Like probably a lot of people I’ve been preparing for The Witcher 3 by starting up the first two games (which I probably won’t be able to finish before the third game’s May 19th release). I haven’t played The Witcher since 2011 — right before The Witcher 2 came out in fact, and it has once again taken me aback at how well-made it is despite a couple obvious shortcomings. It has reminded me a little of what to expect from Witcher 3, so I guess reading this might be useful for someone who’s dropping right into that game without having played the first two.
I’ve already done a post generally talking about why people like developer CDProjekt RED. One main thing I touched on is the studio is simply really good at designing and writing quests. After the first Witcher game’s somewhat plodding tutorial, this quality was the first thing to hit me in the face upon starting chapter 1.
A lot of people don’t like chapter 1 of The Witcher, maybe due to its surprising length. I for one enjoy it because it’s a pretty good example of how to design a town in an RPG, in multiple aspects. Maybe it’s not the absolute best. Maybe chapter 4 does everything chapter 1 does better, but the first chapter is still what makes the introduction and sets the standard.
The main thing here is The Witcher almost immediately hands you quests with good amounts of intrigue. Chapter 1 puts you in what seems to be a quaint village, but it’s quickly apparent there are skeletons in its closets. Multiple mysteries take unexpected turns as you discover more and more about the residents while trying to solve their problems. It might be a slow start that takes quite a while to get around to the game’s main story thread, but it does a pretty good job of teaching players the tone they should expect when dealing with characters and quests later on. Most importantly it teaches you not to unconditionally trust any character you encounter. Things like the ultimate moral choice at the end of chapter 1 or the investigations in chapter 2 appear much grayer and ask for more complex thinking out of the player than games like Mass Effect coming out around the same time. Sure The Witcher has its fair share of traditional fetch quests, but it seems CDPR has since made an honest effort to get away from them.
In my opinion chapter 1 also shows CDPR is pretty good at designing places to explore. This first little area has plenty of secrets to find and knows how two build anticipation by locking off places until later. Both of these aforementioned qualities pretty much repeat in Witcher 2’s first town, Flotsam. For a place that’s technically quite small it hides plenty of interesting locations you can get lost trying to find, and hosts an interesting cast of clashing power players.
I expect places like this to be spread throughout Witcher 3’s open world. It’s just a question of what kind of density we’ll see in a world that big. How CDPR places its secrets and areas to explore is also something to be interested in as it makes the transition to open world. I’m optimistic about it maintaining the same quality of environment design with the large scale.
The last impressive thing I’m reminded of from retreading The Witcher is how CDPR tries to make its environments work on complex AI systems based on times of day. The studio has talked a little about how Witcher 3 is supposed to feature dynamic systems governing how animals and monsters react to humans as well as how town populations behave in different conditions. It’s easy to doubt these claims since developers often make an upcoming game’s systems seem deeper than they are. CDPR has been working at it since the first Witcher game though.
In chapter 1’s village, characters seek shelter when it rains, go places and do tasks during the day, go to sleep at night, and you see guards actually fighting off monsters. Chapter 1 even has events that transpire differently whether or not the player is there. In one event I headed towards the inn to find a character mysteriously slain. Another time I loaded a previous save and showed up there just as she met up with her supposed killers, but I died fighting them. Another time I got into the same fight but monsters appeared and started attacking everyone, and even some local guards got into the fight. Another village in chapter 2 hosts strange inhabitants who worship water creatures and I think CDPR programmed slightly different routines for them. They don’t all seek shelter from the rain, and if I’m correct many will actually congregate in one house and pray to a statue during rainstorms.
Even though these systems are fundamentally similar to the AI cycles that govern Elder Scrolls games, they don’t form the core of The Witcher, but merely a background to its story-focused progression. I expect this to be the case in Witcher 3. Some will probably call it an Elder Scrolls-style RPG more centrally-geared around a main story.
The real mystery is how CDRP’s qualities will factor into its next game and IP — Cyberpunk 2077. At that point we’ll see how much of CDRP’s prowess is tied to the Witcher IP and how much of its flavor it can bring to something totally different.
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