Friday, May 19, 2017

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (Game of the Year Edition) was 50% off in February at and I decided it was finally time to finish the series. The game and its two expansions turned out to be as good as people had praised them to be, and I truly enjoyed the 175 hours (!) it took me to beat the full package. Witcher 3 has some flaws, but it is, without a doubt, a strong contender for the title of the best game ever made.

The definitive Witcher title

The benefit of buying a game so long after its release -- and I have probably said this before -- is not only reduced price but also getting a more polished product, especially in the case of CD Projekt RED who seem to leave a game alone only after it is in a state they are satisfied with. Witcher 3 evidently got many UI and quality of life improvements afterwards merely judging by the mods that have been made obsolete, such as one that disables Witcher sense fish-eye effect.

Mods for perfection

I still did install quite a few mods (I included a full list at the end of this post) for my first playthrough and I think that for my possible second run I will add few more. One of those will be a mod that auto-applies weapon oils.

For some reason they decided oils in this Witcher game should not have a timer but charges instead (which run out fast on Death March difficulty due to monsters requiring many hits to kill). Re-applying them is quite a hassle. I skipped on the mod because I specialized heavily into alchemy which has a talent called Fixative that causes oils to not wear off (at 3/3). I did not want to make a whole existing talent useless like that on my first run.

I installed most of the listed mods before I had even started playing but the ones removing lens effects came after I had spent awhile in-game. I really do not like how the camera is treated as if it exists as a physical object in the game world. While an occasional lens flare and such is fine to me, getting vision obscuring dust speckles and water droplets on the screen was too much. In Toussaint there is also this rather obscene yellow filter. I thought it was sun glare at first but it still remained after installing a mod to remove it. Further research revealed the filter was caused by the bloom graphics setting which I then proceeded to disable.

A gorgeous game

Witcher 3 sure is beautiful, though. And not only is it pretty, the sense of scale in the world, too, feels right from the wilderness areas to the cities. I found it very easy to get immersed in it. How much wind bends trees has a bit of artistic license going on with its exaggeration -- pines in particular would come crashing down before bowing that much -- but it does give the game some uniqueness.

CDPR was most likely going for what Polish forests look like but I have not played anything that has reminded me of Finnish scenery so much before. All the pines, spruces, and birches looked so much like here. Especially on Skellige the sense of familiarity got very strong.

And the soundtrack fits Witcher 3's visuals perfectly. I had listened to few of the songs beforehand and thought the Slavic folk music influence was annoying. But hearing them in-game completely changed my impression. The music only strengthens the game's presentation.

My screenshots were taken with Fraps but I should have used Nvidia Ansel instead, which among other features, pauses the game to allow truly cool action shots. I knew Ansel existed in the game but had forgotten it when I started playing, and I did not know the hotkey combo to activate it either until after having finished the game.

I played with a mix of High and Ultra settings. With absolutely everything maxed, framerate was dropping to 50 and below a bit too often to my liking. After lowering a handful of settings to High, the game ran at a pretty stable 60 FPS. Motion blur, depth of field, and chromatic aberration I disabled due to personal preference as usual. Nvidia Hairworks is awesome when maxed but I could not bear the performance hit it caused. I encountered some crashes and low or no volume in a couple of intermissions and pre-rendered cutscenes but mostly technical issues were few and far between.

A massive world

White Orchard kind of eases you into the game with its rather humble map size. I thought all the locations were going to be like it. But then I got to the Velen-Novigrad area which turned out to be immense. And after it there were still Skellige, Kaer Morhen, and Toussaint to visit.

Filling such a huge game world without any repetition in activities is nigh impossible and Witcher 3 does not succeed at it either. But it does make a damn good attempt. Taking monster contracts makes very much sense with the witcher profession but there is just bound to be some repetition with how many of them there are in the game. At least you do no need to gather X amount of monster body parts in any contract.

Filled with intriguing content

Sometimes they also unexpectedly turn into longer side quests. And quests are really great in The Witcher 3. They are interesting and there is a lot of variation. Quite a few of them do not have a correct solution, as we have learned to expect from the morally gray Witcher universe. It can even get tiresome to constantly learn that none of the people involved were completely innocent for the shit that has happened with something.

Open-world games often tend to have a problem with their main quest supposedly requiring urgent attention yet you are not actually in any hurry -- the world will wait for you to finish whatever you are doing. This is the case in Witcher 3, too, although the tracking and investigation do not feel that time-sensitive especially after you learn what happened to Ciri.

