While The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt ticks all the boxes you expect from a modern video game - large open world, RPG systems, abundant side characters, expansive world affecting story, beautiful graphics, potentially deep combat system etc - no other game has come close to matching the much lauded 2015 RPG. Some will evoke TW3 as inspiration, or at least compared to by critics - Assassins Creed Origins/Odyssey and Horizon: Zero Dawn for instance - but while those games have plenty of positives in their own right, Wild Hunt stands apart as a unique, once-in-a-generation, as yet replicatable experience.
So what differentiates this game from any other on the market, even today?
Spoilers follow for the entirety of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt as well as minor mid-game plot details for Assassins Creed Odyssey.
You are an Adult
While most AAA games on the market in this era are designed, built and focus tested for an adult audience, The Witcher 3 is one of the few to actually treat you like one. There is no shying away from any topic that other games might just pay lip service to, if not ignore entirely.
Across the board in media, sex is still somewhat misused and scandalous, in such a way that misrepresents reality. TW3 presents a much more grounded look at that which is typically used to titillate, instead reflecting a more balanced and honest approach. Sex is not a reward for manipulating game systems, instead it is simply a part of Geralt’s relationships - relationships built on trust, affection, understanding and intimacy. Whether Triss or Yennifer end up being the one Geralt settles down with, they’re respective intimate moments are always backed by a long and complex history, with a tangible chemistry existing between the two characters. The sex scenes themselves tend to hit a balance between loving, lustful and playful, like the now infamous unicorn moment - which importantly isn’t just some one and done thing that is forgotten, but rather a significant event referenced by Geralt & friends several times throughout the game.
Separate from the more relationship focused intimacy, TW3 offers up plenty of standalone sexual encounters, whether through story related moments with side characters or simply laying with a sex worker in the local brothel. In all cases, there never is anything other than a mutual agreement and understanding by two adults taking place. There is no wooing a dame by showering them with gifts in exchange for sex. This game understands that sex is simply a part of this world, a part of these characters lives.
Of course, one of the biggest draws for fans is the series’ signature complex issues and political machinations. Plenty of other games also tackle big issues, usually coming to a complete resolution - take the Mass Effect trilogy for instance, where the genocide of an entire race and the creation, rebellion and freedom of an entire race of AI lifeforms exist as just two side-issues to the main space opera arc - while others might boast of their “apolitical” nature (The Division 2, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided). The Witcher 3 travels neither of these roads, instead walking the path of understanding these issues as nuanced, ones without simple “right and wrong” answers, and importantly does not shy away from the ugliness of the questions being asked.
One easy to miss quest in Novigrad, "Warehouse of Woe”, presents Geralt with a fairly straightforward problem. A man and a dwarf share warehouse space down at the docks, and a monster has gotten into their goods. Naturally, they both accuse each other of letting the monster loose, and want the other arrested. Upon ridding the warehouse of said monster, you find 2 clues - a cage with the bars sawed off, and a footprint that “appears to be from a dwarf”. You can accuse either party, or neither. If you choose to walk away, both are locked up; accuse the human, he will get locked up and the dwarf will basically admit he framed him; accuse the dwarf and he will get taken away.
On it’s face, this simple quest seems straightforward. Pure blind justice presents the evidence and judges the dwarf for his apparent crimes. Then consider this wrinkle - the city guard contains corrupt officials, and the non-human races of the city are being burned at the stake for alleged crimes they may or may not have committed. Secondly, the human in question is a straight up asshole - he constantly bullies the dwarf in an attempt to get him out of the warehouse, overall treats non humans as second class citizens (Geralt included) and laughs as he says he “can not wait for the dwarf to be hanged, though he’ll need help getting on the stool". The dwarf had been beaten down constantly by this man, so it seems he tried to find a way to have the man move his goods from the warehouse, to find some attempt at resolving the conflict non-violently. With all that backdrop, the likely punishment for the human would be a small fine, nothing would change and he’d be back to treating another being like dirt; for the dwarf, it would likely be death by hanging, purely because he was being seen as lesser by the people with power.
This quest is but 10 minutes in a 200 hour epic.
The Witcher 3 isn’t afraid to have you not sure about what you should do, how you should react, and most importantly, doesn’t have (or give you) all the answers. You never know what exactly the outcome will be of your decisions in Warehouse of Woe, you can only make an educated guess based on the information you’ve obtained. Morality is subjective, and there often isn’t a single right answer to such broad questions - no game understands this the way TW3 does.
Despite the series’ struggle with creating a combat system that players enjoy, it has always at least aimed to emulate a much more realistic take on being a slayer of beasts. Preparation is key: Your armour and weapons must be polished and repaired, the appropriate potions and oils for the fight are in your pack ready to go, and most importantly, you have done your homework before approaching a take on your enemy. The quest structure nails that feeling of a successful hunt more than just about any other open world action game (bar maybe Monster Hunter-esque games). Where a typical process might see you going into a fight, figuring out attack patterns and adjusting accordingly on the spot, TW3 has you work to figure out what your foe even is, deciphering what that foe is strong & weak against, prepping your kit, then finally hunting the creature down.
