The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt debuts May 19 for PC, Xbox One and PS4.  Granted that’s roughly four months away, but this gives the developers at CD Projekt RED time to polish its beautiful adventure.  Besides, with few games coming out during the summer months, you can crank the air conditioning, relax and plunder the Northern Kingdoms until things pick up in the fall.  On second thought, considering Witcher 3 is 30 percent bigger than its predecessors, there’s a good chance you’ll play it deep into the holiday season. 

Consider this: despite the developer granting us three hours to experience the game we accomplished little if anything in the grand scheme of the plot, which centers on a supernatural army (led by a fearsome warrior with a skull mask… or is it his face?) invading the Northern Kingdoms, drawing the attention of witcher and series superstar Geralt of Rivia, who doesn’t take kindly to these punks stomping his territory into ruin. 

This presumably epic showdown comes much later. That said, Wild Hunt begins innocently enough, with the game introducing players to a handful of characters and walking them through the basics of combat.  Geralt once again makes use of both a steel and silver sword, used for humans and monsters, respectively; he defaults to the appropriate weapon depending on the opponent, or you can take out the blades manually using left and right on the d-pad.  You can mash buttons to slay weaker foes (we made short work of some pesky humans outside of a bar), but attempting to go that route against tougher enemies will result in Geralt’s demise.  In that case, a simple parry or roll helps considerably, and you always know where these characters are, since they show up as red dots on the mini map. 

Although we enjoyed sword fighting, Geralt comes with magical powers, which you access by pressing LB in the Xbox One version. Doing this temporarily pauses the game and brings up the spell wheel. From there you select the one you want and cast it with RT.  Examples include Aard, a telekinetic blast that creates space between Geralt and his adversary, and Igni, which sets enemies on fire. In addition we cast Quen, a spell that imbues Geralt with a protective shield, and Yrden, which sets a sort of magic trap for bad guys to walk into.  The idea is to continuously swap spells for different enemies, igniting one and then switching to the shield to deal with the other. Constantly pausing the game temporarily removes you from the action, but you’ll soon grow to rely on this system to survive. 

CD Projekt RED also introduces you to horseback riding early on.  In fact, the world is so huge that riding Geralt’s steed, Roach, is a necessity; sign posts let you fast travel if you wish to save time.  With that in mind, you call Roach by clicking in the left stick and mount him with the A button. Roach has a stamina gauge of sorts that you’ll need to manage when galloping, otherwise he’ll grow tired and leave Geralt open to attack; monsters easily knock him off. At the moment you cannot jump onto Roach in one smooth motion. You must wait for him to stop moving and then position Geralt on either side; we hope the developers continue to evolve horseback riding in the coming months. 

In addition to teaching you about combat and riding, CD Projekt RED introduces you to the conversation system, which reminds us of games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age in that you can make several selections while talking to different characters and experience branching paths. With The Witcher 3, though, you’ll eventually notice an icon next to one specific response that ends the conversation. Even cooler, some options will feature an Axii Sign, meaning that you’re able to influence this person’s mind and force them to do whatever Geralt wants. To use it, you must first unlock the Delusion Ability and develop it over time. The stronger the ability, the easier it’ll be to crack stubborn NPCs. 

We did experience Gwent, The Witcher 3’s ancient dwarven card game that simulates two armies meeting on the battlefield. Each player becomes a general and attempts to defeat the other using various troop cards. You begin by drawing 10 cards that makes up your hand for the entire match. There are unit cards like the Kaedweni Siege Expert, who offers a morale boost, and weather cards like Biting Frost that affect every card on the battlefield. Each deck comes with Heroes, high value cards immune to different effects. Moreover, players begin with two Life Gems, and lose one each time he or she loses a round. Once both Life Gems are gone, it’s game over; if things look grim or you want to crush your adversary, consider playing the Leader card, which comes with a powerful special ability you’re free to use once during battle.

Beyond that, you’re free to build decks for the following factions, each of which possesses a unique ability:

  • Nilfgaard: Wins any round that ends in a draw.
  • Northern Realms: Grants an extra card after every victorious round.
  • Monsters: Decides who takes the first turn in battle. 
  • Scoia’tael: Keeps a random Unit Card on the battlefield after each round. 

We’d love to tell you more, but it was tough to comprehend the rules in such a limited amount of time. We do know that you’re able to earn cards from completing quests and buying them from vendors, so Gwent goes much deeper than simply finding an NPC willing to play. It seems CD Projekt RED intends to make it a separate game entirely. 

As for the quest system, expect it feel quite familiar compared to similar games. One of the first missions, for instance, tasks Geralt with killing a Griffin terrorizing the area. Rather than visiting the Griffin’s lair, you must first speak to a hunter about the goings on, then dive underwater to find a plant that smells like rotting flesh, thus giving Geralt a chance to lure the creature to a specific location. We’d like to say that we slaughtered the beast, but we spent so much time with Gwent it didn’t happen.  May 19, Griffin. May 19. 

Finally, we made use of Geralt’s Witcher Sense, accessible via LT. This ability highlights objects of interest, making it easier to find things to help push the story forward. In the beginning you bring up Witcher Sense to locate a key for unlocking a door. Later, you’ll use it to follow footprints to find out who poisoned alcohol during a celebration, causing those who drank it to transform into bears that massacre almost everyone in the room; Geralt is too late to rescue these NPCs, but you get to kill the bears anyway. 

What of the visuals? Gorgeous. In particular, we love the way grass and tree branches sway in the wind, along with the sound of the breeze. Beyond that, the striking detail on castles, ruins and other structures will give you pause during the adventure, while the sunset is worth the wait. There’s room for improvement, but thus far, Wild Hunt looks incredible. 

Ultimately, we came away from The Witcher 3 with the impression that CD Projekt RED has a potential hit. From the various monsters to the missions and lore, the game will have an overwhelming amount of things to see and learn about, making it one of 2015’s most ambitious titles. 

Of course, we’ll have plenty more on Wild Hunt as we near its spring debut, and you can pre-order Prima’s official strategy guide right now.

The Witcher 3 Official Game Guides

The official standard edition game guide and eguide provide a comprehensive walkthrough to help make decisions, navigate the vast area of the Northern Kingdoms, and reach the ending you want. The collector's edition adds even more detail, with 48 pages of bonus content.