The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt,With a greater world comes greater expectation… - Games Weekly

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Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt,With a greater world comes greater expectation…

CD Projekt RED is intent on providing an experience that dwarfs what it’s done before in almost every area. From narrative devices to environmental scale, from release platforms to enemy behaviour, ‘expansion’ seems to be very much the order of the day for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Not content with simply continuing with the winning formula that it conceived and built upon across the first two games, this developer is stepping its game up.

Read enough videogame marketing material and advertisements and you’ll be well-versed in the hyperbole that tends to categorise each and every television spot and billboard. ‘Epic scale’, ‘adaptive storytelling’, ‘asynchronous multiplayer progression across multiple devices’… to name but a few. Thankfully, then, when we sit down to talk to level designer Miles Tost about the expanded nature of this third game, he is calm and unassuming almost like Geralt himself, although without the usual accompaniment of blood and gore. There’s not a marketing slogan in earshot.


Tost has no desire to claim that miracles have been performed with The Witcher 3. Instead, he’s keen to explain just how much work has gone into getting the game to a point where his studio is happy for journalists to play it with a chaperone. Far from everything falling neatly into place, designing and creating a open world environment has been tough.
The third in The Witcher series, concentrating once again on the story of the enigmatic Geralt. This time his primary quest is to understand and stop a rampaging army from destroying his homeland
“It has certainly been a big learning experience, that’s for sure,” confides Tost. “Bringing this series into a full open-world setting has always been the ultimate goal, though that’s what the studio has always wanted… but previously the team has been hindered by available technology or budget.

“There has been a lot of experimentation to get to the point we’re at now with The Witcher 3… obviously, we didn't just show up on day one of development and nail the entire thing right away. It was a constant process of iteration and trying new things, but I think we’ve now come to a point where we’ve achieved a really good balance and we’re where we want to be."

One of the concerns raised following the announcement that The Witcher 3 would be embracing an open-world setting was that existing players would yearn for a return to the successes of previous games, while newcomers would be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of what’s potentially on offer. While such notions are inherently patronising to all concerned, these are the kinds of issues that must be addressed by a studio looking to alter the foundations of a beloved franchise.

As a means of gently guiding you into the world, and the characters and lore that give it its personality, a prologue area has been constructed to allow you to grasp core concepts before moving into more dangerous regions. While it’s certainly possible to die here particularly if you’re playing on anything above ‘normal’ difficulty the challenge is muted in comparison to what Witcher veterans will be used to.
  “ In terms of content, everything is complete. It’s all finished. All that’s left for us to do now is erase the last few bugs that are still in there ”.
Tumbling green hills, sloppy swamps and chaotically designed villages dot the area; your overarching objective being to slaughter a griffin that has been terrorising the populace. It’s here that you’re introduced to the core principles of exploring the environment and interrogating its residents for information on monsters, tracking the beasts and eventually dispatching them. Perhaps more importantly, however, certainly for returning Witcher players, is just how well this prologue zone communicates what’s possible when guiding Geralt through an open-world. There are numerous side-quests to embark upon, secrets to find and routes to explore. In short: it doesn’t feel like a prologue, introduction, tutorial or whatever other term you prefer.

“We don’t want to build an open-world game, and then withhold that entire open world at the start just because you’re a ‘beginner’, or because past Witcher games haven’t been open world,” Tost explains. “The open world is really good at serving our goal of teaching players the ways of the game and encouraging them to engage with it. You’re encouraged from the start to venture away from the obvious routes and see for yourself what is happening away from the main quests.”

Truthfully, the early interactions outside of those main quests feel somewhat shallow and predictable based around helping wounded or stranded travellers, learning pub games and searching for collectibles dotted around the region.

Interestingly, when this is put to Tost he explains that it has been done by design the goal at this early point of the game being to set the scene rather than delve into the finer points of the narrative. As such, side-quests that feed into, and are informed by, the bigger events told through main quests are left for after you’ve cut your teeth playing the prologue.

It’s not just through the side-quests that this wider picture is painted, either, as Tost explains: “For example, people might spit at you in the streets for being a Witcher. You might be a very skilled monster hunter, but you’re different from normal people and therefore you’re feared. As a result, not everyone is happy about your presence in their town or village.

