RPG Codex Review: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
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RPG Codex Review: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Review - posted by Angthoron on Sat 27 June 2015, 00:14:24Tags: CD Projekt; The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Full disclosure: My Witcher 3 review copy has been provided by kind Scrooge, game give-away goddess to rival even the famed Fluent of the RPG Watch. Please consider donating to her Patreon as WoW subscriptions don’t quite pay themselves!
Everything comes to an end. This simple - and occasionally unpleasant - factoid is hardly a surprise to anyone. What is a surprise is a successful series ending at an appropriate time without turning into an equivalent of Call of Duty or The Sims all while the studio is only known for the said series. Yes, dear reader, The Witcher series comes to an end with Witcher 3 - curiously enough, both in its game and novel forms.
A lot can be said about The Witcher series - it manages to combine excellent ideas and their successful implementation with ideas that are nearly equally as poor. It is a series of games with a curious amount of trials and errors, and with an unexpected amount of ambition. A lot could be said about the series, but its introduction at this point is ridiculous - instead, let's see whether The Witcher ends on a triumphant note, or whether it's a sad and mangled mess that no-one has really asked for. However, if you do want to read up on some of the things already said about the series, head on to Witcher and Witcher 2 reviews and take a look. They're probably shorter than this one, too.
Tell me a story, Uncle Vesemir
Instead of talking about some of the probably more predictable aspects of The Witcher series that sadly bleed into Witcher 3 as well, let's start with something that the series has become known for - namely, the writing, as the series have so far provided a better-than-average writing and shown some attempts at innovating the storytelling.
What can be said about the writing of Witcher 3, then? Well - simply put, it is one of the best-written games to have come out in well over a decade. Perhaps even the best-written RPG since Torment, tackling serious topics and pulling no punches, placing the player in a position of one of the last sane men in an increasingly insane world and never shying away from showing what insanity actually is while avoiding the pitfalls of cheap shock value. The mundaneness of cruelty; the commonness of greed, treason, cowardice; the quiet acceptance of murder, rape, despair, racism and hate - Witcher 3 is all about that. Witcher 3 is about total war without its typical glamor.
Your mileage may vary, of course, as Witcher 3 puts you in charge of a character with a predetermined personality, and therefore it is impossible to have Geralt act in radically different ways. You play the good guy. There's no way around it. You'll be a very good guy, or you'll be a good guy that got shell-shocked, but one way or the other, no, you can't break character, stab everyone in the back and dance a jig at Ciri's grave. Geralt is the archetypical Slav mythology hero, both in the novels and in the games, and you will have to play him as such.
And yet, the story crafted by CDPR's writers is great stuff, and the variances in the story, the forks it makes and the decisions you take manage to make the story your own just enough. You can make people's lives better at times, even if it's in some bitter-sweet way. Or you can walk away and simply take your coin. You can help the wrong man. You can do wrong - both knowingly and unknowingly. Oftentimes, your decisions will only be cosmetic, resulting in fairly similar outcomes in the game world - and yet these cosmetics will reflect your choice in some small ways. You'll not change the flow of the story entirely by saving a secondary character, but you will notice that the game remembered it. The stories can also continue in unexpected ways to have a pay-off later down the road.
The pacing is excellent, with little to no filler to slow down the flow of the story; the style is consistent and fitting to the situations; the accompanying voice acting is typically top-notch, and the animations are good enough to not ruin the delivery, and, in fact, are at times good enough to emphasize it. As for the characters, even the secondary and tertiary characters appear to have personal motivations, personalities and backgrounds and are actually deep, and occasionally dynamic - for instance, the Blood Baron of Velen with his explicitly likeable personality, a pile of proverbial bones in the closet, and a fairly satisfying transformation arc with either a hopeful or a bleak ending that depends on player's actions and choices.
