The Witcher 3

The Witcher 3

I did a pre-release post, but now it’s time to ponder the game in all its finally-experiencable glory.

First impression: wow, this is amazing. Everything feels epic and looks beautiful.
A few hours later: this is impressive. And fun. Oh wait, is that level 20 griffon supposed to be circling poor little level 4 me? That’s… disconcerting.
Ultimate realization (days in): can’t leave my computer. Can’t take off my headphones. Can’t even go outside or get food. Must take another witcher contract… and another… and another!

The Witcher 3 wanted to market itself based on the size of the world and the effects of quest choices you make. That would be all good and well, but while the choices and effects are interesting, the world feels super small. Granted, it’s probably bigger than all the worlds of other fantasy games that exist, but I’m a huge sucker for exploration. It’s mildly depressing to look at the map and see that the chunks of the world I can explore are only tiny little snippets of the world map. Seriously! But back to choices and effects. The Witcher 3’s choice system openly demonstrates that Mass Effect (and BioWare in general) has quite a lot of room for improvement. I knew choices could be presented well in games, and CD Projekt Red has stepped boldly in the right direction. It’s refreshing to 1) not be making massive, spontaneous ultimatum choices, and 2) to occasionally not even witness the effects of positive or negative choices until later.

I’m impressed. And possibly bewitched.

The game engine is well-optimized, and patches to improve things keep coming out. Not even sure why! Makes me think back to when I bought Assassin’s Creed Unity. The support chaps told me my computer simply wasn’t good enough. Funny that, because The Witcher 3 (much newer, and definitely prettier) runs like a charm on my rig.

The gameplay is good. Granted, it’s not perfect, but it’s close. Running, riding, hunting, swimming, diving, sailing, all seamlessly joined. The time of day changes. The weather changes. Combat is streamlined (so long as Geralt has figured out that he’s in combat). The world feels diverse and interesting because of the freedom of movement and the interaction. The one main downside to gameplay I’ve noticed so far is fall damage – if you trip over for some reason, don’t be too surprised if your health bar is cut in half.

The music for The Witcher 3 puts a good chunk of other games to shame. As much as I enjoy Jeremy Soule music, I don’t really think that fantasy should be dominated by orchestral music. So The Witcher 3 was a splendid change. Most of the score consists of Slavic-style folky tunes that capture the heart nearly as well as they capture the setting. Battle music is some of the best, but the three crones (no spoilers) are accompanied by the best tune. You’ll know when you hear it. Think dark, dark fairy tale music.

Questing is a real treat in The Witcher 3. There are regular quests that involve talking to people, finding people, killing people, and making choices. Pretty much every game has them. In The Witcher 3, though, we get to watch Geralt’s reaction to these quests. Fetch quests? Geralt doesn’t care much for being a delivery boy. Talking to people? He’s got a hilarious overdose of sarcasm that makes conversation amusing and interesting. Killing people? In style. Making choices? Fun mystery boxes of “what does this button do?” conundrums that make you pay attention. Don’t skip conversation if you want to make intelligent choices. Seriously. Your choice can be as clear as “Mhm”, “Really?”, or “I’ll commit myself to every word you just said and that is my final choice and so much for the other conversation options that would have saved my good friend such-and-such”. Sarcasm aside, I’d list that as a gameplay strength. But those are just the regular quests. In The Witcher 3, you also run into witcher quests – or, more specifically, witcher contracts. These are brillant combinations of hunting and mystery-solving. Geralt is equipped with a marvelous dose of Sherlock Holmes. He has remarkable senses that allow him to pick up details like what kind of liquid has been spilled, what type of claws gouged a wall, or even what kind of blood is at the scene. To accompany these skills, Geralt unashamedly talks to himself. A lot. Good for him, I say. But this sense-and-talk combination makes for interesting puzzle-solving. Geralt starts by talking to witnesses, then moves to investigate the scene, and then (often) follows a trail. Along the way, he spots clues that tell you what you’re going to find, how and where you’re going to find it, and usually also inform you as to how you’re going to need to defeat whatever it is. Hunting quests in this manner are a massive improvement to fetch quests or general kill-the-creature-that-lives-in-the-cave quests. It’s also interesting to learn about each little town and place through the monster(s) that plague the people there – for instance, wraiths appear when people have been cruelly murdered or wronged.

