Hands on with The Witcher 3 for Xbox One

Last week, your friendly neighborhood Games Editor had to miss the Windows 10 event that knocked everyone's socks off. Don't feel sorry for me, though – I was busy with a gaming-specific event in San Francisco. That's where CD Projekt RED hosted the first-ever hands-on event for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, their open-world action-RPG that comes to Xbox One, Windows, and PlayStation 4 this May.

After a short presentation from the game developers, my fellow journalists and I sat down for several hours of uninterrupted playtime with The Witcher 3 on the platforms of our choice. Guess which one I picked! The event wrapped up with a short question and answer session that provided additional insight into what the finished form of The Witcher 3 will be like.

Read on for my detailed gameplay impressions, news of the Witcher 3's second playable character and more!

Witcher 3 press preview January 2015

A who's-who of gaming journalists waits for the Witcher 3 presentation to begin.

Welcome to the Witcher

The Witcher started life as a series of novels and short stories written by Polish fantasy author Andrzej Sapkowski. Four of those books have been released in English at present (plus an excellent original comic miniseries from Dark Horse).

The characters and the universe rose to international fame with Polish developer CD Projekt RED's first PC game, The Witcher (only ten bucks on Steam). When the Witcher 2 arrived on consoles shortly after PC, a whole new group of gamers was introduced to the adventures of Geralt of Rivia. In fact, The Witcher 2 for Xbox 360 is free through Games with Gold until the end of January. Get it while it's free!

Players don't need to have read the books or played previous games to enjoy The Witcher 3. The game starts out with a recap (embedded above) that explains the history of its war-torn world and the lonely warriors known as Witchers. Protagonist Geralt and his few fellow Witchers are monster hunters for hire, skilled fighters capable of casting spells called Signs.

After the recap, the true introduction begins (also embedded in this story). We witness a raging battle filled with swordsmen and mounted troops. The intro cuts between the battle and Geralt's subsequent investigation of it. By examining the bodies and other battlefield evidence, Geralt and his mentor/partner Vesemir piece together the events of the battle and the direction that their quarry (a mysterious woman) has fled.

The opening hours of The Witcher 3

The actual gameplay starts with a flashback of sorts. Geralt emerges from a bath, his body covered in scars from years of fighting monsters and humans. His face is clean shaven at this point, but he wears a beard later in the game. Lounging nearby is an impressively nude woman, the sorceress Yennefer. She hurries him along, the two get dressed, and players gain control of Geralt at last.

We control the hero from a third-person perspective. The graphics show an incredible level of detail even in this incomplete stage, especially the character models. Geralt and Yennefer's castle room indeed looks lived-in, with all manner of furniture, decorations, and other details. Stepping out on the veranda, you'll find a view that rivals those of Skyrim. Castle Kaer Morhen rests inside a mountain pass, with clouds, fog, and birds flying by. A vast number of trees dot the landscape as well. As for the frame rate, it remained fluid and never dipped significantly during my time with the game.

Geralt's first task is to find the key he needs to leave the room. Holding the Left Trigger activates his Witcher senses, highlighting interactive objects in the environment. Luckily this doesn't distort the colors too heavily as in the Batman: Arkham Asylum series. The edges of the screen just distort a bit, and everything but the glowing interactive elements retains its typical appearance.

After leaving the room, Geralt discovers that his pupil Ciri has slipped away from Vesemir during a lesson. At this point, Ciri is a young teenager with freckles and curiously white hair, not unlike a Witcher's. The two find her busy jumping between posts and dodging a pendulum while blindfolded. It seems the headstrong and stubborn Ciri much prefers physical training to studying books about monsters and history.

The Witcher 3

Fight like a Witcher

Lucky for her, it's time for more combat training. Vesemir gives Geralt the choice of reviewing the fundamentals of combat, a clever way of letting players play or skip the combat tutorial. The lesson starts by explaining the Witcher's arsenal: two swords, an array of signs (one-handed spells), and alchemy (potions, bombs, etc.).

The Witcher 3's combat is mostly intuitive, an improvement over the slightly complicated controls in the Witcher 2. Geralt carries two swords: a steel blade for human enemies and a silver one for killing monsters. Tapping left or right on the d-pad draws the corresponding sword. X and Y perform light and heavy slashes.

Evading attack is an essential part of battle. Holding Left Trigger will block oncoming attacks. Enemies will often block your attacks as well, in which case you may need to gain the advantage on them with a parry. Pressing and holding Left Trigger just as the enemy attacks causes Geralt to parry and kick the enemy, creating a window for additional attacks.

