Available on: PS4 [reviewed], Xbox One, and PC

Storytelling has always been at odds with open world video games, as the inherent freedom they provide allows players to ignore the “story” of the game in favor of creating their own. A prominent example of this is 2011’s The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, a game with a richly detailed world whose main story was its least interesting component. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, the latest entry in the acclaimed series from Polish developer CD Projekt Red, is reminiscent of Skyrim in many ways, but it puts considerable effort into infusing narrative into seemingly every portion of the game. It still contains clearly defined story missions, this much is true, but there is a dedication to infusing every moment-to-moment with narrative significance that truly sets The Witcher 3 apart from its competitors.

The Witcher 3 continues where the previous two games in the series left off, with protagonist Geralt of Rivia having his memory restored after spending the previous two games with amnesia. Although it is not essential to have played the previous games in order to enjoy Wild Hunt, be prepared to do a bit of investigative work into the series’ lore if you want to know what’s going on. For those who don’t have the patience for learning the ins and outs of the backstory, all you really need to know is that Geralt is essentially a fantasy-world version of a jedi, only much cooler and with no stringent moral code to hold him back.The basic premise is that Geralt, the witcher from the title (basically a genetically enhanced monster hunter for-hire) is seeking out his adopted daughter Ciri, who is being hunted by the titular Wild Hunt, a mysterious horsemen of the apocalypse-like army from another dimension. It’s a familiar fantasy plot, but it’s elevated by some fantastic writing and a large cast of very likable characters.

The Witcher 3 is an overwhelmingly enormous game (the team at CD Projeckt Red estimates that it would easily take 200+ hours to see and do everything), but unlike a lot of games in the genre, it doesn’t have much in the way of filler material. Even the smallest side quest (of which there are hundreds) is crafted with an attention to detail few other games can match. Even better, the developers put considerable time and effort into making the game’s massive environments feel like distinct, lived-in places. Geralt’s world is a violent one, filled with war-ravaged landscapes where you’re just as likely to see men and women hanging from trees as you are any living souls. However, unlike many games of its ilk — and even fiction like Game of Thrones, of which it shares more than a passing resemblance — Wild Hunt isn’t overbearing in its depictions of pain and misery. There is a lot of beauty and color in the game, proving that dark tones don’t have to translate to the visuals as well.

Fortunately, the richly-detailed environments aren’t just for show, as they contain many secrets places to discover, including monster nests to destroy, bandit camps to clear out, and hidden caches of treasure. You’ll want to explore these hidden places (represented by question marks on the map) as they contain valuable items like weapons, armor, and crafting materials. You’ll need these items too, as combat is a frequent occurrence in Wild Hunt and the enemies are formidable, especially in the early stages of the game when supplies are low. Combat in The Witcher 3 is primarily focused on swordplay, with Geralt carrying a steel sword for human enemies and a silver sword for monsters. There’s a heavy focus on defensive maneuvers like dodging and parrying, but players also have a variety of magic powers and ranged weapons at their disposal. Really, the combat system is as deep as you want it to be, but hacking and slashing is generally a good way to get killed, so some strategy is necessary for success.

Leading up to The Witcher 3‘s release, there was some controversy surrounding the game’s depiction of women, spurred by a now-infamous sex scene between Geralt and his lover Yennefer set on top of a stuffed unicorn. While it’s true that the game does objectify its female characters to a degree, most notably with their frequently revealing wardrobe choices, Wild Hunt‘s women are actually characterized very positively. The game contains no less than three major female characters and they are all fully-realized, three dimensional people who have wants and desires that far exceed just wanting to get into Geralt’s pants. Even when sex is depicted, which is actually very rarely, it’s treated with a maturity and humor that other games often fail to match.

While Wild Hunt is a ridiculously excellent, polished experience, it has a few notable issues that become more annoying the longer you play. The game’s difficulty is erratic, with early sections offering a significant challenge, while later parts of the game are largely too easy. The controls are also a bit clunky, especially when it comes to maneuvering Geralt’s horse Roach, who seems determined to get stuck on pieces of the environment at every turn. Similarly to other games in the genre, Wild Hunt has a large inventory system, but it’s obtuse and difficult to navigate. And while the game is largely devoid of load times, anytime a player dies, they are treated to an inexplicably long loading screen. So, try not to die.

At the end of the day, what sets The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt apart from its competitors is its commitment to providing a fully-realized fantasy world that just begs to be explored and experienced. The game’s story is suitably epic in scope and well-written, but it’s really the small character moments that you’ll remember the most (the father-daughter relationship between Geralt and Ciri is especially well-realized, with an emotional honesty that few games can match).   The year isn’t even half over, but there’s little doubt that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt will be remembered as one of the best games of 2015. Although, given its sheer size and scope, don’t be too surprised if you can’t fit much else in your schedule.

Pros:

  • Superb writing and story that often reaches Game of Thrones-level quality
  • Beautiful and varied world with an overwhelming amount of things to see and do
  • Fully fleshed-out cast of characters with their own motivations and desires
  • Geralt’s dynamic beard growth. Yes, the game is that detailed.

Cons:

  • Difficulty is inconsistent
  • Inventory system is unintuitive
  • Punishingly long load times at certain points
  • Roach
9
Incredible
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is an incredible technical achievement that puts emphasis on story and characters. Highly recommended.