Phew! Well it’s been a pretty intense period of gamification for me over the last few weeks. Witcher III is like the heroin of PS4 games – after the first hit (couple of hours of gameplay) you’re hooked. The urge to play this addictively can only be matched for me by Skyrim or World of Warcraft and it is certainly on a par with those games. In fact I would go so far as to say that it exceeds both in terms of playability and pure entertainment. It’s the best role-playing game I have played so far.
So now I’ve made these bold claims I need to say why right? Okay so let’s get the WoW comparison out of the way first. This is a solo game and an offline game so you don’t have to gather friends together to do instances (or whatever dungeons are called in that – I did play a long time ago and remember it being a pain to not be able to venture into certain areas without help), you don’t get idiots bad mouthing you or getting in your way and there’s none of those stupid quests where you have to ‘harvest’ X amount of object Y and bring it back to Z.
Why is it better than Skyrim? In my opinion it’s better because there are far less bugs in this game. Dead dragon corpses don’t slide towards you as you climb a mountain and quests generally are not so buggy. It’s not 100% bug free, but those bugs that do exist in this complex game are easily forgivable. Also the crafting and alchemy mechanic while very similar to the Elder Scrolls games seems simpler and the smithing is left to the experts – you just need to find or buy the raw materials, the diagrams (like blueprints or instructions telling the smith how to make the stuff) and have enough coin to pay the smith. There are smiths who specialise in armour and smiths that specialise in weaponry – it’s very straightforward.
The way levelling up works is straightforward too – you need 2000 points per level earned by doing main story or secondary quests, horse racing, fist fighting, completing treasure hunts, witcher contracts, having conversations and playing cards. The level of monsters is clearly indicated within the game and you know that if you are level 20 you’ll get nothing for swatting away level 1 wolves (apart from some useful tallow) but will get richly rewarded for taking on a level 25 wyvern. If you see a monster with a red skull beside its vitality indicator then run away fast or stand, fight and expect a quick death.
I found the witcher contracts very enjoyable – someone tells you about a monster that needs killing, you do a bit of investigation, track it, kill it and get paid (an amount you can sometimes barter up). Sometimes you also get a useful trophy out of the contract to tie to your faithful horse Roach’s saddle which gives you bonus experience points when you kill certain types of foe, find more gold when you loot containers or bodies, or find more herbs growing on your travels around the various lands of the game.
The maps are pretty big and full of surprises and home to a host interesting non-player characters and little stories. The main story characters are on the whole very well voice acted and while there’s understandably a set limit to the facial features of secondary quest characters, the main characters are well modelled and mo-capped. The menagerie of monsters is brilliant and the bad guys, while borrowing a lot from Lord of the Rings, are thoroughly bad-ass looking. There’s also an immense amount of humour in the main script and the conversations you can overhear in the villages, towns and cities you travel through. There’s also a sense of a rich history to each place and while I didn’t play previous versions of the game I recognise the value of the reappearance of old characters to provide continuity in the saga.
The choice of weapons and armour is vast. I opted to go on the scavenger hunts for the Feline witcher gear as soon as I could and be sure to get them crafted when I got to the experience level requirement. The Feline kit is lightweight and while it doesn’t offer the best protection it does let you move freely and with the right character traits works just fine. I do a lot of evasion in combat rather than being a juggernaut and I’m often heard quoting that famous pure pwnage line ‘I can dance all day, I can dance all day…’
The trickiest bit of the game for me was deciding on what character traits to invest in each time I got a skill point to use. You get skill points each time you reach a new experience level (I ended the main story at level 35 by the way and from what I learned from friends who have also played the game that’s about right) or from magical standing stones ‘places of power’ that are dotted around the maps. I also ate an acorn once which gave me two skill points (Google it).
I needed to get to level 34 before I could use the master crafted Feline weapons and armour so did spend a lot of time roaming around the maps investigating question marks and getting into scraps with all sorts of weird and wonderful monsters. There’s a notable absence of fire-breathing dragons by the way, but I’m sure that’s a deliberate choice on behalf of the writers to avoid too many comparisons to Skyrim or Game of Thrones.
I actually ended up spending 1000 gold coins on a potion (I can’t remember the name of the main currency) to reset all my traits and give me the points back so I could start again assigning the points to the various skill sets. In general (this is very simplified) you can invest in combat skills, alchemy skills, sign skills and general skills.
Combat skills augment stuff like fast attack (my preference), strong attack (hardly used it), use of the crossbow (mostly used for shooting sirens out of the sky) etc. Alchemy skills help you with how potions affect you – they are poisonous and if you are struggling in a battle and potion popping too much you can end up killing yourself – and also how good the effects can be. I just made sure my tolerance to potion use was okay and concentrated on the combat and sign skills. Sign skills govern how good your innate magic abilities are and general skills improve things like having more stamina or vitality or being able to recharge your vitality. For improving how much you can carry you can buy or win stuff at races to kit out your horse – better saddlebags equals the ability to haul around more loot (even if you don’t use Roach much).
Your magic abilities are limited to a few powerful signs (a bit like the shouts in Skyrim). I concentrated on the persuasion in conversation skill (I forget the names and had trouble remembering them while I was playing – apart from ‘Igni’ which was obvious) because I knew from experience that it would help get through awkward moments with potential human enemies, gate keepers and merchants. It’s also handy in fights to make shield carriers lower their guard or at higher levels to bamboozle people enough that they end up fighting as your ally. I also invested heavily in the shield sign to compensate for my light armour and the fire generating Igni sign (told you it was obvious) to melt opponents armour.
I also used a few of the numerous types of bombs you can craft (if you have the diagrams) to good effect. Preparation is key to winning fights in Witcher – making sure you carry the right potions into battle, have the right bombs ready and anointing your sword with the appropriate oil. Oiling your blade, especially when you get hold of enhanced versions of oil, can make a great difference to the damage you can mete out. You can learn what bombs, signs and oils work best against an adversary by studying the bestiary available alongside your inventory, map etc.
I crafted and used a lot of oils and bombs but not so much the one-off concoctions that you can mix up based on the various guts, tongues and eyeballs of monsters you have slain. They give a variety of effects that can help in certain circumstances. In terms of the refillable potions (refilled by meditating which also refills your vitality and removes any poison effects) I used Swallow the most – the equivalent of a health potion you can swig during battle.
I could go on and on (as I have done with the huge stints of gaming I have done to get to the end of the game) but I won’t. Suffice to say that this game is truly awesome and is a huge reflection on the efforts and devotion of the development team who are keeping it up to date and providing quality DLCs. I will keep hold of the game and will, for once, spend money and time on the DLCs. But for now I need to hang up my swords and take a break. It’s been emotional.
I know a few people who have played the game through again and again on the various difficulty settings so they can explore different skill sets, armour and the multiple endings, but I have other places to be and other games to play. Also I have Siggy to think about. Witcher III can’t quite claim the ‘widowmaker’ status of Football Manager or WoW but it certainly comes close!