The quest of stopping the Wild Hunt from getting Ciri makes sense but I do not really like Ciri's own mission against the White Frost. The book series wrote it off (eventually) as a natural phenomenon that will happen over thousands of years but this game unnecessarily mystifies it to some sudden world ending evil thing that can only be stopped by the Child of the Elder Blood. The game even tricks you a bit with the epilogue by putting you into a wintry version of White Orchard (that looks absolutely gorgeous!) -- as if the mysterious ice age had won.

I got the bittersweet ending where Ciri becomes an heiress to Nilfgaard's throne -- and the North's as I helped to kill King Radovid. (Regicide as a side quest? Must be Witcher 3!) The witcher-Ciri ending apparently has a happier tone but I still like the idea of Ciri becoming an empress -- no better place to affect the world.

Many times I felt the game was offering dialogue options just to make you actively take part in it. Picking a non- progressing option seemed to often result merely in an annoyed reply that did not reveal anything new. The timed dialogue options (returning from the previous game) also tend to be inconsequential. Though I guess the more negligible ones are training you to be ready to think quickly when your choice has an actual effect.

About the writing I would also have to say that pop culture references are sometimes maybe too much on the nose. For example, a band of rogue knights could perhaps not straight up start quoting Mad Max: Fury Road when attacking you. Although if one has not seen the movie, "Oh, what a day! What a lovely day!" does not probably feel so out of place.

Characters with depth

I never liked the parts in The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings where you play as some other character to progress the story. Having to suddenly fight without any of your abilities always felt so bad. This game unfortunately does it too every now and then when it puts you into Ciri's boots to experience what has happened to her. She gets some unique abilities of her own but only at the end of the campaign does she feel comparable to Geralt in strength.

Ciri is a cool character, though. I really liked her design and Jo Wyatt's (female Hawke in Dragon Age 2) voice fits her. It was nice to finally see Yennefer realized in-game as well. I was not too impressed with her voice and facial features, however. They were somewhat... plain. It was as if her face was missing something compared to the trailer.

My Geralt still chose Yen over Triss. It is interesting to read people's opinion on that. I think that many non-book readers end up on Triss with how Yen really tries to make it hard for one to like her. I also really liked how Yen's side quest is basically a continuation to The Last Wish short story.

Character design in general is amazing. It was great to see people from the previous two games again and new ones from the books as well. And the costume design, especially on the female characters is wonderful -- Witcher 3 has inspired some incredible cosplay. Armor design I am still not a fan of, however. Even amongst the witcher armor sets I found nothing I truly liked. There was always something in them that struck me as ugly or at least uneasy.

Less important NPC models still get re-used to some degree, though there are definitely more of them than in the previous titles. Female human enemies are also missing. I guess Witcher 3 came out a bit too early for the change I have seen in other recent game franchises. Dishonored and Deus Ex, for instance, included female enemies in their sequels.

Needed better content scaling

My biggest gripe with the game is the level system and everything that derives from it. In my opinion they should have pushed to design a better system than level requirements for gear-gating. And if you try to systematically clear the maps off question marks, you will get a very uneven experience in encounter difficulty. A level 10 bandit camp and a level 20 golem can be just a stone's throw away from each other.

Level difference really matters on the hardest difficulty setting. An enemy with its level in red will probably one-shot you if do not have Quen bubble up to absorb the hit. On Skellige there is an island with a level 48 archgriffin, though it showed as level ?? to my level 32 Geralt (like in some fucking MMORPG). That fight was the most difficult one I did in the whole game. I guess I could have returned there later as the creature only has standard random loot but I did not feel like sailing to there again.

Another memorable fight against a high level enemy was a leshen in a witcher gear dungeon. I could have taken it out with conventional means but the cramped space was making it difficult to avoid some of its attacks. Then I noticed poison gas in a tunnel was damaging it and I recalled the Golden Oriole potion makes Geralt immune to poisons. So I quaffed the potion and pulled the monster into the gas, which made short work of it. That made me feel pretty good about myself.

There is an optional setting to make enemies scale to your level but they only do so upwards -- higher level enemies will not scale down. And I really did not feel like having wolf and dog packs remain a constant threat. At low levels getting ambushed by them was always a hectic experience.

At least the game's save system is good if you happen to die. CD Projekt RED finally got it right in this one. Quick and auto-saves have slots (no more 1000 different save files!) and you can customize the auto-save frequency like in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

The best combat in the series

I suppose Witcher 3's combat can get repetitive. The game is long and the combat's basics remain the same throughout. But I never stopped enjoying it. I loved learning different enemies' attack patterns and how I should engage them. I very much prefer this style of free combat to the "freeflow" of Shadow of Mordor. I never locked onto monsters -- mouse accuracy allowed me to freely turn wherever I needed to.

