Update: Having now spent time with the retail, patched versions of the game on both Xbox One and PS4, Brett's review has been amended to reflect what is a considerable upgrade over the review build. Directly below you'll find thoughts on the game as it is now, with his original text following that.
With The Witcher 3 now in the hands of consumers, it's difficult to overstate how much the performance has improved both Xbox One and PS4 over the review build. Although there are still framerate drops and stutters, as well as very noticeable geometry pop-in, these issues are nowhere near as prevalent or consistent as before. There have also been noticeable improvements in menu navigation, which is now a much smoother experience: snapping from one sub-section to the next now doesn't cause prolonged pauses in between.
The experience is largely liberated from the shackles of the performance issues of the pre-release review build. While at times the framerate and pop-in will still become a hindrance (and pre-rendered cutscenes on Xbox One in particular suffer with severe framerate issues) the majority of the time you'll be able to engage in dialogue with NPCs, take on groups of enemies and just ride around the world enjoying the view without the game holding you back. The difference it makes to almost every element of The Witcher 3, a game where immersion and world-building is key, is immense, and it makes for a much more engrossing game.
Having spent around 25 hours in The Witcher 3's world, perhaps the most impressive element of it is how vast - and yet constantly engaging - it all is. Considering the game's title, I've only encountered the ghostly Wild Hunt but a few times on my travels, the last of which coming as much as ten hours ago. Its greatest strength is how easy it is to become distracted by the myriad sideshows and welcome oddities that occupy its landscape. Its greatest weakness, however, is that in its attempts to create such a deep and complex world, the experience is marred by a stuttering framerate, various bugs, and showstopping loading issues.
Such technical issues are a heavy price to pay for CD Projekt Red's other accomplishments. I loved exploring every inch of its world. I thoroughly enjoyed talking to every inhabitant in every bizarre bog, thanks to the incredible facial animation and excellent voice acting. But I was constantly taken out of the experience thanks to a frame rate that rarely maintains 30 FPS. Whether I was riding Roach, Geralt's trusty steed, around the wastelands, taking on hordes of ghastly creatures, or simply having a chat in a pub, the experience was never truly stable. I consider myself pretty tolerant of framerate hitches (I'm the guy that gave Bloodborne a 10, after all) but in The Witcher 3 it's such a persistent issue that it hampers everything else the game tries to achieve. A huge shame, as elsewhere the game mostly verges on the sublime.
Most immediately impressive is the world, a vast expanse of differing clusters of segregated communities, each with its own problems you'll be wise to investigate. A decent chunk of your time will also be spent in far-reaching fields and open waters. Which is to be expected, considering there weren't many skyscraping cities in the 13th century, but that's not to say these areas are barren. There are caves to explore, treasures to loot and enemies to fight or flee from every step of the way. Where the game offers depth is in the density of its villages. There are so many people to speak to and missions to obtain in every town, both large and small, that Geralt's quest log will soon run as long as Marvel's movie release schedule.
From the vast expanse of the kingdom of Novigrad to the tiny communities of Velen, each subset of humanity presents itself in equally uninviting terms to Geralt. As a Witcher, you're not welcome anywhere, with local residents begging you to "leave the children alone!" after hearing tales of the feared grey-haired ones kidnapping their young'uns. Of course, Geralt is soon welcome once the community is in need, and this is when CD Projekt Red's stunning facial detail shines.
Every interaction is an intrigue. Not only is the dialogue superbly acted, but I can see every emotion the voice is trying to convey in each character's face. It means that I want to find out more about them as people, rather than simply obtain the fetch quest they are no doubt about to give me. It helps that CD Projekt Red is arguably the best at making every decision you face as morally grey as possible. While other RPGs do their best to present dialogue as choice, 'but not really' (blue is good guy, red is bad, hardly a moral crisis), The Witcher has always presented the player with a list of viable options, each with a soul-crushing conclusion, leaving you never knowing if you made the right choice. It fits well with the world around it, a lawless place in a fearful age.
After you've spoken to the inhabitants, you'll be sent off on your quests, which more often than not involve killing a monster of sorts. The combat in the series has always lacked impact, strikes often feeling like they don't really connect with the target, and the issue persists in its third entry. Sinking your silver sword into the depths of a Drowner or a Griffin should feel satisfying, but it never pays off in a way that feels rewarding to the player. The combo system feels disjointed, as Geralt is always locked into an animation, often leaving you vulnerable to attacks, even when dodging. It becomes even more tricky when facing multiple opponents. Unlike other games, like the Arkham series, which have a combo system built for dealing with multiple foes, The Witcher feels much more about one-on-one combat. Escaping a tussle with groups of enemies can feel a case of luck rather than judgement. (One other minor, if ever-present annoyance, is that the song played during any fight sounds like a Shakira tribute act has been employed on lead vocals.)
While combat isn't great, however, it's tolerable and provided Geralt is strong enough to deal with his foes, and you haven't taken on a contract that outreaches Geralt's current XP level, you'll be fine. What hampers the experience even more than its mechanical shortcomings, however, is the performance.
As mentioned above, framerate is a constant issue, but there were other bugs in my time with the game, too. One mission couldn't be completed because a sequence of events leading to its climax left me stuck at a loading screen just before the boss, forcing me to quit the game and restart. (The issue repeated every time I tried to complete it, a problem noted in a different missions by another reviewer). Texture pop-in was also frequent, as the game struggled to display its own extravagance. There were also (infrequent) NPC behavioural oddities: for example Roach decided to stand smack-bang in between Geralt and whom he was speaking to during a prolonged conversation. Funny, yes, but equally frustrating when several minutes are spent staring at a horse's arse.
This is a huge shame, as CD Projekt Red has created a very special world in The Witcher 3, one which implores players to explore, to look for ancillary missions, rather than rush through just the campaign at pace. I found myself enjoying a majority of the side quests that appeared along the way, desperate to find out more about each character they introduced. The sub-par combat can be compensated for, the cumbersome world navigation at times forgiven, but the frustrating and ever-present framerate and other performance issues become a hindrance on the overall experience, to the point where it became as big a talking point as any storyline. Still, at only 25 hours in, I remain desperate to discover more, and whatever comes next, I am sure that it'll be thoroughly entertaining. It's just enormously disappointing that, technically, The Witcher 3's reach exceeds its grasp.
Version Tested: PS4 Debug
We were told by Bandai Namco games PR that the review build was post gold, and included some fixes but not all that will be found in the Day 1 patch for retail versions of the game.