The Witcher III E3 2013 Preview

RPGs are nowhere near as prominent as they used to be in times past, but some people still keep the flame alive. In North America, BioWare is a last bastion of Western/CRPG goodness, but in recent years they’ve gotten some stiff competition from the most unlikely of places. Poland, specifically the developer CD Projekt, has taken their local fantasy fiction hit—translated as The Witcher—and turned it into a very successful series that rivals BioWare’s space and fantasy operas for characterization, choice and consequence.

At this year’s E3, behind closed doors, they showed off the The Witcher III, slated for the PS4, Xbox One and PC, and if this early taste is any indication, BioWare should still be worried.

The Witcher III is finally unshackling itself from the confines of a large, linear world, and embracing the open world style

Like the upcoming Dragon Age: Inquisition, The Witcher III is finally unshackling itself from the confines of a large, linear world, and embracing the open world style that so many next gen titles are featuring. The land Geralt will be exploring this time is 35 times the size of the previous game, and 20% larger than mighty Elder Scrolls IV: Skyrim, the current reigning champion of open world fantasy games. However, a key difference between Bethesda’s direction and CD Projekt’s is that this world will have over 100 hours of gameplay, of which at least 40—according to CD Projekt’s own estimates—is the main quests of the storyline. In other words, this isn’t a massive world that happens to have a story in it, this is a story that happens to take place in a massive world and that subtle shift of intent seems to have significant ramifications for the game.

The graphics—as to be expected from a next gen title set to release next year—look impressive. Geralt, the NPCs around him and the environment they wander in are all bristling with detail. The increased power of today’s PCs and November’s new consoles allow for day/night cycles, and weather effects that go so far as to create choppy seas during storms that Geralt—if he’s foolish enough to go sailing at such time—can drown from.

Geralt—a Witcher, which essentially means monster hunter with some magical powers—doesn’t just live in a big world, he lives in a complex one. As a Witcher, he hires out his sword and magical abilities for payment and the demo showed off a morally ambiguous side-quest that tested his character, his tracking and his combat abilities. A town plagued by a monster is divided between the elders worshipping it as a forest spirit punishing them for straying from tradition, and a younger generation that just sees a situation of a predator exploiting stupidity. Geralt offers his services (for a fee of course). He begins the investigation by exploring the woods and using “Witcher sense” which is for all intents and purposes the Detective Mode from Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham games, rendering the world in monochrome and highlighting clues through a trail of red butterflies flying through the air. Discovering enough clues eventually leads Geralt to an entry in his bestiary listing tactics, strengths, weaknesses and methodology of the monster, in this case, a Leshen.

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One catch during this particular investigation reveals that the Leshen uses a human as an auxiliary battery, drawing energy from the victim to enable it to never truly die. When Geralt returns to the village and informs his employer of this, the young man eagerly eggs him on to find and eliminate this battery, since he is convinced it is one of the elders that protects tradition. Geralt discovers that the unknowing battery is, in fact, his employer’s fiancé. Geralt leaves the townsfolk to deal with this messy situation while he goes on to fight the monster.

It’s here that combat shows some changes from past games. Geralt now has a dodge that resembles a pirouette, more in keeping with the original source material. He still uses magic for various effects in combat, from burning to analyzing enemies. It is, CD Projekt hopes, a hybrid of RPG and fighting game mechanics.

While it’s hard to get a good sense of a massive game from less than an hour of gameplay, what’s on show so far promises a massive scale. Bethesda has ruled the roost when it comes to gigantic, open world fantasy games. But with The Witcher III and the more distant Cyberpunk 2077, CD Projekt looks set to finally providing some decent rivalry. The Witcher III is set for release in 2014.