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Review: ‘The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt’ Casts a Mean Spell

Yahoo Tech

The problem with trying to review The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is that it requires you to stop playing The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt long enough to write a review.

This is not easy.

It’s The Lord of the Rings by way of A Game of Thrones, an immense, mature, character-driven fantasy that balances its ridiculously long script with plenty of sword-swinging, spell-flinging action. It requires time, patience, and more than a few reminders to your spouse that when she said she would love you unconditionally, it was letting you play The Witcher 3 every night until the crack of dawn for a month that you had in mind.

What makes The Witcher 3 most remarkable, however, isn’t its potential to derail your marriage; it’s how the game manages to be both intimate and vast at the same time. A massive, open-world game with a great story? Believe it. The Witcher 3 is one of the best role-playing games in years.

You once again play as the titular witcher, Geralt of Rivia, a white-haired monster-hunter tasked to track not a beast but his powerful protégé, Ciri. She’s the closest thing Geralt has to a daughter (despite our hero’s raging libido, witchers are infertile), and she’s being hunted by a group of deadly, otherworldly knights.

If the names don’t ring a bell, you didn’t play the two prior Witcher games (or read the half-dozen Polish novels on which they’re based), and that’s fine. The developers at CD Projekt Red have done an admirable job of keeping the game’s complex politics and character relationships contained just enough to give you a flavor of the lore without drowning you in it. You’ll doubtlessly be lost from time to time — Geralt did what to whom, when? — but it’s never a deal breaker. The Witcher 3 keeps its core plot focused and understandable at all times.

I can’t overstate how important this is. The Witcher 3’s story is meaty and engaging, a gripping detective drama wrapped in a weathered cuirass. The writing is superb, smoothly transitioning between dialogue options despite an impossibly huge narrative tree. Choices abound in The Witcher 3. Decisions you make in even the most innocuous quest can potentially affect the way the broader story unfolds. It’s as though you’re helping craft the story, not just simply thumbing through its pages.

An example: During one of the many optional “Witcher Contract” quests, which require you to track and kill a terrible beast, I made a few questionable decisions regarding the fate of an evil presence lurking inside a great tree. Should I kill it? Set it free? A dozen gameplay hours later, tragedy struck a character in the main quest because of my decision. I didn’t see it coming. This kind of path branching isn’t exclusive to The Witcher 3, but I can’t remember another game that handled it as seamlessly.

Unfortunately, like most games of this nature, The Witcher 3 can’t quite figure out how to wrap itself up. The third act loses focus, running you around the world in an awkwardly long goodbye.

But even managing to charge through the main plot is a feat in itself because of the sheer number of things to do. You can follow the story quests, pick up literally hundreds of side quests, or head toward the nearest “Point of Interest” question mark and get into all kinds of trouble. Or just wander: Head into the woods and pick some herbs for potions, or dive into a lake and see if anything useful is buried at the bottom. It’s even got its own collectible card game; you can waste hours simply trying to win new cards from innkeepers. There are so many things to do in The Witcher 3 that you’ll occasionally zone out while staring at its busy map.

At times, the game world’s size can prove problematic. A moderately helpful fast-travel system alleviates the strain of incessantly criss-crossing the world, but invariably you’ll find yourself stuck in the middle of nowhere and having to hoof it back to civilization … only to find out once you get there that you have to return to wherever you were to cue another quest. Note to future open-world game designers: How about a better quest planner? I go to Target, I swing by Starbucks, I stop by the dry cleaner, then I go home. I don’t race back and forth like an idiot. Can’t I sketch out my video game quest schedule too?

The upside to roaming the treacherous world of Temeria is that it’s gorgeous. Gripped in an unforgiving war, the land is teeming with life and death. Frosty mountain passes, sun-drenched wheat fields, smoking battlefields, glistening water lapping at the shore of a mysterious island — the views are breathtaking. It’s also impressively detailed. Every tree and rickety shack and random boulder looks as if it’s been placed there by hand. The Witcher 3 is a master class in world-building.

The voice work, traditionally a bit hit or miss in games of this size, is just as spot-on. From the haughty English of the Nilfgardian emperor (played by Thrones’ Charles Dance) to the warm brogue of the Viking-like Skelligers, I couldn’t find a voice actor I didn’t like.

Geralt’s beard even grows over time. You can shave it. It grows back. Follicular simulation! This is a beautiful video game.

And a deadly one. Combat in The Witcher 3 is straightforward but satisfying, featuring attack-and-parry swordplay alongside a handful of upgradable battle spells. Smashing away can be effective on grunts, but when you face a tougher foe, you can resort to the comprehensive bestiary to get tips on what potions, spells, and bombs might work best. The magic in particular gives you a real sense of power; watching wisps of flame arc from your fingertips never gets old.

You’ll tangle with all kinds of wildly creative, grotesque enemies, but it’s the big, scary ones that stand out. Whether it’s grounding an archgriffon with a crossbow bolt, leaping in and out of range with your sword as it lunges at you with its razor-sharp talons, or flanking a cyclops and deftly dodging its earth-shaking fists, The Witcher 3 provides no shortage of heart-stopping melee moments.

At times, however, you’ll be fighting with the controls. The loose auto-locking means you’re often stuck swinging at the wrong enemy. Cliffside walks are unnecessarily harrowing, thanks to Geralt’s fidgety walk. Simply standing in the right place to trigger the “Press X to interact” signal can take an inordinate number of tries. The game’s mechanics aren’t quite as polished as its world.

The good news is that you’ll calibrate to these nuances within a few hours, which means you’ll be pretty comfy for the remaining 195 or so. But The Witchers 3′s size isn’t the reason you should play it. Play it for its world, its craftsmanship, its startling ambition, and its tremendous delivery. Play it because games of this quality and scope don’t come along often. Just play it.

What’s hot: Absolutely massive; engrossing story; stunning graphics and voice work; tight, punchy combat.

What’s not: Laborious fetch quests; a few control issues; convoluted third act.

Follow Ben Silverman on Twitter.