There's full games out there, triple-A games no less, that can be bought for £50 and completed in less time than CD Projekt Red are suggesting it will take us to finish Hearts of Stone, the first of two paid-for expansions coming to The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Ahead of its launch in mid-October we visited Bandai Namco's office in London and got hands-on with a pre-release build of the new story-driven campaign.
We played through the opening exchanges, slashed away at a giant frog, met a quirky band of characters who we have to say we didn't like very much, and were whisked away on a journey in a cage. And that was just the first hour. There's plenty going on, and this certainly didn't feel like a rehash of old content, but rather a new story that veins through Geralt's existing world.
Those who are already involved the main story arc can pick up from their old save point and carry on from there (as long as they're level 30 or higher). Even if you've not played the original game, you can crack on with the new content straight away; you're given enough points and some basic armour options so you can build your character from scratch to approach this new batch of endgame content.
Those who've played the base game, having been treated to a series of smaller, less significant DLCs as part of the post-launch rollout, will no doubt be chomping at the bit for new experiences, and Hearts of Stone doesn't look like it's going to disappoint. It doesn't appear that there's going to be any wholesale changes or significant additions, rather it looks like we can expect a new mission, some side content, new characters, and new monsters to fight, but no major overhaul or change of direction.
We tackled one new beast during our hands-on demo, and thanks to a lack of sharpness on our part, we laboured to defeat it. The monster in question was a giant "frog prince" that belched poison, whipped with a lacerating tongue, and then hopped up and down with devastating power, thrashing out with its hind legs when we darted in to strike. We saw others dispatching it with relative ease; we were just plain old rusty after too much time away.
It's the same old Geralt of Rivia. Blow-dodging, side-stepping, sword-slashing, spell-casting Geralt. We meet a couple of characters, but mostly we're talking about the introduction of fresh blood (and, almost inevitably, there's a new romance). And, once again, we're introduced to a harsh reality, an uncompromising slice of fantasy life; it looks like we're going to be forced to make more difficult choices in a world that's bereft of mercy.
One new element, something that we haven't seen so much of in Wild Hunt, is the particular nature of our quarry. Here we're chasing down a human target (don't get us wrong, Geralt cuts down many men during his travels, but these are not his main targets). This new enemy and his merry band of rogues are going to be Geralt's new adversaries, and we're interested to see how the narrative evolves beyond the set up that we played through. Throughout this new adventure we will be visiting some familiar places, but seeing them from new perspectives.
Runewords are another feature worth mentioning; they're created by combining glyphs, and they unlock special buffs that will help Geralt complete his new mission. These buffs can vary from increased resistance to different attacks, through to magical boosts to Geralt's combat skills. Given the high level combat and new monsters promised, no doubt we'll need every advantage we can get.
Once we put the controller down, this time having made a much better stab at combat, we're left with a couple of overriding feelings. First, The Witcher 3 is still stunning (it helps when it's played on a demo machine as powerful as the one we used), and that's everything from the creatures you meet and their animations, through to the very ground that you cover as you're riding into the setting sun. Second, the scene is set for another exciting story based in this compelling open-world setting.
CD Projekt Red confirmed themselves as a bonafide triple-A studio with The Witcher 3, and Hearts of Stone (and then second expansion Blood & Wine, which word has it will be even bigger) looks like carrying on where they left off with Wild Hunt. From what we can tell, players have plenty to look forward to when this expansion lands in October.