The Witcher 3 is as dense and deep as the other two games in the series in terms of RPG mechanics, and has an overwhelmingly massive open-world environment that is both intimidating, and in the long run, rewarding. It’s difficult to express just how huge and open this world is: lush fields liberally dotted with swaying foliage of every shape and size fill the space between loosely connected, broken-down villages where people struggle to scrape by. A full day/night cycle and dynamic weather pull it all together, cementing The Witcher 3’s landscape as one of the most authentic-feeling open worlds I’ve ever seen. A convenient minimap points you where you want to go, which might seem like a crutch, but honestly, without it, I’d have been hopelessly lost.
Transitions between The Witcher 3’s two main maps are just a bit too long, and minor glitches do pop up from time to time. None of it ever impacted gameplay in any meaningful way, though it did slightly compromise the beauty of the experience. Thankfully, PC players can expect a lot more. On a GTX 980, Witcher 3 ran at 60 frames per second at all times on ultra-settings.
This new open-world map obviously has consequences for the structure of the story, and though there are flashes of greatness, the main story is ultimately the least fulfilling part of The Witcher 3. Our tale begins as a multi-continent search for Geralt’s long-lost lover Yennifer, and Ciri, his surrogate daughter. My single biggest issue though, is that it never becomes much more: the overly long main story is essentially just Geralt running errands for people in exchange for information on Ciri’s whereabouts. It effectively maintains focus and momentum, but it feels more like a wild goose chase than an intriguing mystery to unravel.
Thanks to lots of excellent dialogue and voice acting there is some emotional payoff along the way, but it’s mixed in with too many meaningless fetch quests and collection quests. Every time I felt like I was on the verge of an interesting revelation, I’d have to suddenly stop to rescue someone, or search for a lost or stolen item.
It’s also worth noting that though you will get along fine without playing the first two games in the series, without the context provided by the Witcher novels, Ciri is more or less a complete stranger until the last quarter of the journey, which made it difficult to care about finding her as much as The Witcher 3 expected me to - especially given the slew of intriguing characters who are relegated to supportive background roles.
Thankfully, they all get chances to shine once you venture off the beaten path, and that’s where The Witcher 3 gets nearly everything incredibly right. Depending on your decisions in The Witcher 2, you’ll see lots of familiar faces returning to play a role in Geralt’s search, and once they have, they offer you a secondary line of quests that typically provide far more interesting scenarios to dabble in. Underground turf wars, assassination plots, love triangles, and unexpected alliances are all part of these optional quests. They’re all so full of rich story content that they feel like they should have been part of the main story.
The same can be said for a lot of the side quests you pick up in the field as well. Aside from the bunch of standard side-quests, monster lairs, and bandit camps generously littered about The Witcher 3’s immense land mass, you also get a bunch of monster-hunting Witcher contracts to persue. Geralt's prey ranges from ethereal wraiths that need to be made solid before you can harm them, to Foglets who conceal themselves in thick fog, waiting for a chance to strike. The payoff here is twofold: in keeping with the lore, these represent your most reliable stream of income, which is refreshingly significant due to an appropriately stingy in-game economy.
Though the straightforward and fetch-quest-heavy main story overstays its welcome, the option of joyfully adventuring through a rich, expansive open world was always there for me when I’d start to burn out. Even if the plot isn’t terribly interesting, the many characters who play a part in it are, and along with the excellent combat and RPG gameplay, they elevate The Witcher 3 to a plane few other RPGs inhabit.