The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, a massive, open-world, role-playing game from Polish studio CD Projekt Red, has sold 4 million copies in two weeks across PlayStation 4, PC and Xbox One. Those aren't Grand Theft Auto V numbers, but it's a huge milestone for the developer, whose cult classic games have typically launched on PC first with console versions coming much later, if at all. The Witcher 3 has also been a critical success, too, with an aggregate review score of 93 on Metacritic ("universal acclaim" according to the site) for the PS4 version, 94 for PC and 91 on Xbox One. Since its May launch, the game has received four software patches on consoles and five on PC. These updates have ranged from minor things like adding lethal cows to address a money-generating exploit, to major issues like save-file corruption and endless saved-game loops on the Xbox One edition.
While almost everyone I've talked to who's playing the very Game of Thrones-esque The Witcher 3 loves it and hasn't had any problems, I can't say the same for myself. Four software updates later, and the latest patch notes still list "fixes" 52 times.
To expand the scope of The Witcher 3, CDPR made the decision to launch simultaneously on consoles and PC, something it had never done before. When you consider that established console developers like Ubisoft and even Microsoft still have trouble getting their games to work properly on current-gen platforms two and a half years after hitting shelves, CDPR's cross-platform strategy seems ill-advised.
In game development, the amount of things that can go wrong exponentially increases the more complex said game is. For evidence of this, look no further than the high-profile stumble that was Assassin's Creed: Unity, the first game in the Ubisoft series built for new console hardware. Given the sheer size of The Witcher 3's map and that slaying monsters and reuniting with a former charge are but a few of the available activities (there's also horse racing, card games and sex on stuffed unicorns), the chances for glitches were incredibly high.
I've had technical issues with The Witcher 3 since the very first time I played it. As it happens in gaming journalism, I received a code to download the game ahead of its retail release. In the Xbox One's case, this becomes a two-step process: one code to pre-load the actual game and another to unlock advance access. In the past, this has worked without a hitch. But even a week after the game officially released, my Xbox One kept telling me I was trying to open the game too soon. Instead of simply launching the game from the dashboard (or resuming it), I had to sift through a few sub-menus and load it from the game hub. Dealbreaker? No, but it was still annoying.
I've had technical issues with The Witcher 3 since the very first time I played it.
When we'd streamed The Witcher 3 on Joystiq's Twitch channel, the game worked without a problem. It wasn't until shortly after, however, that more serious issues arose. Finding myself overwhelmed in combat by a vicious pack of fish-people ("Drowners" in the game's parlance), I died and had to reload my last save. Except, instead of the save loading after what seemed like an eternity, a loading symbol depicting a dragon eating its own tail kept spinning above a halted progress bar. To fix it, I went back to the system dashboard, quit out of the game entirely and hard reset my Xbox. But that didn't work. Instead of being met with an interminable loading screen the next time I fired up the save, what looped was an unresponsive splash screen. So I changed tactics and attempted to load the game from the main menu only to be met by that ouroboros looping yet again. The irony was not lost on me.
After posting a video of the ordeal to Facebook, I was contacted by the game's publicist with a solution: Unplug my console from the power supply, wait a moment and then turn it back on. He was right; it worked, but I'd lost the progress made since my last save. After finishing the quest for the area I was in a second time, I'd forgotten to save, died in combat and had to do it once more. It was at that point I gave up. I decided it was best to wait for a patch addressing corrupted saves than to keep replaying the same missions over and over again.
Fast-forward three weeks, and I've returned to try my hand at The Witcher 3 once more. The corrupted save glitch has since been fixed, but at the expense of suspending and instantaneously resuming the game after powering the system off. As the error resulted from that very convenient Xbox One system feature, it's since been removed entirely. Again, it's annoying, but on its own, it's not quite a major issue. The real problem is that a host of other bugs within the game still exist.
The intro cutscene, for example, plays between the game's splash screen and the main menu every time I boot up the game. Then there's the story scene about why I'm in the village of Heatherton that plays every time before I can actually jump into the game, regardless of how far outside Heatherton I am. All told, from the moment I press "A" on the Xbox One dashboard to load the game to the moment when I can actually begin playing, it takes two minutes and 15 seconds of staring at loading screens, menus and cutscenes. And that's assuming the game launches on the first attempt.
The other night, I was greeted by a different sort of error message when attempting to fire up The Witcher 3; one that stated the obvious: "The game is taking too long to load." Recently, I had to hit the "A" button a number of times before the game actually launched. For the record, I haven't had this frustrating of an experience with any other current-gen game.
The corrupted-save glitch has been fixed at the expense of suspending and instantaneously resuming the game after powering the system off.
It's a heartbreaking situation. When I'm actually playing the game, I can't help but marvel at how well-realized the world of The Witcher 3 is; how well-written the game is at seemingly every turn; and just how well it handles gender and sexual politics. Early on, the protagonist Geralt encounters a man who'd been exiled to the forest. "I'm a freak," he tells the Witcher. "I'm a freak, too," Geralt replies in an attempt to empathize with the hunter. The man then reveals that he isn't sterile or that he has dubious magic powers like Geralt, but that he's gay and his sexual orientation caused a kingdom to crumble. It's quiet moments like this that speak as loudly as the game's more bombastic ones.
Rather than bash the player over the head with non-interactive cutscenes, The Witcher 3 lets players unravel its story through environmental clues. Consider this: The other night, while playing, I happened upon a stonecutter's village in the Velen region. The entire burg was filled with peasants nailing together a perimeter fence and prisoners of war doing hard labor, cracking rocks for punishment. The sounds of hammers and stones were as inescapable as that of the crows overhead. Slaughtered livestock occupied the areas near each entrance. A house the size of a single-wide trailer sat with a collapsed thatched roof, broken timbers blocking its door. A few steps away, a water wheel lay on its side, driven into the dirt, halfway across the village from its structure. A guard snorted and hocked a loogie somewhere behind me. Up ahead, a child ran forward, gleefully exclaiming, "Whee! I'm catching snails!" The more I looked around, it became increasingly obvious that before I'd arrived, a massive monster had passed through and left a veritable Dunwich Horror level of destruction in its wake. And yet no one in town would speak to me, making it all the more eerie.
This is truly where the game excels. I'd rather discover a story on my own by exploring an area and picking up hints through its design than be handheld through the story arc. CDPR's ambient approach to storytelling with The Witcher 3 is indeed powerful. If you're playing the Xbox One version, though, this experience gets mucked up a bit as you'll have to suffer through frustrating glitches.
It's a heartbreaking situation. When I'm actually playing the game, I can't help but marvel at how well-realized the world of The Witcher 3 is.
While in Velen, I didn't talk to anyone; I didn't kill anything. I just explored, lost in my own world. It's this type of one-off encounter that gives so much of The Witcher 3 its charm. But I had to wonder if this relative tranquility was the byproduct of another glitch. Up to this point, every town I'd stumbled across had at least one character I could have a conversation or conflict with. Here, everyone I encountered was a non-interactive background character. My experience with the broken Xbox One version had me constantly, and justifiably, worrying that another tech issue had robbed the scene of some of its drama. And that's a shame.
CDPR claims that, on average, it'll take players around 100 hours to finish The Witcher 3. And while I'm not averse to sinking huge chunks of time into an open-world game, I can't help but feel my console is standing entirely in the way of that actually happening.
[Image credits: CD Projekt Red]