TIME Video Games

Microsoft Taps Hit Game Producer to Develop ‘HoloLens Experiences’

Spike TV's "2010 Video Game Awards" - Arrivals
Frederick M. Brown—Getty Images BioWare co-founder Ray Muzyka, Mass Effect 2 executive producer Casey Hudson, and BioWare co-founder Greg Zeschuk at Spike TV's "2010 Video Game Awards" held at the LA Convention Center on December 11, 2010 in Los Angeles, California.

BioWare's Casey Hudson will focus on designing 3-D games for Microsoft's augmented reality headset

BioWare game producer Casey Hudson, who spearheaded the development of blockbuster titles such as Mass Effect, will join Microsoft as “creative director” of its gaming unit, with a focus on developing augmented reality games for the HoloLens.

“I was fortunate to try an early prototype of HoloLens before it was announced, and I was blown away by the technology and what it was already capable of,” Hudson said in an interview posted to Microsoft’s official Xbox blog on Monday. “I feel that the work being done at Microsoft on mixed reality and holographic computing will have a tremendous impact on how all of us interact with technology in the coming years.”

Hudson will report to Kudo Tsunoda, corporate vice president of next gen experiences.

TIME Video Games

Microsoft Challenged the Whole World to a Solitaire Tournament

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PhotoAlto/Odilon Dimier—Getty Images/PhotoAlto Woman playing solitaire, cropped view of hands and cards

To celebrate the Windows game's 25th birthday

Microsoft has challenged the world to a Solitaire tournament that will pit the company’s strongest players against the game’s biggest fans.

The tournament will launch on June 5 to mark the 25th anniversary of the game, which has long remained a permanent fixture of the Windows operating system.

The battle begins with an internal match among Microsoft’s employees. The winners will then lead a worldwide match against the general public, or as Microsoft put it in an official post: “you’ll be challenged to bring your best to defeat our best.”

TIME Video Games

5 Reasons People Love The Witcher So Much

Wondering why a game called The Witcher keeps popping up in your social media?

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt arrives Tuesday, like a meteor heralding an extinction level event masquerading as a gritty Slavic myth-o-rama. The doomed: all sandbox fantasy roleplaying games prior, forced to measure up and found wanting.

Polish developer CD Projekt Red’s tale of a cat-eyed, glam-haired, drug-elevated monster slayer, once as obscure as Bethesda’s hence primetime-friendly The Elder Scrolls series, now separates money from pockets with ease. Preorders for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt are past one million, the studio reported last week. That’s more than half as many total copies sold of 2011’s The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, itself both a critical and commercial triumph.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt thus looks poised to shatter its predecessor’s numbers, buttressed this time by PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions launching simultaneously (The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings was for PC and Xbox 360 only).

So what is The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt? Only the biggest open-world roleplaying game of the year, one of the most critically acclaimed in years, and the final act of a trilogy that since the first act arrived in October 2007, has been as keen to upend morally simplistic, male-angled fantasy tropes as that other epic fiction franchise everyone raves about.

If you’re newcomer-curious, here’s a quick review of why people love The Witcher so much.

It’s based on sophisticated fantasy writing

Thank Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski for the Witcher-verse and its guttural, morally ambivalent, antihero. Sapkowski, whose first books appeared in the early 1990s and weren’t translated into English until the late 2000s, placed his protagonist Geralt of Rivia in a mimetic fantasy world with enough socio-economic nuance to ground a political science dissertation. Here be racism, sexism, classism, economic inequality and injustice, wrapped in a bleak, often cynical worldview informed by a nation with a history of repeated occupation and counter-occupation by larger, historically thuggish rival powers.

Your mileage will definitely vary

The original game offered three possible endings, and not just superficial codas where one or the other cutscene plays before the credits roll. Pivotal decisions in The Witcher could upend the narrative course, determining who lived and died, and dictating who might ally with or turn against you when crucial battles arrived.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, though still restricting players to progressive level-like areas, further developed that organic storytelling formula, boasting 16 possible endings with so much interactive nuance to its narrative pathing that multiple play-throughs could feel like completely different games.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, which shifts the series to freeform exploration, expands its possible outcome tally to a whopping 36, and the developers claim those windups are born of organic pivot points along the way that add up to hundreds of narrative permutations (that, in a game where a single pass takes upwards of 50 hours).

