There's a creature in the woods slaughtering villagers. The elders want to appease the gods in the hope that it will move on. The leader of the village's young upstarts disagrees, and wants you – a professional monster slayer – to bring him the beast's head for a bag of gold. What do you do?
The best fantasy RPGs serve up the juiciest dilemmas, and the Witcher series has form for throwing up quality let'smake- a-cuppa-and-think conundrums. Slaying the monster seems like the obvious option here, but if The Witcher 3 is anything like its predecessors things are going to get complicated fast.
The hands-off demo I saw was being controlled by CD Projekt Red. For the first time in the series, the game lets players potter about an open world full of incidental missions like this. The devs could just as easily steer Geralt elsewhere and go exploring, but they opt to side with the youngster and venture into the woods, using Geralt's 'Witcher sense' to find the monster. A dull red haze highlights important clues in the environment, some scratch marks here, some tracks there. Geralt soon concludes that the boogeyman is a Leshen – a spooky, antlered humanoid of great power.
The Witcher's monsters are inspired by mythology from around the world, from Eastern European ghost stories to creatures of Celtic legend. They're far more interesting for it, and somehow more believable. Hunting will be an important part of Geralt's day-to-day activities, so CD Projekt Red have spent time developing different types of enemy AI, including swarm behaviour for tiny foes, pack AI for wolves, and monster AI for bigger beasts that'll let them alter the environment. The Leshen has a neat way of avoiding monster hunters, for example. It can mark a living creature and regenerate from their essence when slain, a trick it's used to mark an inhabitant in the village Geralt's trying to protect.
There's the catch, then. To kill the beast, the marked one has to die first. Geralt returns to town to investigate. His young employer is certain the beast has singled out one of the elders, suggesting that their pray-and-hope approach might be a symptom of the Leshen's influence. Geralt activates his Witcher sense again to find the marked citizen, but it doesn't take magic powers to see the spiralling tower of black crows over one of the houses. This isn't going to end well.
The Witcher 3's dynamic weather system has conjured up a storm at this point. Wind lashes the trees of the surrounding forest. Every branch whips in the wind, and the tall grass is caught in flurries. Weather will affect monster behaviour – just as certain beasts will only come out at night – but it also looks terrific. When Geralt meditates, the world goes into timelapse. The spinning sky, shifting light and skittering shadows show off the new engine's considerable abilities. The Witcher 3 is exceptionally pretty.
I'm still admiring the scenery when Geralt finds the marked victim – a young woman – near the house of crows. She happens to be the love interest of the very ruffian who hired him to kill the monster. I Are humans the real monsters here? No, but they're fun to fight. Setting a monster's arms on fire only annoys it. There's a quest on every corner. feel like I'm watching medieval Coronation Street. What next?
“The Witcher 3 will have a lot of difficult decisions to make,” writer Jakub Szamalek told me after the demo. “They won't be good and bad decisions, they will always be about choosing the lesser evil.”
The Witcher 3 doesn't codify its decisionmaking with a variant on BioWare's morality bars. CD Projekt Red don't think that numerical boosts are a satisfying reward for getting stuck into the world, and they don't want to give players a morality system to game. They want to encourage honest decisions, choices based on what you think you'd do if you were a grizzled mutant monster hunter, and then reward you with dramatic consequences. “Some will be for particular people or communities,” Jakob suggests, “but some might actually affect entire regions.”
There are dire consequences for the marked girl. Geralt's employer decides to off his love interest while Geralt is away, for the good of the village. Geralt heads back into the forest, finds the creature's lair and bests it with some slightly flappy swordplay, dodging the Leshen's pet wolves, and tracking its movements when it occasionally vanishes in a storm of crows. Once the fight is over he returns to the village for the last time. The girl is dead, her body lying next to the corpses of all the village elders. The young rowdies have found the excuse they needed to launch a brutal coup.
The Witcher takes his money and walks away. It's a tough break, but there are hundreds of other stories out there. I can't wait to explore them all.