The Witcher 2 won critical acclaim, and earned tons of new die-hard fans in the process. It's widely regarded as being one of the finest RPGs ever made, offering a whopping 80-hour adventure filled with monsters, trees, and sexy sex. It even had a branching storyline that vastly altered huge chunks of the game, taking the idea of choice and consequence to levels that few others have ever attempted. On paper The Witcher 2, for many, is one of the best games ever made, and since release quite a lot of people have bought it.
And yet there's a problem - people don't seem to be actually playing it. Most veterans can deal with a steep difficulty curve, but The Witcher 2's failing involved buckets of plot. The first two hours were the equivalent of being waterboarded with exposition: a constant flow of events and characters that were almost impossible for newcomers to follow. Once the narrative side of things calmed down you then had to get your head around how the actual game worked, juggling potions, crafting, and deadly monsters. Get it wrong, and you'd soon see Geralt face the bloody consequences.
Once you got into the groove of The Witcher 2, though, things started to come together beautifully, but it feels like a lot of RPG fans never managed to get that far. Offering an open world to freely explore and a plot hook that newcomers shouldn't find overwhelming, The Witcher 3 seems keen to avoid the same mistakes.
Riffing on a theme from the original game, Wild Hunt sees Geralt tracking down the... Wild Hunt: a group of highly destructive phantoms that look like even more badass versions of Morrowind's Daeda - if you can imagine such a thing. Flying around in a magical ship bringing death and fire wherever they land, the early stages of The Witcher 3 revolve around following the trail of these armoured spectres.
Horses! Boats! Massive mountains! The open-world here seems impressive as hell, but there's more to these places than fancy geometry. Day and night cycles are joined by weather, which actually has a small impact on gameplay. Sailing a ship through heavy storms is likely to cause you tons of trouble, and woodland areas don't look safe either. When the trees and grass around you are being violently whipped by wind and rain, you suddenly realise that next-gen graphics can offer something far cooler than slightly-shinier HD guff.
CD Projekt Red seem to understand what makes open-world RPGs work, too. Optional quests branch off naturally - letting you pursue the bits that take your fancy without getting bogged down with following markers - and random encounters that happen in the wild seem more handmade than what we're used to currently. After saving some poor chump from bandits in a traditional this-is-a-video game fashion, we're told that we'll likely attract the ire of their leader, who is a man with an actual name that resides in an actual place. After Skyrim's tiresome habit of hiding everyone evil in identical caves, I'm more than ready for something different.
The other element that should play in The Witcher 3's favour is the oxygen this environment provides. The first town you visit in its predecessor was an incredibly rich and detailed environment, but felt strangely claustrophobic because of it. As a feat of creativity I was immensely impressed, but sometimes being faced with so many options is simply an overwhelming prospect. Spreading some of this detail across a wider area should do the formula a world of good, and I'm confident that their - almost excessive - diligence in this area will find a more palatable home in the open-world RPG genre.
Third time is often the charm when it comes to finessing action-game sequels, but RPGs tend to have a rough time. Mass Effect's attempts to attract a bigger audience for the finale of their space opera caused serious grief for fans of the franchise, but hopefully the same shouldn't be true here. Remaining true to the fiction of Andrzej Sapkowski's novels is essential, but they wouldn't go amiss to let newcomers dip their toes in slowly, rather than expecting them to know how to swim.
It's a series that deserves to be absolutely massive, and what I've seen leaves me with faith that The Witcher 3 will be an amazing RPG. Critical acclaim already looks assured, but their biggest challenge remains the same: getting people to sit down and play it.