Naturally, not every besieged dirt peasant will offer the same range of personality traits, but nevertheless the conversations flow naturally, are appropriate to the situation and avoid needless exposition. Sadly, they also occasionally skip out on some needed exposition, such as, for instance, introducing the characters from the novels to the player (though you can open your in-game journal and read up on them, like in the old days! Remember the Updated My Journal spam of PS: T? Well, pretend it's back) and leaving them confused - Geralt's memory is, after all, back, but the player's familiarity with the universe's characters hasn't necessarily grown. Who is the mysterious elf in the mask? Who the hell is Dijkstra and what did Geralt do to his leg? Why do we need to care about Yennefer when the last two games people have been picking Triss to be their favorite wife? Ah, so many questions. Still, lack of exposition aside, the characters react organically to one another - it is only the problem of an unaware player to understand the context of characters' relationships.
Of course, not everything about the writing is flawless, and one of the least flawless things about it is the dialogue system that is some sort of an unholy union between Alpha Protocol and BioWare's dialogue wheel. Witcher 3 dialogue lines are typically fairly complex - they can vary simply in tone, but the tone is what makes the difference in the conversation (And yes, the actors actually emote), and can be fairly lengthy as well. What would be the best way to convey meaning in a complex conversation? I don't rightly know, folks, but according to CDPR it's done by condensing the meaning to a brief sentence at best and to a single word at worst. Did you know that expressing regret about an action can lead up to an immediate fight to the death with your friend? I didn't either, but there you go. It's an interesting option, sure, but I would have liked the results to be telegraphed a little better. If only the PC had capabilities of putting larger text sections on the screen.
Some of the dialogues, too, are a little too railroaded - while, as it's been said, you are playing the role of Geralt of Rivia, some of the conversations could've used a few different options that split up more drastically - a nitpick I'd not present to a game with lesser writing, but in this case the team has proven itself to be more than capable of delivering better diversity, and it does feel more jarring than it otherwise would as a result.
I Can Show You the World
The atmosphere of Witcher 3 does its best to support the writing - and succeeds to do it almost perfectly. Visual and audio design serve to reinforce the writing and create a sense of place. The world hardly feels like a theme park - instead, it is a fairly logical, if occasionally repetitive.
Contrary to popular belief, Witcher 3 isn't made out of one large seamless zone, but rather out of several "smaller" ones. Of course, even the smallest of these zones is enormous and could've potentially housed all of the game's content with ease, but nevertheless, the open world here is more akin to the world of Gothic 2 than to the world of Skyrim. Similarly, Witcher 3 has absolutely no loading screens on entering a building - they are all part of the surrounding world, and you can walk in and out of them as you please. Loading screens are not a particular issue either, though at times you may get tired of Dandelion recounting the recentmost events of the saga. Despite the swift loading times, the world is absolutely enormous, though perhaps needlessly so, as the travel time between quests could have used a bit of a trim.
Still, the world is realistic and rich with detail - from the finally realistically depicted outskirts of a major medieval-like city (undesireables and underclass living outside the city walls, miles and miles of farmland all around - thank you CDPR, I wanted to see this for nearly two decades) to tiny shrines to a deity or to Eternal Fire seemingly in the middle of nowhere, the minute details are what makes the world stand out and feel lived in. Tiny hamlets full of peasants going about their business, refugee camps full of the sick and the hungry, city squares bursting with activity - the developers spared no expense in making the world of Witcher 3 feel alive - thankfully, remembering that ambient sound is an important part of game's atmosphere, too.
Unfortunately for the inhabitants of this well-presented world, though, it is a world of death, decay and madness. As mentioned, a great war has come to the Northern Realms, and you can damn well see this. From refugees to well-populated gallows to mass graves, from corpse-littered battlefields to random corpses of women and children in equally random forest cottages, the game pulls no punches. War ain't pretty - and CDPR manages to show this very well. From the ambiguity of every side involved in the conflict to the atrocities and dark secrets of the humans and humanoids that make the local monsters' evils pale in contrast, the tone is consistently dark in a fittingly cynical, bitter way.
The atmosphere is perfect in its grimdarkness in every aspect - from the dialogues and quests to the world design and the use of color. Yes, that's right - finally there's a team that's actually heard of the color and shape theories. Witcher 3 actually puts the theory into use with its over-saturated reds and greens, instilling additional unease in the player. Oh yes, and the music, once more, is good - after a hiatus in Witcher 2, the soundtrack is once again well-made, fitting, and very atmospheric. A tad too much so in fact - a certain broken violin tune in a certain swamp is so much atmosphere that even a knife isn't enough to cut it anymore, and that's before you get to meet its nightmare fuel inhabitants (great visual design on those, however).
