I’ve been holding off on writing this article for quite a while now. I needed time to collect and focus my thoughts, as well as spend some deep time with the titular game. Now that The Witcher 3 has sold 10 million copies, I think I can finally get this off my chest.
I am a patient man, and have played many games in the past that I initially hated, only to end up loving. I’ve learned that many of the best games require a bit of warming up to. Learn how to play the game, master the mechanics, and then judge it. Like a good album, the very best games may come off as poorly designed, byzantine messes until you’ve spent a few hours with them; then the “ahah!” moment happens and all of sudden you’re playing the best game ever.
My first 20 minutes with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was a janky, annoying experience, but the wisdom garnered over the years kept telling me “just wait and see. Get a solid grasp on the mechanics and everything will click.”
Well, I’m about 30 hours in, and I feel I can confidently say at this point that The Witcher 3 is hands down one of the most overrated, overhyped, and downright mediocre games I’ve ever played—ESPECIALLY one that has received award after award after award. Let’s be clear here. I don’t think The Witcher 3 is a bad game, in any respect. The crux of my animosity towards the game comes from the fifty billion GOTY nominations and awards the game accrued last year. This is certainly a mild case of “hating the thing that’s popular” hipster ideology, but I feel in this case that such a backlash is both warranted and required. Somebody has to say it. The Witcher 3 is a solid 7/10; a generic, average, trope-filled RPG game covered in a vibrant coat of paint.
That coat of paint, however, is pretty much the only thing I won’t be bitching about in this article. The Witcher 3 is easily the best looking game I’ve ever played on a console, and CD Projekt Red deserves all the praise for making such a huge game look so damn pretty and, for the most part, run smoothly.
But herein lies the problem. In contrast to the type of game I was talking about earlier, The Witcher 3 is completely backwards. Rather than being a rough around the edges, quirky game that you eventually learn to love because under its ugly exterior and obvious flaws lies something beautiful, The Witcher 3 is like a smoking hot one-night stand that only after a few dates do you discover is a vapid, lifeless husk lacking any original or remarkable qualities despite being super attractive.
Let’s start with my biggest issue: the combat. It was perhaps my own mistake to purchase The Witcher 3 after spending so many months with (what I personally believe to be GOTY 2015) From Software’s third-person action masterpiece, Bloodborne—a game that certainly has its own flaws and drawbacks, but focuses on one aspect and perfects it. The clunky, laggy movements of Geralt combined with the boring, mindless button mashing combat turned what is usually a highlight of these games into a chore. The sluggish response, awful camera, and oddly-structured control scheme (I’m looking at you, Signs system) was so far removed from the fluid and incredibly tight combat of Bloodborne that I felt like I was being hindered by the game rather than learning the nuances and progressing my own skill. Finding out that this was a huge upgrade from previous entries in the series only aggravated me further.
I don’t even want to mention the horse mechanic, which became so god damn tedious and terrible that I just ended up walking everywhere rather than spend fifteen minutes stuck on some bush or tree.
Again, this wouldn’t be so much of a problem for me had the game really focused on at least attempting to achieve perfection, or at a minimum some effort at originality, in other departments. Things like mission structure, quest variety, interesting characters, or an intriguing story can certainly make up for a broken and weak combat system; however, in all of these departments, CDPR’s magnum opus decides to play it safe rather than innovate, and the choice to keep things “familiar” makes for a hell of a boring experience.
The quests consist almost entirely of “Talk to person A, find person B, talk to person B, find monster, kill monster.”
“But wait,” you say! “You’re glossing over the clever and unique ‘Witcher Senses’ system.”
Right, you mean the “Hold R2 and click on anything red to progress the quest” system. Holy crap, what a crock this was. Way to take what could be a brilliant gaming concept—that of using enhanced senses to investigate a scene, then by using your own wit, logic, and skill to unravel the mystery—and hammer it into oblivion by making every single damned event the same process. Whether I’m tracking a scent using my sense of smell, or footprints in the ground, or specks of blood, it all boils down to “follow the red trail”.
At least the story and characters are great right? They sure would be, if the storyline of a multiple GOTY winner didn’t come off like fan fiction written by a high school student in their spare time. Every character was a safe and traditional take on overplayed, cliché fantasy tropes that have been done a billion times in a billion other games, books, movies, and comics. The sassy sorceress, the stoic and gruff hero, the drunken wife beater who learns an important lesson; I could not tell you one single instant where I thought “Well damn, that’s a clever take on an old concept.”
The skill system is a joke too. For an “RPG”, where exactly are all my playstyle options? Oh, I can focus a bit more on magic or bombs, but still have to use my sword. Only swords. The lack of weapon variation got old super quick, and each of the five (wow, a whole five) magic skills that you can level up remains more or less the exact same as the base skill, with minor number adjustments and perhaps a slight twist. There’s zero diversity available for different approaches: Want to play a stealth character? No dice. How about a tank, or a berserker warrior, or a devastating mage, or a light and fleet-footed archer? Nah, you’re going to play Geralt nearly the exact same way as everyone else plays him and that’s the way we like it. Sure, you can spend a bit more time throwing fire at people than the next player would, but there is so little room for build variety I couldn’t imagine playing this game twice. It would feel almost the exact same every single time.
Good thing you won’t have to play it twice, because the game is chock full of an incredibly huge amount of content to keep you busy for days—if doing the exact same quest 500 times is something that interests you. Each town is full of “interesting” characters and a message board offering tons of side quests…that all equate to the same aforementioned formula. I know it can be difficult to evolve the classic “kill/fetch” quest structure found in RPG’s, but some effort…some innovation would have been great. Instead, CDPR decided that quantity=quality, and if you keep players busy doing the same mindless crap for hours on end they won’t have time to step back and realize how bloody lazy this approach is.
The Witcher 3 is not a bad game. It plays well enough in each aspect that the whole package appears half decent. But if we look at a game as the sum of its individual parts, rather than dissecting these sections on their own merits, we miss the fact that each of these individual parts runs from bland and lazy to downright terrible. Wrapping it all up in a shiny package, however, seems to have tricked enough people into thinking this game was somehow better than it really is. This is how filmmakers must feel when they see the same “Oscarbait” movies win every single year, while more interesting, creative, and original projects get swept under the rug. Creating a huge world (size doesn’t mean squat if it’s only filled with the same boring crap over and over) and adding some nudity is also a deceitful way to make up for a total lack of creativity or fresh and innovative twists on classic elements.
I’m sorry Witcher fans; your game does not deserve the many times awarded moniker of Game of the Year, despite what nearly every other gaming publication (including CGM) seems to think.