The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt - Hearts of Stone

Great moments in PC gaming are bite-sized celebrations of some of our favorite gaming memories.

To call Geralt of Rivia a bit of a stick in the mud is an understatement. The man's an oak tree in a tar pit. Sure, he lets his hair down when he gets drunk and frocks up with the lads, but he is mostly a serious monster-hunting man.

When he's given an impossible quest to show a dead man the time of his life, that changes. The dead man in question is Vlodimir von Everec, a debauched nobleman turned bandit lord, and the night in question is the night that Geralt's ex Shani invites him to a wedding.

Here you are navigating this awkward social situation—your ex-girlfriend introducing you to her university pal, then having to meet an extended family you'll never see again—while also having a ghost possess you. Vlodimir agrees to two conditions: That he'll return to his eternal rest at midnight and that he'll let you have your body back temporarily if you need it. Which you mostly do to apologize for the things he says and does.

As the player, the lines between Geralt and Vlod are blurred. When the V-man's in charge Geralt puts his hands on his hips and grins an uncharacteristically wide grin, but although this means Geralt is no longer running his own body, the player still is. Sometimes Vlodimir says things on his own recognizance, but at other times you choose his dialogue options. It's an opportunity to relax and roleplay a man who flirts outrageously, dances like everybody's watching, and is always the centre of attention. Like the chapters where you get to be Ciri, it's a nice change of pace.

It's a nice wedding too. There's a table of halflings playing Gwent, and if you lose to them they make you wear donkey ears for the rest of the night, which other guests will comment on. Drunks are chasing pigs, men are fishing their dates' shoes out of a pond to prove their love, and of course there's plenty of dancing and drinking, and you can participate in all of it.

There's also a dog and firebreather who've gone missing, and when Vlodimir promises to find them because he thinks it's a laugh to be a witcher on a quest, suddenly you the player are pretending to be a man pretending to be Geralt, just like we've been doing for the previous 70 hours or so. It's a weirdly meta little touch. "Hey, remember what this game is like when it's not about chasing pigs?" But mostly it's a chill time, a break before Hearts of Stone gets back to the serious stuff. It's supposed to be an opportunity for Vlodimir to have the time of his life but Geralt ends up having a good time too in spite of himself, and so do we.

The Witcher® 3: Wild Hunt

2017 was a hard year for some high-profile singleplayer games, and there was more than a little hand-wringing that the genre as we know it might be dying, replaced by 'games as a service.' We argued that in fact they're not dying, just changing, but it's easy to look at Steam's highest earning games of 2017 and spot the commonalities. Free to play mechanics, skins and loot boxes and crates and keys, all play a major part in 'living' games like Rainbow Six: Siege,Warframe,PUBG and Dota 2. And then there's The Witcher 3, which doesn't have any of that shit. And it's still raking in the dough.

The Witcher 3 was released on May 19, 2015, almost four years to the day after The Witcher 2 first hit PC. By the end of summer, it had sold more than six million copies across PC and consoles. That was only a little surprising, because The Witcher 3 is an incredible game—it was good enough, and big enough, to lure in players who'd never touched the series before. A year later, CD Projekt put the final touches on the Blood & Wine expansion and a Game of the Year re-release. And that, a bit more surprisingly, was enough to make The Witcher 3 the second-best selling PC game on Steam in all of 2016.

In the year after its release, it made more money in gross revenue than the new Doom, Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, Stardew Valley, Rise of the Tomb Raider, and other huge games released in late 2015 and throughout 2016. That made The Witcher 3 a 'Platinum" seller. Valve jumbled the games in each tier, so it's hard to know exactly where The Witcher 3 ranked, but it was up there with Dark Souls 3 and Fallout 4 and The Division. Impressive legs, Geralt, but not truly shocking.