Witcher 3 does not invent the wheel with its quests or their structure. Just as before in the series, the game's quests divide into main quests that are dedicated to the development of the characters as well as to the major changes in regional politics, and into the side quests and monster hunts, the smaller, more localized affairs. Curiously, the side quests, an item that has drawn my ire for years in the products of AAA industry due to the great levels of half-assedness, are actually very well fleshed out in Witcher 3.
Many of the smaller stories, be they a monster hunt, a secondary quest, or a "chance" encounter are well-voiced, thought-out and placed into proper context. Some of the lengthier ones can actually be surprising - and many of these little stories actually offer you a choice. Will you let a lynch mob kill a Nilfgaardian deserter? Will you do what seems to be the right thing, and help him out, causing four times more deaths in the process? The choice is yours.
Voiced dialogue, letters, diaries - all of this will supplement your quests; the only point the game will drop the proverbial ball is upper-level scavenger hunt quests for Witcher gear schematic upgrades. Sadly, these seem to come with no supplementary material at all - unlike just about everything else.
Witcher 3 also attempts to prominently feature Geralt's Witcher Sense. Unfortunately, turning Witcher Sense on limits the player's field of view by a fairly massive amount and turns on a rather unnecessary filter, making Geralt feel like a man stricken by a serious case of glaucoma rather than a supernatural seek-and-destroy beast of wonder. Of course, it also turns every monster hunt and some of the quests into a bit of a CSI episode, with Geralt following the various trails and telling himself and the audience of what he'd found.
Rather fortunately, the player can skip a lot of the intermediate steps if they get the general idea of where to search, therefore breaking the otherwise relatively linear investigative activity; however, doing so may cost you an important clue. This, while not usually very important, can occasionally lead to a "wrong" decision, for instance, loosing a vengeful pestilence spirit upon the world just because you didn't investigate thoroughly enough. Doing your CSI job poorly can result in different outcomes to some of the investigation quests.
Overall, the quests fall into several basic categories, from simple missions like talking to someone (and making a decision, usually out of two or three options) to complicated tasks like delivering or finding an item, or locating, identifying and killing a monster. The quests themselves consist of basic components - however, the framework around them, the presentation, the atmosphere and the writing, are usually all superb, making just about any side quest worth doing just for the sake of an NPC telling you a frightening tale of horror, and later on thanking you for a job well done with a tone of real gratitude.
Sadly, the quests rarely get to the complexity of Witcher 1's Vizima Confidential quest lines, but what's available rises above most of the things seen in the recent years due to the forking choices available in most of the quests to make them feel more personal, and due to various natural-feeling turns and splits that a quest may take - for instance, one of the main quest lines in Velen can lead to a lengthy series of side quests for an old friend of Geralt's, resulting in a subplot with several forking decision points and a final confrontation to decide the character's ultimate fate (although thanks to the flaws of the dialogue system, one of the results comes as a complete surprise).
Choice and consequence are frequent in both the main quest and the side/bounty quests - the options rarely break the limit of being binary, perhaps, but the strength of Witcher 3's C&C is not in per-quest variety or material reward - it's in the writing and acting dedicated to the choices; it's in the frequently interesting morality issues, and it's in the short-term and long-term consequence, and as such, it is a great deal more satisfying than a simple reward of a pile of gold coins a-la BioWare's masterful prose-crafting, or Pillars of Eternity's wondrous infodumps. The game's quests feel like dealing with an actual situation that affects actual people rather than helping a humanoid quest-loot-information dispensers. The quests are also usually logical, though an occasional cultural reference or a bit of silliness (like having to find a goat) do slip through. Still, even such quests are not without a place, providing a bit of a chuckle or a change of pace in an otherwise grim world.
A haunted hill, an ugly monster, a pile of corpses; whom will you trust, the local deities or it? This decision will lead you to quite the different results - and further choices. Choose well though, lives depend on this.
