Happy new year everybody, may 2017 be simply awesome!
Let’s kick off the new year with a bit of positivity, a change of pace from my usual rants, but I had fun during my break. I went back to play The Witcher 3, specifically the expansions: Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine.
I had already played most of Hearts of Stone with my old laptop, even though the framerate was somewhat low with it, so there wasn’t much left. I loved the story, loved the Witcher interpretation of very familiar themes: “be careful what you wish for” and “the road to hell is paved in good intentions.” The second of these isn’t as evident, but when you see the story from all angles and learn the character motivations that sparked the conflict, you can see just how a simple desire for happiness and love derails people’s lives.
It’s lovely, and on the mechanical side it has some fantastic fights and does wonders to revamp the rather samey Wraith fights from the main game, by adding spectres with unique story-driven abilities.
Hearts of Stone has a good length but still feels much more like a side-quest chain you undertake during the main campaign, an additional bit of story without much consequence for any of the characters.
Blood and Wine on the other hand, the DLC I played throughout this break, feels like a proper expansion, a new adventure with stakes that while not as world-shattering as those of The Wild Hunt, feel just as important on a character level.
Toussaint, the new region you explore is absolutely gorgeous and more so than any other region in three Witcher games, I wanted to lose myself exploring it, finding beautiful vistas, reaching the highest ground to witness the glory of the vineyards and rolling hills, to have an “everything the light touches is our kingdom, Simba” moment.
The exploration takes a fair chunk of your time but it’s the wonderfully compelling quests that really make the experiences perhaps even superior to the main Witcher 3 game. Toussaint is a fiercely traditional region. Chivalric traditions, virtues and romantic aspirations are at the people’s core, it’s their driving force and wonderfully, so too does it drive the quests. Hell, I fought a man not with my fists but with rhyming insults. How awesome is that? Haven’t seen that since Monkey Island 3 and they pull it off without making it seem shoehorned.
Every single mission, contract or treasure hunt revolves, in some way around the chivalric virtues and you have plenty of opportunities to make the great Geralt of Rivia espouse the five great virtues of the Knights Errant of Toussaint: Honour, Compassion, Generosity, Valor and Wisdom. From deciding that breaking the monster’s curse is a better choice than outright kill it to letting clients keep their money to use for a better cause, these decisions not only feel natural, not just a mechanic forced on you, but also immerse you deeper into the wonderfully antiquated world around you.
So when you earn a golden and highly intricately wrought sword for your display of skill in a Knightly tournament, or receive the deed to a Vineyard that’s fallen into disrepair, it feels great, as if you’d really accomplished something.
There is in fact a quest that studies your behaviour and decides if you’re worthy or not. This mission allows you to recover a weapon you might have earned in The Witcher but lost in its sequel, Aerondight. This is The Witcher’s version of Excalibur, and if you prove yourself a man of virtue, then the Lady of the Lake will grace you with this magical sword…and ask you not to lose it again!
There are new characters drawn from the novels, mostly allies and they are all wonderfully compelling. To be honest I found Regis, your main buddy, a much more interesting character than Dandelion has been in over three games. He’s a profoundly complex character and I loved how loyalty and duty that guide his actions, even if he tries an entire expansion to avoid them.
Another reason Blood and Wine feels so amazing as an expansion is how many new things there are. Bandit camps where you have to kill guards before they sound alarms or you’ll be fighting increasingly tough odds until you either kills enough enemies (and their annoying overpowered mutant dogs) to make it look like a Hot Shots movie or you take a momentary pause in the fighting to climb the ladder to the bandit leader’s room, beating the “boss” and conquering the base.
You wanna know something amazing? In Blood and Wine, CD Projekt Red did what Ubisoft hasn’t been able to do in who knows how many Assassin’s Creed games: they made base capturing fun and challenging. It takes preparation to storm these bases, and sometimes you need to retreat because some of the guards are at ludicrously high levels.
You’re meant to play Blood and Wine after finishing the main story, when you’re around level 30-something, right before heading over to New Game+, and the mechanics it adds, the armours you find, Grandmaster Witcher Armours—of which I had an Armour smith make the Wolf gear, because it was the first one I found and I liked the bonuses—are there for you to learn to use them in Blood and Wine but really get the most out of them during the next playthrough.
Nothing shows this more than the Mutations. One sidequest has you unlocking a completely new set of Witcher mutations, which you unlock using greater mutagens and character ability points. Over Blood and Wine’s experience you’ll unlock a few of these mutations, but it’s highly unlikely that you’ll purchase them all, and that’s the point.
Blood and Wine not only gives you a ton of hours to play with, amazing boss fights—the last battle of the main quest is Outstanding in its unforgiving nature and Dark Souls like approach of learning to recognise the boss’ patterns and chipping away at their health bit by bit—and some really great quests, but it also gives something to Geralt that he’s never had: a home. In Blood and Wine you get a home to return to and of course, upgrade, but unlike other base-building elements in games, everything you unlock is useful. Alchemy tables to break down mutagens, your own Armor-repair table and grindstone, a stable for Roach and a garden full of herbs.
There are of course cosmetic upgrades but even getting a new bed has a permanent mechanical effect on Geralt.
This expansion also gives Geralt an out, a way off the Witcher’s path. In my playthrough I didn’t take it, leaving Geralt in an undecided place and mentioning in a conversation that he loved being a Witcher, but still not knowing if he’ll ever give it up, and this went great with my ending for the main game where he and Triss left and lived together, with Geralt only taking jobs occasionally. I can see that happening after Blood and Wine as well, maybe a summer home.
What can I say? I’m a romantic at heart.
In years of vacuous DLC offerings and season passes, CD Projekt RED’s expansions for The Witcher 3 are a master class on how game developers should behave towards their players. These expansions are meaty and further expand the world they take place in. Blood and Wine alone is worth more than its price point, and is the kind of DLC offering that I believe should be the norm in the gaming industry.
Where other companies carve up their games to offer DLC and preorder bonuses, CD Projekt Red worked on making their games bigger and better.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time I started a new game of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.