But here's what I just can't get over. Valve recently  put together another list of Steam's top 100 games, by gross revenue which covered 2017. And The Witcher 3 is still on it. And not just in the top 100. It's still in the platinum tier! Up there with Dota 2 and Rocket League and Warframe, which sell in-game items by the virtual truckload, and PUBG, which sold more than 20 million copies in 2017. 

No new expansion, no re-release. The Witcher 3 apparently doesn't need those things to keep selling. It's in that ludicrously elite tier of games now, along with the likes of Grand Theft Auto and Mario Kart, that simply keeps selling year after year. And who knows how well The Witcher 3 has sold on GOG, the platform that CD Projekt owns? 

For two and a half years, The Witcher 3 has held onto a spot as one of the PC's best selling games. And that's sure as hell not easy, but I do think the reasons for its success are simple: CD Projekt made one of the best RPGs of all time, and then immediately improved upon it with weeks of patches and free DLC, followed by two meaty, fairly priced expansions. Not every great singleplayer game will find that kind of success, of course. There's no guarantee that a new triple-A game, with no loot boxes or in-game stores or season passes will capture such a large audience.

But at a time when so many of us are sick of all those things, it's encouraging to know that 'games as a service' elements aren't the only way to keep players engaged, and to keep a game relevant, for years. For The Witcher 3, it was sheer quality.

Or maybe it was just the tub.

The Witcher® 3: Wild Hunt

"Some people mod because they like to give others joy with their creation. Others [mod] because they just fuckin' feel like it. I'm the latter." I'm chatting over Discord with Reaperrz, a Romanian college student and creator of the Witcher 3 Enhanced Edition, an overhaul mod that completely guts the vanilla game and replaces its systems with new approaches to combat, leveling, magic, and alchemy.

Reaperrz (whose full pseudonym is actually "Sir Reaperrz ‘Custard' McButtfuck, Esq") is one of very few people in the world who are ambitious enough to make an "overhaul mod." Rather than adding the mask from Predator into Witcher's Polish folklore-inspired world, overhaul mods are dramatic, sweeping, and huge amounts of work. There are about 2,100 mods for Witcher 3 listed on Mod Nexus; only about 20 of them are considered overhauls.

I talked to the creators of two of the most popular overhaul mods, Witcher 3 Enhanced Edition and Ghost Mode, to find out how and why they go about remaking one of the most ambitious and celebrated games in recent memory. The answer? Mostly boredom.

Ghost Mode

Anna, a scientist living in Samara, Russia, usually goes by the handle "Wasteland Ghost," shortened to wghost81 in most of her modding projects. She's careful, deliberate, and organized, so it makes sense that she uses her PhD in telecommunications to teach programming at the local university.

After almost three years, Anna has spent more than 1,200 hours inside CD Projekt's magnum opus.

That methodical approach has made her mod, Ghost Mode, one of the most endorsed and most downloaded overhaul mods. It started small and grew over the years into a vast and comprehensive clean-up of Witcher 3's many bugs and quirks. "I was trying to fix sign skills… because half of them were not working," Anna says. "Then I realized that there are many other skills that are not working. And when I started fixing them I realized that I [was] making Geralt even more OP than he already is. So I started thinking on damage formula and on leveling system, how to improve them. And then I understood why armor was not working. So yeah, modding is a fun thing: you never know where [you'll] end up."

Anna's approach to her overhaul mod was born out of love for the game. After beating it three times, going through New Game+ mode and playing through on Death March, the hardest difficulty, she still wanted to play it but had run out of things to do. When she tried to experiment with other builds, she realized that many of the less-popular skills and signs didn't work at all. Instead of moving on to a new game, she started making changes.

As her project grew, she started fixing bugs and cleaning up inconsistencies. Did you know that fire elementals can be killed by Igni, the fire sign? I didn't, because I'd be a damn fool if I tried to cast Igni with a fire demon trying to eat my face. But it can be done., which doesn't make much sense. Though most of the monsters in the game look different, they have the same stats under the hood. When she realized that, she spent a year balancing and polishing all of the enemy and armor details. "I still have the spreadsheets," she says, calling it a "nightmare."

