Like all journeys must have a beginning so they must have an end and so it gives me great pleasure to now tell you about my time with the two substantial pieces of extra content for The Witcher 3. At release, we were given a trickle of free DLC, sixteen pieces in total, which ranged from new armour sets to full new quests. Then this year Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine have landed, adding twenty and thirty hours of gameplay respectively.
In my original review back in May 2015, I gave the base game high praise as did every review outlet I saw. In particular, I lauded the way the world had been brought to life by interesting quests outside of the main story and indeed these distractions turned out to be some of the best writing in the game. After finishing the main game last year I resisted the urge to dive back in and instead waited for the chance to do a complete run including Heart of Stone (HoS) and Blood and Wine (B&W). It has taken me just under three weeks to go from start to finish and what an adventure I've been on: so let's see what I thought of The Witcher 3 as a complete package. I would also love to invite you to see my gallery of captures here.
Have you got the Stones?
So the first thing I would say to anyone planning on playing this game is to try and stay focused and set some serious time aside. Out of the people I know who have played The Witcher 3 over half never crossed the finish line, this is understandable given that one play through can run into hundreds of hours: especially for the completionists out there like me. Hearts of Stone kicks off with a quest that is recommended for players at around level thirty-two and takes place on an extra chunk of map east of Oxenfurt. I am going to totally avoid spoilers here but rest assured, in a very short space of time Geralt becomes embroiled in a plot that has you bouncing around like Drowner on fire.
Considering this is classed as DLC there is a surprising amount going on, from a new enchantment system to add new effects to weapons and armour, new creatures to fight and even a potential new lover. In my last playthrough I actually buggered up my chances with Triss and Yennefer resulting in them tying Geralt to a bed and leaving him there: so needless to say I was keen to move on. In regard to enchanting the effects replace and do not add to the upgrades already on the items so you really have to gauge if it's worth it. One for, example, makes enemy arrows bounce off you and so this, in turn, freed up a skill slot that had been doing the same thing. You can also invest money in the NPC's equipment that which in turn gives you access to more powerful enchantments, this new system provides a fun diversion but is certainly not required to complete the content.
On the face of it, Hearts of Stone is more of the same, which will never be a bad thing but I did feel like this was a more concentrated burst of narrative and skipped the many times you find yourself in the wilderness in the main game. Of course, there are new quest boards to find, contracts to take on and the many activities from the main game. Like previously some of these side quests provide some very entertaining amusement: one fort in particular while fighting through harpies you discover some nut job had been trying to rear them as pets to fight in the Redanian army: needless to say when you find him he is missing a few vital organs.
Obviously this story, while set in the original gameworld, is not connected to the plot from the main game but CD Projekt RED has done a wonderful job of blending the new space with the old and even have you heading to places like Oxenfurt. I love how we also see a far more emotional Geralt in HoS and there is a cracking section where he escorts a friend to a wedding while possessed by a ghost who he has promised to give the night of his life - no I'm not joking.
If after reading this you do play Hearts of Stone please take this one piece of advice, all the money you make in the main game (that you assume will never get spent) hang onto it. That also goes for Dimeritium and a few rare leather types. This time around I had decided to craft all the Witcher armour sets but when investing in enchanting or crafting the Grandmaster armour sets in B&W you really do need lots of cash and resources. In the end had to head back to Skellige and harvest all the sunken treasure from the north ocean which took a long time, so watch what you blow your money and resources on.
Ou est le plonk
As with Hearts of Stone you can start this content with a blank high-level character or take the task on like any other quest from the main game. Within minutes of helping some armour clad Knights, you are whisked off to Toussaint: the jaw-dropping new area where Blood and Wine is set. Ok, so Toussaint is basically the South of France: Witcher style. The undulating grass, idyllic vineyards, babbling brooks and the centrepiece for the area: a majestic fairy-tale castle embedded in the hillside and surrounded by a bustling town. This land has so far been untouched by the ravages of war and so while there is danger in the woods Toussaint feels like a million miles away from Velen. Don't let that exterior fool you though, there is evil afoot in the narrow streets of the city and very quickly Geralt is on the heels of a supernatural killer.
