The news of the third Witcher game called Wild Hunt have been spreading throughout the web yesterday. The most interesting part of the announcement was that the game will have a fully open world, attempting to fuse a tight spectacular narrative with a relative freedom to do whatever you want. To me, the first game was already attempting to do that in a very clunky way. Thankfully, the developers saw their shortcomings and enhanced their design accordingly for the second game, making it more focused. So now they are opening it again, but still want the narrative to be sharp. Ambitious and yet I trust them, here’s why.
Very recently, I have finished the first Witcher game. During my play time I’ve lost interest in it a lot of times and almost resigned. So, like a proper player-thinker, I spend some time wondering why do I not like it? Why can’t it keep me glued to the screen like all the other great RPGs? After all, when you look at various parts of the whole, they are rather grand. The music is great and atmospheric, the graphics still look rather fantastic, the world is far from black and white, and your decisions are often imperfect but important. Plus the game is incredibly long, full of three-dimensional characters. Besides, I even like fantasy and read all the Witcher books in high school. And then, I realized, I don’t like the design – the spine of the game.
My first disappointment, came right after the prologue. I thought it generated some nice tension and a feeling of immediacy. But in the first chapter, the protagonist gets into a village and walks around it a lot, dealing with the villagers’ problems. In this way, the main story comes to a screeching halt as my interest disappears almost completely. That first chapter feels like an extended tutorial, or a demonstration of some of the game features. From the writing standpoint, it is important – it introduces a number of essential characters and serves us a compact presentation of the game themes.
I believe, it would work great in a novel, where there is a lot more space for proper pacing. But from the game design perspective, this is fluff. Cut it out and nothing happens to the game’s plot. For me, this is an overlong mandatory sub-quest. The worst part, though, is that the developers did this again later on in the game – chapter 4 is unnecessary and offers breathing space where breathing space was not needed. At that moment, I really had enough of the game, I knew that I’ve seen everything it has to offer, and wanted for Witcher 1 to end. And right there, just before the grand finale, they decided to slow down, and emphasize a couple of plot points. It was a slog. Just like running.
And that’s the second big problem – lack of meaningful exploration. Some of the maps are built with medieval realism in mind which hurts the player’s fingers. Getting from point A to B in Vizima, the main city of the game, takes a lot of time, and you have to use the precise one twisted road, avoiding superficial barriers and engine limitations. After you’re done exploring the map, which doesn’t take long, you realize, you’ll stay here for a long time. Naturally, it wouldn’t be a problem if there was much to do but you only fetch and slay.
MMORPGs have to use fetch quests because they require something easily duplicable in large quantities, but basing a single player game around them is an exercise of the player’s patience. In the whole game which took me around fifty hours to complete (with every single sub-quest finished), there was only one really compelling quest that required a little bit of thinking (Vizima Confidential), and a couple quests where you were interacting with the cool characters of the game (Zoltan and Dandelion). The rest were forgettable because of their repetitive blandness mixed with the inhuman amount of fetching.
Along the way, there was also a lot of hack and slashing. Strangely enough, I did enjoy the combat system at the core of the game. Though, to be honest, I feel that in reality, it’s just a convenient measure to keep the player from falling asleep during various fights. There’s no challenge to the combat and without making the player do some stuff in the background, this would be extremely boring.
In the end, my biggest qualm with the game, was that Witcher 1 while quite interesting overall, was incredibly stretched out. I don’t know too many people who actually finished it. And that’s doubly awful, because the developers prepared a really exciting finale with a lot of new equipment, bosses, and plot twists. If only they distributed them more equally through out the whole game…
And now, after all these not nice things, let me tell you that I liked the first Witcher. I feel it’s flawed, I couldn’t get immersed in its atmosphere, and I didn’t enjoy the gameplay too much, but I appreciate the level of craft and work put into the final product. The developers had their vision, and stick to it. I read about people loving the game as a whole, and ignoring things that I couldn’t ignore. There’s definitely something in it, something to it.
But I respect the creators for the fact that they listened to the criticisms, they rethought their game and created a sequel that was a different beast altogether. They made it tighter, shorter, and concentrated on perfecting their ideas and concepts. I prefer it much more. Now, for the third game, they want to return to the lofty ambitions of the first game. Bigger! Better! They do not stop, and accept what they have, but intend to go forward into the unknown. It’s that kind of healthy creativity that lets me hope for a really good third game in the series. I am watching the developments with interest.