It can be argued that much of the C&C is cosmetic in a sense, and the influence it has on the story is not profound enough - but at the same time, the impact is there, and certain events and choices will be remembered down the line. At times it's worth returning to the places you've affected, as things will change as the results of your actions - the person you've chosen to save may find peculiar ways to thank you, the bandits you've left alive have possibly made someone else's life more miserable, and having gotten rid of a dangerous monster may have attracted a witcher impersonator to try to reap the rewards. The world does change due to your actions, though not quite constantly nor necessarily in the ways that you'd expect.
Occasionally the game will give a "in the future" spoiler regarding some of the characters whose fate you will decide, and while it's not more than a little bit of text, it gives the satisfaction of a closure to a yet another of Witcher's grim tales, whether happy or bitter. And as the world of Witcher 3 won't hurry with bathing you in rainbows and candy, it does feel good to change it for the better for at least a few of the - imaginary, of course - characters.
Just as before, having a complete save game from the previous game will let you carry over some of your earlier choices and consequences to the world of Witcher 3. Characters previously spared or killed may return to the story for a bit of an encore - occasionally at a somewhat unexpected time. For people with new computers or compulsory needs to prune their old save games, CDPR has also created an option to simulate a save game, which sets up a brief interrogation with a Nilfgaardian general, letting you decide on all the important choices that you might've made in Witcher 2.
Unfortunately, the otherwise often excellent questing is badly spoiled by the inclusion of the quest compass, and the resultant laxness in providing directions. The quest compass pinpoints your goal with supernatural precision while the NPC directions are either extremely vague or completely non-existent. It is fortunate that the witcher's knowledge of the world is greater than Avatar's in Ultima 9, but surely this is overkill? This sort of thing manages to hamstring the sense of place and forces the player to look at the map instead of looking at the world. Imagine Gothic 2 with a quest compass, and just how much charm the game would lose with it. No, CDPR, this was not a good idea. Don't do it again.
I'll Have My Own Minigames, With Collectible Cards and Hookers.
Naturally, as we're in the 21st century, it's not quite enough to just have a well-made game; instead, it's imperative for the game to have a load of mini-games for the player's attention deficit disorder to dismount. Luckily for the ADD-impaired players, Witcher 3 provides just the thing, bringing out three activities completely, or nearly completely unrelated to just about anything else; the things that make no sense from the game world standpoint but are nevertheless there. I'm talking, of course, about gambling, prizefighting and races. Because, you know, why not race a horse in a countryside filled with bandits. Are these mini-games, however, worth their salt?
First up is the fist-fighting mini-game. Of all the mini-games in Witcher 3 this one makes perhaps the most sense - and is a returning feature from the previous games. Unlike the previous games, however, the mechanics are identical to regular unarmed combat, and near-identical to the regular combat overall - you have your block, parry and attack moves, dodging, rolling, the lot. The combat is generally fair, too, though by fair, of course, one means "hit the opponent to take away 5% of his health, be hit by opponent to lose half your life" as long as you're not of the same or greater level, but, be that as it may, the fist fights are a pretty straightforward, gimmick-free affair, unlike both W1 and W2 versions.
The horse racing, too, is very straightforward - simply race your horse against the AI, following the regular mechanics otherwise introduced by the game. It's simple, it's quick, and it provides you with a bit of extra gold and some free horse gear. There's absolutely no reason to not do it, though unfortunately there's just about as little reason for it to have been included besides fulfilling the criteria of the 21st Century Open World Game. Strangely and sadly enough, sailing, while being in the game, does not have a dedicated Cutty Sark Racing mini-game, and the prostitution rings, too, offer no special contests. However, seeing how CDPR has been offering the players free weekly DLCs, perhaps this, too, is subject to change.
Gambling, however, has undertaken a full remake, and while it is a fair bit more engaging and complex than before, it also makes a great deal less sense. Dice poker is gone. Replacing it is a collectible card game that you will play with traders, tavern keepers, mud farmers, street urchins, prostitutes and criminal masterminds. Yep, it makes about as much sense as it sounds. The cards themselves make about as much sense too, because clearly a collectible cards game would have Ciri, Yen, Triss, Geralt and other characters of the games and novels as hero cards with massive stats. No wonder everyone knew Geralt in W1 and W2, the guy is Power Level 15 in a card game everyone apparently plays!
