I'd like to go on record and say that my favourite moment from this year's E3 press conferences was that crazy awesome trailer for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. What was shown from CD Projekt was exactly what I was hoping for when I thought about the "next-generation" of video games. It looked glorious.
I was entirely ready to board the hype train with a one-way ticket to Witcherville, if not for one distracting question: Can The Witcher 3 really go open-world without losing some of the quality of its much more linear, tightly-controlled predecessor? A 40-minute demo at E3 2013 had all the answers.
First things first, the world is ginormous. It's 35 times bigger than The Witcher 2, about 20% bigger than Skyrim, and... I don't know! It's just really, really big. These stats get difficult to comprehend after a point. It's almost obnoxiously massive. Because of this, you're likely to avoid travelling by foot when possible, with the option to whistle for your trusty steed, travel between islands using a sailboat, or be a massive RPG cheat and fast travel all over the place. However, as huge as this world may well be, the demo did its best to promise that it won't feel too empty.
A village we encountered, suffering from a bad case of the monsters, was packed with NPCs and seemed to have that same sense of a living community that we now expect from a Witcher title. Yet it was the smaller details that I was interested in seeing: the traveller on horseback passing by on a mountainside path; the galley that entered port, with sailors singing some bawdy sailor song that sailors probably sing; the side quest that begins after running into a rarer creature in the wilds. Unfortunately the demo was entirely hands-off, and so it's difficult to know how widely spread this level of detail will be, but CD Projekt did seem very keen to demonstrate that this world had plenty to it.
The combat is looking very fluid indeed as well with an emphasis on more varied melee animations and allowing more opportunities for the player to immediately react to enemy movements. It looks faster and slicker and a world away from the combat we had to endure in the original game. Aside from the swordplay, each of Geralt's signs now has a secondary use, with the Aard sign being the example here. The standard ability is still a kind of a force push that knocks back a single target, whereas the secondary ability now has Geralt slamming the floor and causing a shockwave that hits all nearby enemies. After being limited (primarily by the Xbox 360 controller and its lack of buttons) to using only a few signs regularly in The Witcher 2, I'm happy to see plenty more easy-access options being introduced this time around within the combat.
As for the story itself, well, we're still not entirely sure where in Geralt's timeline it takes place, but we do know that The Witcher 3 will likely be the end of his tale. We heard bits and pieces about The Wild Hunt in the last game, but as the name suggests, The Witcher 3 is very much centered around Geralt's search for the spectral riders. There's still going to be plenty of big choices to fret over and no doubt, some awful consequences to blame yourself for, as is the Witcher way.
That being said, not all of those terrible decisions will necessarily appear terrible at first glance. With this new open-world approach that encourages players to revisit locations, you may naively think that you've helped an area at first, only to come back later down the line and see just how wrong you were.
Making the switch to a large scale, open-world is a risk for the series, but I'm glad to find that Wild Hunt doesn't seem to have sacrificed its personality in the process. CD Projekt RED have done a lot right by their fans recently with the way they handled The Witcher 2 Enhanced Edition, DRM concerns, and the REDkit modding suite, being prime examples. It's one of a select few developers that has gained an awful lot of trust and from what I've seen of The Witcher 3 so far, they don't intend to mess that up just yet. It's a bigger team working on a bigger game and they could end up creating one of the early stars of the next-generation. I freaking hope so. Now let's go watch that trailer again.