First impressions of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt on Xbox One

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt culminates Geralt's story, but it also hopes to dethrone the likes of Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Dragon Age Inquisition from the RPG throne.

I've played for around 2 hours so far. Our full review is in the works, but I wanted to offer some early impressions for those who might be curious and to kick-start discussions for those who have already picked up the game.

Minor plot spoilers for the first hour or so follow.

A living world brimming with death

For those unfamiliar with the series, to describe The Witcher as dark is probably an understatement. Dragon Age has its fair share of grimness but tends to place the emphasis on the fantasy of its highly magical world. The Witcher draws inspiration from an eponymous series of books by Andrzej Sapkowski, which in turn draws inspiration from historical accounts of medieval Europe. The Witcher offers a glimpse at why they named them The Dark Ages, albeit with a side helping of monsters and magic. Humanity's darkest aspects are laid bare in detail throughout the series, and even the first two hours of The Witcher 3 are brimming with violence.

The game starts innocently enough (nudity aside), but it smothers you with a foreshadowing reminder that Geralt's life is nothing but peril. Geralt dreams of The Wild Hunt, a mysterious group of wraiths who appear during wars and plagues, reaping the souls of the dead to add to their number. The Wild Hunt's ultimate motivations are unclear and are the subject of many rumours and legends. They've been an important plot point in both previous games and have hunted Geralt and those close to him for some time.

When Geralt wakes from his nightmare, he's back on the trail of Yennefer, both a sorceress and a former lover who was indirectly mentioned in both The Witcher 1 and 2. After a brief conversation, you're accosted by ghouls and thus begins your open world training. The prologue serves as a tutorial, which eases players into the world of The Witcher a lot more considerately than The Witcher 2 did.

After learning how to swing a sword, you hop on your horse, and it is then that the scale of the game hits home.

Mists are settling in the valley; sunlight is filtering through the trees, casting long dynamic shadows that hit every surface, every blade of grass, every chain link in Geralt's armour. The traversable terrain as far as the eye can see (and see far you will - the draw distance is insane). A vast ecosystem of wildlife interacting with each other with behavior design not seen since Red Dead Redemption. Just standing at the top of a small hill and surveying the expanse from your immediate vicinity serves as a strikingly telling labor of love. You will simply know that this game is special.

However, The Witcher 3 is let down early on by transitions from in-engine graphics to pre-rendered video cut-scenes, which cause the game to freak out. During a fight scene, I sliced someone's head off, only to see it spin hovering in the air for a few seconds while the game loaded a cut-scene. The cut-scenes themselves are choppy, which reminds me of jitter you sometimes get on Netflix when the connection isn't strong enough to stream in HD, but it still tries to anyway. The video encoding was apparently broken in the day one patch, so hopefully it's something CD Projekt RED can fix before I finish my replay of The Witcher 2.

Despite those problems, during open world play The Witcher 3 visuals are jaw-dropping on Xbox One, retaining many of the higher-end visual features you'd expect of an SLI PC gaming rig. I haven't seen a single instance of texture popping or loading in the open world, and the dynamic scaling between 900p and 1080p is completely unnoticeable. Even when swarmed by ten wolves during extreme winds in a forest, throwing rapid dynamic shadows all over the place, the frame rate was buttery smooth.

A living world that wants to kill you, horribly

The Witcher is a tale about a monster hunter, and all three games have placed an emphasis on the behavior of its creatures. Dynamic day/night cycles will change what types of monsters appear, and may even alter their combat patterns. Geralt is super-human, but he's not Superman - he's plastered with scars and old injuries. I feel as though CD Projekt RED have approached combat design to hallmark this vulnerability.

On normal difficulty, the combat mechanics sit somewhere between Assassin's Creed and Dark Souls. Your weapon connects on a physical basis rather than a targeted basis, making positioning more important than any AC game. In another lean towards Dark Souls, you're punished severely for failing to parry each and every monster's unique attack patterns - and there are limits to how often you can parry as well. However, Geralt is a lot agiler than your typical Dark Souls knight. He's able to roll and dodge with impunity and dive across large areas to land hits on creatures that surround him, which is more similar to Assassin's Creed or Batman: Arkham Asylum.

