The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone
CD Projekt RED
A couple of months ago when a fellow gamer relayed to me that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was getting an expansion pack, I was a little confused and bewildered. That’s because the gamer in question had become somewhat addicted to the main game and had sunk quite a few hours into it and even he had just begun to scratch beneath the surface. Indeed, I played The Witcher 3 for some time myself before realizing that it was practically soaking up as much time as a part time job, and so had to come to my senses and taper that time commitment down considerably.
The point being that adding even more content to a truly massive, sprawling gaming experience seemed to me like piling a few more buckets of dirt onto a landfill—not that this fine game should be compared to dirt, but you get the point. Wild Hunt is already so chock-full of deep, fascinating plotlines and spinoff quests/side missions that it raised the bar (for the PC gaming world and beyond) for narrative-driven gaming to new, lofty levels that has other gaming developers scrambling to catch up. So what could a Witcher 3 expansion possibly offer so soon…?
After playing the expansion for a few days I realized quite a bit; Hearts of Stone seeks to not only tie up story threads that were only breezed over in the main game, but also offers new content that fits in seamlessly with the high concept, high fantasy world of The Witcher franchise.
What differentiated The Witcher 3’s gameplay from the rest of the pack was that every quest that you went on felt like it genuinely had a real purpose with associated consequences. The AI characters that inhabit its world would explain why they needed something done; perhaps an item to be returned or loved one to be saved, and the accompanying cut scenes seem like something out of an involving fantasy novel or film. In short—you really came to feel for what happens to these characters instead of just viewing them as stale plot devices utilized to give you an artificially derived sense of purpose. It was a masterful move by the developers, CD Projekt RED, and one that really resonated with gamers.
Amazingly, Hearts of Stone only improves upon this by choosing to roll the dice and tinker with aspects of morality this time around. It offers a new major character, Olgierd von Everec, sort of an anti-hero more than anything else, that are ever-so-popular (at least with Americans) in recent times. He sort of reminds me of complex, slightly ethically-compromised characters like Wolverine or The Punisher from Marvel comics, but in a fantasy setting. Those cut from a high and mighty cloth may not be able to fully identify with him, but they most assuredly will understand where he’s coming from.
Characters returning to the mix include Gaunter O’ Dimm, who was a minor player in the original Witcher 3 storyline, but this time around, he’s been given much more of a meaty role to flesh out, and boy does he ever. Not to spoil things, but let’s just say he’s a fascinating fellow with a unique and compelling story arc. Fiery redheaded bombshell Shani also returns for some Days of Our Fantasy Lives-esque romance/drama, which I felt was a little too saccharine for my personal tastes but is there for folks who enjoy human interest stuff.
I, for one, felt that the expansion’s shorter length made it both more accessible, as well as possessing of a tighter, leaner plotline. Even the side-quests aren’t meandering and are more clearly articulated and defined. Those who love more of a sprawling, open-ended affair, such as is with the original game, might feel a little constrained with what Hearts of Stone has to offer. But I feel that the expansion has just as much content as many full-fledged games out there right now, and that many gamers may just have become spoiled with the hugeness of The Witcher 3. Whatever the case may be, the fact that CD Projekt RED gave Hearts of Stone a mere $9.99 price point (digital version) is a great thing, and just oozes value.
The visuals are more of the same, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing in this case; the original’s were eye-popping and Hearts of Stone’s are similarly gawk-inducing. I could never tire of seeing a far off castle in the distance with flocks of birds flying lazily through the air above it. The lighting in particular is truly a sight to behold and you almost feel as if you’re right there, walking or riding your trusty steed down briar-flanked rural roads, or over trickling streams. Those with 4k gaming capabilities will be in graphical heaven. The minimalist score only heightens the mood, and fits in well with the fantasy setting without being too overly dramatic or distracting.
Combat is also gorgeous, with flashing blade arcs slicing through the air. Weapons feel weighty and there is a satisfying clunk when your weapons strike armor or cleave through flesh and bone. Speaking of which (no pun intended) combat can be quite grisly and isn’t for the squeamish. Fortunately, each conflict feels like it has a purpose instead of just being relegated to cruelty or random acts of violence, such as in this year’s bloodbath offering, Hatred.
Hearts of Stone is a full-fledged, large expansion, in an age when many gaming companies are moving more toward releasing bits and pieces of content for overly-inflated prices. It’s refreshing to see a developer who obviously cares deeply about not only the lovingly-crafted world they’ve created, but also offering gamers the most value for their dollars. I would only hope that other devs follow suit and offer similar bang for our gaming bucks as well as continue to create compelling narrative-driven content that is constantly pushing the envelope with regards to creativity.
By now, every gamers is pretty much aware that The Witcher 3’s visuals are on the cusp of perfection; Hearts of Stone continues this tradition but they both require a hefty gaming rig to get a decent FPS. Consider the following:
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