Relationships. Ultimately, you could say that The Witcher 3 does relationships like Assassin’s Creed does combat, which is to say that it’s simple enough if you know the buttons. However, it certainly isn’t Mass Effect’s yes-or-no relationship dialogue options. And the fact that you are playing a solid character makes the relationships more meaningful. Shepard was, well… a husk (pun intended) of a character. Geralt certainly isn’t.

The Witcher 3’s scenery is gorgeous. Fantasy at its finest. Ornate tomb carvings. Sprawling, grassy hills. Flocks of sheep, mobs of horses. Roaming giants. Ruins. The textures were done well. And the game’s musical score complemented the setting perfectly. Charming, haunting, old-Scandinavia-esque melodies. Tracks that make perfect companions for traveling, hunting, and doing grim battle. But don’t expect perfection in every way the game looks. For some reason, 95% of Geralt’s armor options more or less completely fail to please the eye. Heavy armor is accompanied by a giant, round wok (yep, a Chinese frying pan) over the character’s belly. Light armor is bulky and has clipping issues with collars. Medium armor has great textures underneath – but is padded with ugly outer jackets that seem to always have the worst possible color combinations. The only chest armor that I have actually loved so far is the first one I ever crafted – the Warrior’s Leather Jacket.

That brings us to crafting. CD Projekt Red boasted that the crafting system would be innovative and interesting; it’s okay, I suppose, but nothing amazingly special. I will say this for it, though – I really appreciate the fact that once you craft a potion or oil, you never have to go scouring the land for ingredients again. Oils have inifinite use (which makes sense, given the amount you would use on a blade in the game). Potions and bombs have charges that replenish when you meditate (although this consumes hard alcohol in your inventory, so you gotta load up your pack like a boozer). Other than that, crafting is average. Find or buy materials, go to a craftsman with sufficient experience, craft or smith the items you have learned about. Swords generally look okay (certainly not as bad as armor), so it’s mostly about picking the best stats. Silver swords have worse skins than steel, but they’re still okay.

In conclusion, The Witcher 3 is a lot of fun. If you love wandering across open landscapes and hunting dangerous monsters, this game is totally for you. It’s certainly for me!

Pros

  • Gorgeous setting
  • Music to blow your mind away (especially combat music and town minstrels)
  • Enjoyable, weighty combat
  • One of the best fantasy settings ever written
  • Beautiful scenery
  • Good optimization for PC
  • Questing innovation

Cons

  • Combat hindered by unresponsive/unpredictable controls and the in/out of combat control changes
  • The world is – ironically – too small
  • Fall damage is incredibly lethal

Mass Effect

Mass Effect. There’s an awful lot that can be said, some things that oughtn’t be said, and a few things that don’t need to be said. I’ll take the series as a whole rather than focusing on one game at a time.

First impression: wow, this is amazing. Everything feels smooth and epic.
A few story choices later: this sucks. Everything feels locked in and alienated from us.
Sober realization (days in): hmm, that was okay. The game was not terrible overall; bad design choices stopped the game from achieving true greatness, but they didn’t completely destroy it.

Mass Effect tried to market itself based on narrative choice (freedom to design your own story) and a personalised character. Well, if freedom means a choose-your-own-adventure book (the kind where every choice we make you ends up with our character in a trap or eaten by wolves), sure. The only choices we can actually make are ones like:

  • Do you want to kill Character A or Character B?
  • Do you want listen to Character C, which will make Character B hate you forever and leave your story?
  • Do you want to destroy Nation A or Nation B?
  • Do you want to give an order that makes no sense and you know will kill either Character D or Character E?

You get the point. The choices are ultimately rigged, and not in “this could work out either way” kinds of ways, either – in blatant, “we know both choices are really bad, but to continue the game we have to choose one” kinds of ways. There are some choices in the game (such as inadvertantly rescuing a famous admiral) that allow us to open up more intelligent options when we make bigger choices, but saving the admiral meant sacrificing Group F to save him anyways. Same problem.

