In just over a week’s time it’ll be one year since The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was unleashed upon the world, forever raising the bar for open-world, character-driven, immersive RPGs. Late last year they followed it up with Wild Hunt’s first expansion, Hearts of Stone, which delivered another 10 or so hours of high-quality storytelling, expanded upon the north-eastern reaches of Velen, and threw in a few new gameplay mechanics for good measure. Surely then with Blood and Wine, Wild Hunt’s swansong, there must be some diminishing returns? CD Projekt Red are claiming Blood and Wine will have 30+ hours of content (originally advertised as 20 hours), but by this point will it not just be more of the same? Last week I got to play the opening three hours of the expansion and let me tell you, CDPR have somehow managed to outdo themselves yet again.
Geralt’s adventure in the idyllic land of Touissant begins simply enough. A pair of Knights-Errant will have taken up residence in the small settlement of Mulbrydale in central Velen. These knights are not the uncouth, foul-mouthed, grubby-looking fellows we’re used to seeing around Novigrad and Skellige. Knights from Touissant dress to impress, wearing golden armour with colourfully-plumed helmets. The only thing more fancy than their appearance is their turn of phrase: Shakespeare mixed with a bit of Alice in Wonderland. Given that CDPR are boasting 14000 lines of dialogue in Blood and Wine (Hearts of Stone had 6000), we’re in for a real treat. The knights inform Geralt that a terrible beast has been murdering knights in their homeland, and they need a Witcher.
Touissant is stunning. Compared to the drab, war-torn swamps and mires of Velen, Touissant seems almost too clean. The grass is green, the air clear and there’s not a single hanging corpse in sight. The draw-distance also seems far improved, with the snow-capped mountains in the distance rendered in impressively high detail. My sightseeing was brought to a rather abrupt halt however, and one rather destructive monster encounter later, I arrived at Blood and Wine’s first grisly murder scene. It was here I learned that the Witcher Sense fish-eye effect can now be toggled in the settings, a small but very welcome addition. My investigation lead me to an abandoned winery, where an incredibly violent creature had left several mutilated corpses like so many breadcrumbs. In the cellar I confronted the monster, and the fight that follows can only be described as a slightly altered version of the fantastic CGI trailer that released before Witcher 3 came out. Just like in the trailer, the Bruxa is very fast and very invisible. You can drink a potion that affects Geralt’s blood, so that if the Bruxa manages to bite you, it will take significant damage.
Now would be a good time to mention the music. According to Marcin Przybyowicz, The Witcher’s Principal Composer, there’s over two hours of new musical content in Blood and Wine, with only several minutes of base game sound. He also said that the title track for the expansion is an extended version of the nursery rhyme song sung by the Bruxa in the CGI trailer. In my session the music fit the tone of the landscape and encounters perfectly. If you’re a fan of the original game’s soundtrack you will not be disappointed.
Leaving the bloodied vineyard behind, I followed the sounds of a roaring crowd to the outskirts of Beauclair. It was here the immersion really took hold, I was suddenly in the middle of a medieval tournament. People walking to and fro, merchants crying their wares and a circle of children listening intently to a knight telling stories of dragonslayers. The amphitheater itself is huge, far grander than any horse racing lists back in Velen. I took my seat, noticing the Duchess herself was in attendance. One of the knights I met back in Mulbrydale was about to fight a monster that looked like a boulder with legs. It quickly became apparent the beast was going to win and so Geralt, not one to let someone die just for some silly celebration, jumped in to join the fray.
According to Marcin Janiszewski, The Witcher’s Senior Gameplay Designer, it will be possible to enter Geralt in the tournament, creating his own logo and team colours. You can even enter him under a fake name, although you may not fool everyone. You can of course race horses, but other events involve crossbow shooting and a grand melee. I expect there to be a few surprises as well.
After I subdued the beast it was finally time to meet Duchess Henrietta face-to-face. Touissant’s leader lives in contrast to her people. She certainly looks the part, with her elaborate dress and hair, but she also seems frustrated by the pomp and ceremony of her own subjects. When Geralt informed her of an imminent threat to one of her knights, she proceeded to strip off the lower half of dress, to better ride her horse. The pair of them then rode into the city of Beauclair itself, spiraling up the hill to the citadel. It was a rather chaotic introduction to the capital, adding to the mystery and, later, that feeling of exploration.
I won’t say any more, it’s best to leave what happens next unspoiled. My play session stopped shortly after arriving in Beauclair and another save was loaded up so I could check out Corvo Bianco, Geralt’s very own vineyard. Yes, that’s right, in Blood and Wine you’ll have an entire estate to call home. You can renovate it, add upgrades, and even display all your hard-earned weapons, armour, paintings and books. There may even be some secrets to uncover. Upgrading the bed or stables will allow Geralt and Roach to enjoy various buffs. Other improvements include an armourer’s table and whetstone, a garden to grow herbs that can be used to craft potions and finally a guest room for… well… guests. The names Triss and Yennefer were mentioned when I asked about the purpose of this guest room, but CDPR were reluctant when it came to the names of any others who might show up. All these upgrades and renovations take time to build, and while they’re under construction you’ll see scaffolding go up and various people milling about, working on the improvements. You can of course simply meditate until everything’s complete.
On top of all this the UI and every single menu screen has been completely revamped. You can see comparison screenshots below. I didn’t spend a whole lot of time on these menus to be honest, but quick impressions are that everything has been spaced out better, it’s a lot easier on the eye. On the stats screen you can now rotate and zoom in on Geralt, something simple but sorely missing from the main game. The other incredible QOL change involves looting readable items. Before you would have to loot the item, navigate to the inventory screen, select the book/notes tab, scroll until you found the one you wanted to read amongst the large number of already read notes then finally click on it to read it. Now when you loot a readable item a little notification will pop up on the bottom-left corner of the screen and with a press of a button that note will appear in the middle of the screen (the game still going on in the background) and you’ll be able to read all recently picked up notes, books etc, all without interrupting gameplay.
My time with Blood and Wine was short and I spent most of it following the main story. Even after three hours I felt I had barely scratched the surface and that was without looking into side quests or playing any Gwent. CD Projekt Red forever changed the standard for open-world RPGs, and now they seem set to do the same for DLC and post-release content. In an industry where lackluster, cash-grab season passes are the norm, CDPR have once again shown other developers how it’s done.
The Witcher III: Blood and Wine is set to release on the 31st May, 2016.
UI Comparison Shots: