On track with the first three hours of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

There's an immediate intimacy to my first three or so hours with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and no, I don't mean the bare buttocks I see in one of the opening cut scenes. The third entry in CD Projekt's fantasy RPG series may offer a new open world that's umpteen times bigger than previous entries. Yet, following a story-driven tutorial, I end up losing myself to the very first landmark, the peasant village of White Orchard.

It's a small riverside muddle of hovels, taverns and fields, its warm hues belying the deeper, darker stories within. There's the impulse to call my horse and gallop towards the horizon, but I find the village's multitude of side quests as welcoming as they are distracting, and certainly meaty enough to steer me away from temptation.

Eventually I drag myself to the main quest and my first wild hunt of The Witcher 3, as I track and take on a huge, bloodthirsty griffin. But before all that, let's return to those buttocks...

Echoing the flashback that preludes the previous entry, The Witcher 3 begins with a dream. A younger Geralt, the series' white-haired, monster-hunting protagonist, is enjoying a bath in the witcher stronghold of Kaer Morhen, and in the company of Yennefer, his beautiful sorceress flame and owner of said posterior. Given the dark, unclear end to The Witcher 2, it's an eerily sedate, frankly pleasant beginning, albeit with a familiarly flirty undercurrent.

The tutorial begins shortly after, but it's the immediate unveiling of Ciri that catches the eye. To recap, last month CD Projekt revealed Ciri as a new, at-times playable character for the gaming series (Geralt remains The Witcher 3's main protagonist), but to readers of the Witcher books she's far from a new name. If you don't want to delve into the literature, her starring role in the game's tutorial is fairly revealing. Here she's just a silver-haired child - not the woman pictured in last month's reveal - yet she's training to learn the same skills and talents as Geralt, who seems to be in charge of her care. The witcher's young stead is as able as she is impetuous, and it's clear how much Geralt values her training.

Then, as is the tendency of dreams, things turn sour quick. It's here Geralt wakes up, back in the present day and in the much less lush surroundings of a forest campfire. He turns to his companion, the mentor witcher Vesemir, and tells him of the nightmare. According to Geralt it isn't a memory, as he can't recall Yennefer being at Kaer Morhen. In the present, it's Yennefer that Vesemir and Geralt are trying to track down, but we know Geralt will later be searching for Ciri too. We also know Ciri is on the run from the titular Wild Hunt, "a cavalcade of ghastly riders capable of unspeakable destruction."

After the tutorial, the approach to the prologue village gets into the meat of things quickly. I immediately encounter my first griffin, feasting on a merchant's horse. Sadly, no fighting just yet; in a cut scene the huge ugly duckling of a beast flies off with the mare in its claws, and its claw marks in Vesemir's shoulder. Returning Witcher players will nod their heads at options to accept coin for the rescue and to let the merchant know who Geralt's looking for. Either way, the path leads to the village tavern and some answers, but mostly a whole host of side quests.

"We treat the prologue area, actually, as a whole as an introductory area, not only to the gameplay mechanics but also as to how the game world works," Level Designer Miles Tost tells me after in a roundtable interview. "Meaning that, you also get introduced to how it is and how it feels exploring the world, right? We have a small cave there, there is also some loot, some interesting stuff there. You can go dive in the river and underneath the bridge you might find some loot. All these things take place in a relatively safe environment, not entirely."

A notice board points to many of the available side quests, but it's easy enough to just wander the paths and find villagers bearing yellow exclamation marks. Soon enough, I'm on the hunt for a daunting-looking wraith that's been haunting a nearby well.

The tutorial establishes combat that should be familiar to The Witcher 2 players initially. The Xbox One default setting has two face buttons for fast and strong attacks, and another for dodges. LT blocks and parries, RT casts magical "signs," LB brings up the quick access menu and RB uses quickslot items. The d-pad offers quick use of consumables, which is welcome given the game's fast-paced, often unforgiving duels. Dodging, blocking, and using the right weapons with the right enhancements is key, as my fight with the wraith proves.

