Everybody's talking about The Witcher 3, and for good reason. Most companies stumble a bit at their first attempt to make a huge, open-world RPG, but not CDProjekt. Instead, The Witcher 3 sets a new benchmark of excellence in open-world design. The further I get in the game, the more impressed I am by CDProjekt's ability to create a huge, gorgeous, interesting world full of meaningful, interlinked stories. Other companies like BioWare, Bethesda, and Ubisoft are going to have to work awfully hard to catch up to this benchmark, and here's why:
A Gorgeous, Living World
“Living world” is a buzzword that frequently results in disappointment. I don't think CDProjekt even used the phrase to describe The Witcher 3, but it could have. It starts with the world's visual design, full of ecosystems that make sense, real-looking trees at a proper density, and the best wind implementation I've ever seen in a game. Sure, perhaps it's turned up a bit too high, but the wind just makes everything feel alive. I feel like I've been spoiled now, because I'll be sad when the next big RPG I play doesn't feature tree leaves trembling in the breeze.
The world's inhabitants feel organic, too. Monsters are found in proper habitats, towns and cities are properly populated, and everybody seems to have something to do. Peasants bustle around performing work or household chores. Ne'er-do-wells hang out yelling rude things at people or picking their teeth with their knives (yes, I've seen a guy do that). There are a few stumbles in this area – wolves and bears are inexplicably aggressive and there are a few too many overly optimistic bandits, but in general the inhabitants of the Northern Kingdoms make logical sense and contribute to the feeling that you're inhabiting a world rather than that the world has been built around your existence.
As a famous Witcher, Geralt even gets appropriate reactions from the people he runs into. If he meets somebody that you'd expect to know who he is, they do, and they have an opinion formed about him based on his reputation and exploits. The general populace usually reacts to him with insults or fear, since Witchers are considered unnatural, uncaring, and mercenary.
However, when Geralt has performed a good deed for a particular town, you'll start to hear people react to him with respect and good wishes. Unlike Skyrim, which is full of people being jerks for no good reason, the Northern Kingdoms are full of people being jerks for very specific reasons. Get them on your side and they'll treat you a lot better, though of course they still may be trying to take advantage of you for their own benefit. This makes them, if not likable, at least understandable – and Geralt responds to jerkishness with the exact exasperation and sarcasm we've always wished our Bethesda characters could.
To me, it's these small details that make the world of The Witcher 3 come alive, not the fact that you can totally climb that mountain that you see off in the distance. I mean, that's cool, too, but the small ways that the world lives and breathes around our hero makes it truly impressive and fun to explore.
Meaningful Stories, Even the Small OnesToo many open-world games are full of dull, dull collection and kill quests. Even the famously story-focused BioWare failed to tell compelling stories in most of Dragon Age: Inquisition's open-world areas. This has only become worse since single-player companies began picking up tricks from MMORPGs, because if there's one thing every gamer just loves, it's fetching 18 bear livers from bears that are inexplicably liver-free 80% of the time.
The Witcher 3 defies that trend in a huge way. Just about every quest in the game tells a story, and most have something deeper to say than it first appears. If a quest seems banal, chances are that things are not as they seem, and you'll discover the real story somewhere down the road. Some quests are humorous, some involve preparing to slay a dangerous monster, and many include difficult choices that Geralt can best prepare for by paying careful attention to the information he has at his disposal.
Geralt's Witcher senses are used to excellent effect in many quests. Sometimes they're necessary to track a monster or a fleeing culprit, but other times they're an optional. It's the second case when Geralt's position as the world's beardiest detective comes into its own. Using your Witcher senses when they aren't strictly required can reward you with clues or important information that helps you make an educated decision.