CD Projekt Red faces a problem most game developers would envy: achieving peak fan excitement well ahead of their upcoming game. Screenshots, videos, and previews can scarcely sate the fans—we just want the game. Now.
The excitement is well deserved and has been since The Witcher 3 was shown at E3 2013. At E3 2014, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt looks like it won’t just be an epic conclusion to an equally epic RPG—it will likely be a masterpiece for CD Projekt RED and a crowned jewel for the genre as a whole.
It's testament to how much care and investment CD Projekt puts into their games--they are one of the few (if not only) developers that asks us to fill out a short survey about what we think of their demo at E3. This is a team that truly, deeply cares about delivering something special to their fans.
Fans can expect all of the elements that made The Witcher 2 such an outstanding game: a deep, complex world with a rich narrative where your choices have consequences—and few choices are ever black and white. The world of The Witcher is cast in shades of grey—and that world is 35 times larger than the world in the Witcher 2, built with CD Projekt’s proprietary engine RedEngine 3 and fully supporting 7.1 audio.
“There are no hidden barriers,” our presenter, CD Project artist Jonas Mattson tells us.
This year’s demo consisted of a lengthy 45 minute tour through a complex quest—so consider this a spoiler alert. But bear in mind any of the quests and information described here could be altered or changed depending on choices you make in the game. As with all Witcher games, your choices have direct consequences on the rest of the game—and your choices are rarely, if ever, black and white.
Welcome to Novigrad
Our demo begins with Geralt on horseback, heading into Novigrad—the biggest city in the world of the Witcher. “There are thousands of inhabitants, houses made of brick, warehouses, all the desirable guilds and artisans, inns, brothels, and the biggest seaport in the north,” Mattson tells us.
“It has a living, breathing community. For example, the fisherman go out in the morning and catch fish, merchants and traders haggle over wares, sailors return from a long journey. Together it all creates a vibrant, living city.”
Geralt wends his way on horseback along the city road. Children play in the streets, arguing over who gets to be the witch in the game ‘burn the witch’. Of course, the city is rife with quests and opportunities for adventure, but Geralt is here to meet a man named Dykstra about the woman he seeks—an ashen haired woman of prophecy who is sought by the Wild Hunt.
Geralt delivers his payment—the head of Gryphon—and Dykstra offers a clue to the woman’s whereabouts.
“Your ashen-haired lass with the scar on her cheek—she’s presumably in Velen. She was seen there in the company of a… creature that goes by the name of ‘Johnny’. To believe the witnesses tale, this being looks a bit like a child, and lives in a borough in the woods.”
Because of time constraints, Jonas leaves the city and uses the ‘fast travel’ feature (by clicking a road sign to bring up an enormous map). Otherwise the journey to Velen would take 20 minutes or more at full speed on horseback riding across the country side.
Geralt arrives in a dark, nasty swamp—no man’s land, according to Jonas. After dispatching a few bog creatures (for lack of a better description, although they looked somewhat like hags), Jonas demonstrates Geralt’s ‘Witcher’ Sense to see footprints. Following the trail of prints, he arrives at a small hovel. Geralt’s Witcher sense figures prominently in the monster-hunting and ‘detective’ work that accompanies monster hunting.
In this case, however, Johnny isn’t a monster—although he’s not human either. A small, slightly trollish-looking figure with grey skin, about the size of a 10-year old boy. Johnny is a ‘godling’, but Jonas doesn’t take the time to explain what that is—and Johnny, in this case, has lost his ability speak, which leads us to another short quest.
Johnny indicates his voice was stolen, pointing the way up a nearby mountain crag where has apparently been taken by harpies. To get there, Geralt will need to climb.
“There are many ways of exploring the environment—for example you can now climb mountains,” Jonas explains as Geralt begins mantling upward towards the nest. The harpies also provide a chance to demonstrate one of Geralt’s new tools—a crossbow for dealing with (and helping ground) flying enemies.
From the top of our mountain, Geralt stops to admire the view. Distant, glittering mountains, valleys, and forests stretch to the horizon in every direction. “Everything you see here can be fully explored,” Jonas explains.
Geralt makes quick work of the harpies, locates a small box, and gives it Johnny, which gives him his voice back. This is not entirely a good thing as Johnny then assails us with celebratory nonsense, and in the ensuing conversation with Geralt gives us entirely too much information about his bathroom habits. Thankfully, he also provides a clue to the girl’s whereabouts, indicating a nearby village in the distance.
“Maybe someone who lives in those huts knows something,” Geralt says, looking at a small distant village.