That sad lack of logic aside, the game itself is actually pretty well made, and, after having been patched a couple of times, is fairly entertaining. It's a typical CCG, though playing the cards costs no resources, nor are the players limited to the amount of cards they can play per turn. Instead, the game is based around the need to keep a sizeable enough attack force for two or three rounds while having a limited hand. The game also possesses a fairly involved meta-game, as you will be able to customize your decks to suit your needs – after you win the necessary cards from the dirt farmers, that is. All in all, it is not a bad mini-game, though it makes no sense whatsoever from the in-game perspective. Still, should you find yourself completing the subquests associated with it, you'll eventually unlock a card tournament heavily referencing the film Maverick, which is a fairly good reward and a rather entertaining side-quest. Too bad dice poker would've made more sense for it, though.
But is it an RPG?
This is all very nice, one may say, but is Witcher 3 an actual RPG? The previous games tried to be, didn’t they, what about this one? Well, at a glance, Witcher 3 provides a robust Sawyerian stat system of +5% stat increments that are apparently the pinnacle of RPG design at the moment, and you definitely can get through combat by left-clicking a lot, just like in Pillars of Eternity, so the magic eight-ball points to yes. Not only that, there’s also an optional hard mode that lowers Geralt’s damage and pumps more liquid into the enemy’s HP pools, making it a perfect reflection of the current RPG design trends. Sadly, the only kind of rolling the player will be doing is roll-dodging, therefore instead of being a True Classic RPG Experience, Witcher 3 is merely a lowly ARPG.
Levelling up in Witcher 3 is a curious affair. On the one hand, you have the character-building screen complete with several skill trees for every type of combat activity. Some of the options are more useful than the others, but interestingly enough, every build is actually fairly viable, from the bread-and-butter swords skills to witcher's Signs to alchemy. Some minor thinking is required, but even if you do manage to mess things up some way or another, potions of skillpoint reset are available for purchase, allowing you to screw things up again but in a different way.
However, saying “on the one hand” presupposes the existence of the other hand, and here it is – these stats essentially do not matter because your most important stat is actually Geralt’s level. Being below a target’s level will prolong even the most trivial encounters to epic (and ultimately poorly rewarded) battles, while outlevelling even the toughest monsters in the game will make the fights last a grand total of fifteen seconds. Optimally, you’d want to be on par with your targets, but due to the strange encounter design choices, you will often find L5 wolves sitting next to a L29 Wyvern or a L34 Troll, which may also be sharing the neighborhood with L9 bandits.
To add to this minor flaw, there is a grand total of one skill that can affect something other than Geralt’s aptitude of killing things while not getting killed too much in return. The best – and all - you get is the improved Axii skill, a witcher's Jedi mind trick that is sadly underutilized. It does add an occasional option of avoiding violence or shelling out a bit of coin - and on occasion, actually turns the situation against you when the crowd realizes that Geralt's placing spells on their buddies, but it is the only skill that is ever reflected in the dialogues or in game world interaction outside of combat, and this is quite a disappointment. Even the previously existing Alchemy skills are vastly simplified, and Geralt’s knowledge of monsters is always good enough to collect every possible trophy, mutagen and crafting element without needing to invest an extra skill point or reading a book on the topic a-la Witcher 1.
No RPG or RPG-like these days is complete without a crafting system, of course. Witcher 3 is no exception - you can craft things ranged from regional armor and weapons to special weapons from various witcher schools - oddly enough, nothing from the school of the Wolf (well, not at launch that is - it has now been added in a free update), but Cat, Bear and Griffin schools apparently are decent at making armor and weapon sets that provide a bonus to one or another set of statistics, making Geralt's already impressive murder skills even more formidable. Schematics are acquired either from stores and looting or from scavenger hunts. Sadly, these scavenger hunts are not particularly hard - apparently every other vendor is in a possession of a map where a witcher is rumored to have hidden his stash! Paired with Geralt’s amazing GPS system the player will never have a problem with finding appropriate recipes.
