CD Projekt RED showed “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt” at an exclusive, behind-closed-doors demo at E3 2014, and we were lucky enough to get our eyes on this astonishingly beautiful action-RPG as it gets closer to its final form. The demo we saw picked up right as the E3 2014 video demo left off: just after main character Geralt of Rivia had killed himself a gryphon and was heading back to the city of Novigrad with the gryphon’s head tied to the back of his horse.
“Novigrad is the biggest city in ‘The Witcher 3,’” said CD Projekt RED’s representative, “a living, breathing community of thousands. The fishermen get up in the morning to catch fish, the merchants haggle over prices, and it’s a great place to get lots of quests.” During the ride through Novigrad’s puddle-strewn, cobblestone streets, our guide emphasized over and over that choices players make have far-reaching consequences, whether it’s what quests they take on, or how they proceed through those quests.
After delivering the gryphon head to a man called Dijkstra, Geralt is informed that the “ashen-haired girl” he’s seeking has been spotted in a location clear across the game’s map. Our host then showed us the sheer scope of the game, with a panoramic view of Novigrad, a huge, walled, bustling, Medieval city. The map also showed just how enormous the world of “The Witcher 3” is: We were told that to cover the distance fast-traveled in our demo would take more than 15 minutes of real-time in-game horseback riding — at a full gallop. The developer also emphasized that every single area that is visible in game is explorable; there are no invisible barriers or false cliffs that cannot be climbed.
Indeed, Geralt has been equipped with new exploration-focused abilities, opening new avenues for players to experience the world of “The Witcher 3.” Climbing, mantling, and exploring vertically are encouraged; we saw Geralt climb to the top of a sheer cliff to retrieve an object for an NPC. Swimming and diving are now available, too, with Geralt discovering a hidden path by traversing an underground stream in the demo. It’s clear that this is an open-world game, with an emphasis on open.
Of course, exploration isn’t the only thing players will be doing. We also saw plenty of combat, which seems fluid, fast-paced, and extremely dynamic. Geralt switched effortlessly from his swords — he’s got two, one made of steel for humans, and one made of silver for monsters — to his magic, to dodging and blocking in easy, single motions. The radial menu from “The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings” is realigned and streamlined for “The Witcher 3,” but most of the familiar functionality is back. Included are all the familiar magic signs: Igni, Aard, Axii, Quen, and Yrden were all shown in the demo. Additionally, Geralt’s ability to meditate outside of combat returns as a critical piece of the puzzle before a fight: When you expect a fight is coming, you can meditate to give yourself a variety of advantages. You use meditation to rest, brew potions, infuse your DNA with mutagens (which can make you preternaturally powerful, but also leave you with major negative mutations), and even just to pass time. Our guide emphasized that time plays a critical role in the game, as the day/night cycle we saw can change monster attributes, alter which monsters the player will even see, and affect quest availability. Players will need to take time into account very carefully as they play, just as they take into account where they are and what equipment they’re using. Yes, crafting is also back in “The Witcher 3,” and not just for potions. Players can gather materials and make powerful armor and accessories at blacksmiths, giving Geralt important advantages in combat.
When players actually get to combat, they’ll find monsters to be just as fast and relentless as they are. We saw some fish-men-like creatures fight Geralt in a swamp, and he was able to use his Igni sign to ignite some swamp gas, causing an explosion that damaged them. Likewise, during a fight with some similar creatures, Geralt attacked a beehive to unleash a group of bees on his enemies, which confused and weakened them. All this suggests that “The Witcher 3” will reward players for using their environments cleverly in combat and not just mashing the “swing sword” trigger.
But of course, combat isn’t the whole ball of wax, either. Story is the primary reason that Geralt finds himself embroiled in combat in the first place, and even in the brief demo we saw, it was clear that the game will present a complex, in-depth, and branching story. Expect multiple characters, conflicting motivations, and many, many dialogue choices for the player. Geralt, for example, had the option to choose whether or not to free or kill a “tree spirit” trapped inside a giant root at one point during the demo. His choice would be based on what other characters had told him about the spirit, and what he ended up choosing would have repercussions on the way other characters would react to him for the rest of the game.
In all, “The Witcher 3” was a frankly amazing demo, and the game looks to improve in every way on the already impressive “The Witcher 2.” We can’t wait to return to Geralt’s world next year on Xbox One.