Five Years Later, The Witcher 3 is as Great as Ever
Back in 2015, the gaming world was incredibly hyped for the impending release of a game called The Witcher 3 by a then-little-known Polish game studio named CD Projekt Red. The first two games had gained a small but enthusiastic following for their great storytelling, and the third installment promised all of that plus what was, at the time, one of the biggest open worlds we’d ever seen. Now, if you’ve followed AAA game releases in the last couple of decades, you know that intense hype often leads to huge disappointment when a game releases — just ask Hello Games. The public pressure on CD Projekt Red was immense, to say the least.
But lo and behold, The Witcher 3 not only lived up to the anticipation, it exceeded it. Indeed, it has gone on to become one of the most beloved RPGs (and video games) of all time, and it continues to be a model for other games in many ways. Now in 2020, as The Witcher 3 celebrates its Five Year Anniversary, I find myself still playing and loving it. And I know that I’m not alone; with the recent release of the game on the Switch, plus the well-received TV series, it’s a game that has not only stayed popular but is maybe even more popular ever. Let’s take a look at why I, and so many other people, are still hooked on The Witcher 3 five years after its initial release.
It Still Looks Great
You’d think that after five years, The Witcher 3 would look hopelessly outdated in its visuals. But you know what? It’s still right up there with today’s current titles. Honestly, even on the Switch version (undocked, of course) the character models still look realistic and movement isn’t nearly as clunky as it should be, given how long ago this title released. And the open world is still just as gorgeous as ever, bursting with color and detail that made the game a stunner back in 2015 and still to this day. Five years later, I am still stopping to admire those amazing sunsets and breathtaking vistas.
But a particular strength of this game is its art direction. The creatures you’ll meet along Geralt’s journey are unlike anything we’ve seen before or since from standard RPG games, and whose design has such distinct visual flavors that they run the gamut from imposing to terrifying to just plain unsettling. As anyone who has encountered the Crones knows, the grotesque, otherworldly design of the many of The Witcher 3’s characters makes for an adventure in which you’re truly not sure what you’re going to encounter next – and what you’ll feel when you do.
A Huge Open World Like No Other
There are bigger open worlds, especially in the years after 2015, but few games have ever matched The Witcher 3’s combination of size and depth when it comes to game environments. White Orchard, Novigrad, Skellige, Toussaint – each location in The Witcher 3 has its own distinct feel and is filled with side-quests and hidden locations in every direction. You’ll also see countless NPCs as well, going about their business, sometimes even offering you a surprise side-quest if you stop and talk to them. It’s absolutely mind-blowing to see the minute level of living detail that CD Projekt Red put into this game.
It’s not just a big dumb sandbox, either. You have to open The Witcher 3’s world up gradually by going through the main quest. As the narrative progresses, you’re introduced to new lands and new wonders in a way that feels organic and logical. There’s a thrilling sense of discovery and accomplishment that comes with seeing Geralt’s world expand as his skills and experience increase. In a gaming world that has seen its share of mindless and shallow open worlds since 2015, The Witcher 3 still holds up as a model of how to do it right.
We throw this idea around a lot these days but The Witcher 3 is truly the real deal when it comes to great writing. Maybe because it is largely based on the acclaimed Witcher novel series by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, there is a rich and authentic feel to the game’s characters and stories that I have not seen in any other video game before or since. The people of Velen, Novigrad and the many other lands Geralt travels have been given realistic, multifaceted personalities and deep backstories. Talk to them and you’ll uncover tales of heartbreak, joy, greed and tragedy that rival a great novel – really. Plus, unlike some games, The Witcher 3 has you spend a long time with each major story NPC, so you truly feel like you have come to know them after your time together.
Characters in The Witcher 3 are strange at times, yes, but they always possess relatable human qualities – be careful before you judge them, as their full story might change your mind when it is fully revealed. The story also feels genuine, in a way I haven’t felt playing other games. The reversals and turns of the narrative will surprise you but they always feel logical and natural – no cheap or predictable “shocking twists” that you see coming a mile away. What is also really impressive is that many of the side-quests connect to each other or the main quest; a seemingly insignificant choice you make at one point might affect how the later story unfolds, or a character will remember what you did long ago, and mention it later. You’ll be hard pressed to find a better-written video game, even in 2020.
Excellent Production Values
As anyone who has played through this game knows well, The Witcher 3 has some of the best voice-acting ever in a game. Each character, no matter how minor, has been brought to life with feeling by actors whose regional British accents make for an unusually colorful cast of characters that’s on par with the likes of fantasy classics like Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings. What’s amazing is that even the most minor NPCs are given real, individual lines of dialogue specific to their situation, not just the usual repeating canned phrases that most games assign to every character you meet.
There’s also the music and sound effects. The Witcher 3’s main theme, called “Geralt of Rivia” is my personal favorite; there’s a hauntingly beautiful quality to it that fits the mood of mystery and intrigue that you feel as you travel this strange land. But the entire soundtrack is perfect and enhances the game’s narrative all the way through. Maybe the only downside is that, when you put close to 100 hours into the game you’ll likely start to tire of even the best music if you hear it repeatedly, but you won’t care since you’ll be too busy enjoying the game.
Deep and Engaging Gameplay
If we’re being honest, the combat in The Witcher 3 isn’t actually outstanding. It’s not bad, but it isn’t the game’s strong suit. That’s ok though, because it’s only a small part of what you’ll be doing. In many of the quests you’re actually working like a detective, using Geralt’s Witcher Senses to find clues and follow the trail to a target. Sometimes you’re solving puzzles, figuring out how to open secret doors or find passages. Even combat involves some strategy, in which you must research some targets in the Beastiary to find their weaknesses before you confront them.
And that brings us to crafting and alchemy, two important systems in the game that have a dizzying array of recipes for weapons, armor, decoctions, oils, potions and tinctures that could absorb a significant part of your playtime if you get into them. Plus, you’ve also got Skill Points to assign as you level up – where will you spend them to create the best build for your character? If you get bored of all of these, there’s Gwent, essentially an entire separate card game that the developers have woven into The Witcher 3. Collecting cards and facing off against characters offers a massive side diversion that could easily steal hours of your playtime by itself. There are few games out there, even in 2020, that match The Witcher 3’s satisfying and multilayered tapestry of gameplay elements.
And that’s why, after five years, I am still playing The Witcher 3. There have been lots of great games that have been released in the years since 2015, but few have matched its combination of engaging story, rich gameplay and interesting characters. Perhaps, if it is to be someday matched or even surpassed, it will be by CD Projekt Red’s other much-awaited game, Cyberpunk 2077. If the studio’s success with The Witcher 3 is to be any indication, we are in for a treat when it releases in September.