I know this is exactly what a brooding fantasy RPG anti-hero would want you to think, but Geralt really is misunderstood. At first glance, The Witcher's reticent protagonist is a walking cliché. He has silver hair, a scar over one eye and two swords permanently fastened to his back. If you asked an artist to sketch a typical troubled, dark-fantasy badass the results would look suspiciously similar, but these aren't frivolous artistic embellishments – they're the marks of a man who has survived for decades in the gloomiest of dark fantasy worlds.
"He's knocked goblets with kings and flirted with politics. Geralt revels in the freedom that only an outcast can enjoy."
Take those twin blades: they're the tools of Geralt's trade as a roaming monster hunter. Different creatures require different swords. Silver for monsters, steel for men. His white hair, pale appearance and sinister eyes are the results of a childhood regime of chemical conditioning that grants him great strength and reflexes, but they mark him as an outcast among the superstitious and uneducated.
Yep, he has a dark past, too. That's another tick on the 'grimdark superhero' checklist, but somehow Geralt still manages to shrug his way out of the gloomy pigeonhole that he seems to fit so well. He remains refreshingly angst-free in spite of all that hardship. Behind that fierce, unsmiling demeanour, he's quietly having the time of his life. In The Witcher 1 and 2, he slaughtered some of the most hideous creatures on the planet. He's knocked goblets with kings, flirted with politics and armwrestled the strongest warriors in the land. Geralt revels in the freedom that only an outcast can enjoy. For the first time, The Witcher 3 will put that freedom into players' hands with a sumptuous, fully explorable open world.
This is what CD Projekt RED want to show me today. Their demo opens in the wilderness: Geralt is riding a horse through an evergreen forest beneath a bruised sky. A silver coastline curves towards the horizon and erupts into a mountainous outcrop. There's a great fissure in the distant rock. A stone walkway bridges the gap perilously, like Sam Fisher straddling an alley crack. That's Geralt's destination.
The Witcher 3 is the final entry in Geralt's saga. Freed from the political obligations and baffling amnesia that bound him in The Witcher 2, he's searching for lost loved ones in a world on the brink of a calamitous war. But for all his vagrant tendencies, Geralt has a knack for becoming embroiled in the squabbles of the rich and powerful. He's responding to a summons from Jarl Crach, who needs help with a personal matter.
The castle is miles away. The demo's controller, CD Projekt's QA analyst Lukasz Babiel, gives the camera an experimental spin. Behind, the forest gives way to fields where shepherds guard flocks of sheep. In the distance, dull green plains sweep up into crumpled purple mountain ranges. There's no sign of the hub and corridor level structures of previous games. Studio head Adam Badowski is casually dropping fact-bombs in the background. He mentions that this island alone is the size of the whole of The Witcher 2, and I believe him. It feels vast and wild.
"This is one of many dynamic encounters that can interrupt your exploration. You can choose to engage, or just walk away"
There are voices ahead. Geralt dismounts and walks right into a group of bandits noisily celebrating a robbery. They notice the Witcher immediately and start bawling racial slurs in his direction. This is one of many dynamic encounters that can interrupt your exploration. You can choose to engage – and chance starting a new quest line – or just walk away. Geralt reaches for his sword. Steel for men.
The bandits draw rusty weapons and encircle the Witcher. Combat looks similar to the combo-heavy third-person brawls of The Witcher 2, but the developers insist that they've focused strongly on improving the heft and responsiveness of fights. You still combine quick and heavy strikes into killer combos, but each click is tied to a single blow to stop Geralt from windmilling wildly into the bushes. A selection of dainty pirouettes should put an end to the endless roll-dodging of the second game, and Geralt will case foes at a more measured pace before lashing out, adding some much needed structure to the flashy but sloppy duels of the second game.