The Left Bumper opens the Quick Access menu, from which players can select signs and bombs to use. Geralt's signs include Axii (muddle the enemy's mind), Aard (telekinetic blast), Igni (fire blast), Quen (shield), and Yrden (a magic trap that slows anyone within its radius). Different enemies are weak to different signs, which players can discover by experimentation or reading the game's detailed bestiary.

Finally, Geralt can throw bombs with the Right Bumper. At this point, the aiming reticle is small and difficult to see. The developers assured us that they will refine bomb aiming before the game's release.

The Witcher 3

A rude awakening

The training session ends as a huge ship emerges from the sky. Standing on the castle wall before it we see the Wild Hunt, a group of ghostly warriors. Geralt finds himself powerless to move or resist them – an effective and frightening scene.

We return to the present to discover that the flashback was only a dream. Geralt is now grizzled and bearded, his dream of Ciri's youth having taken place several years before. Our hero and his companion Vesemir are tracking Yennefer, who they were supposed to meet in the town of Willoughby. Unfortunately Willoughby has been burned to the ground before Yennefer's friends arrived, forcing her to flee to some unknown location.

As the duo travels towards the nearest town, Geralt must follow Vesemir on horseback. Steering the horse is fairly intuitive. You can just hold A and your mount will travel along the pathway automatically. By taking direct control, you can move much faster. Double-tapping and then holding A makes the horse gallop. Galloping consumes stamina, which recharges over time. Horses will panic and throw off their riders when they stay around monsters too long, so you'll also need to watch out for predators as you ride.

Geralt and Vesemir soon chance upon a man being attacked by a gigantic and terrifying griffin. The two scare the monster off and save him, but players will still need to battle the monster later on. Geralt can choose whether or not to charge the merchant for his rescue, a choice that often comes up during quests. It will be interesting to see whether this affects how other characters react to you throughout the game.

The Witcher 3

Welcome to town

Finally our heroes reach the nearest town. Here they can visit the inn to ask whether anyone has seen Yennefer. Inside the Inn you'll meet a scholar who plays a card game called Gwent. Beat him and you'll win a card, one of the game's collectibles. Geralt also encounters locals who are (foolishly) prejudiced against Witchers, and a scrap ensues.

The Witcher 3 is an open-world game, and you're free to pursue the main quest-line, side quests, or simply explore the vast world. You pick side quests up from a local notice board or by meeting citizens in trouble. The ones I completed were far better than mere fetch quests. Each told their own interesting little tales.

The Witcher 3

One standout quest started when a man hires Geralt to frighten off the Noonwraith (a grossly disfigured female ghost) that haunts the local well. You don't just fight the ghost outright. Instead, you'll investigate the area and try to figure out what binds the woman to the area. The tragedy behind her death is quite moving.

Having searched the well (which involves swimming) for a significant object, you'll finally light a fire to summon the Noonwraith. She's no easy opponent, but the information learned from the Bestiary should alert you to her weakness to Geralt's Yrden sign.

The Witcher 3

An epic adventure awaits

I also played a section of the Witcher 3 that takes place much further into the game's story. This portion takes place in Crach an Craite, a snowy mountain fortress. The residents invite Geralt to a feast on the eve of the election of their next ruler. The festivities go sour when three gigantic bears emerge from the banquet hall, killing several hapless victims. Geralt had only begun his investigation of the attack when my time with the game expired.

Although we didn't get to see it firsthand, we did learn that players will sometimes play as Ciri, Geralt's former student. Ciri is a "source," a person of great magical power. Geralt will spend much of the game searching for her, while she must avoid the dark forces that would abuse her power. You won't be switching back and forth between Geralt and Ciri at will. Instead you'll just play as her briefly throughout the story, gaining an insight into her perspective and tribulations.

Another thing we learned is that the developers haven't quite settled on whether we'll be able to continue playing the game after completing the main storyline (which has something like 30 different endings!). Another memorable open-world RPG, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion formerly prevented players from continuing after the story's conclusion. Eventually, Bethesda responded to fan requests by patching the game to allow players to continue indefinitely. Hopefully, CD Projekt RED will allow that same option rather than waiting for player feedback.

The Witcher 3

I only played three hours of a game that will last for more than a hundred hours (including side quests). But I came away extremely impressed with The Witcher 3. It grabbed me in a way that few games do. The world, characters, and quests are all fascinating and well-realized. If you're a fan of fantasy games, The Witcher 3 should be on your radar.

The Witcher 3 will launch on May 19th. You can preorder it now at Amazon.

As for the Windows Phone and Windows 8 versions of mobile spin-off The Witcher Battle Arena, they sound like they're still several months off. We'll keep you posted!