by Harold Goldberg
It’s rare, rare as finding a stash of FL diamonds on the grittier streets of the Lower East Side. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a rare game that makes you feel, makes you feel the highs and lows of human emotions within a varied, frighteningly beautiful environment that is at once a disgustingly brutal fantasy world. The narrative is generally taut, not fraught. And that’s but one characteristic that makes it a most excellent open world game. While it’s a different genre, The Witcher 3 rivals the finest games Rockstar has ever created, and if you’ve read my book, All Your Base Are Belong to Us, or the Rockstar Playboy magazine cover story I’ve written about Sam Houser, you know I don’t make a statement like that lightly.
To me, it’s clear as the Spring-fresh waterfall waters of Iceland: Poland’s CD Projekt RED has made a game so utterly appealing, it’s the year’s best game of the year. I confess I’m not done with the 100-plus hour open world romp. But here’s what I think mid-game.
1) Stopping and looking. On Roach, my trusty horse, I often stop to check out the many vistas, the sunrises, the sunsets, the blue blackness of midnight suddenly lit by the blazing white moon. The developers must have been influenced by Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption and the awe-inspiring sights one could view atop the canyons. But they’ve made the vistas their own. Still, the sights can be horrible, too. If you’re a music or poetry fan, you might think of Abel Meeropol and Billie Holiday and “Strange Fruit” as you witness the tragedy of people, dead and hanging from trees as you pass.
2) Splitting up boss battles. During the course of fighting the first battle against a monstrous griffin, I was happy to see the boss battle was divided into two parts. So when I died late in the fight, I didn’t have to begin all over again.
3) The distinct humor. While you won’t laugh out loud, the peoples’ irony and cynicism within the towns and homes you visit is one of the aspects of Witcher 3 that will keep you amused. At one point, bounty hunter Geralt, definitely a man’s man with a sculptured face, striking gray hair and a brawny (if scarred) physique, has to retrieve a pet goat to glean essential quest information from a pellar, kind of an odd, paranoid soothsayer clad in a necklace of chicken feet. The very idea of seeing this giant man having to ring a bell to lead s goat named Princess to safety will make you chuckle.
4) The narrative is bolstered by compelling camera work. While the story’s not perfect, it’s engaging. Part of that’s due to the camera angles you see while listening to the tales of everyone from barons to peasants. Often in role playing games, movie-like cuts during a conversation are just not there. It makes you feel as if you’re watching something static from the early days of filmmaking. In the Witcher 3, the angles change three, four or five times during a conversation. And, the angles subtly change your interpretation of the story.
5) Load times. They’re too long. But when you continue your game and wait for it to begin, you get a kind of memory-jogging update to the story so far. It’s not merely an update. You’ll see a vivid, graphic novel-like scene in which one portion is animated. It’s really visually stimulating – artful.
6) The women characters in Witcher 3, like young, smart Ciri, are on fairly equal footing with the male protagonist Geralt. In fact, Geralt often gets his comeuppance from them. That starts right from the beginning when Yennefer, the striking Vengerbergian sorceress who used to be a hunchback, plays a practical joke on Geralt. She’s in control of this relationship, even as the game progresses. There is, however, an issue with the amount of violence women characters must endure. And yet, when characters explain their reasoning in a game this long, the worry is that all this proselytizing can desensitize you to violence against women. Still, this dark fantasy story is set in a terrible time of savagery. You may have encountered that issue that in HBO’s Game of Thrones as well, and it’s worse in the TV series.
Violence and blood is part of this difficult story. Despite the brutality, it’s not of, say, a Boko Haram offensive outrageousness. It is, however, disturbing. That’s why it’s rated M for mature. Fiction disturbs.
7) Your goal is to find the missing witcher, Ciri, a firecracker of a charge whom Geralt and the elder Vesemir mentored since she was a small girl. You also play as Ciri and when you first do, she feels stronger and more powerful that Geralt.
8) The horror! The horror! While I’m no sword and sorcery nerd (I have yet to watch more than a few Game of Thrones episodes), I am an zealous fan of the horror genre. There’s enough horror within The Witcher 3 than in some so-called survival horror games. The nervous tension that precedes terror? That’s right here.
9) Take what you need and leave the rest. The stuff in markets and loot chests is rife with materials for crafting and more. The sheer variety of it is daunting. I usually take the rarer master items, some money and some food. Taking everything like a hoarder just slows me down. I’ll look into crafting later.
10) I have never been more engaged by an open world role playing game. To me, a lot of this has to do with the tales beyond the main story. When you’re asked to save someone from a burning horse barn and you become consumed by smoke amid the raging inferno — at the same time losing your breath — you feel the encroaching ending. And when you do save a man’s brother, man, it’s a good feeling.
11) Off the beaten path. If you deign to go strolling into the dark night in search of adventure, beware of what you might find, especially around the streams and bogs. This is when The Witcher 3 really scares me — when I venture out into the ebony open world alone without Roach. As I move forward, I can almost feel a horror movie audience screaming, “Don’t Go In There!” But yes, I do go there. And I often die. But what a happy death it is, full of the magical spells of emotion and empathy.
Harold Goldberg, the author of All Your Base Are Belong to Us (How 50 Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture) is the founder of the New York Videogame Critics Circle.