Monday, June 22, 2015
Why I won't finish The Witcher III: Wild Hunt.
Let's go with bros. The two bros were browsing games and talking about The Witcher III, and how it was indisputably the greatest RPG that's ever been made - that it was perfect. They used that word. "Perfect." I said nothing, went to the counter and requested a fifty dollar PSN card.
"Are you an Edge member?" she asked.
I am an Edge platinum member - arranged a week before the PS4 launch in 2013, for the sole purpose of permitting me to skip the line at the console's midnight release, and get home before one in the morning. She ran my card, and a list of recent purchases popped up.
"How are you enjoying The Witcher?" she asked.
My eyes darted back to the bros. Tall and cocky and perhaps violently certain that CD Projekt's latest opus was the beginning and end of role playing games. So, it seems, was almost everyone else who played it. The reviews were all so confident and glowing.
But she asked, and I had to admit,
And I'm in the minority on this. If you have a Review Guy or Girl you trust, and they tell you Wild Hunt is the bees knees, you should probably listen to them. The Witcher III clicked, for them. They were able to glean pleasure from it that I cannot, and I'm jealous. The game I read about in all those reviews sounds wonderful.
It's very beautiful.
Even on PS4 - a far cry from a maxed PC - it's lovely. Picturesque. Artful. It's beautiful, well-rendered high-grit fantasy, with filthy villages and crowded army camps, dense woods guarding hidden secrets and sopping swamps where demented hags straight out of Army of Darkness rise from the dark waters to flay your flesh.
Its graphics are excellent. Nine out of ten.
Its stories are... intimate. Touching. Affecting, thoughtful and human. Your quest-givers never feel like a pip on a map. They feel like flesh-and-blood people who are weathering the savage storm of war, and driven to desperation - desperate enough to ask the help of a reviled Witcher - and honest enough to give earnest, genuine thanks when the job is done. Helping people in Wild Hunt feels good.
Once, I needed the help of some orphans, but they refused to assist until I played hide and seek with them. In any other game, that event would feel forced and kitchy, but here it comes across as honest and a bit sad and funny when you - Supreme Badass that you are - cover your eyes and begin to count as the children scatter.
Its writing is excellent. Eight-point-five out of ten.
Its world is rich. The game is utterly dense with lore and detail, and each hour or so will reveal a bit more of that fine, toothy grit. Even when hunting standard fantasy fare, there's nothing simple or two-dimensional about your quarry. Each monster has specific behaviours, specific strengths, specific weaknesses and a brief but nourishing write-up in your bestiary, explaining the subtle differences between Godlings, Bucca and Lutins - and the player is encouraged to take their time. Plan their approach thoughtfully. To dive into the nearby lake, touch the bottom and retrieve some very special aquatic herbs which will create a potent anti-ghost oil to rub across your silver blade.
Its world-building is excellent. Ten out of ten.
It does an exemplary job of casting the player as a monster hunter for hire, and ensures there's enough grit to it - enough to plan for, weigh, consider and strategize with - to make the minutia feel meaningful to your quest.
Almost everything Wild Hunt does is remarkably well-done - the writing, the setting, the creatures, the characters, the tech - but I'm not interested in playing it.
Because playing it isn't fun.
Every aspect of how you negotiate its world feels awkward, distant and sluggish. Awkwardness can be overcome with practice. Sluggishness can turn to satisfaction, when tactics and timing are key, but the distance...
You feel it, as soon as you're given control. Commanding Geralt to walk around a room is a fumbling, almost-comical series of oversteps, geometry traps and mis-translated motive - but one hopes it will prove meaningful, when one steps outside, and draws their blade.
Every swing of Geralt of Rivia's blade feels inconsequential. You've played games, surely, where there is no tangible sense of your strikes, and no tactile touch to grow to love. There is a massive disconnect, here, between the push of a button and the onscreen result - between the player's intention and the onscreen action - and thus even its most challenging fights glean no real satisfaction, or pleasure.
Wild Hunt's combat is designed with a slower pace in mind, where cautious viciousness and thoughtful, practised, well-researched tactics win the day, and it does an excellent job of permitting you Geralt's full (impressively varied) repertoire of skills, tools and toys during any given fight. This is a game in which you fling a grenade into a group of bandits that explodes into swamp gas, which you then ignite with a blast of your fire spell before tapping L2 to deflect an incoming arrow with your sword and send it flying back at your attacker - and how cool that sounds illustrates a big part of my difficulty with enjoying Wild Hunt.
What you do in Wild Hunt is always wonderful - doing it is not.
Getting Johnny his voice back is awesome. Solving the mystery of the Noonwraith is awesome. Throwing a grenade, igniting the cloud and deflecting arrows are awesome, but the act of doing it is bland, distant. Boring. Tedious.
It's tedious enough that everything else Wild Hunt pulls off spectacularly well - its remarkable presentation, story, characters and world - can't overcome it. And this is coming from someone who loves Fallout: New Vegas and Skyrim. Combat in those games is horrible, but it is at least firmly connected to both the player and the game world. Connected enough to root the player in that world and make it supremely satisfying when you block a blow and land a heavy strike.
After twenty hours with Wild Hunt, I'm still waiting for it to provide that. I kept driving myself to return to it - to let its world wrap around me to the point that I'd be more than happy to endure its finicky walk controls and distant, whiffy combat in the name of its wonderful stories and rich character.
But I don't want to. I want to meet more fascinating creatures, explore its lush world and uncover the mystery of the titular riders. I want to make hard, morally-gray choices and have the consequences come back to bite me a few hours later - but I want to enjoy myself while I'm doing it, and The Witcher III: Wild Hunt can't offer that.
It's not fun.