The systems behind this preparation are dense, and can go deep with the addition of mutagens, skills, bombs, crossbow bolts and more. This game doesn’t coddle you, or give you a “one size fits all” solution - you must step up and meet the game on it’s terms to be successful. This only becomes even more relevant on higher difficulties, becoming more rewarding as a result.
The Characters are People
The characters you interact with - even the minor ones - all feel real and lived in this world, not just there for your sake. There are plenty of characters that I’ve grown attached to over the years - Iron Bull, Morrigan, Mordin Solus and Garrus all have carved out special places in my heart - but the cast here truly feel like people; like friends. Yen, Ciri and Triss feel so real, and the game hinges more on your connections with them than it does on the hi-jinks you get up to. Their relationships with Geralt are allowed to breath, allowed to exist outside of just being content for the player to consume.
The game doesn’t just depend on a few good characters either; the entire cast is excellent. The reason the Bloody Baron’s storyline is so compelling has nothing to do with him being a likeable character - he’s a piece of shit, let’s be real - but the story of his life, his family and his situation breathes a nuance that makes him interesting, even if he deserved the fate befell upon him during my play through.
Despite being a relatively minor side character in the grand scheme of the main story arc, Keira’s intertwining arc with Geralt is less a generic side quest for the player and more a story of agency for the character, with her own motivations and ambitions driving her path. It’s difficult to know what to trust and what not to with anything she tells you, even after hours of spending time with her. As the resolution to her arc makes apparent, you only ever can deal with the information you are given, and make decisions without the full picture being apparent.
The Witcher 3 gives you pause when dealing with just about every character in the game. Do you trust them? Do you tell them the whole truth, a partial truth, or withhold information? What are these characters going to do or not do depending on how you interact with them? NPC’s have just as much agency as Geralt in any given situation.
Compare this with AC Odyssey, where characters on the whole feel more like plot devices. As Kassandra moves through the game, characters just get sucked into her orbit, either joining her crusade or opposing her despite their own commitments. Kassandra’s mother Myrinne is a great distillation of this - After spending dozens of hours hunting her down (a clear analogue to Geralt’s search for Ciri) you finally finding her as the leader of one of the Greek islands. Once you have gone through the story beats of helping her defend that island from a cultist, Myrinne’s agency is lost.
While there’s a heartfelt reunion scene, that’s about all we get - there really isn’t room for their relationship to breath, or grow, or be complicated in any way. There are no side missions where you simply spend some downtime with your mother. She’s served her purpose in being the macguffin for you to search for, and then gets sucked into following along with your path. Her life had a direction before you came along, which was dropped entirely in favour of your own quest. It might seem to make sense on the surface - a mother who finds out her beloved children whom she thought were dead are actually alive, of course she would want to spend time with them - but the idea of a person leaving behind an entire population of people to their own devices after a time of political turmoil rings hollow. She simply becomes another piece in this One True Important Character’s play set.
Honestly, the fact that I had to google “AC Odyssey Kassandra Mother" before writing the last two paragraphs speaks volumes.
The Chosen One
Understanding what sets The Witcher 3 apart comes from the narrative line that just about every game follows -the Chosen One arc. Geralt is powerful and can handle himself just fine, sure, but he is not the One Who Will Save The World in The Witcher 3. What makes this game unique from others in its genre in this regard is that Geralt is simply a side character to the one with that role; a role reserved for Geralt’s surrogate daughter figure Ciri.
Most games are, at their core, power fantasies. TW3 definitely falls into that category - you do play as a being with supernatural ability who grows stronger mechanically across the game, gaining new abilities, stronger equipment etc - but you aren’t the world saviour. You aren’t even really a hero. Geralt is just a Witcher, a mercenary who is hired to kill monsters for money. At the end of the day, he never really extend any further than that - though he might work for peasants and monarchs alike, his actions aren’t necessarily world shattering. He simply plays a part in other peoples machinations and heroism.
Even Ciri being the chosen one is subverted somewhat - she can only do so thanks to the help of all the people around her. It’s not as if Geralt (and by extension the player) is the sole driving force for Ciri’s success or failure; while he certainly plays a part in helping Ciri, so does Yen, Triss, Dandelion, her birth father, Avallac’h, Vesemir, the sorceresses of the lodge and many other characters factor into how she approaches her story.
Importantly, the outcome of the story as a whole is the same no matter what you do - the changes that result from your actions only change what happens with those around you. Ciri will either never see Geralt again, become a full blown Witcher under Geralt's guidance, or become Empress of Nilfgaard. No matter which way she goes, the day will be saved - it is simply her’s and Geralt’s relationship that matters in the end.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a game that will be talked about for many years to come, and for good reason. Here’s hoping more games moving forward will learn what TW3 has to teach.
Oh, and one last thing - no other game has come close to matching the atmosphere of just being out in the country witnessing a thunderstorm.