Open-world games are not exactly new. Akalabeth: World of Doom (precursor to the Ultima series) was arguably first, but games like The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall come to mind, as do more modern titles like Crackdown, the Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham franchises, and Grand Theft Auto. As games like Assassin’s Creed Victory, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Mad Max, Tom Clancy’s The Division, and others prepare to hit the market later this year, they all have something to be very afraid of…The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
The evolution of the open world game has been somewhat slowed by the surge of consoles. As Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 gained market share, developers and publishers pushed hard to build their open worlds on those platforms. Games like Spider-Man on those consoles let us explore the vastness of New York City, but it didn’t take long to figure out that the world was as empty as it was large. With literally millions of buildings in just Manhattan, there are less than a dozen that can be explored. This trend continues as we move further into the open-world genre, as well. Many games give us incredible freedom, but also more locked doors than not. Those developers that endeavour to give us access to those interior spaces often place them behind immersion-breaking loading screens. The open-world reboot for Thief, as an example, bisected the city and placed jarring loading sections at every turn. As we move away from the previous console generation, thankfully the loading sequences are becoming less frequent, but it has also given rise to a different problem: — repetition.
Watch Dogs and Assassin’s Creed Unity, as current-gen examples, have given us more freedom in the open world. Those titles provide far more buildings to enter and explore, but the side content didn’t hold player attention for long. Unity’s minimap looks like somebody dumped a bucket of icons on the screen, with so many things to do that you could hardly see the map underneath. Unfortunately, after running a few of these side missions, repetition sets in with the only variables being tougher enemies. Titles like Dragon Age Inquisition and Saints Row IV began to rely on collection quests to fill their world rather than story-driven content to expand their universe, watering down the open-world genre as a whole.
Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto V team built a living world where every mission is hand-crafted and story driven, but even that game had some filler content like towing vehicles, taxi work, jogging, tennis and the like, though it seems like those were included for tradition as much as to further bring their world to life.
The Witcher 3 is right around the corner, releasing on May 19th for PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4. It is the first open-world title from CD Projekt Red, taking their otherwise linear Witcher series to a scale far beyond its predecessors. With 36 endings, over 30,000 lines of recorded dialogue, a world 35x larger than The Witcher 2, 50 hours of main story, and another 150 of side content, The Witcher 3 is clearly looking to make a statement; but we’ve heard these sorts of stats out of other titles and found ourselves let down a bit on the other side of the release of those games. What makes The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt different from its contemporaries?
The World of The Witcher – Dangerous and Alive
The easiest thing to comment on is the most obvious — the visuals. Rather than dig into the incredible detail that went into every piece of gear, armor, sword, or hairstyle that Geralt sports, let’s take a look at the world. CD Projekt Red’s vast world was built opposite the usual methodology. I’ve been to more game studios than I can count, and have seen the process of constructing new games frequently. More often than not, developers will sit down and craft the storyline first, creating panels for the beats of the lore. With the basics of that complete, they will begin to craft the larger spaces of the world. Villages and towns are erected, with surrounding landscapes built to help create a personality, such as having a small outpost in the middle of a mountain pass with roads carved through the rock. CDPR instead created the world first, building a living landscape where those places might exist. This means those same towns and outposts may be perched awkwardly on the hill because it is the closest place the town could locate near a water source. It may also mean that the swamp isn’t simply ‘placed’ in the world, but instead is a result of lowland drainages that exist due to the outflow of a nearby inlet. This creates an ecosystem, instead of set pieces, for the player to explore. Senior environmental artist Jonas Mattsson and his team have truly created a world that is as functional as it is dangerous and beautiful.
We’ve seen a lot of attempts at dynamic weather. What this usually means is “NVidia invented a new way to do rain, so we are plugging that into our game.” Similarly, we often see a day and night cycle, with visibility being the only real difference between them. The Witcher 3 features a dynamic weather system that has to be seen to be believed. If you’ve seen any of the screenshots on Ultra detail settings, you are aware of how much detail has been put into every stick, blade of grass, and tree. What you don’t see in those screenshots is that those things all move during a windstorm. Trees bend, whipping their shadows across the landscape, leaves shake violently, and muck reeds threaten to pull free from their moorings. Violent wind whips the water into a choppy and dangerous path. Heading north gives way to snow brushed mountains, complete with clouds settling in the edges. These aren’t merely aesthetic. All the way back to the first Witcher title, and certainly on display here, when inclimate weather strikes, the denizens of the world will seek shelter. Animals may become more scarce, and people will huddle together underneath nearby overhangs.
Beyond the construction of the world, each area of the game is vastly different. There are two main cities, Novigrad and Oxenfurt, but there are dozens of smaller towns and settlements to explore. The Skellige Islands could come straight out of Norse lore with rolling green grasses and hills buttressed by sharp cliffs. We’ve also seen harsh and frozen landscapes that look foreboding and dangerous. Swamps hide Drowners and other dangerous creatures in their shallow muck. Clearly the environments are a labor of love that also tell a meaningful story themselves.
