The Witcher 3 preview: on combat and why we can "expect the game to look way better" on release

I sat in a dark room at E3 on Tuesday while CD Projekt Red cheerfully played through 45 minutes of The Witcher 3, showing off a very small part of the new open world that series hero Geralt will be able to explore. That was hours ago, and I still can't fully come to grips with the idea of a game as rich and challenging and complex as The Witcher 2 blown out into a massive world. While CD Projekt Red made sure to point out just how big the world was, their hands-off demo mostly focused on the more intricate details of combat and questing.

I went into the Witcher 3 demo hoping to answer two questions: is the scope of the game world going to compromise The Witcher's interesting quests and complex political plotlines? And does the game really look as stunning as it has in CD Projekt's trailers?

The 46 minutes I saw weren't enough to answer the first question, but they showed that The Witcher 3 isn't messing with the elements that its prequel got right. Quests and dialogue options are essentially identical. Monster hunter Geralt of Rivia still has two swords for fighting man and beast, magical signs for casting spells, potions to buff his strength. Familiar monsters like drowners showed up to be cut down by Geralt's blade. There are decapitations now, and Geralt often delivers killing blows that sever heads with a brutally quick strike.

"We wanted to make the combat more responsive, so we raised the number of combat animations like five times," said Michal Gilewski, CD Projekt's Head of Marketing. "It was around 20 something in The Witcher 2 and now we have over 90 different sequences of actions and dodges, so it makes the fight more fluid, but it looks amazing."

I talked to Gilewski along with The Witcher 3's lead programmer, Grzegorz Mocarski, after the demo. Mocarski added that Geralt now has two different dodge moves. "We're still working on it, but right now you can already is the dodge move, the other is the pirouette," he said. "This time you're having many possibilities for the fights as well. You've got signs, swords, crossbows, bombs, different moves you can use. Not all features will work in all situations. We wanted to give a little more control to the player and make the fight a little more tactical."

One of Geralt's new toys, a small crossbow, kicked time into slow motion when he pulled it out and aimed. Combat looked as challenging as it did in the first half of The Witcher 2, with enemies quickly racking up damage on Geralt unless he dodged constantly and made liberal use of his magic powers. Mocarski said that enemies actually had lower health for the sake of our time-constrained demo.

My second question proved easier to answer. The Witcher 3 doesn't look quite as good when Geralt's walking around in real-time as it does in the trailers. I noticed some screen tearing and a framerate that slowed noticeably in some open areas, particularly approaching Novigrad, the largest city in The Witcher 3. The lighting at midday in a sunny area also washed out the screen, limiting the gorgeous dynamic range of lighting dominating CD Projekt's trailers. But those are nitpicks, criticizing about two minutes out of the 45 I saw. And the rest of the time, the game really does look incredible.

Soft, warm rays of light filter through trees. Rock faces are craggy and textured and the world is covered in verdant plant life. The vistas are stunning, and CD Projekt pointed out three times that any place you can see on the horizon, you can walk to. There are no invisible walls in The Witcher 3. To reach the tops of cliffs and stare slack-jawed into the sunset, Geralt can now jump and clamber up cliff faces.

Geralt's beard. Man, let's talk about Geralt's beard. Faces in The Witcher 3 are some of the most impressive I've seen in a game, though I don't think they're pushing the bar for realism. But they're expressive and and look hand-sculpted where many faces now look realistically motion capped. Geralt's beard has some incredibly detailed hair and stubble. If it's not the beard of 2015, I'll be shocked.

The Witcher 3's entire world is, of course, just as lovingly crafted as Geralt's stubbly face. I asked if it was built procedurally or assembled in unique pieces; Mocarski didn't go into much detail, but he did say that "the whole world is filled with custom points of interest, hand-crafted places that you're going to see from a distance that you're going to want to visit, and you can visit."

"If there is a point that you're seeing that is interesting, there's a huge chance that you'll be able to get there," he added. "You may not be able to get there at the beginning because of your skills and the monster that may be in the way, but later you'll be able to get there."

I never doubted CD Projekt Red could handle the basics of The Witcher a third time, or that it could make one of the best-looking games on PC. It's still impossible to tell if parts of The Witcher 3 will suffer from its ambitious scope. But the only criticisms I had so far, minor performance hiccups, Mocarski brought up himself when I asked him what kind of settings the game was running at.

"It's not yet optimized," he said simply. "You can expect the game to look way better than that."

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As hardware editor, Wes spends slightly more time building computers than he does breaking them. Deep in his heart he believes he loves Star Wars even more than Samuel Roberts and Chris Thursten, but is too scared to tell them.
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