I spent some time with Ghost Mode and a few other favorite mods, and it reignited my love for the game in an instant. I remember being disappointed in my first play-through when I upgraded my Axii into the "puppet" mind-control spell, only to find it didn't work. Checking online, I learned it was a known bug. Bummer.

Thanks to Anna, Axii now works beautifully, and I've been tricking bandits into shanking each other for ages. Everything's the same as I remember it, but better: item descriptions don't have typos anymore and merchants don't charge an arm and a leg for a basic sword. I did cast Igni on a fire elemental, just to check, and it burned me alive as punishment. Exactly as advertised.

Ghost Mode's difficulty scaling options. Experience scaling is similarly flexible.

Falling in love with the game is the first step, at least for me.

Ghost Mode modder Anna

Enemies of all levels are also savvier. I was feeling confident in a one-on-one with a bandit holding a club, so I was shocked when he dodged my counterattack and planted a hit across my jaw. I don't think I've ever been hit by a lone bandit on a road before.

Ghost Mode is very modular, and one of my favorite options is to simply goose enemy damage by 200% or so. Everything more or less feels the same, but when you get hit you really feel it. Even much lower-level bandits and wolves felt dangerous. Should wolves feel dangerous to a master witcher? That depends on the player, but personally I love it.

After almost three years, Anna has spent more than 1,200 hours inside CD Projekt's magnum opus. She's still regularly updating Ghost Mode. She loves the Witcher 3, and just wants it to be even better. "[I]f the game is bad and boring at its core, no amount of modding support can make me play it and fall in love with it," she says. "And falling in love with the game is the first step, at least for me."

The Witcher 3 Enhanced Edition

"Yeah, I hated the game," Reaperrz says. "I still do, really." After Witcher 2, Reaperrz got as far as White Orchard before he felt like Witcher 3 was a disappointment. The way the combat camera auto-aims, the way nuisance creatures like nekkers level up with you to always pose a (slight) challenge; Witcher 3 felt like too much handholding and not enough freedom to learn new skills.

Some people mod because they like to give others joy with their creation. Others [mod] because they just fuckin' feel like it. I'm the latter.

Reaperrz

"I think a game is more fun if you need to get a feel for the mechanics, find out small ways things interact with each other," he says. "I wanted to drop the game after White Orchard because I grew to hate it so much. I noticed you [could] fumble around in there a bit and change some stuff, so with my then sub-par knowledge I started changing stuff around until it sort of worked differently."

The Witcher 3 Enhanced Edition, unlike most of the mods on the Nexus, hasn't been around since Witcher 3 launched in 2015. Reaperrz just posted the project in the summer of 2017, and it's already one of the most popular overhaul mods, just behind Ghost Mode by number of downloads. Reaperrz has posted videos showing how the new combat system works by eliminating the auto-targeting camera; now all of Geralt's acrobatic swordplay and backflips can be aimed manually, letting players flip around an enemy's shield or slip inside their guard.

"I just started looking at stuff more, learning. People asked different questions in the comments, pitched ideas, [and I] slowly branched out to other stuff I disliked about [the game]." By this time, Reaperzz began his degree in programming and math ("though I don't have a predisposition for either," he says). "At one point I stopped working on it for maybe a year and then came back and rewrote most of it from scratch, it kinda went on from there. It was boredom plus community drive—mostly boredom, though."

The Enhanced Edition makes the Northern Realms feel more like a real place and less like a game world. There's a brutal logic working behind Reaperrz's mod. All levels have been removed, even from Geralt himself. "A nekker is always a nekker," Reaperrz says, and he means it. Getting better at skills and unlocking new talents only come from experience using those skills; players become better at alchemy by making potions, not by killing monsters and deciding to spend their experience points in alchemy.