Once you have the schematics, it's time to visit a smith. Then a better smith. Then a master smith, who'll probably want you to do something for him or her. Collect the necessary materials, match the levels required for equipping the item, press a button – and it’s all done, go on and wear it. It's very basic and fairly unnecessary, often conflicting with gear found in the game world - much of the crafted witcher gear is head and shoulders above things you find after defeating a royal wyvern. Then again, what would a wyvern know about good gear, perhaps I’m simply railing against realism here.
The alchemy crafting process, too, has been rather simplified, especially compared to Witcher 1. Potions are now crafted just once, though can be upgraded later on - to replenish them, you need but meditate for one hour with some alcohol in your inventory. Seeing as this is a Slav fantasy, alcohol is in sheer abundance. On the one hand, this frees Geralt from picking flowers in his spare time, on the other, this is just plain lazy and is merely a step away from having no crafting requirements whatsoever.
The selection of potions has been vastly expanded though, and there are now decoctions that have a far longer duration (at a cost of a much higher toxicity) with various effects, from giving Geralt a damage boost to activating a passive regeneration ability, so there’s no lack of things to choose from. Unfortunately, due to some terrible interface decisions it is impossible to drink potions directly from the inventory screen, therefore you must manually equip desired potions into the two available potion slots, exit the inventory, drink the potions, replace them in the inventory, rinse, lather and repeat as necessary. This is a strange design choice, considering oils are useable directly from the inventory. Similar to potions, the selection of oils (and bombs) has expanded by a fair share, and said oils and bombs can be a fairly important part of a witcher’s arsenal. Replenishing these, too, takes only the base materials, so there’s absolutely no reason to not craft and use them.
Time of Contempt
Speaking of interface and controls - who the hell designed these? I thought Witcher 3 was meant to be a cutting edge ARPG and not a remake of GTA 4 or a Stephen Hawking Extreme Simulator 2015. The poor, terrible, god-awful controls of Witcher 2 were carefully and lovingly transplanted into Witcher 3 down to a detail. Naturally, there are some additions as well - double-tap a direction (or hold Alt! Yes, Alt) to dodge in the direction you want. It's actually pretty useful and gives Geralt a small burst of speed you'll certainly enjoy when trying to close distance to your target. Some people will claim that this, and not abuse-spamming dodge-roll is the way Witcher 3 is supposed to be played, but let’s laugh at these people: Witcher 3 is a roll-playing game.
On a more serious note, however, there are some serious issues with camera's behavior and with Geralt's auto-locking on nearest targets - camera tends to change angles a little too randomly, causing Geralt to move in a direction you didn't necessarily quite intend him to - and with the system automatically picking your nearest target for an attack, you may end up switching targets a dozen times per trivial encounter, taking extra damage and failing to land some of the nearly guaranteed hits. Naturally, it is possible to lock on a single target with a push of a button, but that usually means that you'll be getting a bunch of hits from the flanks and behind instead, which isn't quite the best alternative.
The animations, too, are needlessly drawn-out and, once started, impossible to interrupt with anything short of rolling away, thus offering Geralt more chances to acquire extra scar tissue. This issue extends to just about any type of animation, from swinging a sword to quick-throwing a bomb and is a good source of rage - though it's rage building up inside the player rather than Adrenaline points building up in Geralt. The combat system and the animations will definitely need some fixing down the line.
The UI designer team, too, seems to have been somewhat unsure of their purpose. It is not quite Fable 3 levels of original, but it does manage to grab some runner-up prizes. The UI is stylish, it's pretty, and it's awfully console-centric. Everything is in tabs. It helps to memorize the shortcut keys, but overall - get ready for a lot of cycling between Character, Characters, Alchemy, Journal, Inventory and about half dozen other awesome functions. Why not put a row of icons on the top of the screen for people to click on? There are some hints at icons being used in the inventory and character screens, yet when it comes to a massive selection of various menus, the only quick way to get to them by default is hitting Backspace. It's either that, or facing lots of needless tab-cycling, and neither feels particularly natural. Have I mentioned that the menus close by repeated tap of the menu’s shortcut button instead of the universally accepted Esc key? Esc key takes you to the main menu. Very useful, thank you.