“You’re an outcast that performs an important service, but you’re only tolerated because you have to be tolerated. Painting that kind of picture is incredibly important in making you feel involved and it gets you closer to the role you’re playing as Geralt.” Only, it’s not exclusively Geralt that you’ll be playing as this time around. While we didn't witness it first hand, there are moments when you will be taking command of Elven sword fighter Ciri. The Witcher 3’s titular Wild Hunt group are not only interested in conquering the entire world, they’re mysteriously eager to get their hands on Ciri in particular. It’s up to you to find her before they do.

At times you’ll be given information on her past whereabouts and actions, portrayed firsthand through sequences in which you play as Ciri. These are promised to be more linear than playing Geralt in the ‘main game’, however, so don’t expect to be able to abandon the narrative and set off on optional quests and bouts of exploration as an Elf.

“These [Ciri] moments are a narrative tool that we use to communicate the story and characters,” Tost tells us, “rather than being another way of exploring the world. I don’t want to go into too much detail about these moments and what they consist of, though, because I’m at risk of ruining the story and how we’re telling the story.

“Ultimately, we’re following the lead of the books when it comes to Ciri. The relationship [Geralt and Ciri] have in the books is similar to a father-daughter type of thing and that’s all I really want to say about her involvement.”
 “We treat the prologue area as an introduction area of sorts, designed to introduce to the gameplay mechanics”
Whatever the nuances of Ciri’s appearances, her presence is most certainly going to play a major role on the wider narrative tone achieved here. Previous games have locked our vision through the eyes of Geralt, everything we’ve experienced having been filtered through our understanding of the world by playing as a Witcher. By swapping out that narrative filter and replacing it with a Ciri-centric one, CD Projekt RED is putting great faith in its ability to provide multiple viewpoints without undermining or weakening its most famous son. Achieving a consistent narrative quality of the kind we’ve become used to from the Polish studio, while simultaneously providing another character in a way that doesn't feel superficial or exploitative, is going to be no easy task.

Difficultly of execution is no reason not to try, of course, and it’s reassuring to see a studio push the boundaries of story-telling in line with the ever-moving boundary presented by technology. Whatever the case, Tost is eager to reinforce the idea that he and his colleagues are still dedicated to honouring the memory of the novels upon which the series is based. Whatever narrative yarn is concocted, and however it’s presented, the games’ writing team is not interested in reimagining the world of the books.

“The Witcher games take place after the ending seen in the books, so the stories we’re telling here and in past games are our own… but they are heavily based on the source material,” Tost says. “However, I think we’ve become much better at conveying to our players some of the back story and histories of the books. Even if you’ve not read the books, I think The Witcher 3 is where we’ve done our best job at making players comfortable and knowledgeable about events that have happened before the start of the game."

With so much history having come prior to The Witcher 3, in the form of novels and games, one of the biggest challenges here is going to be making sure that newcomers are not left feeling lost and missing context. Much effort has gone into the expansion of ideas, but more important than simply an increase in scale is how these new elements ultimately work to more readily envelop you in the narrative and the act of playing as Geralt.

We’ll not know to what extent CD Projekt RED has achieved this difficult task until the credits role, but with such a dedication to both the source material and to exploring new story-telling ideas we’ve every faith that the new gameplay components are not going to undermine the narrative. The Witcher has always been about being Geralt, and that core ideal seems to be very much intact.

SAY GOODBYE TO ‘SCALING’
Enemy Scaling has been abolished in The Witcher 3. If you come across an area of the map playing host to a gang of level three wolves, they will always be level three wolves, the goal being to provide a sharper sense of progression and increased skill. CD Projekt RED argues that there’s no sense of achievement when enemies scale as you do, as that legendary skill you’ve mastered doesn’t feel so legendary when you’re killed by a wolf of the same type you managed to slaughter at the very start of the game.

One of the joys of an open-world game is in returning and re-exploring areas you’ve been to in the past, and without tougher enemies to battle there must be other tasks generated and provided to keep us satisfied.

BECOMING CIRI
Playing As CIRI promises to offer a very different tone to that of being Geralt. We asked Miles Tost to shed more light on what such moments will offer: “Perhaps there has been some confusion as to how playing as Ciri works: it happens in the form of flashbacks where you get to see certain information. One of the things that Geralt is doing in the game is searching for Ciri and along the way you’ll receive information about where she might be and what she might be doing. Some of this info might be told in a form that allows you to play directly as Ciri and, yeah, at such times the tone is that bit different because you’re seeing the world from a whole new perspective. You’re seeing things as Ciri interprets it.”

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