This is not a review of Witcher 3. It's racked up so many Game Of The Year awards that you probably know all about the game already even if you haven't played it, and you'll have heard most of what I could say before (and seen that picture of Geralt in the bathtub a hundred times over). What I want to highlight about Witcher 3 is this:
It's really, really beautiful.
Big ticket role-playing games often sell themselves on the verisimilitude of their worlds and the atmospheres they evoke, and dedicate an enormous amount of work towards realisation of this goal. The magic of Witcher 3 is that it manages to make all this effort look, well, effortless. The world Geralt travels is beautiful and fascinating, but also naturalistic and convincing. Ridges and hills and cliffs and rivers look like they were formed by geological processes, not game designers.
Towns and cities are appropriately extensive and populated, in stark contrast to the Bethesda Softworks approach of pretending six prefab buildings make a 'regional capital'. While the game's nigh-excessive number of quests eventually involve a lot of these cities, they never give the impression of having been constructed in service of the gameplay. Novigrad, the largest city in the game, has its fish market and docks and slums and warehouses and various industrial suburbs, a lot of which exist just because the infrastructure of such a city would require them. There are no quests or even specific dialogue associated with the dyers' workshop or brickmaker outside Novigrad, but you can visit them (or just speed past them) and soak in the atmosphere of a working late medieval, early modern city.
There's a sad beauty to even the most deprived and war-torn areas of the game, a beauty that never lets you forget the human impact of the decay. To a great extent, Geralt's role as a travelling monster slayer reinforces this – his job is to fix the symptoms of social and political catastrophe, whether it's the corpse-eating ghouls attracted to battlefields or the cursed spectres that resulted from some personal tragedy spurred by the feudal system. That it all takes place in this beautiful world isn't a contradiction but an effective juxtaposition, enhancing the melancholy atmosphere of the game.
Dynamic weather systems are old hat these days, but Witcher 3 presents weather conditions I'd never seen in a game before, or certainly not to this level. As someone who grew up in Scotland, scattered showers on sunny days were almost the norm, but until playing Witcher 3 I'd never seen a game represent these - how it can be simultaneously rainy and sunny, and how moving cloud shadows can darken or brighten the whole environment.
The biggest departure from this melancholy is in the game's Blood & Wine expansion – itself big enough to have been a full-price standalone RPG, of course. Geralt's trip to the southern land of Toussaint (a kind of mix of Southern France and Italy; maybe Piedmont or Savoy) is entirely different in tone, and this is reflected in the landscape. It's a generally happier story – even if it does involve vampires and murder – and the colour palette of the environment is generally brighter, more vibrant. Rolling fields of lush green under duck-egg blue skies, and even the buildings are gaily painted and with pretty red-tiled Mediterranean style roofs. It's warm and pleasant to just wander around in, even if there's just as much monster-killing as before.
I know that as time goes on I'll forget a lot of the fine details of my time with Witcher 3. Nuances of character, specific events, memorable lines of dialogue; they'll all fragment and get fuzzy in my memory. And video game graphics will inevitably continue to advance; our concept of 'photorealism' will change, inevitably. But good art design goes a long way, and what I'll always remember about the game is how much of a pleasure it was to experience that world, and how beautiful it was. I'll remember the sun showers, and the moon behind wispy grey clouds, and foggy snow-topped mountains in the distance.
I'm okay with that.