The fights are way better than most

All roleplaying games are really elaborate fighting games, so the clicky-tappy things you wind up doing over and over–in some cases for hundreds of hours–has to be both novel and progressive. Studio CD Projekt Red’s approach has been both in each of The Witcher games, progressing from a clever rhythm-focused keyboard/mouse model in the original, to deep toolboxes of offensive and defensive maneuvers augmented by secondary tricks and talent trees that unlock ever more nuanced abilities.

The world looks and feels like nothing else in fantasy gaming

Square Enix’s Final Fantasy games are more graphically inventive (they’re certainly more gonzo!), sure, but in a crowded field that’s been tediously riffing on Tolkien for decades, The Witcher games feel like idiosyncratic curios. Inspired by Slavic mythology, its bosky dells, ruin-flanked hills and patchwork fields sound paradoxically elegiac notes, juxtaposing heart-stopping sunsets filtered through wind-whipped trees with war-wracked, blood blackened fields of corpses, sometimes piled like cordwood. And instead of squaring off with trolls, orcs, goblins, dragons and multicolored blobs of dungeon-delving goo, you’re up against folkish, far weirder-sounding Eastern European creatures like striga, necrophages, bruxa and vodyanoi, as well as warped takes on traditional fiends, e.g. noonwraiths, alghouls and dagon worshippers.

But the most marvelous monsters in the game aren’t mythic at all

As I put it when reviewing the original game eight years ago: “For all the wonderfully ‘un-Tolkien-y’ alghouls and echinops and graveirs and bloedzuigers you’ll grapple with, the most hideous monsters in the game aren’t the ones with six or a dozen consonants crowding a single vowel, but other humans, like you.”

TIME Video Games

How Destiny Is Changing to Give Players What They Want

Bungie

A Bungie insider took us inside the process

It’s a divisive game. Depending on who you ask, Destiny is either the first truly next-gen console experience or an over-promised, under-baked revenue machine for mega-publisher Activision Blizzard. But there’s no disputing the 2014 title’s phenomenal commercial success.
Pitting players from around the world—Guardians, in Destiny parlance—against the forces of the nebulous Darkness on behalf of benevolent orb The Traveler, the game marries the fluid gunplay of the studio’s classic Halo games with the loot-collection of RPGs like the Borderlands and Diablo series. Destiny enjoyed one of the most successful launches in gaming history when it went on sale last September (despite a lukewarm critical reception), and over 20 million players have created their own Guardians. (Exact sales figures haven’t been released by the company.)
A major part of the game’s success is its focus on community, including the design of its endgame activities. Destiny‘s most challenging and creative tasks are strikes and raids, multi-stage encounters that require anywhere from three to six people to complete. In particular, raids like the Vault of Glass and Crota’s End revolve around puzzles and mechanics that are almost impossible to complete alone. Even the Crucible, the game’s player vs. player (PvP) arena, is framed as a training exercise for the universe’s Guardians: they’re fighting each other so they can become strong enough to tackle and defeat the larger evil forces assaulting their universe. The game is constantly making it clear that players are in this together.
That focus is also reflected in Bungie’s management of the people that make up its player community, a constantly shifting group of people. Headquartered in Bungie’s own forums and in the game’s extremely popular sub-Reddit, the hardcore fanbase’s relationship with Bungie tends toward a default state of genial exasperation: they love the game, have spent enough time with it to worm out every crack and crevice, and want the studio to fix every flaw even as it is sometimes creating new ones.
David Dague (a.k.a. DeeJ) is one of Bungie’s community managers, tasked with serving as conduits for whatever sentiments players happen to be conveying on a given day. They’re the ones who filter and send information back and forth between the player base and Bungie’s technical teams, whether through informal interaction or standard missives like the Bungie Weekly Update, a traditional home for bad jokes and hints at upcoming changes.
This is a pivotal time for Bungie. The studio is about to introduce major changes to the game’s reward mechanisms and content through its second DLC release, House of Wolves, scheduled for release on Tuesday May 19th. The expansion pack includes a new narrative and accompanying set of missions, a new social space for players, dozens of pieces of new gear, a materials exchange, a new co-operative endgame activity, and a new competitive PvP event.
In some ways, the size and breadth of House of Wolves feels like it couldn’t have come together without the frosty feedback the studio received regarding their first piece of DLC, The Dark Below, which was derided for being skimpy on content and for changing key parts of the player experience without advance notice or consultation. With the expansion’s release on the horizon, TIME spoke to Dague about what he’s learned since the game’s launch, how House of Wolves and future changes to the game will affect his role, and his favourite pieces of community-created world-building.

