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.
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.
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.
But Geralt doesn't even need a blade. He holds out a hand and blasts a spray of roaring embers into the nearest man's face. I forgot that he could do magic. The victim reels away with a scream. Geralt follows up with a series of blade strikes, arranging light and heavy blows into a violent morse code of pummelling. Geralt dismantles foes with more flair than ever. The Witcher 3 has 96 motion-captured strike animations, compared with The Witcher 2's 20. It takes just moments to put the man out of his misery.
The rest of the group follow, and it's soon time to move on. The demo skips forward to save travel time, transporting us directly to the distant bridge between the rocks. Lukasz spins the camera again so we can see the forest we started in. “You can go everywhere you can see, even here,” Badowski adds with a gesture. At first I assume he's pointing to a fort at the far end of the huge, crescent shaped bay, but I'm wrong. He's indicating the pale outline of an entirely different island. We're in the midst of the Skellige archipelago, which itself makes up only one part of the whole world map. Barring a few especially distant quest instances, the world streams seamlessly, without loading screens.
The bridge serves as the only entrance to a perilously poised castle that clings, limpet-like, to a great spike of rock reaching out of the sea. It's home to the Jarl, a broad, affable bear of a man who greets Geralt on top of the fort's tallest turret. A storm crackles moodily in the distance as Crach explains his dilemma. His hotheaded son – and likely successor to his crown – has ventured out to 'the island from which none return'. He hasn't returned.
Geralt agrees to help, but not before the pair have exchanged a little small talk. They discuss the politics of the Skellige islands with an offhand familiarity that's convincing and informative. Geralt may be terse, but he's not a blank avatar. He knows much about his world that the player doesn't, and isn't afraid to express it. Does this put distance between the world and the player authoring his every move? Perhaps, but Geralt's intelligence grants him a degree of status and autonomy in his world that's more empowering than alienating. His banter is the by-product of a knowledgeable and well-informed mind. It makes Geralt more likeable, and lends credence to the fiction.
Pleasantries concluded, Geralt takes a rickety wooden rope elevator down the sheer cliff-face. A bustling settlement huddles around the base of the outcrop, far below the battlements of castle Crach. Fans of The Witcher 2's busy townships won't be disappointed. A muddy thoroughfare holds apart a ramshackle collection of grimy structures. Flickering lanterns appease the gloom of the cliff's shadow and sweary arguments rise above the white noise of the ocean. Dozens of grubby peasants loiter near braziers, gossiping loudly and huddling for warmth.
Geralt strides past the serfs, crooks and drunks lingering in the open and enters an even noisier tavern. There he extracts information on the mysterious island from a boozeaddled navigator. Swaying, the longfaced lunk launches into a story about an adventurer he once knew, but barely manages a sentence before Geralt tells him to shut up and get to the point. Geralt has a knack for saying exactly what I'm thinking.
Then our journey takes a surprising turn. Geralt hops into a boat and sails off into the ocean. You have full control of your vessel. If you choose, you can abandon the main quest and say hello to some other cultures on neighbouring islands, but for the purposes of the demo, we stay on-mission. As the 'island from which none return' looms large, a huge longboat sails past, and I hear the ominous sound of sailors singing a grim sea shanty. Off the bow, a whale surfaces momentarily, then vanishes with a flick of its tail. Once you've discovered a location, you're free to fast-travel there at any time, but the first time round you'll have to discover it for yourself.
The doomed island is not a cheerful place. Black stone pathways snake inland, strewn with broken bodies. It's a sensible moment to deploy Geralt's 'Witcher sense'. It's a new passive ability – not dissimilar to Batman: Arkham City's detective mode – designed to present Geralt's monster hunting expertise as an environmental overlay. When speared on a splintered tree trunk nearby. “Lifted, and then dropped,” he murmurs. The imagined scene plays out in the environment. A blue spectre appears, is lifted off his feet, struggles against an unseen airborne assailant, and is thrown violently onto the spike. This particular investigation is unfolding as part of a long, involved story mission, but Geralt can use the same technique to hunt monsters the world over. These side missions will be his primary source of income. For the first time in the series, we'll earn a wage doing proper Witcher work.
The culprit in this case isn't hard to find. In a short cutscene, Geralt rounds a corner and spots a gaggle of harpies around the hull of a half-built galleon. Then the earth shakes with slow, sure footsteps. As Geralt takes cover, a monstrous green humanoid stomps into view, dressed in crude armour made from ropes, planks and bones. I don't need Witcher sense to know it's a giant.
The beast moves away, clueless to the Witcher's presence. The origin and purpose of the galleon go unexplained, although Badowski confirms that there is a story there to uncover. The ship is one of many “points of interest” that world designers have scattered throughout the environment. They aim to pique players' curiosity by always having something to investigate. I see a faint orange glow beyond the galleon. It appears to be a cave, illuminated from within by a campfire. If I had my hands on the controller, there's no way I wouldn't have clambered up to investigate, but Lukasz skips the demo forward again.
We're in the giant's lair. The beast is curled up in a corner, safely asleep, but a man is shouting loudly, apparently unconcerned about waking the thing. It's Crach's son, trapped in a cage. I'm starting to suspect he may be some sort of idiot.
Geralt can choose to free him right away, or let him rot for a while. The choice will alter how the Jarl's son perceives him later in the game, and will have significant consequences when the question of the Jarl's successor eventually arises. In The Witcher 2, the repercussions of your choices dramatically shaped its three insular acts. Badowski suggests that consequences in the Witcher 3 will be more localised, but just as significant. Geralt will cross the battle lines of the burgeoning war often during his travels, and Badowski hints that entire towns could be razed, or saved, depending on Geralt's actions. Over the course of the 80-hour adventure, your choices will build towards one of three different endings.
Lukasz chooses to free the Jarl's son, who charges across the cave screaming and kicks the giant in the head. Oh good, he's a maniac. Geralt reaches wearily for one of his blades. Silver for monsters.
The giant fights with the lumbering, graceless enthusiasm you'd expect from a barely intelligent creature with arms longer than his legs. Geralt spins and rolls around the towering clod, dodging lanky blows and striking back with the occasional flash of the sword. The giant stamps to dislodge some ceiling rocks. Then he tears the anchor off a nearby boat and starts wielding it like a huge flail. This is a prescribed boss fight, but these behaviours are dynamic AI decisions. If you run across a giant in the wild, he'll start looking for ways to use the environment against you. Monster behaviour is even affected by the dynamic weather system. Certain creatures will swarm at night, and werewolves grow in strength beneath a full moon.
The anchor does little to improve the giant's chances. Geralt cuts the creature down with a few vigorous stabs, and with a deep, sad gurgling noise, the giant expires. The screen goes dark. It's over.
But there's so much more to see. The snowy Nordic environments of the Skellige islands will draw justifiable comparisons to Skyrim, but that's just a portion of The Witcher 3's world. There are haunted badlands brimming with creatures inspired by Slavic folk tales. There's a huge city called Novigrad, packed with enough assassins and scheming politicians to fill a Game of Thrones novel.
Whether developer CD Projekt RED can master the world-building techniques that make Skyrim such a fascinating place to explore remains uncertain, but from what I've seen here, their huge open world setting has done nothing to dilute the intrigue, ugliness and dark humour that make The Witcher games so strange and memorable.