Choice – Infinite Grey
Most modern RPGs feature some level of morality or choice system. Often they are as binary as choosing good, evil, or neutral in dialogue options, and just as often they have little effect on the overall story arch of the game. Evil opens up reaction statements, like punching a reporter in the face, and occasionally new gear; but in the end the universe will end up saved, the princess will be rescued, and looking back very little changed in your wake.
From the very first Witcher title, the game is entirely about shades of grey. The town of Vizima in The Witcher spells hard consequences for almost every choice you make. Didn’t want to help Vesna get home? She dies. Did you believe the Scoia’tael’s claim to the weapons you were guarding? They’ll use them to kill a pivotal character in the second chapter. Abigail, the resident witch, has a situation that is so convoluted and horrible that only the town Priest’s story is worse. This isn’t a story that you’ll save and reload if you don’t like the consequences, because sometimes those consequences don’t come until dozens of hours into the game. Being as vague as possible, one example from The Witcher 3 had us making a very straightforward decision that seemed consequence-free, but ended up costing a village all of their children. That’s the sort of thing that weighs on you heavily, and something that Geralt will think deeply about during the stillness of meditation.
Speaking with the team, they made one thing very clear — this is living world. You can affect it, as you can in many open-world games, but if you choose not to do so, things do not remain static. The world exists with, without, and around you — a point of realism in this fantasy world.
Sometimes the cause and effect in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is more binary. There are no restrictions in the game, meaning you can jump on your horse, Roach, and ride anywhere in the vast and open world. Unlike other open-world titles, however, the game does not scale with you. This means the creatures, bandits, and other foes have their levels set. It also means that if you venture out and try to hunt down the Griffin from the epic CGI trailer seen below you’ll end up very, very dead — cause, and effect.
It was recently confirmed that, other than the initial load, death, or fast travel, the game doesn’t have a loading screen. This includes heading into interiors. You can look into windows, scout out the inside, and then simply step through the door without suffering a loading sequence. The team is aiming for full immersion in a world with meaningful quests and real consequences, all with as little breaks in immersion as possible.
An Open World of Consequences (side mission spoiler)
Having recently played through The Witcher 1 and 2 again, it is amazing the amount of improvement between the two titles. That said, any attempts to describe the difference between The Witcher 3 and its predecessor can only end as vast understatement. Of all the features we’ve seen thus far, though, the most important difference is the way that the entire world, including content outside of the main thread, matters. The decisions you make, much like the real world, have consequences that are not always easy to predict. A scenario we saw featured a small village where a man named Armulf has been killed. The residents believe it’s because the Woodland Spirit has been offended. As the village argues on what to do about the Woodland Spirit, we offer our services as a Witcher…for a price. Harald wants to preserve the old ways and offer sacrifice, but the younger man Sven wants to destroy the creature. This Woodland Spirit, a creature called a Leshen, has an amazing ability to regenerate by marking a human and then rising from the dead using their body as a vessel. This means, to ensure the creature dies fully, we’ll have to first deal with the person the Leshen has marked in the village. Sven offers that if we find the marked one (he believes it’s Harald) he’ll “handle the rest.” We use our Witcher senses to find out that it is in fact not Harald as he suggested, but a woman in the village named Hilde. We decide to track the monster and figure out what to do when we know more.
Using our Witcher sense, we track this beast into the deep forest. We open the bestiary to study this monster, telling us a little bit about its vitality, how much damage it can dish out, armor capabilities, vulnerability to silver, regeneration, size, sounds associated (cawing of crows), special abilities and much more. Heading into the forest we follow the sound of crows – these should lead us to the Leshen totems that we need to destroy to reduce its power. The Leshen, to defend the totems, takes control of the wolves in the area and tries to stop us, entangling our feet with roots. Unleashing our Aard sign and our blades, we dispatch the Leshen and prepare to return to the village. Harald and Sven had offered to either worship and appease the beast or destroy it, respectively, so they will want to know the path we’ve chosen.
Travelling back to the village we find a horrible scene – they’ve killed the marked villager Hilde. Cash in hand, we remind them that they’ve become murderers, even with the Lesher removed. The team gives us a look at something that would normally happen some time later – Geralt thinking back about this whole sordid affair. In a flashback it is revealed that the day after the beast was killed, the village was raided by their neighbors. We’ve made a big decision, people died, and the villagers only survived just 3 months longer than the monster they so feared.
This sort of deep-rooted consequence-driven storyline isn’t new to The Witcher series, but it does bring into sharp focus the difference between what CD Projekt Red is doing, and what nearly everyone else is doing. CD Projekt Red is reinventing what it means to have stories that matter. Not just the main thread, but everything else that sprouts from the natural progression of a living world…not just an open one.