TIME: With almost eight months since release in the bag, how has your approach to communicating with the player base changed?

Dague: During the first few months after launch, the conversation we had with the emerging player base was very reactive. It seemed like we were always rushing to explain events from the previous week. Since then, I’ve been invited to work a lot more closely with the Live Team that supports the game. Along with Bungie User Research and Destiny Player Support, this enables us to include the community in the process that changes the way we all play. Now, the conversations we have with our players are a lot more forward-looking. We’re always building a bridge to the next update.
How does handling communication for a massive, public-facing property like Destiny differ from a more private communications role?
It’s so crucial to remember that Destiny appeals to many different types of players for different reasons. Our last report was that 20 million people had created a Guardian in our world. The challenge is to craft a message from Bungie that’s relevant to all of them. Every player of Destiny is important to us – from the Raiders to the Crucible warriors. It’s rare that they will all follow the same narrative from moment to moment. You gotta try and find a balance.
I know the game is designed around the concept of the community, but from a distance, the size of said community on Reddit and the Bungie forums is astounding—did you expect this level of activity and engagement?
“Hoped” would be a better word. We make games in the hopes that players will experience them. The world of Destiny is so much more interesting when it’s packed with interesting people. To see the way players have flocked to that Tower standing over a city in need of heroes has been amazing and humbling and inspiring. It’s definitely more than I can handle alone, which is why I’m grateful for the special teams on Bungie.net that help track feedback and tackle support issues. And what is this Reddit you speak of? Can I have a link?
The segment of the player base that’s active online has gotten up in arms over a few communication decisions in particular, namely the communication surrounding exotic upgrade paths and the decision not to include a raid with House of Wolves. What’s your biggest regret in terms of community management to date?
I think the way we revealed the Exotic upgrade paths for The Dark Below was the single most educational moment for me, personally. Every day is a chance to learn more about the community that plays Destiny. That was certainly one of them. It’s no coincidence that the kick-off to the conversation about House of Wolves started with a live demonstration of how to upgrade some of the more popular items in the Guardian arsenal. We even invited members of the community to participate and make sure we got it right.
How is the release of House of Wolves going to change your relationship to the community, if at all? (I realize it’s not going to have a giant impact on the structure of your updates or anything like that, of course, but it does seem like it’s going to address many of the thorns in the community’s side.)
That’s impossible to predict. After all, both parties get an equal say about the quality of a relationship. Our goals at Bungie are always to deliver an experience that people will love. Now that we’re dealing with an engaged player base, instead of a hopeful audience in waiting, we can prove to them that we’re listening. We want the Guardians of Destiny to feel like they’re a part of our creative process, and so many components of the House of Wolves player experience was inspired by their feedback. We hope that comes across when they embark on the adventure.
How do you envision your role changing as Destiny shifts from its DLC phase to a more mature state/as Destiny 2 enters more advanced stages of development?
I definitely don’t want it to change too much. The best thing about my job is knowing the heart of the player through the stories they tell about the game. I want to continue to help our team anticipate their audience, and I want to keep helping the leaders of our community to find an audience for their own voices. The things that we’ve learned about the players of Destiny make us better at talking to them, so I have no desire to migrate to a role where those lessons wouldn’t be valuable. Also, I’m not a very good concept artist and I use a calculator to do startlingly simple math, so certain career paths at Bungie are just blocked by the fates.
Do you have a favorite piece of community-generated lore? If so, what is it?
That’s easily the hardest question you’ve asked. You’re asking me to play favorites with a galaxy of rock stars. We have this ensemble of role-players who have taken to Twitter to personify characters from Destiny. With every announcement or community engagement, I can expect everyone from the Cryptarch to the Queen’s Brother (even favorite weapons) to show up and share their perspective – in character. It’s pretty hilarious, and just another example of how we’ve rooted their imaginations in this brave new world. I hope they never stop.
TIME Video Games

10 Most-Anticipated New iPhone Games

Have a look at our picks for the most promising iPhone games yet to come this year

We’re already playing some of 2015’s best iPhone games—take a bow, Sorcery! 3, Auro: A Monster-Bumping Adventure, Planet Quest and Ryan North’s To Be or Not To Be—so here’s a look at what’s left (that we know of, anyway) between now and year’s end.

