The Witcher 3: Past Due Review

Its Been A Long Time..

... since I've played anything with this much heart. Without saying much more it should be clear to most everyone at this point that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is more than worth your money, and more importantly your time. The game has been a remarkable achievement for developer CD Projekt RED, selling 4 Million Copies in just two weeks.  The game is remarkably different from previous titles in the series, both in scale and form. It's main story less linear, it's combat carefully refined, all while staying concise and accessible for newcomers to the series. With it's success has come great review after great review. And instead of repeating what others have said before me, I've decided to take my time and enjoy all that CDPR's first open world has to offer, than carefully examine certain elements on their own merit. This non scored review will explore animation quality, character and environmental modeling, lighting, particle effects, audio, game mechanics, level/world design, story mechanics, leveling systems, and more. All will be given at least a paragraph to discuss what they do well, and where some areas could improve.

Animations

 

I’m going to start off with this section not just because I myself love to animate, but because out of all the reviews I’ve read I have yet to see anyone talk about just how well detailed they are. They all feel, well, animated! What I mean is that so many games these days put realism over just about everything else. And motion capture animation has taken away what Richard Williams said was so important about animation while he was making Who Framed Roger Rabbit. He believed that animation is supposed to show us something we have never seen before, and can’t see everyday, to push the boundaries of what we perceive as normal, and create something that exaggerates and celebrates the world around around us. For me, Motion Capture is the opposite of this, and watching 3D models of people move just like us makes them seem forced and strange, while actually animating the models, moving the hands, arms, legs, and facial features to slightly exaggerate movement can really bring something to life. CD Projekt RED’s animators clearly know this, and even if some mo-cap was used, I would be surprised if it wasn’t used mostly as reference. The way Geralt swings his swords, the lunging movements made by Drowners, or the graceful Sirens flying above, all animate brilliantly within the world, keeping its energy full of life. Tiny little details are even put into motion, such as Geralt pushing the tip of his sheath to make his swords easier to put away.

 

But what really helps sell these animations are the key poses within them. While the fluidity of the keys that tie these poses together might be a bit too quick for taste, the poses themselves look amazing and are paused upon in just the right amount of time.

Character Modeling

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Characters Tend To All Look Quite Different
The 3D character models who inhabit the world in which you will journey through leave little to be desired. While some human faces seem to have been textured better than others, I’ve found it fairly impressive that everyone seems to look fairly different. Sure I’ll run into the occasional duplicate guard, but look closely enough at them and suddenly you start to notice subtle differences in skin tone, nose shapes, all with flawless topology and normal mapping.
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Just Little Hints of Stylization
Characters also exhibit slight exaggerations in their posture and proportions, keeping the games art style consistent with the animations. While kept in a grounded realistic tone, character models' features are exaggerated just shy enough to not quite be called cartoony. Just check out Geralt's model on the left, looks a bit feline doesn’t it? Not quite enough for you to call it out, but just enough to make you see him as something other than human, as if the cat eyes weren't a good enough hint. Couple all of the above with incredible texture work for character modeling and in my opinion you have the best looking 3D characters in an open world game.
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Texture Work on Clothing is Consistently Impressive

