Right now, you’re hunting a massive wyvern. That’s dragon in geek. This one circles about a quarter-mile above. The creaking trees around you aren’t much shelter from the approaching storm. There’s a city in the distance you haven’t visited yet. Tiny streams of wood smoke seep from chimneys. Its population is bigoted against your race. You rest, eat, watch the wind pick up as woodpeckers fall silent and the strange amphibian men scatter along the shoreline below. If you weren’t so freaked out about getting decapitated by this wyvern, you’d go torch those men with a fire spell and hack then in half while they flail. That never gets old.
That’s one of millions of variable scenes from “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt,” the latest installment from CD Projeckt RED, a Polish game developer of outlandish ambition. Witcher is a classic action role-playing game series (RPG) of loot finding, character upgrading, weapon crafting, and quest completion. The story is unusually riveting and the voice acting is Hollywood movie quality. That said, there isn’t a single element in the game that’s new. There’s no groundbreaking combat or ways to cast spells. There’s no meaningful enemy class system like the one “Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor” introduced last year.
“Witcher 3” is fucking huge. I’m not talking “Oh, the map goes on and on” huge. I’m saying that, on my 70th hour of playing, it feels like I’m nowhere near done. The medieval cities in this game are breathtaking. Every brick looks hand chiseled. Dining halls are filled with believable buffets and raucous Vikings. Intricate textures and creative detailing make the costuming some of the best I’ve ever seen.
Just yesterday, I piloted a small sailboat for five minutes to reach an island with so much detail that you might believe hundreds of oil painters took thousands of hours to create it. Add a dynamic weather system that changes the environment from cloudless noon to a windy cauldron of hate within a few hours and this massive world becomes something of an immersive miracle. Pulling up the new island’s map, I can see there’s dozens of locations to explore—caves, hideouts, towns—many of which have characters with unique dialogue.
It’s like playing “Game of Thrones” but you get to dictate whose head gets lobbed off. Similarly, the developers understand there’s a large audience for adult video games. Geralt of Rivia, the main character, has sexual relationships with multiple partners throughout his epic adventures. Alternate endings and quests make it difficult to judge how many sex scenes are in the game, but there’s just as many as “Game of Thrones.” Some of them are loving, some hilarious, and some are just that—sex.
What RPGs like this have on their side is that you eventually start feeling like the character. Once you’ve reached a certain level, meaning physically upgraded yourself, you’re attached to that accomplishment. You look great in your customized armor. You’ve fought hard to craft that two-handed broadsword that literally cuts men in half. Seventy-one hours in, you’re crouching in a squat grove watching this wyvern circle and scorch the treetops. You take out your cellphone to text your friend in Jersey: “I think Witcher 3 might be the last ‘maximal’ western style RPG. Meaning that good won’t just mean big and detailed and amazing – it’ll require restraint now. Like, don’t use every tool in the shed when creating a world . . .”
Maybe that’s the lesson I’ll take away from a game that’s so staggeringly huge yet offers no real innovation. I’d rather play inside a smaller, more-restrained worlds. I’m more than happy to live inside the astonishing world of “Witcher 3”—no matter how long it takes to complete.
Justin Sirois is the author of “So Say the Waiters,” “The Last Book of Baghdad,” and “Falcons on the Floor.” He lives in Baltimore and loves games.