The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt closed-door press demo featured a lot of apologies. The game is in a pre-alpha build, they said, and told us the final product will look and perform better than what's on display at E3 2013. Which is crazy, because The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt on display at E3 2013 is about as perfect an open world RPG you could imagine, and looks to deliver more than the average hack-and-slash based, fetch-questing titles that we've come to expect from the RPG genre. Gameplay Producer Marek Ziemak, who emceed the press demo, emphasized that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is about one thing above all else.
"Story is still the most important element," Zimek said. "The target is to deliver a film-like experience."
I hate to break it to Zimek, but The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt can't possibly deliver a film-like experience because, quite frankly, it surpasses one. Unlike a film, which is experienced passively, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt seamlessly puts the player into stories big and small. The world of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is 35 times larger than The Witcher 2. And it is a world teeming with stories and choices and, ultimately, consequences.
The 45-minute gameplay demo I witnessed today put the game's hero, Geralt, on the path to discovering the location of The Wild Hunt, a ghastly group of roaming spectres who prey upon the living. Fans of the series know WHY Geralt wants to find the Wild Hunt, but new players don't need to know the backstory to get into the action.
"The slate has been wiped clean," said Ziemak. "You don't have to have played the other games to follow the story in this one."
Geralt's first quest took him to see a man who witnessed the Wild Hunt and lived to talk about it. After finding the man and getting a nudge in the right direction, Geralt sets off in typical RPG fashion. But things in the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt aren't as conventional as they seem.
Along the way, Geralt comes across a commotion in a small village. It appears a creature of the forest has been killing villagers by eviscerating them with large roots, and leaving the corpses for all to see. The elders of the village feel it's revenge from ancestral spirits who are angered the village is moving beyond its traditions. But a brash young leader named Sven thinks it's the work of a monster, and convinces Geralt to look into it. He is a professional monster hunter, after all.
I don't want to give out too many spoilers since the demo was part of the gameplay experience, but the resulting action was not your typical "follow the checkpoint" RPG fare. Geralt has a "Witcher sense" mode that shows traces of monster activity wherever he looks. He tracks the monster, a lesher, to its lair.
Defeating the lesher involved a hard ethical choice alongside the combat. The conflict between the elders and the young men in the village is central to how Geralt handles the lesher. And the outcome is incredibly intriguing. After Geralt defeats the beast, we are given a "flashback" scene that tells us how Geralt's actions came to affect the village. Had he made different choices, the outcome would've been different. Geralt will encounter the "flashbacks" when he revisits locations he's quested in, adding a significant replay factor to the title and giving players tangible consequences to their actions.
"It's a mature game for a mature audience," said Ziemak. "You are often forced to decide on the lesser evil. It is not a black-and-white world."
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt will be, in my opinion, the marquee RPG for the next-gen systems because of CD Projekt RED's attitude toward developing mature, sophisticated story-driven content. The side quest in the demo felt important even though it technically wasn't part of the BIG story. That speaks volumes about the kind of depth players will get in the 100+ hours of gameplay time The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt promises to deliver.
After the press demo, I talked to Environmental Artist Jonas Mattson and we spoke, in depth, about what makes The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt a special title. First and foremost, I wanted to know if he feels any pressure since they're making the first open world RPG for the next generation of consoles.
"There's always pressure to create any great title," he said. "But our team is very passionate. It's all about the little details."
Graphically speaking, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt captures those little details beautifully. Although we were reminded that we weren't seeing a final version of the game, the graphics were simply stunning. One sequence showed Geralt meditating for hours, and as the sun moved around him and day turned to night and night turned to day, the complex weather system and dynamic landscape of The Witcher 3 really came to life. Rippling grasses, wispy clouds and impressive lighting effects looked as good as anything I've seen at E3 and the team at CD Projekt RED should be (and is) proud of their product. But it's more than just a pretty game. Mattsson reaffirmed the company message that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is about bringing an intense, gripping story to the open world genre.
"Story can be lost in the open world," said Mattsson. "We want it to make sense. There is no 'collect ten flowers' or 'take this package over there' type questing. We are eager to prove that we made an open world with a strong story."
Anyone who's spent significant time playing open world RPGs knows what Mattsson is talking about. It's easy to get distracted and leave a story behind in a game like Skyrim, where it's just so much fun to do your own thing on your own time. And while The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt delivers a similar freedom it combines it with an ethically-driven side quest system. You're compelled to get involved in situations because they aren't just coming from a random NPC yelling "Hail!" You see bandits surrounding a farmhouse or terrorizing an innocent woman. You can track monsters anytime, anywhere, allowing you to fight them in a living, responsive world.
"It's an open world but it is full of intense action," said Mattsson. He said there around 80 monster types Geralt can track and kill in the game, each with its own special abilities and attacks. During the demo, we got to see how Geralt tracks and kills a creature called the lesher. His in-game atlas of monsters informed us that the lesher sets up totems and attracts crows, so tracking it meant keeping an eye out for the birds. Following them led to totems, and following the totems led to the lesher. It was an organic, engaging way to get Geralt to find the monster that is leaps and bounds more interesting than the traditional blip on a radar. The realization that I would get to track 80 other monsters in such a sophisticated way was my favorite moment from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt E3 press demo.
Another aspect of monster hunting in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt that intrigued me ties in to the notion of consequence. I asked Mattsson how the game would handle it if, in my open world roaming, I slayed a monster before being contracted to do so by a desperate village.
"If you do it, but they didn't hire you, you might not get paid [the bounty]," he said. "If you came home and a plumber fixed your kitchen without you asking him to, would you pay him in full for the work? No, you wouldn't. Monsters are not triggered by quests, but how and when you kill them will affect certain outcomes and rewards."
When it comes to the nuts-and-bolts of the gameplay, Witcher fans will be in familiar territory. The combat system looks to be based on the timing/counter attack moves found in previous games, and the crafting system has been tweaked to be more intuitive. Potions and oils are still a big part of combat, but crafting them will be a little easier and using them in battle even more so. Cd Projekt RED is aware that the open-world style will help draw RPG fans who aren't familiar with The Witcher franchise. I asked Mattsson if the dev team was ready to become one of the premiere studios doing next-gen development, because the game looks incredible and as the first next-gen RPG it's guaranteed to receive a lot of hype and scrutiny. Are they ready for it?
"We hope so," said Mattson, who smirked and added, "we know so."