I find the combat system puts a lot of people off (myself included in The Witcher 2), but it's partially because they don't do a great job of explaining how to get stuck in. Pressing a directional button towards an enemy and pressing quick attack will very briefly stun most creatures if they're not already half way through an attack animation. Doing so in quick succession means you can dodge, attack and briefly stun at the same time when surrounded, making those swarms of drowners more easy to deal with.

You can prepare for battles using weapon oils and temporary potions which buff Geralt's damage and defense, and these items aren't just for those more treacherous battles. Particularly on the higher difficulties, you will be using oils and potions frequently - and that's by design. Witchers are essentially warrior alchemists after all.

Killing enemies with critical strikes not only reward you with, well, not dying, but insane execution animations and dynamic gore which adds further impact to Geralt's weapon swings. Heads will roll, as well as arms, torsos, intestines, you name it. When you understand that The Witcher 3 isn't your typical third person action game, it is incredibly rewarding.

A living world full of consequence and amazing little details

The Witcher 3 marketing campaign has placed a lot of emphasis on the fact it is a living breathing world. The vendor economy is inter-connected, NPCs banter with each other and animals well, eat each other, but what struck me in the first small village was the interconnectedness of seemingly unconnected side-quests.

Dragon Age Inquisition enjoyed a huge world, but Bioware failed to attach a lot of meaning to its expanses. Grinding quests that are essentially kill ten magic bears over and over becomes a chore, and the way they're presented in a totally random fashion plays like a checklist of content as opposed to role-playing. I blame World of Warcraft for popularizing these design mistakes but if what I've seen so far remains true, hopefully The Witcher 3 will bury them.

One of the early side quests asks you to chase away a ghost that is haunting a local well, as the piles of corpses from the war has made the river water undrinkable. I was expecting a simple case of go here, kill this, return prize, get ph4t l00t. The seemingly small side quest ended up going from engaging to amazing in a few simple steps and has me excited for what larger quest hubs will bring.

It turned out that a noonwraith is haunting the well, a ghost bound to a location due to a strong emotional connection. After being smashed by the ghost, the tutorial advises that you take a more analytical approach. Using your Witcher senses (similar to Arkham Asylum's detective mode), you can glean clues from the environment that would otherwise be hard to spot. I discovered that the wraith was likely the wife of a murdered man, thanks to a trail of blood, a dude's skeleton and a worn out journal. The woman had expected to meet with the local Lord to repair ties with her village following an altercation. She noted that there were rumors that he had become more amenable after the death of his son. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to have worked out, as not long after you find her dismembered corpse hung in the well.

After researching noonwraiths further, you find that you'll have to recover a lost possession of theirs, and then burn it with the corpse to free their spirit from this world. After a swim in the well, you find the severed arm and a bracelet, and you're able to put finally the ghost to rest.

The investigation aspect alone gave the kill quest the flavor and context it needed to retain immersion, but what followed later excited me for the future of WRPG side-questing, providing other developers take note.

During the main story, you're tasked to kill a griffin in exchange for information on the whereabouts of Yennefer. It's similar to the noonwraith quest but on a grander scale. You're sent to track its behavior, taking you to meet a local hunter. While you're with him on the trail, the hunter notes that the village drove him away. If you press him to explain why, he mentions that he fell in love with the Lord's son and that they were caught in a barn. The village folk branded him a 'freak', and the hunter's lover hung himself from shame. This snippet of information has no bearing on the quest itself. But it connects itself to the noonwraith side quest - which had referenced that the Lord had become more receptive since his son died (only he hadn't, he'd just become a bit more murdery).

Why is this important? It's important because it creates the impression of a living, connected world. When other RPGs do this, it's typically part of a collection of main plot points or very direct references that are consequential to the story. The Witcher 3's smaller side quests thus far may not be entirely dependent on each other or consequential, but they've all contained references to the narrative of life in that particular area - which doesn't feature as a quest in of itself.

The inn-keeper who offers information on the Griffin notes that the beast attacked one of the villagers. Later on, you'll find her in the healer's house on her death-bed as part of another quest. You'll hear NPCs gossiping randomly about the innkeeper being in league with the invading Nilfgaardians, and see her mobbed later as a result.

