The Witcher 3 Wild Hunt: Game of the Year Edition

I don't have too much of a history with the Witcher franchise. I have not read any of the Polish novels the games are based on and only got to play the second, which I liked but couldn't quite sink my teeth into it. And in 2015 comes the long awaited Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, promising to bring the rich world and lore of the franchise into a true open world. With gleaming reviews and what seems to be the easiest entry point into the overall story for newcomers (an opinion I do concur with), I picked up my copy at the end of 2015 and played it.... for a few hours and returned the disc, as it just wouldn't work past a certain point and never picked it back up as real life took over.  Fast forward to 2017, much to my pleasant surprise, some lovely friends of mine gave me Witcher 3's Game of the Year Edition and I promptly sunk some 70 hours into it, and boy oh boy was it a great time.
The Witcher 3 takes place a year after the events of the second game, with the lands in a state of war as the Nilfgaardian Empire invade the Northern Kingdoms. In this tumultuous world players play in the role of the titular witcher (think mutated monster-hunting Jedi, sans lightsabers) Geralt of Rivia, The setup this time involves Geralt following the trail of Ciri, his adoptive ward who boasts otherworldly powers that attract the Wild Hunt - a powerful otherworldly army that terrorizes the lands. In his search for Ciri, Geralt must roam through several nations with their own massive open worlds to gather clues of her whereabouts and piece together the mystery through story missions.
Now, while the main quest line itself is plenty interesting and compelling in its own right, and definitely a massive upgrade over its genre contemporaries like Skyrim, the real star of the game is its gorgeous setting and the colorful characters that inhabit it. Traversal in game is seamless, as Geralt sprints, rides and sails (my personal favorite) across vast archipelagos, dank swampland,  war-torn no man's land, lush forests, and some of the most massive and detailed medieval Europe-inspired cities in any game, all of it with nary a loading screen in sight outside of quick-travelling and death.
Geralt's role as witcher naturally brings him in contact with plebeians and seedier sides of society as much as the kings and lords, with the line constantly blurred as the constant wars leaving society in constant tumult as former lords and gentry are reduced to hiding and petty crimes and bandits rise to become powerful warlords. In such a world Geralt gets to meet what is probably the richest cast in the franchise yet, from a poop loving forest midget to a magical goat named Princess. One of my favorites in the Bloody Baron, as you progress his lengthy quest chains you gradually explore a surprisingly empathetic take on domestic violence, alcoholism, PTSD in a tale involving bog witches and vengeful ghost babies.
Quest design in the Witcher is simply the best that any open world RPG to date has to offer. The majority of side quests feature an impressive amount of variety and unique craftsmanship despite numbering well in the hundreds. Unlike its predecessor with more scripted story, in Witcher 3 you are given far more opportunities to be an actual Witcher, picking up Witcher contracts and haggling for you wage, with quests running the gamut of simple monster hunts, hauntings, helping an old lady get her trusty frying pan, escorting magical goats, resolving a lover's quarrel between ghosts, and dealing with a hit placed on Geralt by some distressed monsters. Very few of these feel like throwaways and all of them are meaningful additions to The Witcher's gritty yet charming world. 
Similar to prior games in the series, The Witcher 3 has a much more nuanced take on morality, operating in shades of grey. Decisions often come down to perspectives and differences in values, sometimes just taking your pick in the lesser of evils, and the game seldom outright tells you the immediate consequences of your choices, nor if you were "right" or "wrong", only for it to sometimes spring up on you hours later. The Witcher's world has a fantastic amount of reactivity to your action, not all choices need to (or should) result in large changes or even any (actual) consequences, but a quick nod and references to decisions made dozens of hours ago does wonders for role-playing and making the world feel more alive.
As for the visuals in the Witcher 3, developer CD Projekt RED's proprietary REDengine3 does not disappoint. Even on consoles (my copy was played on the PS4), draw distances are wonderful with rare pop-ins, insanely detailed environments and textures, and yet nary a loading screen when entering or exiting cities, buildings, dungeons and sailing different islands. Loading times when transitioning between open world areas may take up to 30 seconds, but fast-travelling within the same map is mercifully pretty snappy. What screenshots I have here might not do the game justice, as its a title that looks better in motion, with a rain and snow, shadows moving with the day night cycle, tress swaying in the wind, ambient wildlife, and god rays filtering through gaps in the cloud and tree leaves. The world is truly beautiful despite in less fantastical aesthetics compared to its peers, and sailing on the seas with gentle waves, light snowfall with whales swimming in the distance make for some of the most memorable moments of the game.  If you have the rig for it, PC is the way to go, but its console brethren are still fantastic experiences in their own right.
Combat in the Witcher 3 is a faster, more-action oriented version of second game. You can vary between light and heavy attacks, dances around enemies with dodges, rolls and parries, with some useful spells and bombs thrown in for good measure. While that is all fine and I did enjoy the combat (more so than the its prequels), combat itself felt very samey dozens of hours into the game. The controls, difficulty, enemy variety and combat options are not lacking in and of themselves, but its not hard for it to feel a little repetitive if when you mostly cycle through the same tactics more often than not. It is by no means bad, pretty good in fact, it just doesn't quite in comparison to the finely honed systems in Dark Souls, Dragon's Dogma and Nioh. Combat has never been the strong suit of the series, but with the rest of the game this polished its a bit of a nitpick, or perhaps I have been spoilt on the aforementioned games.
As far as content goes though, there is definitely no shortage of it in The Witcher 3. The main game itself will take a good 60-70 hours to complete the main story with some side quest thrown in, well exceeding a 100 hours if u want to partake in the games many, many quests, hidden treasures and the surprisingly deep card game of Gwent. Add to that another 10 and 20 hours of content from the two significant expansion packs, "Hearts of Stone" and "Blood and Wine", and you get a true behemoth of a game on your hands, well worth anyone's money.
The Witcher 3 as a whole is truly a phenomenal experience, well deserving of the many Game of the Year awards heaped on to it. It's very existence is important, as it demonstrates what an open world RPG can trully achieve. And this excites me, as every new title in the genre in some way has to measure up to this new watermark, and I look forward to the possibilities in the future. For now, I'll think I might dive back into the world of Touissant.


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