape the ending in ways you would not expect, but are despite that, very reasonable and have you thinking that of course, that's how it would work. Do yourself a favor and don't read any spoiler/walkthroughs. The choices you make have an impact on the ending and it's better to go through at least your first playthrough blind and then read about the choices you can make (or watch them on youtube) later.

Rather than opt for a "good-vs-evil" approach to game play, the story is actually interesting. My Geralt, for instance, was always stuck in a situation where he had to decide who was telling the truth and who was lying. Early on, this was fairly easy: you could pursue the truth and eventually collar the person who was lying. As the game progressed, however, the nuances of the story became more complex, until by the time I got to Crookback Bog, I was no longer able to tell who was lying, and in fact, made a poor decision at one point because for whatever reason, I thought that the witches were the world's version of Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. Having re-read some of the books recently, I realize that this is entirely within the world's setting: the books' short stories loved to make some allusion to commonly known fairy tales and then put a twist into it, either by running the logic of the fairy tale to its conclusion, or by making the nature of the beast different from the stories. I was very impressed that the writers for the game managed to invoke a similar bent in the story. Certainly by the end of the game, my version of Geralt had gotten fooled and cheated by many of the other characters, and had become very distrustful of pretty much everyone except for Ciri, the adopted-daughter who's a McGuffin for the main storyline.

The game's cutscenes are incredible. In fact, some of the most beautiful moments in the game occur during the cut scenes, and I loved the scenes between Geralt and Ciri or Geralt and Yennefer. These are as beautifully rendered as any movie. What blew my mind was that I could hear the PS4's fan spin up to speed during those scenes, and then realized that these scenes are rendered in-engine (so that the character's clothing, etc reflected your choices and load-out of the moment), complete with all the foilage, draw-distance, etc. If you're the type to take perverse pleasure in using every iota of CPU/GPU power on your machines, this game will not disappoint.

The game is not without flaws: on the PS4, loading times are long, about 45 seconds if you die, and fast travel costs a similar amount of time. (The game's rock solid though: suspend/resume has saved me a ton of time, and the game crashed only once) The early levels are very challenging, and the potion/bomb crafting system is wonky: I'd frequently find myself with no idea how to find a component needed to craft an item, or find schematics for a high level item that required a lower level item that I didn't have schematics for. The game doesn't do a great job of telling you which quests aren't going to be doable past a certain point, so I'd sometimes choose to proceed along a story only to be immediately notified that "Such a Quest has failed!". Fortunately, the game does a good job of auto-saving, so I'd be able to load up the game and then play that quest before going on with the main story, but if I hadn't been alert enough to see those messages (which appear for only a fraction of a second!), I might have gotten very disappointed at the ending/resolution of those storylines. At least every cut-scene is skippable, so if you never have to sit through long expositions more than once.

All in all, the game is excellent, and deserves its Game of the Year accolades. In fact, having read a few Witcher books, I'd say that the game's much better than its source material (Andrezej Sapkowski's a terrible writer --- he loves run-on sentences and spends a lot of time on minor scenes, while frequently summarizing important scenes when you'd rather have detail).

Sometimes while playing a game on the PS4, I'd think: "Well, this is nice and pretty, but it's not fundamentally any different from what the PS3 could do." I never thought that of The Witcher 3. It makes full use of the power available on modern consoles and PCs, and it delivers a stunning experience. So much so that I'm tempted to pick up the DLC for the game, something I hardly ever consider.

Highly Recommended.
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