CD Projekt RED seem to have given a lot of thought about how quests, no matter how small, can interact with each other. Also how quest contributes to each other's narrative, regardless of how directly consequential they might be.

It may seem like a small point to write about, but for me it breathes new dimensions into a genre that was in danger of heading down the Hemmet Nessingwary Kill 30 Space Boars route of side-questing. So far, it seems that CD Projekt RED have side-stepped this and have instead been able to realize a world that feels truly inhabited. They've spent extra time to give minor NPCs a chance to have their story too, and the game feels amazing for it.

Geralt remarks to the local healer that it all seems like a lot of misfortune for such a small town. She replies that even the smallest villages have a story to tell. I can't even begin to describe my excitement to go and discover those stories.

A living world that begs to be explored

If you're a fan of RPGs you've probably purchased The Witcher 3 already, but if you're a fan on the fence I cannot implore you enough to check it out. Besides what I've noted above the game features rich and complex crafting systems, a detailed character upgrade system and hundreds of settlements, caves and crypts in what seems like the richest open world setting in history. If the first two hours are any indication, the unprecedented NPC interactivity will probably change the industry, like Skyrim, and Red Dead Redemption did before it.

But I'm mindful that all this is just the first two hours of the game. If you're still skeptical, stay tuned for Paul Acevedo's full review to see if these early impressions pan out when the hype dies down. The early signs are promising.

Jez Corden
Co-Managing Editor

Jez Corden a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!

