Why Witcher 3 is the Best Game in 20 Years

I’m compelled to write this article.  If you Google “witcher 3” you will find that the game is overwhelming praised by critics and game players alike.  Phrases like “sets the bar for the future” and “DLC done right” and many other clickbait chants will fill your search results.  I don’t tend to trust modern gaming journalism and I suspect there are many that frequent Review Lagoon that feel the same way.  Maybe it is because half the people writing for gaming sites were either unborn or not even in kindergarten 20 years ago.

A Quick Look at History

For someone who has played games for 10 years and whose first system was a Playstation 2 or Gamecube?  The term “best game ever” holds a little less water that someone that’s gaming since the dawn of video gaming (that would be the mid to late 70’s for those keeping score).

During my self proclaimed Greatest Age of Video Gaming (which was late 70s to early 90s; after the discrete circuit gaming craze was over) we saw many molds broken.  We saw games that actually changed the course of video gaming forever.  Not only games, but platforms.  The Atari 2600 made cartridge gaming consoles explode.  The Colecovision showed “arcade graphics at home”.  The Commodore 64 kept the computing gaming world alive while Nintendo and the NES single-handed repaired the video game crash of the 80s.  Sega brought optical CD media into the home allowing for full audio soundtracks and digital FMV.

Oddly enough – in 1992 what I consider the last big “turning point” game was released.  A game that challenged the mold, broke it and truly brought the gaming industry to where we see it now.  That, of course – was Mortal Kombat.

Sure, there is justifiable argument that Doom (1993) deserves to be on this list as it brought us what is accepted as the “first” real FPS game (and we really haven’t evolved all that much).  You could claim Wii reinvented gaming too.  And how could we leave out Playstation being heralded as the first “3d graphics” gaming system (it wasn’t, but modern journalists would like you to think it was).

Truth is – sometime in the mid-90s?  Gaming stopped evolving.  It started cloning.  It started being “incremental”.  So did the consoles.  Yes, the Dreamcast had some soul – but if you want to be honest?  It was kind of a “me too” console that just happened to have some amazing (if not redefining) games.

Moving Ahead

Fast forward to 2015.  In 1995, we all thought we’d be playing games on Holodecks in 2015, right?  In reality, we’re playing the same games on the same consoles with better graphics, more production value and Hollywood-and-better writing.

But has gaming really changed?  Are we still not playing the “FPS Space Marine”, the yearly releases of Madden and #4 or even #7 in a game series?

There will be tons of comments and nasty emails about how some media-darling titles like The Last of Us or Uncharted deserve to be on the “mold breaking” list.  The indie lovers will cite games that touched their psyche like this year’s sleeper hit Life is Strange.

Yes, they were great examples of gaming.  Along with them, there are probably 50 more that people could bring up that somehow impacted them.  But who will be playing these games 20 years from now?  People still play Pac-Man.  People still play Doom (believe it or not).  I still haven’t beat Night Trap all these years later, but every couple of years I give it another go.

Don’t misinterpret this article as saying, “Aside from Witcher 3, there have been no great games in 20 years”.

Witcher 3 just happens to be the BEST of the good-to-great games in the last 20 years.

Witcher 3 Isn’t New Gaming

But wait, I just said gaming has been “more of the same” for 20 years.  Witcher 3 doesn’t appear to be anything “new” or “groundbreaking”.  It’s another open world, third person, hack and slash sandbox adventure RPG … right?

Guess what?  You’re right.

Witcher 3 isn’t even a fresh new IP (easily noted by the “3” at the end of the title).  So not only is it “more of the same” – it is the second sequel too.

I guess I have a lot to answer for by giving it the moniker in the title.

I’m ready to do just that.

The Sum of the Parts

Have you ever seen a movie that you love – but you can’t explain to someone why it was so good?  It is probably because the movie (as a movie) wasn’t anything special – but it was the sum of its parts.  By the time all is said and done, you’re telling everyone you know about it.  You’ve watched it 30 times.  You bought it on DVD (twice) then on Blu Ray (twice) and maybe even used your free Google Play movie download to own it a fifth time.

The best movie example I can offer is “Vegas Vacation”; the last of the Chevy Chase driven films of the series.  The first time you see it?  It sucks (no, it’s ok – I’ll say it).  Yet for some reason, you’re compelled to watch it a second time.  After a few viewings, you hesitate to say “I kinda like this movie”.

Next thing you know?  You’re watching it a lot – and it rapidly has become your second favorite movie in the series.  If any movie is the sum of its parts, it is Vegas Vacation.  Wayne Newton, Sigfried and Roy, the “other” casino, Cousin Eddie’s snake collection … it goes on and on.  For no other reason you watch the whole movie to see the Wayne Newton centaur painting.

