The fundamental difference between The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and the previous two games is that this one is set in a completely open-world, a fact which CD Projekt Red were keen to keep emphasising during their 45 minute, hands-off gameplay presentation. Stopping every now and then to pan the camera around titular protagonist Geralt of Rivia, the developers told us that you can go and explore anything you see on the horizon. An impressive prospect, as the world looks absolutely enormous, while still being intricately detailed and, no doubt, full of adventures large and small.
I asked Piotr Krzywonosiuk, The Witcher 3's lead producer, why this change has come now, three games into the franchise. "With The Witcher 1 & 2, we improved our storytelling skills - we know we can tell a wonderful, great, immersive story", he tells me. "We wanted to take it to the next level. We got lucky with the new consoles arriving, so we were able to improve our engine. So it was a combination of those two things - that we have mastered the storytelling, and the opportunity that came from the generation shift."
"It's always been the ultimate goal - the ultimate goal of the RPG is freedom in an open world, and a great story."
During the demo, the developers talked up some very familiar sounding features - that this is an absorbing and detailed world, inhabited by "thousands" of NPCs which all have their individual daily schedules. Promises we've heard hundreds of times before from almost anyone who's ever made an open-world RPG, but coming from CD Projekt, I'm inclined to believe it. Indeed, taking us on a brief tour of the world's largest city, Novigrad, revealed a bustling medieval port, streets filled with unique looking NPCs going about their business, chatting amongst themselves with a full roster of quirky British accents.
Despite the change to open-world, The Witcher 3 seems to play out in exactly the same way as the previous games, which means you'll have to pay close attention to the plot to keep track of what's going on. Witcher storylines have always been long, cluttered chains of "do this for bloke, bloke gives info, info leads to next bloke, bloke needs thing done", resulting in plots that are deep, long, and sometimes confusing. By the middle of the second act of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, it was easy to lose sight of why you were collecting X for NPC Y and somewhat disappointingly, it looks like that aspect of the series hasn't changed at all.
Is it a concern, then, that newcomers to the series - guaranteed to arrive by the bucket-load given Wild Hunt's position on next-gen consoles - may find the narrative impenetrable? Not so, according to Piotr, who assured me that new players will be catered for along with long time fans. "For us it's of the utmost importance that new players will be taken gradually into the world - that they understand who these people are, that they know what it means to be a Witcher", he says. "It is a completely new story, a new context for these characters."
The combat features all the old Witcher staples - a sword each for killing man or monster, the same magical signs for tactical defense and attack, and a necessity for dodging and parrying. One clear addition though is that of a crossbow, useful for making quick work of flying enemies such as griffins and harpies, with half a dozen or so of the latter being slaughtered to prove the point during the demo. It looks fun and brutal - Wild Hunt steps up the gore, enhancing that familiar pang of satisfaction when the last of a mob goes down.
It sounds as though The Witcher 3 is intended to work as a standalone game, while still being the instalment which, in Piotr's words, "nicely wraps up the story of Geralt". Perhaps this is the end of Geralt's tale, but the world of the Witcher is much larger than its protagonist - it is unclear if The Witcher 3 will be the last game in the series. When asked if the Witcher game universe would be expanded after Wild Hunt, via DLC or other means, Piotr couldn't comment - but told me to "stay tuned".