  • Guitar Hero Live

    “No console? No problem,” reads the tagline for the handheld version of Activision’s upcoming rhythm rock-a-thon rethink. “The full game experience will be available on select mobile devices,” boasts the publisher, referring to a big-screen experience that’s designed to put you onstage with a live-ish reactive band and audience. How’s that work on a 5-inch screen? We’ll doubtless find out at E3 next month.

    Late 2015

  • Disney Infinity 3.0

    If playing Star Wars in story-less, multiplayer-focused, first-person shooter battle arenas turns you off—hello, Star Wars Battlefront!—then Disney Infinity 3.0 represents our best shot at solo-supportive, sandbox-based, story-driven Star Wars experiences. Look for characters like Anakin, Luke, Leia, Han and Vader to broaden Disney’s toy-game stable, and like last year’s version 2.0, the iPhone version of 3.0 should be all but identical to its console and tablet peers.

    Late 2015

  • Minecraft: Story Mode

    Telltale Games

    Did Minecraft need a narrative when part of the game’s triumph is the way it drives players to create their own? We’re going to find out when adventure-maker Telltale Games puts its imprimatur on the Lego-like sandbox builder later this year.

    TBD 2015

     

  • Age of Empires: World Domination

    The Age of Empires real-time strategy franchise fizzled a long time ago, and hasn’t seen a hit in years, so there’s understandable trepidation about this mobile-oriented version’s prospects. Can newcomer KLab Global resuscitate defunct creator Ensemble Studios’ once-beloved series? Pull it off without inundating players with freemium nagging? We’ll see.

    TBD 2015

  • Zodiac

    Boasting heady tunes by Final Fantasy XII‘s Hitoshi Sakimoto and expert scenario design by Final Fantasy VII‘s Kazushige Nojima, Zodiac is a 2D roleplaying game that marries side-scrolling levels with turn-based combat. Sounds a little like Valkyrie Profile, no? The difference: Zodiac transpires in an “ambitious” persistent online world, and supports cross-platform play (with Sony’s PS Vita handheld, and possibly others yet to be announced).

    TBD 2015

  • Ember

    If the demo teaser for N-Fusion’s Ember reminds you even a little of Ultima VII: The Black Gate, that’s no coincidence–the developer admits its upcoming fantasy quest-spinner was inspired by Origin’s classic 1992 title, remembered for its still rarely equalled depth of world and character design.

    TBD 2015

  • Firefly Online

    It’s one of TV’s most beloved science fiction tales reimagined as a roleplaying game in which players can pilot their own ships, assemble their own crews and trade with (or create missions for) other players. The original cast came back to handle voice work for their characters, which appear throughout the game.

    TBD 2015

  • Super Meat Boy Forever

    It’s the official sequel to 2010’s acclaimed platform game starring a tiny cube of flesh that darts and leaps through hundreds of trap-filled levels.

    TBD 2015

  • Forma.8

    You’re stuck orbiting an alien planet, your reserves nearly depleted, so you deploy a tiny probe to the planet, hoping to retrieve an underground energy source and continue your journey. Studio MixedBag dubs Forma.8 a “Metroidvania” (that is, Metroid plus Castlevania), wherein you’ll explore a mammoth and interlinked series of levels, solving puzzles and battling enemies to accomplish your goals.

    TBD 2015

  • Clockwork

    Explore a 400-year-old clockwork metropolis as Atto, a mechanical boy who sets out to mend both his malfunctioning machine city and its many robotic inhabitants—human survivors, who abandoned their organic bodies centuries ago to escape the ravages of a deadly plague.

    TBD 2015

TIME Video Games

World of Warcraft Bans ‘A Large Number’ of Players

Blizzard

"Cheating of any form will not be tolerated"

Maybe think twice before using that cheat code.