They didn’t do one thing right – they did EVERYTHING right

Witcher 3 is the sum of its parts … and every part was executed perfectly.

Let’s start with distribution.  The game was released on GOG.com – home and champions of “no DRM” gaming.  They released their own “Steam-like client” at the same time to help with updates, etc.

It is possible to get the Best Game in 20 Years without DRM.

They were also smart and released the game on Steam as well as GOG.com.  They were wise.  People don’t like multiple lockers and ways to get their content.  Steam is the standard – and they didn’t leave us Steamers out.

They controlled production costs.  The Witcher 3 is easily one of the biggest scoped games I’ve every played and it was made for $81M.  Sound expensive?  Grand Theft Auto V was $250M.  Max Payne 3 and Red Dead Redemption were $100M each.  I believe it also had a lot to do with the amazing amount of free (or cheap) DLC released quickly after the game shipped.  That leaves a LOT more room for profit.  How much profit?By September 2015, Witcher 3 had earned developer CD Projekt Red over $62M profit with over 6 million copies sold.

They didn’t sell out – so no publisher bullshit.  That means no exclusivity on content.  No reindeer games on timed releases or being paid to “keep it off console x for y months”.  They stayed independent and gamers everywhere benefited from it.  They had numerous opportunities to sell out and didn’t.

Hairworks in Action

Hairworks in Action

They worked with NVidia.  They got on board the NVidia train and got the game bundled with high end video cards that could support amazing new features of them.  NVidia Hairworks may sound like a gimmick, but it delivers undeniable benefit to the look and feel of the game.

They made the game Mature.  Unlike film where an “R” rating closes off a bunch of your audience – I think games NOT rated “M” (especially of this nature) take a big hit.  I didn’t say it was fair.  After all, Robotron is one of the all time great games and there is no blood, sex, entrails, heads being cut off or any number of other cool “adult” things that Witcher 3 has to offer.  Even better, Witcher 3 doesn’t use these things gratuitously – unlike games like God of War where the first female you find you’re having (admittedly off-camera) sex with.  It adds an air of legitimacy to it – like Sir Alec Guinness did to Star Wars.  Likewise, if you swing a blade hard enough through a guy’s neck?  His head IS going to come off.  The perfect balance of satisfactory gore and sex without feeling guilty for enjoying either.

For me (and I don’t speak for everyone) sandbox games to me are about exploration.  I want to tread every inch of that map.  Why?  Because I can.  I love finding things maybe I shouldn’t have found.  Maybe things the developers reward you with by exploring so much.  Witcher 3 is 20% bigger than Skyrim and I had fun exploring Skyrim’s map.

Unlike Skyrim, though – Witcher 3 actually rewards you for your hard work.  I don’t know how many times I hiked my sorry ass up the side of a mountain to a spot I was SURE had to have some treasure (why ELSE would that ledge be there???) – only to find nothing was there.  Uncovering hidden nooks and locations … no treasure or even a visible indicator that the developers appreciated your effort.  Nine times out of ten?  If I hike somewhere distant or find some hidden trove of trees and expect there is a prize in there?  There is.

This goes for all areas of Witcher 3; inside homes, caves – looking around and taking alternative paths benefit you with XP and with wealth.  You might even come across some special artifact …

I also like feeling rewarded when NOT playing the storyline or side quests.  Sometimes you don’t WANT to hunt down Monster X at Location Y, cut his nads off and deliver them to Person Z.  Sometimes – you just want to run around … have random encounters.  Scavenge around old deserted villages without being told to.  Witcher 3 is cool with that.  I can get a rewarding experience without doing what I’m told.

The development team did a brilliant thing; they made you destitute.  Unlike some games where grinding = cash, there is no way to grind for gold in Witcher 3.  The fiscal system was meticulously thought out and leveled.  This makes those paydays really worth it.  It also adds more to managing your inventory and being careful what you take and don’t take (or at least keep).  Small amounts of currency are awarded for quests but most of your money is going to be made by clever gathering and selling.  Oddly enough, along with the scarcity of cash also comes a lesser need for cash.  You will find or earn most of what you need.  In fact, rarely do I need to have much cash on hand.  The most I think I’ve had on me at any given time is about 7500.  That’s not a lot.  Not worrying about money lets you enjoy the game more.

Mechanically speaking, you can get involved as much (or as little) as you want.  They give you an Alchemy system – which lets you combine items into potions, salves, explosives and more.  Some items you pick up off the ground (like Red Dead Redemption), some you find and some you’ll buy.  There are some things you just can’t live without – so you’re going to have to dabble in alchemy a little.  But, I still have dozens of items yet to make and I’m 150 hours into the game.