The mod puts much more emphasis on a player's individual skill and dexterity aiming Geralt's attacks. Anything that feels "gamey"—like automatically refilling potions or limiting players to only three bombs—has been stripped away. Carry as many bombs as you want, as long as you can haul the weight.

I really enjoyed my time with the Enhanced Edition, but it doesn't feel as much like a Witcher game. If anything it feels a little like Dark Souls or perhaps the "hardcore" and "survival" genre of mods popular for Fallout 4 or Skyrim. In my experience, these mods are more logically satisfying than "fun," though that word almost sounds like a pejorative here. Killing monsters for coin is not "fun," and Geralt is not often jolly fellow. This mod fits that dour, grim outlook in a realistic and almost off-putting way.

Combat is the biggest difference. Without the auto-targeting camera I found myself flailing and missing enemies until I calmed down and started to aim. Fights in Enhanced Edition feel faster, and I love that head wounds or crippled limbs can happen at any time, and they dramatically change how enemies behave. I also had to unlearn my habit of spamming health potions or food during a fight, as Geralt now has to stop, put away his sword, and slowly chew an apple before it starts to heal him.

Reaperrz is still regularly updating the Enhanced Edition, and he and Anna have collaborated on a few things here and there. Reaperrz asked permission to use bug fixes and other changes Anna included in her mod. Reaperrz acknowledges that the two of them are "polar opposites." "She really loved it and modded it because of that," he says. "I hated it and had free time. The mods themselves reflect that pretty well."

The Witcher® 3: Wild Hunt

Oh man, I’m definitely not ready to say goodbye to Geralt and company. To celebrate The Witcher’s tenth anniversary, CD Projekt Red have put together a sweet video full of old friends and I’m not going to pretend it hasn’t made me a wee bit teary. 

In October, Geralt—or at least the digital version—will turn 10, marking the launch of the first game, and it’s been quite the ride. I was lucky enough to end The Witcher 3: Blood & Wine on a positive note, with Geralt content and Ciri mostly happy, but it’s not a series that favours fairy tale endings, so if you got one of the gloomier ones, the video should cheer you up considerably. 

Despite all the smiling faces and resurrected friends, there’s a tinge of sadness. While we might see more Witcher games, CDPR consider Blood & Wine the final chapter of Geralt’s story, and I’m already missing my favourite video game dad. It’s nice to see him happy for once, though. 

And don’t worry, I didn’t forget…

The Witcher® 3: Wild Hunt

I haven't played The Witcher 3 since mid-2016, but I still think about it at least once a week. Some sidequest or character or bit of storytelling comes to mind, or I play another game, and I think, yeah, that was pretty cool, but it was no Witcher 3. That's mostly thanks to CD Projekt's incredible animation and cinematics teams, who shaped dozens of hours of cutscenes and dialogue and elevated already great writing with the best digital acting in gaming. At a GDC talk on Monday, CD Projekt animation director Sebastian Kalemba put some impressive numbers to those scenes: over three years of development, the animation team had to create 16,000 unique animation assets for The Witcher 3. Adding up every sidequest and cutscene, all the monsters and bosses and NPCs, that was to cover more than 200 hours of gameplay.

For the two DLC expansions, you'd think all that existing animation would've put them on easy street. But that's not how CD Projekt Red works, apparently. Instead, the animation team had only a year of development time, but ended up doing even more work in the same timeframe. For the 50 hours of DLC Kalemba estimated, they created almost 7,000 new animations.

Kalemba's talk was mostly about the obstacles his animation team faced in tackling so much work for the DLC in less time, and how they improved their workflow to make it all happen. Some of that best practices talk is more interesting for developers than us, but other parts felt like glimpsing a tiny piece of the formula that made The Witcher 3's cinematics a cut above.