Blizzard Entertainment has banned “a large number” of World of Warcraft accounts after finding that they were using bots, or “third-party programs that automate gameplay” according to a company post. The number of banned accounts was not revealed in Blizzard’s post, but a widely cited screenshot from a user’s chat with a game master indicates that more than 100,000 accounts were banned for six months. World of Warcraft has an estimated 7.1 million active subscribers.

In addition to an explanation of the ban, Blizzard encouraged World of Warcraft players to report accounts they suspected of cheating.

“We’re committed to providing an equal and fair playing field for everyone in World of Warcraft, and will continue to take action against those found in violation of our Terms of Use,” the company post read. “Cheating of any form will not be tolerated.”

The game’s community manager, Micah Whipple, tweeted a response to the cheating from his World of Warcraft persona account:

TIME Video Games

Your Next Game Boy Will Fit Into Your Wallet

Introducing Arduboy

Gaming handhelds are portable (awesome) but easy to forget behind when you’re on the go (less awesome). The Arduboy—a small arduino-based gaming handheld the size of a credit card—could solve that.

For Kickstarter backers, the unit only runs $29 and will be $39 once it’s available for the general public. The Arduboy will come with a slew of open source games based on some popular franchises including Ardumon (a take on Pokémon), Alien Attack (a version of Space Invaders), and Maruino, a take on Super Mario Bros.

In a bid to leverage the dedicated Arduino community to help keep Arduboy alive, the project is thoroughly open source. Given its size and price, it’s easy to see how the Arduboy could be used as an educational platform to encourage kids to code too.

Read the rest of the story at the Daily Dot.

TIME Video Games

And The Madden NFL 16 Cover Goes to … Odell Beckham Jr.

He says he isn't worried about the 'Madden Curse'

Thanks to a sensational rookie campaign and pulling off the catch of the year, Odell Beckham Jr., the speedy wide receiver for the New York Giants, will be gracing the cover of EA Sports’ “Madden NFL 16” video game, EA announced via Twitter.

The 2014 Rookie of the Year won the fan vote by beating out New England Patriot’s tight end Rob Gronkowski, Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson and Pittsburg Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown.

Beckham is the youngest player and first New York Giant to be featured as a Madden cover athlete and he expressed his gratitude on Twitter.

Fans of the New York Giants and Beckham may be worried about the infamous “Madden Curse,” which is the theory that after a player lands on the video game’s cover he has a rough year ahead. It certainly held true for Michael Vick (who broke his leg a day after the game’s release) and Brett Favre (he left the Green Bay Packers that year). However, fellow wide receiver Calvin Johnson had a career year afterwards and last year’s cover star (the Seattle Seahawks’ “Legion of Boom”) made the Super Bowl. Plus, Beckham himself is clearly not a believer in the curse.

Despite missing four games due to injury, Beckham had 1,305 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns during the 2014-15 season.

TIME Video Games

Nintendo World Championships Return After 25 Years

In 1990 Nintendo had its first and only World Championships, but the battle for Mario-related glory returns this June.

Yes, the Nintendo World Championships are coming back after 25 years and the qualifying rounds will be held at Best Buy locations around the U.S. on May 30. Regional winners will move on to the championship, which will be held at the Nokia Theatre L.A. Live in Los Angeles on June 14.

Nintendo hasn’t revealed which games will be included in the tournament, but the original contest included portions of Super Mario Bros., Rad Racer, and Tetris. So chances are there will be some updates to that line up.

The first championship was inspired in part by The Wizard, a 1989 film starring Fred Savage, Christian Slater and Jenny Lewis.

Check out the promotional video below showing Nintendo America COO Reggie Fils-Aime announcing his idea to bring back the games and compete in them himself. He changes his mind of course, but not after some serious gamer preparation.

This article originally appeared on EW.com

TIME Video Games

5 Things I Love About The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

How does Polish developer CD Projekt Red's long-awaited fantasy three-quel stack up? Here's what we think so far

Let’s talk about The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, an obscure sounding fantasy roleplaying game you’re either here reading about because you’re a bona fide Witcher wonk, or that you stumbled into after President Obama unexpectedly namechecked the series while visiting Poland last June (no really, he did).