I guess the point I want to touch on first is the size of B&W, it is gigantic. Not only in terms of land mass but the sheer concentration of content to get stuck into is far beyond what anyone would ever expect from something dubbed as DLC. I have no qualms in saying this actually feels like a full game in its own right and if the original game wasn't so massive itself this could legitimately be The Witcher 4. While playing B&W this week I've literally spent entire nights on just one side quest, of which there are many. In addition, the quests and dialogue have all maintained that stellar standard from the base game as well as some excellent player choice. These choices add real differences (and consequences) to the game-world and so even once you have beaten the game there is a vast potential for replay.
'Gotta catch em all'
As I have mentioned there is now a new tier of armour open to Geralt: the Grandmaster sets. Each Witcher house is covered and one new set for good measure. As you might expect you must first head out and acquire the diagrams, it's worth noting that you get to follow some fascinating stories on these treasure hunts regarding Witchers who have been and gone. Gwent has also been expanded with a brand new Skellige deck, new people to play and a tournament to win: the ability to play also crops up in some other fun ways but I won't spoil this.
After being in the city for a few hours you receive a letter from Yennefer informing you of a scholar in the area who had been known to experiment with improving Witcher mutations. Long story short, you do in fact find a way to add some extra oomph to your existing skills and these are not just stat enhancements . Aard, for example, can be improved into a shockwave of ice that decimates tightly grouped foes, it's a fairly meaty addition to Geralt's already sufficient set of skills and one which should be welcomed by those who thought the basic combat was somewhat lacking.
As you assist the Queen in her quest to uncover the beast that kills her citizens you are given your very own vineyard complete with stables, staff and of course wine cellar. You can also use the house and grounds in various interesting ways, such as displaying trophies, weapons, armour sets and even fine art you have acquired. You can renovate the entire house and add a herb garden to save Geralt scratching around the countryside looking for alchemy ingredients. There is also a lab to uncover and you can even receive special benefits from resting in the queen size bed. I suspect Geralt will never hang his boots up but this aspect of the game does feel like a good fit for our last outing with the ageing Witcher.
Wrinkles and all
I have given this game much praise and rightly so, but I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't highlight any weaknesses. The movement of Geralt is still at times awful, lurching forward too far and then turning like a Mississippi Steamboat. While out in the open this isn't much of a problem but when navigating small houses and enclosed spaces it can be a right royal pain. When galloping full tilt on Roach you can just abruptly stop when nothing obvious has obstructed your path, this is often true when crossing bridges or walking onto ramps.
I love games that let me swim, as long as it is well implemented and with plenty of context. For the most part, I love the swimming in The Witcher 3 but the open oceans of Skellige did become a huge grind. The problem was there was just too many points to visit and the majority had the same setup, a few barrels to loot and six or so enemies to pick off. I was hoping the DLC would add more variety to swimming, alas it did not. I would say to the development team, if you do ever make another Witcher game keep the swimming but make it more interesting, more sea monsters, gigantic sharks or human ships to contend with. Most of all get rid of the underwater crossbow and maybe have a few signs that are water specific.
The vox populi seems to be clear that CD Projekt RED is one of the most respected game developers out there and as far as I'm concerned they can't be praised enough. Not only have they given us an unequivocal masterpiece that will be enjoyed for years to come, but have set the bar on how developers support a game post release. There has been a relentless set of patches for all aspects of the game that have addressed many problems and bugs. Removing weight from crafting ingredients, for example, was just inspired and having a universal storage box saves a lot of inventory hell.
With HoS and B&W we really could not have asked for a better send-off for our white haired anti-hero. I love the way we have gotten to know Geralt a little better now, point of fact I really like the guy and will miss the way he strides into danger with a supernatural confidence. He does not suffer fools gladly but at the same time can show incredible compassion, even toward monsters. It is clear that with the main game tucked away the development team wanted to have a little fun with Geralt and they certainly do that, some quest lines are hands down hilarious and deliver well-written satire without breaking the fourth wall.
CDPR have stated they are pouring all their resources into their new game, Cyberpunk 2077, and so for now we wait. They have stated this was the last game for Geralt but I'm sure many fans of the series will be hoping for a new Witcher game in the distant future: my hope is we, this time, play as Ciri. As a complete package, I can now look at The Witcher 3 as a whole: a body of work so incredibly massive it is still hard to conceive how CDPR managed to create it all to such a high standard. This is quite simply the best RPG I have ever played and as long as your rig has the horses this is an essential experience for any gamer.