What we want to see in The Witcher 3
Technically, The Witcher 3 hasn't been announced yet - though thanks to a secret message in the Cyberpunk 2077 trailer and the appearance of a familiar looking sword, everyone's expecting that to change as of February 5th with a big announcement from developers CD Projekt Red.
Of course, until we hear the announcement, we won't know for sure. It might be a spin-off game rather than a sequel, possibly as a base for the long-awaited REDKit editing tools. It could even be a massive troll leading up to, say, Fluffy McMathBunny's Sunny Day Out, the happy edutainment RPG where long division is the key to victory. Still, since the most we can say about those options is "Could be interesting", we know we want to see a Witcher 3 at some point. How can this inevitable sequel play its nudie cards right and build on its predecessors? Here are a few of our hopes...
Keeping Perspective. Sorry to start on a slightly boring one, but by far the biggest problem with The Witcher 2 was that its development felt like it had been very insular, with not enough fresh eyes during the process, or those eyes being too guided. The big tell for this is that the initial version had quests with misplaced map markers - the kind of thing that's easily fixed, but only missed if everyone involved simply knows where they're going. Likewise, elements like the lack of a tutorial and the first big fight in the game expecting players to instantly 'get' the combat system were serious mistakes, no matter how much some of the hardcore players appreciated being dropped in at the deep end.
(Incidentally, my favourite example of this insularity came when the game originally arrived for preview, with stern, genuine instructions not to give away what happened to King Foltest during the prologue. The prologue of a game called 'The Witcher 2: Assassins Of Kings'. Ahem...)
Many of these issues were subsequently patched on the system side, and hurrah for that. Others though were baked much too deeply into the narrative to be changed post-release - the real crash coming with Act 3, which all the branching and untaken paths made very easy to reach without really knowing what was going on and why it actually mattered. Especially coupled with...
Remembering All The Fans. Both The Witcher games have made a bit of an assumption that people playing know this world already. They make a few concessions to newcomers, sure, but I've had fans tell me that expecting the game to pause to explain, say, what Nilfgaard is, is like expecting Darth Vader in a Star Wars game to go "I will now crush you with The Force, which as you know is..." Which is nonsense. The series could absolutely do a better job when explaining the core elements, if not necessarily every little detail - especially factoring in how much you can miss by taking the wrong branches, and that the English speaking world at least only has a couple of Witcher books in print so far.
Consequence Over Choice Nobody sane would say that The Witcher 2 lacked for choices to make. The end of Act 1, the entire of Act 2 and most of Act 3 didn't so much have a critical path as a critical spaghetti pile. Make no mistake, this was seriously impressive and deserves credit.
That said, while choices did have big consequences, the scale of the game and sheer number of paths did have a tendency to trip over its own feet - key characters simply disappearing or being shoved into the background, massive events being dismissed, and most painfully of all, much of the plot that Geralt should have been uncovering during the game having to be explained via the final boss actively holding an expositional Q&A. It was also unfortunate that your choices tended to be a step removed from what you were actually choosing - the lead-up to Act 2 being the decision to throw your hat in with Roche or Iorveth, not Henselt or Saskia - or simply swept under the table with the politics of Act 3.
For The Witcher 3, it would be good to see that willingness to take the tough road put to more focused use - the world itself changing as a direct result of decisions, for good and bad, rather than the focus being on altering the path through it. A central city like Vizima wouldn't hurt for this, with its development over the game altering based on who you kill, and what relationships you form. Kill too many crooked officials, and the entire thing becomes a fascist state out of fear, for instance, or have the monster population of the area directly tied to how much killing you bother to do. Direct responses, with unexpected twists, tend to be what make choices interesting. Especially with...
More Moral Ambiguity. The Witcher has never been short on this, but more! More! More! And not just in terms of people lying to you about their true intentions, but situations like the witch in the first game where both sides are at fault but Geralt still has to make fiendishly hard calls.
