CD Projekt Red did something remarkable with their first couple of Witcher games. To rise from complete unknowns to become one of the leading developers in the fiercely competitive RPG space is a massive accomplishment.
The first time I noticed the original Witcher was back in 2006 at Games Convention in Leipzig. In fact, the CD Projekt team had arrived in a Volkswagen bus with a bit of mileage and stayed at the same roadside hotel in Halle as the Gamereactor team. We followed their bus on the first morning of the convention for sake of convenience. Turns out they were heading to McDonald's for breakfast before the show. It meant we had to escape the drive-in lane via an advanced driving maneuver, but we managed in the end, and met up with the team at the show proper (here's the video of said interview).
Fast forward six months and I paid CD Projekt Red a visit in Warsaw, Poland. The game now had a publisher (Atari) and the final push towards release was in full flight. The company's main business at the time was distributing games in Poland, and they had found great success particularly with computer RPGs. Games like Baldur's Gate and Fallout, mainly for PC. No coincidence then that the original game made used of a tweaked version of Bioware's Aurora Engine and it's easy to spot how the Bioware formula influenced development.
Today, Atari are done for and CD Projekt are stronger than ever, not only thanks to The Witcher, but also as a result of the wildly successful DRM-free digital games shop GOG.com (Good Old Games). And although it may be a bit overly dramatic to claim they have beaten their old masters, comparing review scores of The Witcher 2 against Dragon Age 2 would seem to suggest they are at the very least on the same plane as Bioware. Time for a new challenge, and with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, it would seem they're taking on Bethesda's Elder Scrolls franchise as Witcher goes open world.
And what a world it is. During the hour long demo at E3 we're treated to vistas from an island, that by itself is larger than the world of the previous game (the full game world of Wild Hunt is thirty-five times bigger than that of The Witcher 2). But the quality of an open world experience is rarely directly related to its size, and CD Projekt Red are committed to created points of interest and diversion throughout the world to keep players occupied and lure them off the beaten track.
"The depth storytelling and the depth of character is important to people, and you kind of lose that when you have a huge world that's populated by so much content. So what we're trying to do is sort of try to push the genre forward a little bit, by really focusing on story and character - and I think that's how we're going to make our difference," says head of production John Mamais.
Geralt de Rivia is naturally very central to the experience. He's not your typical blank canvas, but rather a character with a deep history and relation to the world and characters that inhabit it, as well as some of the creatures you'll encounter. This is something that the developers are looking to harness to an even greater extent in the third game. In fact some of the features have been built with this in mind, as well as the story.
Geralt is chasing the Wild Hunt, a popular folk myth among Germanic and Gallic people, a group of spectres that roam the land bringing despair and hardship in their path. CD Projekt Red are keeping quiet on what exactly the Wild Hunt is in this game, but for those who are curious Andrzej Sapkowski has written about it in his books. There are more references to Norse mythology in the demo, including the ship Naglfar, made from the fingernails and toenails of dead people (let's hope we get to see that one in-game and not just mentioned in dialogue).
"The guy is basically a mutant monster killer," says Mamais of Geralt. "We wanted to get back to those basics, but at the same time there's kind of an epic story going on, so it's kind of perfect for open world. Cause we've got these monster hunting quests that we're building into the game, along with the sidequests and the sort of random encounters, and then you've got this really killer epic main story, but it's all set against this backdrop of this Nilfgaardian army attacking the North."
Castles, villages, vast fields and forests. Everything presented in great detail and supported by beautiful day and night cycles and weather effects. Geralt moves along in his pursuit of the Wild Hunt - who are obviously central to the main storyline of the game. But they're not central to this demo as it really doesn't delve too deeply into the main story, even if it gives a good example of how Geralt's past deeds influences the people and how he past follows him around, and his reputation preceeds him.
CD Projekt Red wants to show off how seemless the narrative acts between main story objectives and sidequests. Geralt gets word that a sorry fellow in a nearby village survived the attack of the Wild Hunt, perhaps he knows where they are heading next.
He does help a little, but of course there are distractions to be found. Turns out the village also has a monster problem, or rather the village elders feel they need to make greater sacrifices to a deity residing in the woods to keep it from attacking villagers. Younger folk feel it's a monster problem and should be dealt with as such. As you'd expect you pick a side, but there is a twist to it that I won't spoil here, but in the demo Geralt goes after what turns out to be a rather vicious monster.
Geralt uses his "Witcher senses" to search for clues about what creature he is dealing with, scanning the forest for tracks and clues. A fantasy take on crime scene investigation if you will, and once the clues are added up he determines what beast he's dealing with and players can read up on what characteristics said creature sports.
"All the sidequests, all those characters need real motivation. And there needs to be some strategy behind killing a monster or something, you just don't go about and thrash monsters in a shallow way, you have to actually figure out how to kill the things. That's why we implemented this sort of senses mode," says Mamais.
We're also treated to a furious mini boss fight that consists of multiple stages. Combat also gives an example of how visual effects have been improved in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Not only does Geralt's signs (Witcher equivalent of magic) have spectacular particle effects and effect on his surroundings, but this creature has an ability that temporarilly blinds Geralt, blackening out the screen as you're left wondering from which direction it might attack. The fact that we're merely dealing with a mini-boss of sorts in an optional sidequest makes it all the more impressive. Combat is very fluid.
Even at this early (pre-alpha) state The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt looked great. Sure there were graphical glitches here and there, and it could obviously do with added polish, but the foundations for a visually breathtaking adventure are already in place. Scheduled for release next year, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt looks sure to deliver, even if it's stands, CD Projekt Red's most ambitious undertaking to date.
"The thing that really blew my mind with this demo was when you go to this precipice, and you're meditating... you can see the star fields changing around. Then it gets really stormy, and you look down at the sort of fjord area and the sea is getting more violent... it's getting really windy," Mamais recalls. "For me it just changes the atmosphere and it's a really good way to immerse the player into the world."
Back in Leipzig seven years ago the press wasn't rushing to see The Witcher in CD Projekt Red's modest booth, nestled in the business area of the show. Although there was plenty of positive buzz, it was just as difficult then as it is today for a new developer to force their way onto the packed schedules of gaming journalists. The situation at E3 2013 was very different. Not only was there a constant group of journalists outside their booth waiting to get in for the presentation, but said presentation lasted an hour which is an eternity by E3 standards.
Geralt may be a mutant monster killer going by to his roots, but Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is more likely to win you over with its silver tongue than its sword.