You also have the ability to make and destroy armor, weapons and items.  It is very similar to Alchemy; where sometimes you have to make one thing, “upgrade” it to another – then use the upgraded item to make yet another item.  There are different classes of armorers and blacksmiths that control just what you can make (the more powerful the crafter, the better the items to be made) – and you’ll need blueprints. Again, I’ve managed to get through the game without doing much of this.  I love that Witcher 3 lets me play without entangling me in this mechanic system.

The “skill tree” system is unusual and again, not labor intensive on the part of the player.  You get skill points as you level up and you can apply them to various classes of skills – each with many specialties.  You upgrade the specialties.  Before you can use them, you have to assign them to a slot; one of twelve (4 banks of 3 slots).  Each bank is connected to a colored mutagen “enhancer” which enhances specialties that match the color of the mutagen.  It sounds complicated, but it really isn’t.  Once you have your 12 skills picked out, you’ll probably stick with them the whole game, enhancing each one as you level up.  Of course, you are allowed to dump your skill points back into a pool and reassign them (with a rather easy to find potion, I might add).  This allows more experimentation without being worried about being locked into any particular set of skills.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, the Witcher 3 isn’t about scripted, control over you.  It’s about showing you a good time without forcing you to participate in their various mechanics.  You can do pretty damn well in the game with minimal use.

Even combat is “have your own way”.  Taking on monsters in Skyrim that were higher level than you was pretty much a death sentence – making sure you properly grinded before you took on those tasks.  Likewise in Skyrim, monsters leveled up along with you (unless you visited a certain cave/house/area as a lower level).  Witcher 3 will have none of this.  If you put off a Level 1 quest until you’re level 38?  You’re going to plow right through that like it was nothing.  Likewise, if you are level 5 and go after level 8 drowners with skill and cunning? You might come out of it alive.

It is all about choice in Witcher 3.

Many players don’t like the more simplistic combat of Witcher 3.  At the core, it is a couple of types of swings and a block move.  But the game isn’t about arcade combat.  You’ll frequently need to combine magic, blade, potion, oils and various strategy to defeat big creatures and “boss” characters.  Witcher 3 offers bonuses for rear attacks too – so that adds to the fun.  Block humans, roll against monsters.  That’s the creedo.  Of course you have vitality and stamina to maintain as well.

There is a lot more “thinking man’s combat” in Witcher 3 – and I love it.

There are several types of quests in Witcher 3.  Main story line stuff, side quests, treasure hunts and more.  As with everything in Witcher 3, you’re pretty much allowed to handle them in whatever order you like.  Obviously you’ll need to complete some story line quests before new ones open up – but once you’re juggling 3 or 4 main quests, you decide how to handle them.  You’ll never be forced to complete anything in a given time (aside from some dialogue responses) – allowing you to decide on the best way to proceed and figure out an order of operations that makes sense.

What blew me away about Witcher 3 (well, one of many things) was the diversity of questing.  Sure, there are some “search here, find a key, open this door, get the treasure” fillers – but for the most part?  Every quest you do won’t feel like work or covering the same ground.  This is one of the main features that separates this game from everything even close to it.  It is why reviews say this game sets a new standard and raises the bar.  It was created by a team of 240 mostly Polish in-house developers along with about 1,200 more contractors around the world for a total of 1,500. The team localized the game for 15 different languages, with seven of them being fully voiced, employing 500 different voice actors.

… and they still kept it at $81M.

The rich story and relationships drive Witcher 3.  Even the bad guys get a backstory and some you actually end up caring about.  While it is easy to read a forum thread about having sex with the women of Witcher 3, dealing with real life relationship drama – and think the game is some sort of dating sim backed with a 90210 story line – it isn’t.  There is plenty of story – all of it expertly voice acted (at least in English).  Dialogue can be skipped, but it is so well written – so well executed … you will WANT to watch the cutscenes (and not just the sex ones).  You’ll actually feel a part of something bigger than your next quest.  This worked with some extent in Skyrim, but Witcher 3 takes it to an entirely different level.

Of course, we can’t give the developers all the credit here.  The Witcher games are based on a series of books by Andrzej Sapkowski known as The Witcher Saga.  There is a film and even a TV show based on this series of books.  Having a solid body of work behind it, Witcher 3 feels all the more real.

You realize we’re 2800 characters into this article and we haven’t talked about graphics (well, aside from the hairworks stuff).  That was intentional.  I want you to understand why the game is so brilliant before talking about the “fluff”.

The World is Alive

Now that I’ve hopefully convinced you that Witcher 3 is an amazing sum of its parts – I am willing to discuss what makes this game a visceral masterpiece of visual candy.