Environmental Modeling

For those of you who read this and think, “Why two sections for modeling? Are these two things really that different?” I will respond with this image:
Anywho, the building/environment models that are within the game are for the most part incredibly well constructed. One thing that you will notice in all areas of the Witcher 3 is its attention to detail. And the environments you’ll explore are no different. Cobwebs and other common household annoyances can be found in the furthest corners of even the most popular taverns within Novigrad. The swamps of Velen crawl around your ankles as bugs wiz past your head and the grass that pokes through the muck glisten with dirt stains. Forests you run through feel unkempt by the touch of man, not fabricated by someone at a computer desk. The composition alone of the vast and awe inspiring cities seem dense and populated. But unlike a lot of cities in open world games they don't stick out like sore thumbs, vegetation that creeps up the city walls makes it feel like the walls have started to mold, instead of just looking like another wall with a bump map.
The world's textures however, don’t help hold this illusion 100% of the time. Occasionally you will run into a texture with a far lower resolution than it’s surrounding models. Just check out the hexagonal log textures on the left side of the image below, see how low resolution they are compared to something like the toxicity effect on Geralt's face? These changes in texture resolution, while not quite abundant, can be a tad distracting at times.
Thankfully none of the issues are as bad as the ones below:
But in the Witcher 3 textures that look great from a far don’t always continue to look amazing up close.
(As we can see above in the log image)And while I would criticize the re-use of many textures, such tactics help keep the games loading times down to the impressive 10~15 seconds that they currently are. But it almost feels cheap to nit pick at smaller texture sizes when I haven’t seen a single N-Gon, inverted normal, or even flicking faces. And to see most graphical errors come down to the technical side of things must mean that the modeling teams did an amazing job at creating a beautiful world.

Lighting

An aspect of 3D design that many seem to forget about, lighting can make or break a games aesthetic. Two Worlds for example had a few issues aesthetically, but its largest crutch visually was its poor lighting. In the Witcher 3, lighting is not only far from an issue, it’s some of the best I’ve seen in gaming. it’s the kind of lighting that would make Gordon Willis proud and I truly hope that the lighting team on this game is shown more appreciation for the work they have done here. From the light shaft effects that shine through the forests as you gallop through them, to the warm and welcoming atmosphere of the taverns, the lighting and casted shadows greatly reflect the area you find yourself in. I will say the lighting can be a bit too bright around noon on a clear day though, and it can get so bright during this time that it can even wash out the fantastic colors all around you. But this again is a minor complaint about one of the games strongest visual tools.
The sun-rays in particular are done very well, so much so that I have even found myself squinting as I ride Roach towards the sunset. Yes, squinting, I don't know of any games that have made me do that just because of good lighting.  CDPR once again reminds us that they know how to make the most out of good lighting, and what it's respected shadows can provide in contrast to really make characters and objects pop right out of the screen.
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Go ahead, lie and tell me you're not squinting.

Particle Effects

The most common particle effects you’ll see will come from the signs you cast as Geralt. These effects do a great job at reflecting the mentioned descriptions of each ability. The particle effects within the environment are also very well animated, continuing to sell the concept of a living world, that would be doing its own thing with or without you there. Blood effects during combat aren’t overly violent, unless you get a dismemberment, but they are a great indicator of a successful attack. The sparks that fly when you  clash swords with an opponent is so visually different for different kinds of enemies. They can stop your attack with swords, rock armor, hardened scales, and then some. Wraiths in particular are a fantastic achievement for the particle effect team, as the lower half of their bodies could have made them extremely disinteresting if a particle effect that looked worse was in its place.

Audio Effects/Soundtrack

Part of what makes the gameplay feels so impactful is it’s incredible use of player feedback. A swing of your sword hitting an enemy has many layers to it. The Animations reacting to the attack, the blood effect indicating a hit, and most importantly, the audio cue in the form of a lovely slash sound. The sound effects that are made by your signs also come to mind as something very well crafted, maybe one or two sound similar to another but not enough to make a huge deal about it. Sounds of the rain and other environmental sounds are another great piece of the Witcher 3's confident puzzle. One of the best things to do in the Witcher is to just take a walk out into the forests, you’ll hear rustling trees and even creatures off in the distance. Maybe you’ll hear some birds chirping occasionally or the ocean off in the distance. The sign great audio design is being able to close your eyes and still know exactly what kind of environment you’re in. Witcher 3 passes that test, with flying colors.
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The soundtrack that plays to your movements on your journey fits every moment very well. And honestly each song is so good on its own that the soundtrack probably needs to be reviewed separately. There is a particular song early on in the game where everything slows down and you get to just listen to a bard's wonderful tune. It is easily one of my favorite moments in the story, and I’ll be humming that song along with many others for quite a while after playing.