For those in the latter column, a quick review. The Witcher games stem, some might say improbably, from several fantasy novels and short stories written by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski in the early 1990s. The series concerns a potion-drinking mutant named Geralt, the eponymous “Witcher,” who hunts monsters for a living. Though Geralt is portrayed as apolitical, elaborate political plots eventually emerge in both the novels and games, forcing Geralt (and in the games, therefore, players) to grapple with ethical dilemmas that mirror contemporary real world ones.

Think Western fantasy, but through an Eastern European lens—more folkloric Brothers Grimm than epically biblical Tolkien. Think political intrigue, character depth and world building on par with HBO’s Game of Thrones. And in The Witcher 3‘s case, with CD Projekt Red finally jumping the series to a fully open world, think grand on a scale that surpasses the term. Think post-Skyrim.

I’ve had the game for less than a week, and don’t ask me how far along I am, because at two dozen hours, I’ve yet to see its middle. But I’m having a blast. It’s not perfect, and at points (see below) it can seem obtuse, but hour for hour, I’m happier with it than I was Skyrim—and at the 24-hour mark I was still pretty chuffed about Skyrim.

My impressions of the game so far, running the PlayStation 4 version:

The engine under this hood is pretty sporty

You think I’m talking about the graphics? In a moment. I’m referring to load times—the time it takes for a game to cycle up—because they’re crucial when you’re restarting from save points, say you keep whiffing fighting a mini-boss. The Witcher 3‘s load times are partly obscured by narrative recaps, but still unusually quick. When you figure the game’s juggling a play-space bigger than either Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto V‘s, one that’s seamless once it’s up and running (there’s no scenery pop-in) whether you’re wandering in and out of buildings or plumbing underground dungeons, it’s no small triumph.

And it’s visually stunning

I don’t mean technically, since we’re accustomed to games that deftly model bosky sandboxes with resplendent cities and chaotic ruins and endless subterranean haunts. I’m talking about who made the game (CD Projekt Red, headquartered in Poland) and what informed their visual worldview. Put it this way: The Witcher 3 looks nothing like Skyrim or Dragon Age: Inquisition.

Speaking as someone who’s spent months in Poland, the Baltics and Russia, it feels more like that. Light cuts chiaroscuro columns between swathes of stormy blackness draped over fir and oak forests punctuated by meticulous medieval structures and grass-choked wagon wheel roads. The wind knocks stands of trees and patchy scrub around like shaken springs, and cloud-fog hangs off foothills and mountains in wispy skirts. It feels older and creepier, but also elegiac and incredibly beautiful, if that makes sense (speaking as an American who’s probably doing the whole romanticizing-the-other thing).

CD Projekt Red

How do you convey to someone what a blood-red, storm cloud framed, lighting-flanked sunset looks like if you happen to come across one tromping through Poland’s Lower Silesian Wilderness? Show them a sunset in The Witcher 3.

Deceptively conventional quests morph into delightful rabbit holes

Tired of running delivery boy errands and “go kill X monsters” treks designed to fill out space in games like this? You’ll still find them here, but the design team threw in heaps of meaningful wrinkles, upending tropes by extending the backstories to quests and folding in deductive sequences that drawn upon your extrasensory abilities (some can be over a dozen steps long). And when they can’t do that, they’ll just send you on quirky goose chases with surprise denouements to keep you off balance.

And that’s what it’s really about when you’re crafting challenges for players, isn’t it? Preserving an air of mystery and situational novelty? Developer CD Projekt Red has worked to thwart conventionality since it launched the series, and you can see it shining through any one of The Witcher 3‘s idiosyncratic missions.

The scripted encounters soar

Someone needs to write about the real war, says Geralt at a point early in the game, “not colorful banners or generals making moving speeches, but rape, violence, and thoughtless cruelty.” He’s chatting in a tavern with an academic who’s just explained what’s driven him out to the front, to chronicle the war.

“Rape and cruelty are details of no import to the war’s course, trinkets on the garment of conflict you might say,” replies the academic, betraying a kind of dangerous, elite romanticism, as well as callous disregard for Geralt’s vaguely antiwar position.

It’s an uncomfortable moment that could stand for any other in the game, an exchange that’d feel at home in a George R.R. Martin novel, and one that’s still sadly unusual in a video game, where incisive much less subversive writing takes a backseat to anodyne platitudes about war, or whatever else (one of gaming’s great mistakes has been its cooption of the false dichotomy between authorial intention and player control).

