Examining People’s Hopes For The Witcher 3

I’ve pretty much spent today immersed in the new onslaught of Witcher 3 media from CDProejkt RED’s latest press event — the first time people from a bunch of publications got to play the game. This is probably my most anticipated game of 2015 — the only one for which I’m willing to wade through previews, and I think I’m starting to form a realistic view of how it’ll turn out in May, that includes its strengths and weaknesses.

I think discussions on this game have been somewhat distorted by the unique reputation CDPR has gained since 2007. That’s affected how people think about Witcher 3’s graphics, the developer’s attempt at an open-world game, its combat, whatever. I have a sinking feeling it’s going to distort the heck out of how the game is received in May. Over the last year or so I’ve been trying to put together in my head why we see CDPR the way we do and what the developer will probably bring to the table in its biggest production to date.

I personally found the 15 minutes of new footage this week absolutely stunning. Seeing horseback riding through mountains and villages with supposedly accessible landscapes in the distance makes me want to get in on that world. Reading descriptions of quests in previews and seeing the well rendered and animated characters in dialogue scenes also make me want to get in on that world.

Those quests and characters are what CDPR is primarily good at. I think that’s what anyone interested in Witcher games should know — the story is the main draw, as a lot of people like to say about RPGs. Not only are the games lucky enough to be based on rich existing lore, CDPR has managed to write more interesting characters than appear in most games. More importantly their quests don’t pull punches.

I think the first description I ever read about the first Witcher game sometime around 2006 hyped it as the most morally ambiguous RPG yet seen or something. Narrative choices that don’t wimp out on unexpected consequences in that game gave CDPR a reputation as a developer with balls compared to the current landscape of safe blockbuster storylines and gameplay. You might even be able to call the first Witcher a really good visual novel with some graphics, combat, and other admittedly interesting elements thrown on top as an excuse. When you really look at western RPGs that’s what a lot of them are, though they often have highly-developed strategic combat. The best classics were made by developers more concerned with creating interactive fantasy fiction and survival systems than visceral light fests. That’s where the skill sets of groups like BioWare and Bethesda lie today if you ask me.

Basically all the new Witcher 3 previews note that its quests will be a defining factor, featuring multifaceted human characters. Since it was first unveiled a top concern with Witcher 3 has been whether CDPR can pull that off in an open world way beyond the scale of anything it’s attempted before. Not only does the new footage really sell the idea of the open world CDPR has, the idea of wandering around and discovering the quests it’s crafted is probably the most interesting thing about Witcher 3 to me. It actually doesn’t sound unlike some parts of the Witcher novels and short stories. Fortunately, the writers of some of the new previews were able to walk off the beaten path and fairly quickly start discovering worthwhile adventures.

Of course the other most important thing about the new footage is how good the game looks. I feel this has been a disproportionately big part of the hype for Witcher 3. It looks great in my opinion, but I’ve seen a lot of criticism levied at it because it’s not the absolute best looking game of all time. I admit the screenshots and videos we got in 2013 were spellbinding and the latest build doesn’t look quite the same, but this criticism is also because Witcher 2 put CDPR on some kind of graphics pedestal.

Witcher 2 was one of the best-looking games of 2011. It towered over basically every AAA console game that year in terms of visuals. CDPR definitely has its graphics tech in gear, but it was also one of only two developers then to optimize a game for 2011 computers instead of 2006 consoles. I remember buying a new graphics card entirely for Witcher 2 and Crysis 2. Developers like EA and Ubisoft aren’t shackled by such old consoles anymore, and have been able to catch up with CDPR. I think Witcher 3 will be the prettiest RPG on the market when it lands, but games like Assassin’s Creed UnityBatman Arkham Knight, and other next-gen-only games will probably match and maybe even beat it tech-wise. It doesn’t matter to me anyway. Even if Witcher 3 got downgraded there’s no way it’s gonna look like that on my GTX 760.

Another point of contention I see is the combat, which has probably been CDPR’s biggest challenge throughout developing the whole Witcher franchise. The focus on alchemy and potion preparation has been a cool aspect of the games but sword fighting was awkward in the first and just kind of there in the second.  Rock Paper Shotgun’s latest preview lays it down the best — they say Witcher 3’s combat kind of feels like a distraction from the rest of the game. Y’know what? That’s exactly what it is in a bunch of other big RPGs.

That’s the biggest criticism I see laid upon Skyrim. I haven’t played Dragon Age Inquisition yet but I’ve seen its combat criticized as being just kind of there in-between the narrative meat. This is also exactly how I feel about all three Mass Effect games. I understand some people might hold the combat system in high priority in their RPGs — people play RPGs for a range of reasons, I just hope those same people don’t give the aforementioned games a free pass while completely knocking down The Witcher.

Two very popular comparisons I see in the action RPG department are Dragon’s Dogma and Dark Souls. I gotta admit Dark Souls probably features the first and maybe only truly excellent action RPG combat system. If you gotta say “it ain’t Dark Souls,” you probably need to follow that up wtih “but what else is?” Still, it would be nice to see an upcoming generation of action RPGs understand and follow what makes Dark Souls what it is.

I haven’t played Dragon’s Dogma extensively but I do know it was made by the Devil May Cry team, which automatically makes it a bit unfair to compare any RPG to it. Imagine if id Software made an RPG with shooting mechanics as good as DOOM II and people started criticizing BioWare because Mass Effect’s combat isn’t just like that game. RPG houses like BioWare, Bethesda, CDProjekt, and Square Enix just don’t have the action game design experience Capcom does. It’s a big reason action RPGs so rarely have excellent combat, and why Dark Souls is kind of a miracle in that regard. I expect Witcher 3’s combat at best to be good — an inoffensive activity to communicate the story’s action elements.

Maybe distorted expectations are normal for any game that get’s as much hype as this one, but Witcher 3 is in a weird position. CDPR is a relatively small developer from Poland people have looked to as an alternative to a stagnant blockbuster industry, and it’s taking its first true step into that Blockbuster market later this spring. There are people who want CDPR to seriously blow up and change the game, and I think that puts it under a magnifying glass.

BULLETS:

  • Some good suggestions for people not interested in anime these days: http://t.co/FF9mpLFIJQ
  • I just read the first volume of Lazarus from Image Comics. Interesting modern take on feudalism.
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