Our recent hands-on session with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt didn’t begin on a beast-infested battlefield, but in a bathtub. That’s right: The titular monster-slayer – fabled for his ability to silence the most lethal abominations from behind a silver blade – is enjoying a hot soak at the game’s start.
But CD Projekt RED’s ambitious action-role-playing game needn’t open with an epic battle sequence to prove its protagonist’s creature-crushing prowess. No, that point is more effectively conveyed by the quick glimpse we catch of Geralt of Rivia’s bare back; a tapestry of ugly scars stretching from his shoulders to his waist, the old wounds say more than any combat encounter ever could.
Of course, it didn’t take long for us to experience the latter, earning the white-maned mercenary a few fresh cuts and bruises. Skipping past several minutes of potential story spoilers and character encounters, we found ourselves surrounded by a pack of ghouls. The fast-moving “corpse-eaters” didn’t put up much of a fight, but dispatching them got us comfortable behind Geralt’s blades and magical abilities.
Upon looting the decaying mutants and engaging in some playful post-battle banter with Geralt’s mentor Vesemir, we mounted our horse and galloped through some of the prettiest environments this side of a postcard. Our sightseeing was cut short, however, by the pleading screams of a traveling merchant being attacked by a griffin. Unlike the majestic beasts portrayed in fairy tales and “Harry Potter” films, this winged monster is the thing of nightmares; sporting a bloody maw and razor-sharp talons, the creature was in the process of flaying the man’s horse. Before we could draw our swords, the griffin plunged its bloody beak into the steed – whose ribs were now graphically exposed – and flew off with it.
Grateful for saving him (if not his horse), the merchant shared some info on the whereabouts of Yennefer, a woman Geralt is searching for (and a character familiar to longtime fans of the franchise). The intel took us to a tavern, where we were immediately met with dirty looks from the locals. Our time in the watering hole hinted at the amount of hours we could potentially sink into The Witcher 3; between chatting with patrons, shopping for goods, tricking a thug via a Jedi mind trick-like spell, and playing Gwent – a surprisingly deep card game – we exited the inn nearly an hour later.
After burying our fists in the faces of a band of Witcher-haters waiting outside, we headed to a military outpost based on a tip we received in the tavern. As luck would have it, the camp’s captain knew where Yennefer might be. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t share the info until we brought him the head of the griffin who, apparently, had been snacking on his men as though they were half-price appetizers at happy hour.
Of course, catching and killing the mythical beast wasn’t as easy as interrupting its equine brunch and plunging a blade into its skull. Proper planning and preparation were required – two things that soon presented themselves as Geralt’s next objectives. The first task saw us slaying a pack of wild dogs alongside a hunter who’d previously discovered the griffin’s victims. Upon gutting the wolf-like baddies with our blade, we were led to the crime scene. Using “Witcher sense,” a focused vision that reveals hidden clues – not unlike the Batman: Arkham games’ Detective Mode – we studied footprints, bloodstains, and broken bottles.
We left the gore-soaked scene sympathizing with the griffin, as it seemed its mate had been unceremoniously slaughtered by some drunken soldiers. Still, a Witcher’s gotta do what a Witcher’s gotta do, so we mounted our steed and fast-traveled to the next objective. When we arrived at an herbalist’s hut, we found a young woman succumbing to the lethal wounds inflicted upon her by the beast. No longer feeling sorry for the big bird, we enlisted the herbalist’s help to gather some Buckthorn, a potent plant that griffins can’t resist.
With our prep and planning nearly complete, we used the game’s alchemy menu to brew up a Thunderbolt potion (which buffs Geralt’s attack damage), before heading out to meet the flying foe. At the ambush site, we hid the bait in a sheep carcass and patiently waited for the griffin to snatch up the tasty treat. As a short cut-scene showed the evening sky grow darker beneath the shadow of a stretching wingspan, we gripped our gamepad and held our breath. Over the next 10 minutes, we died several times, usually when the sky-bound beast unexpectedly dove to the ground for an up-close swipe.
Unleashing flurries of crossbow bolts – often fired from horseback – we were finally able to ground the griffin, at least temporarily. At this point, we used a strategic combination of swordplay and fire-spitting Igni spells to siphon small chunks from the foe’s daunting health bar. More importantly, we learned to jump, dodge, and run anytime our target looked even slightly agitated. With palms sweaty and heart racing, we finally took the monster’s life (and the 109 experience points that came with the kill).
As Geralt rode off, griffin head hanging over his horse’s side, this portion of our demo came to a close. While this rich, rewarding slice of gameplay lasted nearly three hours, it was barely a tease of what The Witcher 3 has in store for Xbox One fans, come May 19. Featuring a sprawling open world, mature storytelling, epic combat encounters, deep RPG mechanics, and a promised 100-plus hours of playtime, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is shaping up to be a Goliath of a game, packed with ample opportunity to earn poor Geralt more battle scars.