Having even better back-and-forth communication with the story department was vital for the fast-paced development of the expansions, as it helped them zero-in on how characters and monsters would look and move more quickly. Kalemba also noted that while they had very mature, stable tools, they didn't have a lot of programmer support to draw on—the programmers are mostly busy on Cyberpunk, apparently.

Kalemba under the spotlight.

Spoiler warning: I'm about to talk about some characters and bosses from Hearts of Stone and Blood & Wine. 

Kalemba gave a great behind-the-scenes look at some major Witcher 3 DLC characters evolving throughout the animation process. "This guy was a nightmare," he said about Dettlaff, a vampire from Blood & Wine, who took a group of animators six months—double the time spent on most boss fights—which he said really wasn't enough. Nine months would've been ideal. But this was a great example of how the animators needed to work with the story team.

At first Dettlaff looked more or less humanoid with nasty claws. But that wouldn't cut it. Dettlaff was an old, high vampire, and as the final boss of The Witcher 3, they had to go above and beyond to deliver an amazing fight. They worked with story to figure out how Detlaff would change forms, determined how he would spawn wings and how he should move in his monstrous form. 

And then they took it a step further. "We were iterating, and talking to story, and they said, 'let's fight with the construct of his blood in an illusion of his heart.' Like, yeah. How to do that?"

No pressure, but I'd say they pulled it off.

Kalemba also talked about creating Olgierd von Everc, a major boss in Hearts of Stone. Geralt usually fights monsters, he explained, but Olgierd was an immortal man. How do you make him as interesting to fight?

They decided to make Olgierd's immortality show in his animation. He's cocky, always standing wide open waiting for you to attack him. They needed an aggressive fighting style to match, and after a lot of research found a 17th century Polish fencing style called cross sabre that fit perfectly. Olgierd attacks with lots of wide-open overhead slashes—all sourced from a stuntman's motion capture.

Check out some of the animations I mentioned, and others, in this five minute reel Kalemba put together.

The Witcher® 3: Wild Hunt

CD Projekt Red has come into quite a bit of money to help it research several areas of video game development. The Polish government gave the developer the biggest portion of its 116 million PLN ($27 million USD) fund that was granted to it by the National Center for Research of Development, WCCFTech reports.

The Witcher developer had all four of its proposals approved, including an additional one that pertained to GOG.com and focused on the development of "cross-platform multiplayer gaming software for popular consoles and operating systems." The proposals revolved around city creation, seamless multiplayer, cinematic feel, and animation excellence. You can read more about each of CD Projekt Red's proposals further down this article.

The studio was awarded 30 million PLN ($7 million USD), and CD Projekt Red president Adam Kicinski released a statement that said, "Developing video games is a hyperinnovative activity, but also one which carries substantial financial risks, involves continuous R&D work, and requires much experimentation and prototyping along the way.

"The GameINN program—a fruit of our industry's collaborative efforts—will, in the coming years, enable Polish developers to carry out nearly 40 projects worth 191 million PLN," the statement continues. "I am confident that the resulting innovative solutions will further elevate the quality of Polish video games and enhance our competitiveness on the global stage. Indeed, our industry now has the potential to become the champion of the modern Polish economy."

We can get a pretty good look at each of the developer's proposals, thanks to the NCBR's official document. Open world RPGs are mentioned several times throughout, which could point to work that's being done for Cyberpunk 2077, another Witcher title, or a different game altogether. Of course, this is just conjecture; this research could end up unused by any title at all. You can see the four proposals, translated by WCCFTech, below.

City Creation

Comprehensive technology for the creation of "live," playable in real-time, cities of great scale based on the principles of artificial intelligence and automation and taking into account the development of innovative processes and tools supporting the creation of high-quality open world games.

Seamless Multiplayer

Comprehensive technology enables the creation of unique gameplay for many players, taking into account the search of opponents, session management, replication facilities, and support of a variety of game modes along with a unique set of dedicated tools. 

