Friday, April 10, 2020

First Impressions: The Witcher III: Wild Hunt (NS)

Just a quick preface.  This is going to be a weird article, both in the writing and the presentation.  The Witcher III: Wild Hunt was released in 2015 and received a few awards, even two years before the game was released.  A Google search brings back more than one million results, with roughly 875,000 when doing a boolean search including Nintendo Switch.  What can I offer from our little corner of the web that hasn't already been done before?  Honestly, probably not a lot aside from an opinion that is my own.  And presently, I have put in about 55 hours, which some might consider too long to be starting in on my First Impressions, but there is a lot to unpack here, not just in the context of this being the third part in a series, but also because there is a brand new to The Witcher series engine being used here.

I have mentioned it before, but just to reiterate where I am coming from as far as my Witcher lore is concerned.  I played the first game on PC back in 2017 and enjoyed the bejeezus out of that.  I then read the first chronological book, The Last Wish probably the late fall/early winter of 2017,  this being my primary introduction to Yennefer of Vengeberg (I think she must have been mentioned in The Witcher, but that game seemed more focused on Geralt choosing between either Shani or Triss rather than his past relationships).  Then I started up The Witcher II: Assassins of Kings on PC in late 2019 and finished it in March of this year.  Conklederp and I also watched the series on Netflix over Christmas and then did a rewatch back in February.

So I feel that this article is primarily going to be a lot of comparing how I feel The Witcher III both compares to the first two games, and what I like about the changes, what I think works, and what I (at the present) do not like about the game, because there are some aspects that I am not a fan off, which is to be expected when a game in a series uses a new engine and establishes new mechanics.

Mechanics-wise, I feel like, for me, the biggest changes between The Witcher III and the previous two games involve Geralt's skills and how he learns them, and the equipment degradation system.  In the first two games, when you spend points you earn upon leveling up, you learn that skill and it is effective permanently.  In this game when you start out, your skills have been reset from where they were at the end of the second game, which makes sense, even if you were importing a save file from The Witcher 2 (which you cannot do on the Switch), which does not bother me at all.  What bothers me is that when you do start out, you only have one slot to equip a skill beyond the signs you start with.  What if feels like CD Projekt is doing is limiting how powerful Geralt can become and instead create a skill management system based on what you are doing in the game.  Going into a town, better change out the developed Igni skill for the Axii skill because you may need to convince someone rather than setting them on fire.  Except that there is no way (that I have found anyway) to have a quick loadout swap which would be immensely useful.  For me, I would have a loadout for when I am out exploring the world and know that I will probably need attack-based skills equipped, and a different loadout for when I am in a city and primarily interacting with people through dialogue rather than a steel sword.  In the early game, I found it daunting swapping out the "Survival Instinct" skill (which adds 500 vitality to the starting amount of 3500, which is pretty substantial in the early game) and Axii's "Delusion" skill, which you can sometimes use to give you additional dialogue options.

The equipment degradation system is also a completely new mechanic to the series and one that I am increasingly getting more-and-more used to in the context of The Witcher series.  Diablo, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Dark Souls all have weapon degradation mechanics in place, so after a while, you either have to get the equipment repaired or it will permanently break.  In the early game after you leave White Orchard and are in Velen and are immediately ostracized by nearby towns who are leary of doing any kind of business with the one who attacked/killed the Baron's men, finding a weapon or armor repair kit was frustrating.  When in White Orchard, I was able to just head back to Willis to repair anything I needed, although I still had to be picky because even then I was not rolling in the Crowns, but after leaving White Orchard, that kind of service was hard to come by.  I often found myself fast traveling back to White Orchard (which is a completely different area/map) just so that I could get my equipment repaired.  Like a stereotype in video games, I put the urgent main quest on hold so Geralt could travel the couple of in-game days it takes to trot from White Orchard to Velen and back because of the integrity of his current silver sword and armor has degraded below 50%.  And while you do find swords and armor all over the place, it does not feel like the developers want you to experiment with other gear like you do in Breath of the Wild.  While I was not really a fan of this type of mechanic being introduced into the series in the way that it was, I am not of the financial position that I am able to buy repair kits every time I go to town and have a little supply going.