Save Game Importing That Actually Does Something. Not necessarily anything important for the sweep of the game, but things like only starting Geralt in bed with Triss if he actually pursued that relationship in the previous game seem fairly obvious. In The Witcher 3, a great use for this would be to fill in the What Happened Next for Temeria that the previous game skipped via a chat with Dandelion, now that CD Projekt knows exactly where they plan to take the story and doesn't have to worry about boxing itself into a corner. Assuming of course that this game isn't going to be set there again, in which case just picking an ending and running with it makes more sense than confusing the issue.
A Not Too Open World. If CD Projekt's teased game actually is The Witcher 3, we know it's going to be 'fully open-world game'. I can imagine that being excellent, and have faith that it'll be cool. If it's going to follow in the steps of the previous games though, I hope it's not a particularly big open world game - a tighter focus not only allowing for more loving design, but reinforcing when decisions have impact, and conveying their effects in more interesting ways than most games bother with. Now, that said...
Modding, Early. The Witcher 2 came out mid-2011. The REDKit mod tools still aren't out. If this is going to be an open world game, let's see those as soon as possible, and give Skyrim's world some real competition. Fans are ready to mod this universe, but how many are going to devote themselves to starting on something for a two year old game? Especially one so razor-focused on a specific story.
Nilfgaard Or (Actually, Knowing The Witcher, More Likely And) Bust! Wherever the game takes place, it'll need a setting - and if the ending of The Witcher 2 is anything to go by, we'll at least be visiting Nilfgaard, City of the Baddies. That would seem the right choice too, at this point in Geralt's adventures, and with the amount of political messing around they were up to last time.
Speaking of which...
Yennefer? We Barely Know 'Er! But it's time we did. For the third game, Geralt's former lady-love really needs to put in an appearance. According to the end of The Witcher 2, she's alive and in Nilfgaard. All the more reason to pay it a visit and either make something of that thread point or tie it off.
Witchering Hours. The Witcher 2 was somewhat odd, in that Geralt wasn't so much used as a Witcher as a general badass with handy skills. It'd be good to get back to the monster killing this time - not simply smacking wandering enemies over the head, and definitely not buying loads of reference books again, but sorting out more of the dark fairy tale type encounters from the original stories.
No More Crap Geralt. The Witcher 2 especially had one of the strangest difficulty curves ever - the first act of the game being by far the hardest due to Geralt apparently having given up working out between sequels. Not again, please. He needs to start out feeling like a badass, and fight challenges worthy of one, with a levelling curve built around making him becoming more skilled/powerful rather than spending hours fighting to stop him being bloody useless. Burn that Stamina bar with fire too.
The Execution Of Anyone Responsible For Branding It "The Witch3r". Just saying.
Keeping It Brave. Something that absolutely shouldn't change though is The Witcher's willingness to take risks. Yes, the sex cards in the original were damn stupid, and The Witcher 2 was better for not having them. Other elements did work though, from the sequel's more character-based sex scenes, to the darkness of having characters getting their eyes put out for ending up on the wrong side, and the nature of the storyline and subquests. Most RPGs out there are as sterile as Geralt's third sword. The Witcher can't lose its balls now that CD Projekt Red has made it to the top tier.
And that'll do for the moment, at least until CD Projekt Red makes its big reveal and we can see exactly what we're meant to be getting excited about. If you haven't played The Witcher 2, firstly, King Foltest dies in it. Spoiler! Also it's absolutely worth it. For various reasons, it scored 89% originally. We don't typically re-review games, but while it still has some issues (some mentioned above), that number would have been a couple of points higher had it shipped with the patches and tweaks released since.
The full game is now only £15/$20 from either Steam or GOG, and well worth it if for some reason you missed it on release - especially if you have a PC with the oomph to see it in all its system-melting, game-CDP-clearly-really-wanted-to-make-whatever-the-cost finery.