At first I was going for a combat and sign build for Geralt but then I took a look at the sign talents. It seemed one had to invest quite a lot to make it work. And so I went combat (fast attack) and alchemy instead. I put points into combat only to max out Whirl and then started progressing in alchemy. While reasonably effective, Whirl did not turn out as fun as I had seen in .gifs. Well, not until I enchanted my swords with the Severance runeword at the runewright added in the Hearts of Stone expansion.

Severance adds 1.1 yards to the radius of Whirl, which is apparently long enough distance increase for enemies to not go into parry stance to stop your attacks. The Hanse camps in the Blood and Wine expansion got ridiculously easy to farm for gold with the runeword -- 20 bandits charging at Geralt at once only to get sliced into pieces by the steel whirlwind. People say all builds get really powerful in the end, though -- as is tradition in the series.

Whirling does wear down your sword quickly, though. I really do not get why CDPR included gear degradation as a mechanic. It gives a gradual effectiveness penalty too -- the more damaged armor is, the less it protects, and weapons do less damage the more broken they are. Any added immersion one gets from such a feature will be soon replaced by annoyance. At least most of the time it is not much of a problem. Repair kits are fairly common if you keep looting everything.

The rest of the many runewords did not seem good enough to use, at least not on my build. I did enchant my armor with Deflection, though. While it wound up being a fairly nice thing to have in the end, its problem is that the enchant applies after Quen. Thus an enemy archer can still remove your shield bubble even if you are otherwise completely immune to arrows.

Mostly smooth controls

Combat roll was changed slightly from Witcher 2 by making it stop stamina regeneration for a moment (at least I think it did not do so previously). Thus casting Igni while chain rolling beyond enemy reach is not as simple. They also added a quicker and shorter dodge move that does not pause stamina regeneration. You need the Fleet-Footed talent with it, however, to be invulnerable during the animation (at 5/5).

The dodge move was easy to use from the left Alt key. Witcher 3 of course has jumping too -- what kind of open-world game does not? The elegant solution to the usual roll/jump hotkey preference being the spacebar by CDPR was to make the key do roll in combat and jump when out. I have read some complaints about it but I personally never felt a need to jump while locked into combat.

I recall Witcher 3's movement receiving criticism upon release. Geralt's default movement has weight behind it, making turning back or stopping somewhat slow. It can be frustrating if you are trying to maneuver yourself to loot a corpse or such. Nowadays there is an option for alternate movement that has less physics affecting it. It probably should also be the default setting.

Roach, Geralt's horse, would need some movement improvement as well, in my opinion. I like that you can call Roach anywhere and that she can turn on the spot unlike a Skyrim horse. But the horse controls could be more responsive. Roach does not start moving immediately when pressing forward and jumping at the right time is tricky.

I also do not get why the speed scheme has to be different from when Geralt is on foot. Having to press sprint twice to gallop is completely unnecessary. Gallop should be like Geralt's sprint, canter the default movement speed, and the slowest be toggleable like Geralt's walk. At least Geralt gets on/off a horse at a satisfactory speed.

Hint: Disable points of interest

There was a discussion in The Co-Optional Podcast some time ago about how modern open-world games like to cover your map with hundreds of icons. You climb a radio tower or whatever and are rewarded with a laundry list of icons appearing on the world map. I think Skyrim did it well since the icons were put on the map only if you actually visited the locations or heard about them from somewhere. Exploring the world did not feel like going over a checklist.

By default Witcher 3 unfortunately belongs under the radio tower school. When you visit a notice board, the surrounding area on the map gets filled with points of interest. You can however turn their visibility off in the options. I seriously should have done that but I did not want to miss the Places of Power that give a talent point when used for the first time. Missing one or two hardly matters in the long run, though.

You also really do not want to see the Skellige map with points of interests visible. Someone at CDPR got a terrible idea to litter the sea surrounding the islands with smugglers' caches. There are probably like 50 of them in total. And every single one of them is the same -- 3 to 4 submerged random loot chests guarded by a pack of either drowned dead or sirens.

Fighting on a boat is not really a thing as monsters will quickly start tearing it apart. If the boat breaks, you will have to swim all the way back to the shore. Thus it is better to dive straight into the sea where the game's new weapon, crossbow, is your only method of doing combat. Luckily it gets a huge damage bonus in water and you will either one or two-shot everything. The encounters are still far from exciting with how you repeatedly have to do the exact same thing.