Speaking of weapon degradation, combat is something that is still taking a bit to get used to, even after 50 hours.  What I loved about combat in the first Witcher game was that you had three different fighting techniques with each sword, allowing you to say, attack a group of soldiers using group attacks, then switch to either strong or swift attacks after you have thinned out the group a bit.  The game would move Geralt in a way that made the attacks look more like a choreographed dance than the button-mashing attacks in The Elder Scrolls series.  In The Witcher 2, combat became more complicated (at first) with the inclusion of throwing bombs and knives and using multiple signs in the same battle, having to adapt on-the-fly against multiple types of enemies, but by the end of the game, I was fairly fluent and probably could have increased the difficulty beyond Easy.  Combat in The Witcher III is. . .different.  To say nothing of fighting a dragon at the end of The Witcher 2 to being killed when attacked by two Drowners in The Witcher III.  It also does not feel like there is as much oomph behind attacks and I often feel like I am button mashing more between either light or strong attacks.  I also have a hard time determining distances Geralt can travel when making attacks, oftentimes going in for a strong attack (which includes a lunge of-sorts) and just completely whiff the attack.  There is also a modified dodge mechanic that is now Geralt rolling out of the way like he is in a Dark Souls game wearing light armor.

Another criticism I have and one that I have had throughout the entire Witcher series is how the inventory screens are presented and handled.  One of the key mechanics in this series is that Geralt (as do other Witchers) brews his own potions, oils for his sword, new to The Witcher III are decoctions which augment Geralt's abilities against specific creature types, and creating bombs to use in and out of combat.  Having so many different crafting options, it makes sense that the inventory screen would be full of flowers picked for their alchemical purposes, materials scavenged from corpses and shipping containers to construct into gear and the like.  But looking at the various screens can be overwhelming.  Like, I might know what beggartick blossoms do in the context of the game, but I am not going to remember what the icon for them looks like, especially since I have primarily been playing in handheld mode.

You know what, let us address the crimson elephant in the room.  The card game of Gwent, introduced in this game, but happens to be a game that everyone and their mother now plays in the continent.  I guess a card game would be more engaging than the game of dice poker that is played in the first two games, and while I did tool around with the beta when it was first being released/distributed through GOG, I never did put a lot of time into the game itself.  So when I started this game, I was kind of excited to see how things went here, playing against computer characters with their own decks.  The moment I drew the Zoltan Chivay card and the Ves card, I was immediately taken out of any immersion I had been experiencing.  For my own liking, there were too many cards referencing in-game characters that, to me at least, did not make any sense.  Sure, in an online trading card game it would make sense to have cards based on familiar characters, but to have a card representing either Dethmold or even Keira Metz seemed silly, especially in-game.  Is Keira Metz really that well known of a person in-game to have an officially recognized Gwent card made in her image?  How is there no black market underground Gwent ring with people using whatever cards they can make up?  "Oh, yeah, that Sorceresses Lodge card is totally real and valued at 15 for Ranged Combat.  Yeah, no, fur sure!" To date, I have played fewer than 10 rounds of Gwent, and the last time was to win back some documents lost to a Dwarf outside of Novigrad.  Although shortly after this quest, I decided that I would start buying more in-game Gwent cards just in case there were more quests that required Geralt to play Gwent in order to proceed.  But I am not going to like it; and at least there is a setting in the options to lower the overall difficulty of Gwent battles to Easy whereas I currently have it set at Normal/Medium.

Lastly (for now anyway), and just to be kind of nit-picky, is that I am not all beside myself for Geralt with a beard.  It is probably because I spent the last 125 hours over the course of the two previous games with beardless Geralt, but it is just something that I think I am just not used to.  Yet, anyway.  I have heard that he can get it trimmed after the initial trimming/interrogation in Vizima, but I have yet to find a barber, even in Novigrad (although I am far from finished exploring Novigrad).

I probably played fewer than 10 hours before the quality-of-life upgrades that were part of the patch on February 20th (Update 3.6 for those of you keeping track).  After that update, I did switch off Blur and Anti-Aliasing which did make some of the lines in-game more pixelated, but it did remove a lot of the blur.  Personally, I like the look of the game on the Switch (in handheld) with Blur and Anti-Aliasing turned off, and I am even more impressed at how in-depth the graphical settings are in the game, considering it's on a console and this level of options are usually reserved for gaming on a PC.

You know, I can understand by the tone of most of this article that I am hating my time in The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, but that is pretty far from the truth.  I definitely would not have put 50+ hours into a game if I was not having fun.  I really do love this world, the characters, and I am excited to see what happened to Zoltan, Dandelion, Triss, and how the story and choices I made in the first two games affected how this game is playing out.  Well, here is to another 55+ hours in this world!

~JWfW/JDub/Cooking Crack/Jaconian

The Picture's Crystal Clear and Everything is Magnified

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