The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt PC, PS4, XB1

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt PC, PS4, XB1
There's a certain meta-relief to exploring The Witcher 3 and discovering that the hype — including the absurd stat of over 200 awards doled out to the Polish fantasy epic BEFORE it was even released — was worth believing in.

After all, despite being nearly two years deep into the console cycle, gamers have been waiting for now-gen classics. Where are all these next-level experiences we were promised during the sales-pitch to upgrade? Well, our search has finally found a worthy heir, and coincidentally, it's an open-world role-playing game about searching for a worthy heir.

Now, I must admit to not having played the first two Witcher games, though that's one better than Elder Scrolls, where I entered on the fourth game, Oblivion, which nonetheless wound up on my all-time greatest list. So while I can't directly chart the series' progress, it seems that using those games to doing the world-building heavy lifting as far as character and setting helped CD Projekt Red Studio build an open-world game that can stand among gaming's great sandboxes.

The mythology may be a little dense — it's based on a Polish fantasy book series by Andrzej Sapkowski that dates back to the mid '80s, so there are novels and short stories as well as the rest of the Witcher trilogy to parse — but you grasp the basics pretty quickly.

You are Geralt of Rivia, a white-haired Witcher, a mutant made to massacre monsters (and sometimes have sex with sorceresses). He's essentially a fantasy realm superhero who is hated and feared like the X-Men but who also rolls mostly solo like Spider-Man and knows that with great power comes great responsibility. So, you wander the lands like a lone gunslinger, using magic and swordplay to help villagers, even though most call you a freak and treat you like an outcast, and help political leaders, even though most view you as little more than a means to an end.

As with most games of this sort, war is hanging over everyone like Damocles' sword. The Nilfgaardian Empire is still fighting holdout territories when the titular Wild Hunt invaders arrive from some otherworldly dimension to wreak further havoc.

But despite this sprawling backdrop, this story is more personal than most, as the emperor tasks you with finding Ciri, a powerful young woman you once trained and still consider an adopted daughter. The plot threads spool out from this setup, weaving a mystery-soaked tale that manages to be both epic and intimate and which allows you to play not only as the franchise's father figure but also on occasion as his young female companion.

I love new-school sandbox experiences like Far Cry 4 and ripe-with-possibility lands like W3's structural influence Red Dead Redemption, but as an old school paper-and-pen AD&D player once upon a time, there's something special about the Europe-influenced, Tolkien-inspired medieval fantasy setting — but only when game makers can escape the cookie-cutter trap.

The Witcher 3 pulls this feat off admirably, creating a cast of memorable characters and a grimness that may be due to the franchise's Eastern European origins, though there is levity, too, as you chase down Ciri across the war-torn realm.

It's also a world that stuns in its realized beauty to the point that I would often take a break to watch a sunset, just to see Geralt sit there astride his horse as the air takes on a golden hue and the clouds become a brilliant bright pink. It's all soundtracked by a fantasy-classical score and the soothing sound of rippling waves. The game is further proof that art design matters even when — especially when — aiming for the photorealistic graphics new consoles make possible.

Of course, reviewing a game such as this is something of a fool's errand, since every player will have a different experience. Every decision you make cascades down to affect your personal adventure, from ever-present moral quandaries to the order you play the non-linear narrative to how much time you spend aimlessly gawking at the scenery. And there's a shit-ton to gawk at, with the continent said to be 30 times bigger than the last Witcher game and even larger than the likes of Skyrim and GTA V. As you wander from the lush forests of Velen to the frozen wasteland of the Skellige islands to the sprawling port city of Novigrad, there are an easy 100+ hours of quests and side quests, Witcher contracts and treasure hunts to occupy your time.

Sometimes those sorts of outsize stats are used to denote value, but the value of Witcher 3 comes from its creators' outsized artistic ambitions. So hunt down a copy, and we'll see you in a few weeks when you come back up for air. (CD Projekt RED / Warner Bros. Interactive)