I did clear all of the caches, however, as they are a pretty good source of wealth. Witcher 3 also appears to have this loot pool system for its many crafting diagrams. Every new chest you open has one or two random diagrams you have not found yet until the pool runs out. (Your level probably affects what is available, too.) This makes clearing points of interests and looting the chests feel rewarding. You can buy diagrams from vendors too but finding them by yourself saves gold -- which you will need if you want to craft/upgrade all the witcher armor sets to grandmaster level like I did.

The bulk of the cards of the new mini-game, Gwent, also have a similar pool system when you get one from defeating a generic opponent. Gwent sure was a welcome successor to the dice game, though -- I could not have taken another Witcher title (and of this scope) with it anymore. Unlike with the dice, every gwent match is different and does not completely rely on luck. I fielded mostly the Northern Realms faction but for some opponents towards the end I had to switch to Nilfgaardian Empire whose spy cards make them arguably the strongest faction.

The best inventory in the series

Inventory was improved from Witcher 2. Instead of a fiddly, hard to use with a mouse lists, the game has a grid system that will expand if needed, total weight limiting how much you can carry until slowing down. The grids are divided into categories, of which the quest item one will get a lot of stuff stuck in it. The game very often fails to remove obsolete quest stuff. It should at least allow you to manually mark an item as non-essential because quite a few of the quest items have an actual carry weight you would want to remove.

All crafting materials, however, are weightless this time around which caused me to obsessively loot every container. Though thanks to that, I almost always had all the needed materials when I wanted to craft something. Only some rarer ingredients required me to buy or specifically search for them.

Distinguishing potions from each other is rather bothersome. Recalling the appearance of every oil, potion, and decoction takes awhile. The Better Icons mod is really helpful in that regard as it adds the potions' shortened names to their icons.

Store inventories also become performance hogs if you repeatedly sell hundreds of items to the same shopkeeper. The game should probably purge them more aggressively.

Two great expansions

Aside from color-coded quests, figuring out what Hearts of Stone adds to the game is somewhat puzzling for someone who had not played the game without it. The expansion seamlessly extends the Northeast Novigrad area. Only from the sudden monster level increase can one tell to have wandered too far.

I did like the expansion's main quest, though. The trip into the painting world was particularly to my liking. It was good to see Shani again, too. To me it seemed a considerable effort had been made for her to have an interesting persona and distinguishable appearance in this game. She is a very lifelike character.

Blood and Wine on the other hand was very clear in what it added since it comes with its own map, Toussaint, which is like the France of the Witcher universe. It is an almost fairytale-like small duchy that remains neutral in the war between Nilfgaard and the Northern Realms. The place was familiar from the books and it was maybe tad disappointing to not have Dandelion appear in there, considering his relationship with Toussaint's ruler, Duchess Anna Henrietta.

You do get a reunion with Regis the vampire, though. It probably was supposed to be a surprising twist for people who had read the books, but CDPR kind of spoiled it during the expansion's release when they mentioned Geralt would meet an old friend. I immediately knew who they meant given the context. However, I wonder if I would have guessed it to be Regis had I at that point have read the final volume of the saga in which he dies.

Vampires (and wine) are a big part of the expansion. One memorable moment for me was when Geralt, Regis, Anna Henrietta, Dettlaff, and Orianna were having a discussion and the duchess was the only one who did not know there were three higher vampires at the table. The scene had an interesting tone due to that.

The main quest has a mean fork-in-two towards the end. I would have liked to see the Unseen Elder but I was kind of satisfied with the route I chose too. The Witcher has always had a thing for twisting classic fairy-tales and stories. And when you visit the fairytale spell world, the game goes all out with it. It was quite the experience.

Blood and Wine was such an amazing end to the game franchise. "That was incredible" was all I could think of when in the epilogue Regis and Geralt are talking by the lake and the expansion's title drops on the screen to mark its end. And then Geralt gets a visit from Yen, Triss, Dandelion, or Ciri (depending on your choices in the main campaign) at the villa he now owns. And what he can call home.


I noticed that in my Witcher 2 post I thought CD Projekt RED would finish their Cyberpunk 2077 before this game. I guess the opposite was true as they only started working on Cyberpunk after B&W. Geralt's story should be finished now at least, although the Polish developer apparently has not completely abandoned the thought of continuing the franchise in some way.

Coincidentally, just this week it was also announced that a Netflix show based on the novel series would be made. We shall see how that turns out. Geralt of Rivia without Doug Cockle's voice, though? I am not sure I like the idea.

The mod list

Witcher 3 Script Merger
The Witcher 3 HD Reworked Project
Jump In Shallow Water
Alternate Lightsources Interaction
Disable Intro And Storybook Videos
All Quest Objectives On Map
Colored Map Markers
Better Icons
No Dirty Lens Effect
Remove Screen Water Droplets
No Glare Effect

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