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An ode to The Witcher 3

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Or: how TW3 blows DA:I out of the park

Hullo, has it really been almost six months since I last blogged? Huh. I have vowed to blog more often so many times, it’s ridiculous. I won’t even try to make any promises, I’ll just write when I can and want to. Right now, I want to.

I’m still nerding around as usual. For Christmas, I got a Playstation 4, which completed my transition from PC-only gamer to console gamer. I am no longer playing MMOs, and thus, not really missing sitting at my desk anymore. Instead I lounge in my comfy Ikea chair (a green Poäng, if you must know) or the couch and play PS4 games. One of the first games I started to play was Dragon Age: Inquisition. I have such a love/hate relationship with DA:I, and so a majority of this post will be listing my disappointments. I love the Dragon Age franchise. DA:O and DA 2 are two outstanding RPGs. The latter might have flawed gameplay, and was a rush-job, but the story, the protagonist and all NPCs, they really bring it. The romances were all very good too, and that’s important in a Bioware game, honestly. Out came DA:I and everyone was raving about it. I got it for Christmas 2014, started playing it, quit in the Hinterlands, because boooooring. It has an open-world design similar to the Assassin’s Creed series, which means a shitload of icons in any area with shit to do, side-quests to conquer, rifts to close. The Hinterlands are a problem. You get your normal start tutorial quests and then get tossed into the Hinterlands, a huge zone full of icons on your map and no real guidance what you should do or not. Every veteran’s advice is: just follow the main story, leave the Hinterlands as soon as possible. Don’t get sucked in by wanting to complete everything. There’s absolutely no payback involved. There are no quests that move, no party banter that makes you laugh, no drama to sweep you up. It’s just mindless checking off of icons on a map for the sake of doing that.

Seriously, look at this. Aside from the dragon fight, what was fun in this zone?

Seriously, look at this. Aside from the dragon fight, what was fun in this zone?

So I quit, because I hated my rogue anyhow. Also, I admit to being disappointed with the romance options if you are woman who loves women. A couple months later I picked it up again on a whim and got sucked into it, because it showed a moment of brilliance. The two main story quests In Hushed Whispers and In Your Heart Shall Burn are glorious. They’re exciting, emotional, seriously the best part of the game for me. The Inquisitor gets a glimpse of a terrible future, and then has everything taken away from her. That was huge. Too bad the rest of the game doesn’t live up to this. The second time I quit was in The Western Approach. It’s like The Badlands in WoW, only that in WoW the quests are way more engaging. Zing.

So there I was, alone over Christmas, playing DA:I. I drank Baileys, and played the game. If I did it again, I would only get the minimum amount of power you need to advance the main story. All the huge zones of the game, this lie of an open world, they’re boring. They’re the Hinterlands, just in worse. The Hissing Wastes is the worst culprit. It is an enormous area of nothing but the occasional rift and the occasional Venatori mages to kill. I went completionist in this playthrough, but I gave that approach up in the Hissing Wastes. I just couldn’t anymore.

So here I am, with a deep and abiding love of the Dragon Age world and fanfiction based in Thedas, and this giant bubble of disappointment in me. It could have been so much more. Even the characters all felt hollow to me. I did enjoy the Sera romance, as crazy as she is, and I loved seeing Hawke again. But…but…but. I am still shocked how little the Bianca reveal meant to me, when Varric was such an outstanding character in DA 2. In DA:I, he’s changed.

What’s this all got to do with The Witcher 3?

Everything. I just recently picked it up, lured up by the excitement of a friend and one Game of the Year award after the other heaped upon it. I have The Witcher 2 on my PC, but hated the combat, so never completed it beyond the first few quests. And I mean, why should I be excited about this game? When TW2 was released, I remember tons of videos of explicit sex scenes. It felt like the hyper-masculine answer to Bioware stories. A hunk bedding the ladies, sounding like Clint Eastwood, slaughtering monsters. But here, I am, playing TW3, and my hunky, scarred Geralt of Rivia is currently level 13 and hasn’t bedded any ladies yet. He had an offer that my Geralt politely declined, because he’s keen on Yennifer. He’s also looking for the girl he adopted, Ciri, who is chased by the Wild Hunt. You get to play Ciri in flashbacks, when Geralt finds out what’s happened to her on his hunt for her, and Ciri is amazing.

Forget about Geralt, I am a Ciri fangirl!

Forget about Geralt, I am a Ciri fangirl!