On one hand, there's the challenge. The wraith, for example, can quickly split into several mirage-like forms, which seems a bit much for such an early side quest. The Witcher 3 pulls things like this a few times during my opening few hours. One example: A traipse into a swamp a bit later reveals zombie-like enemies appearing in and out of the watery dirt. At first it's easy to think this is a situation under control, since I can damage the ghouls as they duck into the earth. However, the further I walk in the more enemies appear, and just like that I'm overwhelmed. Yes, it may be a "relatively safe environment," but The Witcher 3's opening area underlines that diving in without some strategy isn't the best plan A.

The prologue area also introduces other ideas; familiar ones like using the Cat potion to see through the darkness found in the bottom of the well. It also makes heavy use of the Witcher Sense, an ability Geralt can turn on and off to see things hidden in the environment through a weird, out-of-focus lens. It's reminiscent of the Detective Mode in the recent Arkham games, and I use it plenty in my three opening hours to do a lot of tracking and uncovering. At least a few times I use it to spot blood coating my surroundings, while in the wraith quest it helps me find a bracelet hiding at the bottom of the well.

That ties to the last layer of the prologue that really impresses, and that's the exposition in the side quests. It may just be the opening area and an open willingness on the devs' part to ingratiate newcomers, but a lot of what I accomplish in my three hours feels like it has weight, even if it doesn't. The wraith quest, for example, ties to a tragic story of a dead husband's gift and a soul trapped in limbo, and it explores it with surprising depth for such a brief diversion. Also, like many other side quests I play, it touches on some of the politics and disputes of The Witcher 3's world. There's a complicated history that precedes CD Projekt's third foray into the Witcher's Slavic mythology, but it doesn't take much effort to get some sense of the upheaval, war, apathy and suffering that's suffusing the Northern Kingdoms.

It's also worth noting that The Witcher 3's monsters don't scale with Geralt's level. As I finally return to the main quest after some two hours, I wonder how naturally my play would fit into that balance of main and side content within the game's open world.

"You are encouraged, you should venture off the beaten path," Tost says. "Sometimes it even helps you because maybe something that lies ahead of you is just too strong right now to overcome and you just have to do some other stuff - whatever it is, side quests, general exploration. Then you can come back later when you feel fit enough for the challenge."

The main path leads me back to where I started: the griffin. A bit more tracking, information-gathering and preparation, and I'm ready to take on the winged beast. This involves a wider exploration of the landscape, and Geralt's agility here is very welcome. Jumping, sliding, and climbing the well rendered environment feels light years from the movement in the previous game, though riding the horse is a little cumbersome in the sometimes obstacle-littered fields and forests. Still, having the horse at beck and call ain't to be sniffed at, and quick travel is on hand for longer journeys of already trodden paths.

Back to the griffin, and now there's no cut scene. No big-ass ugly bird is getting my horse. To take down the boid I have a new weapon in my arsenal, the crossbow, brought into action with RB. It's designed to let me take down beasts from afar and beasts from above, and aiming is reminiscent of chucking bombs. In my fight with the griffin, the bow is all about firing to get the winged leviathan on to the ground, where I can rush at it and deliver a furry of sword attacks while it's down.

Sure enough, I've learned enough to defeat my foe. One last ground-based slash and the griffin's wings fall limp, and my real-life arms go high. This is a good time to take my leave.

Last month, CD Projekt candidly admitted it delayed the game from February to May because there were still "many details" to be dealt with, including bugs. In the demo I encounter a few minor ones here and there, so I ask Tost if the studio is still confident of hitting its new date?

"Yes," he says simply. "After all, we're giving it into people's hands to play already, and there's actually no real limitations, you can go wherever you want. We're not really saying, 'No you can't go there.' Content-wise, we're complete. Everything is done. In that regard, we're just fixing these last bugs."

So, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt should, for reals, hit PS4, Xbox One and PC on May 19.

[Images: Bandai Namco]