There is something to be said about a game that is so gorgeous and enveloping that you’re willing to watch someone play it when nothing is going on.  No fights.  No hidden secret revealed.  No master course in combat.  No showing of the glitches.

Just some gray-haired guy running around Novigrad.

What makes it so damn compelling that you’ll watch someone running around the sandbox?

Everything.  It is gorgeous graphically, of course.  But great graphics aren’t enough to make the mundane task of running from Town A to Cave B interesting to watch.

As with many games today, there is a day and night cycle to the game.  Realistic weather conditions like rain and wind are expertly executed while affecting the objects in view.  Water drips off Geralt.  Trees move eerily realistically in perfect harmony with the gusts blowing around you.  The landscape is lush with everything you need to suspend your disbelief.  The attention to detail is absurdly amazing.  There are times when you’re running through a storm you almost shiver in your chair.  The world is alive with small game (and of course giant predators), responding realistically to you.

If any of these things were missing, you would have a standard game.  But the way these things are seamlessly blended together and respond to you?  Sets a bar VERY high for any game that follows it.

There are tons of things you don’t see or appreciate until it happens to you.  In Skyrim, you could chase an animal around a corner and have it vanish or run into a wall while disappearing.  Witcher 3 will have none of that.  Let me give you an amazing, first person experience.

I was fighting a pack of wolves.  This was early on in the game.  I managed to kill all but one – and the wounded last wolf took off running (yeah, monsters don’t tend to be stupid in Witcher 3).  I gave chase, wanting to lop off his head and finish my killing spree.  I chased that damn wolf for about 3/4 of a mile, hot on his heels but couldn’t close the deal.  He suddenly changed direction; I figured this was it – he was going to vanish into thin air around a corner.

I’ll be damned if that wolf didn’t run up a hill to ANOTHER pack of wolves, joining it and obviously signaling the wolves to attack me.

I was blown away.

Not to be outdone by the gorgeous graphics, the audio technicians had a field day too.  Throw on a pair of headphones and the world becomes even more alive.  My wife will often comment from the next room about the amazing music or creepy as hell monster sounds as I play.  Nothing is forgotten; from footsteps to creaking boards – the ambient track is alive with the world around you.

This is probably what makes Witcher 3 a spectator’s dream; everything is thought out and executed flawlessly – drawing you into the world.  You don’t need a building burning to the ground to be entertained (but it is damn cool when it happens).

What Comes After

The main quest is estimated at about 100 hours of play.  That’s solo game play with fast traveling and very little backtracking within quests.  I savored every minute of the game and explored the reaches of the map; drawing it out to about 135 hours of play.  While the game has an “ending”, the world is left open ready for you to explore.  Unsolved quests are still available.  You can still explore and uncover mysteries.  Sixteen free pieces of DLC seamlessly added new quests, weapons and assets over the months following the release – offering hours more play time.

Recently, expansion packs Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine went up for sale for a low cost of $25.  The first pack offers 10-15 hours of quests and goodies (this is out now) and the second pack promises to DOUBLE that amount when it comes out in a few months.

At the time of writing, I’m about half-way through Hearts of Stone.  This is the way DLC should be handled.  It integrated directly into the game as if it had been there the whole time.  It adds a new merchant type (won’t spoil the surprise) as well as tons more fully voiced and fully realized quests and adventures.  This is top notch production all the way.  I personally guarantee you’ve never had an expansion DLC pack feel like this before.

… and there is still another one coming.

Final Thoughts

The Witcher 3 is the most fun I’ve had gaming since Skyrim – and it puts Skyrim to shame.  The sheer size, magnitude, attention to detail and insane amounts of content – executed flawlessly makes Witcher 3 easily my favorite game in the last 20 years – and I’ve played a LOT of great games since 1995.

This game pushes the limits in every possible way.  When I’m not playing it – I’m thinking about playing it.  But like every great thing in life – you want to savor it and make it last; enjoying every last bit of it – knowing it can’t last forever.  Even with 150 hours 210+ hours under my belt, I know (based on the map and the forthcoming expansion pack) I have at least another 50 hours of play time.

It is important to note that while 200 hours of game time doesn’t seem like a lot when compared to how many hours you might play Team Deathmatch in COD or Nazi Zombies with your friends – it is important to point out this is a 100% solo experience that isn’t about “replayability” but about “continued playability”.  It may seem like I’m splitting hairs, but believe me – there is a difference.  Take a look at other solo experiences and see what their runtime is: (completionist)

  • Bioshock – 21 hours
  • Borderlands 2 – 94 hours
  • Fallout New Vegas – 124 hours
  • The Last of Us – 22 hours
  • Uncharted 3 – 20 hours

About Shane Monroe

Shane R. Monroe has been doing technical and social commentary writing for over 20 years. Google+