  • Got it for free with my new Asus Strix gtx 970... Game looks sick and gorgeous... But the download size of 26gb on PC... Damn
  • I actually feel bad for people who paid for the PC version, considering how many got it for free. GTX Titan owners for it for free, as well. Not even with a recent purchase. Haha
  • o_O! Why are they getting it for free?
  • For the purchase of a qualifying Nvida graphics card. Look it up. I think you get both Batman Arkham Knight and The Witcher 3 if you buy a 970 or 980, and if you buy a 960, you get to choose one game from those two. It also goes for laptops with the gtx 970/80 m, but if the manufacturer allows it. I sadly bought my 970 in january, I'd buy another one for SLI, but my motherboard doesn't have SLI support, so yeah. 
  • Might have to get me one of those...
  • Are you saying that it's a lot, or ...? I thought it would be much bigger, but it would seem they used some clever magic and blue smoke to make it smaller. Both GTA 5 and Arkham Knight are larger for instance. 
  • Agreed - I'm actually surprised it's so small, I was expecting it to be 40gb and have a massive day one patch (preloaded on steam).
  • Getting free with my new gtx 970 for pc. Waiting.
  • It is beyond gorgeous...probably the best I've played in a far ;)
  • PC or Console?
  • Both
  • Xbox one
  • As someone with SLI 980'S, this game comes no where close to the PC version graphics. On PC, I haven't experience the slow loading. But then again, I have the game saved on an SSD.
  • I hate crafting
  • Ditto!
  • It is so much better in this game though than previous titles, you only have to make the main potions and oils once which is awesome.
  • Mine is crashing on PC I built a whole system recently and it's well over specs and still crashed my whole computer
  • Have you tried the new drivers out - if you have nvidia cards? I have sli titan x's and no crashes. I have the hair fx on too, though have read that can be turned off to help with stability and framerates
  • Got this free with my 970. Loving it so far.
  • 'Random fashion' also allows actual role playing though. In the Witcher you play Geralt. You're always Geralt, your personality and motivations are always Geralt's. This is a lot easier to design around, it removes a lot of issues.
  • There's no reason why they can't work harder to weave the narrative of minor side quests together, especially in games like Dragon Age. The fact that it's Geralt and not a custom hero has no bearing on that whatsoever. Random kill quests with only the vaguest context suck the immersion out, where's the roleplaying in killing 10 boars for no reason? Probably used random fashion in the wrong context there. I wasn't talking about choosing how and when you take quests from the war room map. I was more talking about how the quests lack context and they're just kinda thrown in and scattered around at random, like the devs were filling a quota of fetch quests.
  • He's always going to be hunting monsters for some kind of payment. That was his motivation in both of the quests you mentioned. If you know why the player character is doing something, you can go more in depth with how anyone is going to react to the player. DAI tries to maintain the illusion that you could have varied reasons for doing things. Maybe that just isn't really possible.  Though I totally agree that quests in DAI were uneven, but I think it varied from map to map rather than being a consistent formless grind. Some areas were much tighter than others.
  • That wasn't my point though. It wasn't Geralt's motivation I was talking about, it was the NPC's collective motivations in that village hub, how their motivations interacted, intertwined and affected the outcomes of narratives from other minor quests in the area. The villagers had history with each other, and that felt really fresh to me.
  • SPOILER: but... You actually get to play as Ciri in the game
  • Played it Monday night and I absolutely love it! Can't wait to play after work!
  • I'm just waiting for a price drop to get it.
  • I'm on the fence, mostly because of a time issue. If life slows down for me in the not to distant future, I'll just likely pick this up. As it now, I've got the House of Wolves and Mortal Kombat X to hold me over for a while.
  • This game is epic, no reviews needed. Just buy it because the developers are awesome and play it because the game is amazing. I've been playing it non stop ever since release.
  • Picking it up for PC tomorrow. Most excited. Great review of the first couple hours of play.
  • Thanks mate, there was a lot more I wanted to say but the article would've ended up being 4000 words long, just from the first two hours. It's such a special game, that much is clear.
  • The Witcher is the Game of Thrones of video games, man it is brutal.
    I have finished the white orchard area and have moved into the bigger picture now and I am loving every second. While I agree that the interconnectedness is appealing, it'd be nice if it extended to the minor npc's they don't really live out the days. They simply remain doing the same thing over and over, it's a bit of a shame given how full of life the world is, but only a minor gripe, but hopefully one remedied with their next game.
    The combat feels a bit more involved too, and I'm finding myself being very careful how I approach an encounter given that potions have a much shorter duration.
    As I mentioned above crafting is greatly improved as each item need only be made once (other than creating materials) and then merely meditating replenishes them.
    I can see myself being very indecisive about what skills to equip as the ability portion has become very limited, there is a lot there to choose from but you really have to think about what approach you are going to go in with.
    Finally the choices have not disappointed me at all, this world has always been about decisions that literally have no right and wrong, merely repercussions, I think the final moment in white Orchard sells this fact (I wonder what happens if you fight without a sword) but even early on, when you are simply catching a "cruel", bigoted, arsonist sometimes the right thing still leaves you with a pit in your stomach and I cannot wait for more like it.
  • Oh, and across all versions there are some quest bugs, hopefully they get patched. Actually that brings me to something I forgot. I like that random locations develop quests based on finding an item, or note, or whatever. This was something that I found lacking in the likes of skyrim, whereby the world was so huge with so many places to go, and yet other than a new armour, or sword, there was no real reason to do so, this feels like even the smallest of huts will tell it's own little story, and quite often does.
  • I love that about it, you never know where you're going to find an awesome quest.
  • TW1 > TW3 Not even close
  • Ever heard of rose tinted glasses?
  • TW2/TW3 obviously cater to a "different" audience. Not a console gamer, so I'll probably never fully appreciate either
  • I find TW3 to be a blend of 1 and 2. Taking the better elements of both.
  • I'm just a gamer, platform exclusivity doesn't dictate what I see as a quality game thankfully. TW3 is superior to TW1 in every respect, objectively. I feel bad that you won't play games so you can cling to a weird "I'm not a console gamer" identity.
  • I could care less about platform exclusivity.  TW1 plays more like a traditional PC RPG, TW3 plays more like a console game.  Baldur's Gate?  Neverwinter Nights?  
  • The performance problems dont exist on the PS4 version. 8hrs in, already my favorite rpg of this gen.
  • It's not a performance problem per se, its a video encoding problem, they're gonna fix it in a patch. Performance wise outside of those cutscenes I haven't had any issues on Xbox One.
  • Also if you talk to the Herbalist about Claer (the noonwraith) she'll elaborate a bit more on it. IIRC it was Claer that caught the Hunter and the Lord's Son together
  • Yeah I found that one afterwards, its so good how it intertwines.