But not The Witcher 3, where beautifully voiced and philosophically provocative interactions are the norm for virtually every encounter in the game, be it part of the main quest or any of the secondaries. True, The Witcher 2 already showed us that CD Projekt Red could write, but The Witcher 3 pulls that level of depth off in a game world that’s exponentially bigger. It’s like stumbling into a strange, baroquely ornamented wine cellar stuffed with vintage bottles, every one.

And each location feels unique

Every rutted path, split-rail fence, thatch roof, copse of trees, bricked ruin, walled village and corpse-haunted battlefield feels handcrafted and one-of-a-kind, and you can wander for hours without repeats. Imagine the time it must have taken, given how vast The Witcher 3‘s play space is, but what a visual payoff and triumph. You could write plausibly poetic travelogues about the game’s distinctive vistas, whether sloshing through Crookback Bog, taking in the heart stopping view from Kaer Gelen castle, hiking around the craggy monster-thronged foothills of Bald Mountain, or getting lost in the wonderfully nuanced architecture of metropolitan Novigrad.

CD Projekt Red

But the world’s also stuffed with vacuous nobodies

Cities and towns are choked with citizenry going about their scripted business, and you can chat with any of them. Trouble is, almost no one has much more than a catchphrase to work with. Wander through a village and you’ll be assaulted by “talk” prompts, but tap to do so and you’ll be treated to a barrage of boilerplate-isms: “Yes?” “Erhm?” “Step away.” “Nordling?” “Hm?” “What do you want?” “Tidings from Vizima?” Et cetera.

Conversational window dressing just wastes precious time in ginormous games like this. Better to disable that level of interactivity outright and let the ambulatory props shuffle through their subroutines. Save talking for situations that involve actual talking, in other words.

And the interface needs work

Getting Geralt to properly interact with something, say another person or chest of goods, feels a little fiddly, requiring too much sidling up or scooting backwards to conjure the prompt.

The way things are labeled also feels a little lazy: When you’re out gathering flora for The Witcher 3‘s alchemy game, for instance, the prompt you’ll see is generically “Gather Ingredients,” instead of a more helpful “Gather [name of ingredient].” Why ask players to stop and pull up a dialogue box, when you could more readily specify what they’re looking at as they wander by?

Combat can be quirky

I love The Witcher 3‘s third-person battle ideas for the most part–a mix of swordplay and tactical spellcasting that mostly works–but two things stand out as sore spots.

The game binds your ability to “parry” in battle to the same button that triggers “Witcher Sense” out of battle (it’s an extrasensory ability Witchers use to “see” thing others can’t). The problem is that you’re sometimes shuffled out of, then back into, combat mode so fast that you grab the button to parry, but invoke the other ability instead, laying you open to blows.

The other issue, a little more serious, is the way targeting works. The system as it stands lets you focus your attention on different opponents by flicking the right thumbstick while you maneuver with the left one. But the game’s enemies often reposition themselves so quickly, and often assault you in close-in rows, that it’s all too easy to accidentally target the guy right behind the one you want to hit, which causes you to attack past the front line and open yourself up to unblockable flank damage.

CD Projekt Red

The world itself, though gorgeous, has shortcomings

Spatial physics? Who needs ’em! Instead of building off basic line of sight principles, where you might use ledges or walls or giant trees to sneak up on an opponent, enemies simply “sense” you through plainly obfuscating geometry. They’ll even brokenly fire arrows through trees, either a glitch or collision detection oversight that outs the environment as a facade in combat. Less ambitious open-world games manage to pull this stuff off competently, so why not The Witcher 3?

(For that matter, why can’t Geralt sneak? I’m not asking for Thief or Dishonored or Assassin’s Creed here, but Witchers aren’t tanks, and Geralt’s surely capable of creeping up on squads of foes, so why can’t he at least attempt to here?)

And despite its delays, the game still has bugs

My first two matches of Gwent (a semi-interesting collectible card game you can play with other characters in the game for money) crashed the game hard. And while hanging out in a tavern, a horse (not mine) outside wandered over and stuck its head through the tavern wall—creepy for all the wrong reasons.

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