Also, the choices are all made during cut-scenes. In other words, if a cut-scene comes up, we know there’s going to be a choice. We don’t know anything about what the choice will entail or involve, but we know we will have to make one.

On the lines of a story sold based on narrative, the whole thing is a (spoiler) world-is-ending tale. Never been there before. And this one was even worse, because it made very little sense and completely took all meaning out of the choices and gameplay we had gone through. Come on, BioWare, did you just give up on the story? Why else would you implement an all-powerful, unrelated character who simply states that you made a bad game?

Did I start out hard? Yep. BioWare has such a grip on the market that starting out hard is necessary. And it’s not going to get a whole lot easier yet.

The gameplay was, well… amusing. If there’s one thing I’ve complained a lot about in Mass Effect, it’s the fact that combat was a glorified version of whack-a-mole. You heard me. We sit behind a bench, wait for the gunfire to calm down a little, stand up, wait for them to pop their heads up, spray a round, and drop back behind our shelter. This is 60% of the game. Oh yeah, and our guns create their own ammo, but somehow (in Mass Effect 2 and 3) they run out of it. BioWare liked to explain it by saying that we actually have to replace the heat pack in our guns, and we collect heat packs to replenish ammo, but hey – what if we only fire one bullet every ten minutes? How are our guns heating up so badly? I’m not against the idea of having players try options other than guns, but in whack-a-mole combat, melee fighting is completely out of the picture. Seriously. Also, the movement limitations were sad. Mass Effect played out in a beautiful sci-fi setting, but all we can do is kind of walk, kind of sprint, and kind of dodge. No jumping, no extra pathing (unless it was scripted), no swimming through void in zero gravity. Mass Effect 1 had an issue with repetitive planet surface scenarios (land, drive, drive, drive, get out, clean up enemies), but rather than improve on this element, Mass Effect 2 and 3 completely removed it. We could scan the planets, but that was it. No beautiful landscape view, just a planet on a screen.

Relationships. This was almost the only reason Mass Effect was rated M, and yet it was brutally mechanical. A relationship is so much more than just following someone around with your tongue out until they turn around and say “let’s do it”. The relationships in this game reminded me of Harvest Moon DS. Just find the flower the girl of your dreams enjoys most (or, if you want to save money, a trinket from the mines you can dig up on the top level) and keep handing stacks and stacks of them to her until she starts blushing. Fantastic representation of reality. Works every time. Oh, but then you have to go save lots of pixies (by a lot, I mean more than a hundred) one at a time before you can proceed. Mass Effect made relationships a lot simpler. Just keep clicking the dialogue option that says “I want you”. Takes about three conversations.

Yep, that was harsh. But Mass Effect wasn’t all bad.

The scenery in Mass Effect was gorgeous. Much of the game was set on planet surfaces, where we got to see aliens, awesome panoramas, spaceshipwrecks, secret labs, ruined monasteries, and much more. It was (as I already said) gorgeous. The textures were done well. The game’s musical score complemented the setting perfectly. Haunting, beautiful melodies. Sci-fi electronic tracks. Songs that seemed to complement the very stars in the sky. But was it too little too late?

In conclusion, Mass Effect was beautiful. But while aesthetics alone may suit drawings or movies, a game needs much, much more. The cultures and characters you encounter make for an interesting game. The story and gameplay strip that away a little bit, but if you are looking for a game purely because you love sci-fi settings and music, definitely go for it. If you are hunting for intuitive gameplay and love a good story, don’t play it.

 

Overall layout of the game:

60%: whack-a-mole
30%: spontaneous, genocidal choices
5%: robotic, Harvest Moon relationships
5%: other (galaxy map travel, upgrading weapons, complaining about lack of ammo)

 

Pros

  • Smooth combat control
  • Science fiction locations and people in a fascinating setting
  • Beautiful galaxy views and scenery
  • Haunting-yet-charming musical scores
  • Decent optimization for PC

Cons

  • Repetitive, whack-a-mole combat
  • Extremely limited movement, no zero-gravity moments
  • Trainwreck ending