At least the minimap is quite true to its name - the area it shows is miniature, the scale is probably 1:10 and no, you can't zoom out. You'll certainly know you're next to a bunch of trees though, the minimap will tell you that much. It should also be mentioned that entering a new region and checking the noticeboards gradually fills the map with dozens of little question marks - a way for the developers to ensure that you don't miss any points of interests - a very UbiSoft-like feature that can fortunately be disabled in the User Interface menu. With the addition of the aggressive quest compass, the game map often feels like a Bethesda or a UbiSoft game – not at all a compliment.
Overall, both controls and UI suffer heavily from the console side of the game's development - the interface is designed with the gamepad in mind first; similarly, the controls simply fail to feel naturally responsive with the keyboard and mouse. Perhaps patches will fix it, but as it is - these aspects take a lot away from actually enjoying the game's combat.
They see me rollin’, they hatin’
Speaking of combat, it too hasn't changed much since Witcher 2 - it's still got to do with lots of rolling, though with addition of dodge, some of the rolls will be replaced with that instead. Enemy AI is erratic, occasionally providing a decent challenge as the player is flanked and attacked from range, but in the majority of cases it's about singling out an opponent and stunning or shocking them, then quickly turning attention to the next victim. This is further compounded upon by the completely overpowered rolling, which makes any flanking by the AI impossible and worthless. You're never in danger. Just roll with it. Occasional opponent provides more challenge (you might even need to open the Bestiary menu for some ideas at times), but as majority of fights are stock humans, wolves and basic necrophages, much of the combat is forgettable - though fortunately frequently avoidable. Simply outrunning your assailants for a while resets their "aggro" meter, letting Geralt continue to explore the landscape.
Fortunately, while most of the combat encounters are not particularly exciting, the monster hunts that Geralt is hired for by various townsfolk provides a good amount of variety to the fights - the various mini-boss monsters can offer a surprising bit of resistance, and the larger human crowds can supply a bit of challenge on their own. Still, it's fairly unlikely that one should walk away from Witcher 3 lauding it for its combat mechanics - they're largely run-of-the-mill console action type of affair.
The one thing that tends to save the otherwise bland combat are the very graphical dismemberment finishers. Geralt will be cleaving heads, hewing arms, cutting opponents in half and blowing off their torsoes with bombs. The gore is very impressive here - Witcher 3 certainly does not shy away from grizzly unrealistic details. Everything from a human to a water hag can be thoroughly brutalized, and it's the expectations of seeing another set of spectacular executions that may well keep you going through much of trash encounters of "three bandits guarding a treasure chest" in the game. A shame this impressive display isn’t connected to better combat and controls systems, truly a shame.
It should, however, be mentioned that CDPR has actually tried to make the gameplay a little less consolized compared to Witcher 2, as such features like health regeneration and QTEs are gone, and there's at least a dash of verticality to Witcher 3 combat with the addition of flying opponents. Unfortunately, while removing some of the useless console features with one hand, CDPR has attached a set of different console-centric features with the other, and the net sum remains at what can only be described as "more or less the same".
Witcher 3 is a bit of a mixed bag. Weak in its gameplay yet surprisingly strong as a story and a game world, console-centric but intelligent, it is likely to be a very divisive game for many, on the Codex in particular, and yet, when the dust will settle, it is likely to end up as a game to ride to a rather high position in the local pantheon of story-heavy games. Not due to the heavy Polish infestation of our glorious forums, nor due to the incompetent storytelling attempts presented by the gaming industry, however, no – Witcher 3 stands strong on its own and has much to teach to others in terms of writing and world-building. It is a worthy entry in the lists of “diamonds in the rough” that our locals admire so much, and it is an excellent final chapter in Geralt’s adventures. There’s a lot that other teams could stand to learn from Witcher 3 – from avoiding to ever make the same control schemes again to making excellent stories and fantastic worlds. I hope CDPR will not forget their lessons in the future titles, a one-hit wonder would surely be a shame.