The Witcher 3 uses a similar open-world model, but doesn’t feel the need to include mini-games like spotting shards or solving Astrarium riddles. Your map is full of question marks. You can actually turn them off, if you want to go full explorer. I just moved on from Velen to Novigrad, but mostly, because I wanted a change in scenery. I wasn’t done exploring. Exploring in The Witcher 3 is gratifying. You never know what the question mark might be. Is it a bandit camp, with a prisoner you can free? A monster nest to blow up? A hidden treasure? There are multiple options. Sometimes I have to run for the hills, because the treasure is guarded by monsters 15 levels higher than me. No matter what, it always feels rewarding to me.

A glimpse at part of the map of Velen, with lots of villages and places to uncover.

A glimpse at part of the map of Velen, with lots of villages and places to uncover.

The biggest difference however are the quests. I mean, I am only level 13. I am not very far advanced in the main story. However, the main story quests in Velen already moved me more than DA:I as a whole. There’s a fun dungeon crawl with a sorceress sidekick, Keira Metz. There’s a tough fight at the end of it (at least for me it was), and lots of investigative moments as you try to figure out messages left behind for Ciri. Then you try to find three witches and end up with a terrible take on Hänsel and Gretel, I suppose. Children are eaten, and the three crones are seriously the stuff of nightmares. I have never been as terrified by NPCs in an RPG than I have with these three. Yuck. Then it’s followed up with the story of The Bloody Baron and his family. A friend of mine blogged about this, far more eloquently than I could (and with a fascinating comparison to RL circumstances). All the feelings. Horror, indecision, rage at the domestic violence of the Bloody Baron, then horror again, then pity, and so on and so forth. Feelings! Emotions. The storytelling is far craftier (and darker) than DA’s.

This does include side quests as well. The countries the game is set in are at war with the Empire of Nilfgaard, and the war has ravaged the land everywhere. Families are starving, or offering their children to the three crones because they can’t feed them anymore. Merchants are poor. There’s a lot of death and tragedy. Sidequests are usually found while you explore. I was riding merrily to the next question mark on my map when I heard shouts for help. A tied man was attacked by drowners, the water zombies of this world. I killed the drowners, listened to the guy’s story and set him free. He was another victim of war. Then a couple hours later I ran into him again, somewhere else entirely, in the outskirts of Novigrad. Turns out he decided to be a bandit, robbing and killing refugees gleefully. I handily dispatched of him, but not before telling him that I regretted I ever saved him. What an asshole! Not to mention the outrage I felt about Keira Metz. The sidekick of your main story quest turns out to want more forbidden power than she should have, and you have to deal with it. Spoiler: I was shocked to see that Geralt really killed her. I thought he would knock her unconscious!

DA:I has side quests too. Mostly, they involve running to and fro, without any emotional impact. There are no quest arcs either. They’re mostly there to provide…experience, I suppose? Loot, maybe. Sometimes I feel that the War Table got all the exciting side quest stories, behind the facade of a Facebook time management game. Disappointing. If I compare the war-torn zone of Velen with e.g. Exalted Plains in DA:I, it’s no comparison. Sure, there’s smoking ruins and undead in the Exalted Plains, but I never truly felt it. The quests simply didn’t convey it.

I do prefer the party-based strategic combat that DA:I has. TW3 is very twitchy. Boy, did I have to learn that you really want to dodge, dodge, dodge. I die a lot. I learned to save early, save often. But when you finally beat that monster, it feels damn good. It’s really up to the player to read the bestiary, do the research and use the proper tools to make a fight easier. I struggled a lot with one of the witcher contracts to kill a nightwraith, and handily dispatched of her once I finally had the ingredients for spectre oil. Whew.

Monster contracts are fun, if a bit repetitive. You investigate a scene using Geralt’s witcher senses. It’s pretty much Batman’s detective mode from the Arkham games, but it’s fun to use. Chase scents and tracks, find hints. It’s fun to me. So are the scavenging hunts where you follow the trail of previous witchers and their powerful gear, gear that you can learn how to craft. I am wearing 5/6 items of my Griffin set right now, rar. I tried the crafting in DA:I as well, and it was okay, but I like the crafting game in TW3 better as well.

All in all, it makes me wish that DA:I had been a better game. That it was more like The Witcher 3. I wanted to have my heart strings tugged on, and feel sucked into Thedas.

Instead, I am now in the grip of the spooky world and mercenary life of Geralt of Rivia. And that’s quite cool too. The game deserves its many awards. I am looking forward to what else CD Projekt Red will come up with in the future. If their Cyberpunk game will be as good, it might rock my world.

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