“That old hag don’t talk to strangers, and you’re a stranger,” replies Johnny.
“Will she talk to you?” Geralt says.
Apparently yes, because Johnny has his ways. Leading Geralt to an old, disinterested woman wiling time away in a field, Johnny sings a grating little tune in a gravelly voice to draw the woman’s attention. Johnny pleads with her to aid Geralt and beseech ‘the ladies’ on his behalf.
She reluctantly agrees. She leads the pair to a hut, in which a large hanging tapestry depicting 3 women adorns a wall amid candles and a sort of shrine. She touches the tapestry, intones an incantation, and then begins speaking in 3 different voices—channeling the voices of the comely tapestry ladies and promising information—in exchange for a favor, of course.
Let’s stomp some more evil
The task seems harmless enough: exterminate an evil plaguing a nearby village. But like a lot of Geralt’s quests, this one may be more complicated than it seems.
Geralt’s choices are relatively limited here, so he agrees because he needs the information the ladies promise. He is given a large, nasty-looking dagger and sent on his way, instructed to ask for payment from the village leader once the task is completed.
The Pearl of the Swamps
“Nice village,” Geralt says to the village’s leader, or elder man as he’s called. “A real pearl of the swamps.”
Once acquainted, the elder man describes the plight: “The war awoke an ancient power. An evil one that feeds on bloodshed. Folks sleepwalk from their homes, never to return... Under the tree in the whispering hillock. You must go there. The dark powers must be cast off.”
Here Jonas breaks in. “If you pay attention to the environment you can use it to your advantage. For example, you can smash beehives to unleash bees and hinder enemies, or ignite flammable gasses with your fire sign. Like previous Witcher games, Geralt has a number of signs he can use in battle.”
The signs—spells basically—are much the same as in previous games, with signs that shield, explode, confuse, trap, or push enemies away. All of them can be leveled up and improved through experience, as can Geralt’s various skills and abilities, of course.
A short ways into the woods, Geralt finds a dead body, then uses his Witcher sense to locate large wolf tracks leading away from it. A mysterious voice calls to him, drawing him toward the clearing.
“Before we go further,” Jonas continues, “now would be a good time to meditate and prepare mutagens—alchemical mixtures—to boost our abilities. We have to be careful equipping mutagens though. If our toxicity level goes too high, the mutagen can have a damaging effect on us. We’re also going to prepare a special shrapnel-style bomb that will stop the Werewolf’s regeneration.”
Prepared for the perils to come, Geralt wastes no time confronting the enormous Werewolf, which calls some additional (normal) wolves to its aid. Geralt, well prepared with his mutagens (and controlled by someone who has probably played the scenario a hundred times at E3), makes quick work of the wolves.
But the wolf, as it turns out, isn’t the Big Bad. The voice in the woods calls again to Geralt, beckoning him to a nearby cave.
Again Geralt uses his Witcher sense, which leads him into an underground cave. He swims through an underwater channel and enters a large chamber. A throbbing, pulsating plant-like monstrosity has wrapped itself around the roots of a tree. The entity (some form of spirit perhaps?) claims it needs to protect the village’s orphans and desires freedom.
Here Geralt must make a choice. He can free the creature, kill it, or try to learn more. All we have at this point is the creature’s word against the villagers about a great evil.
“This is one of the many points in the game where you can change the course of events. Choices can have dire consequences. But if you ask me, I don’t trust this creature and I’d rather see it burn…”
Jonas slays the mysterious tree monster-spirit. Once the deed is done, he finds the village elder and hands him the dagger. He then uses it to cut off his ear (eww) as ‘payment’ and hands the severed ear to Geralt, who returns with it to the three ladies.
Those “ladies” are not ladies
Upon returning with the ear, the ‘ladies’ have apparently emerged from the tapestry. And they most certainly are NOT ladies. Manifested physically, they look more like hideous mutant witches—a far (far, far) cry from the lovely visages in the tapestry. Thank goodness they weren’t seeking other kinds of favors from Geralt.
They hold to their word, however, and give Geralt the information he needs, telling the story of a wounded girl falling into their care—a child of the ‘elder blood’—a very ‘naughty’ girl, they say… but she has since fled…
Was aiding these “ladies” the right thing to do—especially once we learn that children that the tree spirit sought to protect have in fact disappeared? Was the price Geralt paid too high for the information? Might another path have been better? What could these hideous crones want with a severed ear?
Find out for yourself—or take a different path—when The Witcher 3 comes to PC, PS4, and Xbox One in February 2015.