Cinematic Feel

Comprehensive technology for providing a unique, film quality RPG with open world, also taking into account innovative solutions process and unique set of dedicated tools. 

Animation Excellence

Comprehensive technology enabling a significant increase in quality and production of complex face and body animations for open world RPG games, also taking into account the innovative process solutions and a unique set of dedicated tools.

-----

Another studio awarded with funds is Dying Light developer Techland for a prototype of a first-person "action RPG set in an original fantasy world." Other funded studios include CI Games (Lords of the Fallen), The Farm 51 (Get Even), and Bloober Team (Layers of Fear). You can read more about their approved proposals on WCCFTech.

The Witcher® 3: Wild Hunt

Every year the editors at PC Gamer get together to forge the PC Gamer Top 100, a big list of the 100 best PC games worth playing today. The entire feature will be published this Friday, but we can reveal now that the winner in first place is The Witcher 3.

Geralt is delighted, as you can see. CD Projekt RED is also happy with the accolade. Here's game director Konrad Tomaszkiewicz responding to the news.

"Wow! Our game in top spot over all these amazing games on the list... I m a bit lost for words. It means a lot for us, proving that all the hard work that we ve put into making The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and both expansions was time well spent. But we couldn t have done it without our amazing fans, many of them PC Gamer readers. It s much in thanks to them we re always able to give it our all and create games for gamers to enjoy. A huge thank you to the fans for their support, to everyone at CD Projekt RED for their hard work, and to PC Gamer for the honor of being this year s number one."

We gave The Witcher 3 a score of 92 and an editor's choice award in our Witcher 3 review. The Blood and Wine expansion is incredible, too, and probably the best expansion I've ever played. I gave it 94 in our Blood and Wine review.

Congratulations to The Witcher 3, and look forward to the full list on Friday. If you're after a list of PC games that have been essential to the development of the platform, check out our list of the 50 most important PC games of all time, with commentary from seminal developers.

The Witcher® 3: Wild Hunt

Update: Speaking to Eurogamer, CD Projekt Red's Konrad Tomaszkiewicz has confirmed the existence of The Witcher 3's Game of the Year Edition.

"With all the free DLC and updates the game received so far, including significant changes to the game's interface and mechanics, many gamers have asked us if we're working on some sort of a Game of the Year Edition. I'm happy to confirm yes, plans are in motion to release such an edition. We'll release more details, including the release date, in the future. In the meantime, I'd like to thank every fan of the game for their support you're really amazing!"

Original: Here's an unsurprising but welcome development: a listing for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt - Game of the Year Edition has been spotted on the website of Unterhaltungssoftware Selbstkontrolle the German ratings agency.

Given the marvellous record ratings sites have for leaking new editions of existing games (Bioshock: The Collection was most recently confirmed) and CD Projekt's propensity for releasing 'Enhanced Editions', I'd say this one's true.

Rather than an Enhanced Edition, however, I'd expect a straightforward collection of The Witcher 3 and its two expansions. CDPR has already slain rumours of an Enhanced Edition, and let's face it, it's spent the past year enhancing.

Eurogamer is reporting that we should expect the new edition on August 26.

The Witcher® 3: Wild Hunt - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Adam Smith)

The Witcher 3 is a wonderful game in a very literal sense. It is full of wonder, from the startling entities that stalk its darkest corners to the stories that echo through the ages, and even the alternately bleak and brilliant weather, which I enjoy on an almost metatextual level, appreciating the techniques that paint storms and rainfall onto the world. I could spend hours just watching the skybox transform. It’s also grounded in reality of a sort though and shot through with an understanding of folklore, superstition and historic belief systems.

… [visit site to read more]

The Witcher® 3: Wild Hunt - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (John Walker)

You know how you’re always saying that you’ll get around to playing The Witcher games, but when they’re on sale and you’ve got a chance. Well, look, they’re all on sale at GOG, and you’ve got that spare afternoon coming up!

… [visit site to read more]

...

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