Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Witcher 3's Add-Ons

The Witcher 3 is good. Like, it’s really good. Maybe it’s a bit overrated--I certainly wouldn’t say it’s the greatest RPG ever made, nor even that it’s the greatest RPG of 2015--but it’s still pretty damn great. And when I say a game is pretty damn great even though it has breakable weapons and the horror known as Sailing, that means something.

But even if the game proper is damn fine stuff, that doesn’t necessarily mean its DLCs and expansions will be. Fire Emblem 14, Shin Megami Tensei 4-1 and 4-2, Borderlands 2, and Fallout 4, among many others, certainly show that games of all kinds of high quality can still produce some pretty lousy add-on content. Then again, as Neverwinter Nights 2 shows, it’s also possible (though far less common) for an RPG’s add-on to completely eclipse the main game in terms of quality.

So the question is: how do the add-ons of The Witcher 3 hold up? Do they keep things going strong? Do they falter? Do they actually manage to surpass the excellent main story? And do you give even the slightest crap at all about these DLC rants of mine? Let’s discover the answers to all but 1 of those questions.

Contract: Missing Miners: When people think of the add-ons to The Witcher 3, they tend to only think of the 2 major expansions. And we’ll definitely get to them! But, there were quite a few free little DLCs released for the game, too. Some were unimportant stuff like alternate costumes and new armor, which I’m not going to bother rating because they’re meaningless cosmetic and/or gameplay changes rather than anything substantial, but there were also several new sidequests to be had, too.

The first of these, Contract: Missing Miners, is fine. That’s all there is to say about it. It’s adequate as a sidequest, fitting the lore of the game and giving Geralt yet 1 more decision to make about who he should and shouldn’t help. I do like that it adds another troll interaction with the game; I’m quite fond of Witcher series trolls. And hey, it’s free, which is always good. So, good job with this one. Moving on!

Fool’s Gold: Like Contract: Missing Miners, this DLC’s a freebie. It’s a bit longer and larger than the last, and it, too, is pretty decent, providing yet another example of the miniature adventures that Geralt just seems to stumble over the way other people sometimes trip over the occasional rock in their path. I mean, I guess I will say that I don’t like it as much as Contract: Missing Miners, because the previous DLC gives you a good feeling for doing a good turn for a troll just trying to defend his home, while in this sidequest, the people you save are a bunch of hostile, ignorant jackasses...but this is The Witcher 3. That kind of quest conclusion ain’t exactly a rarity, and fits the setting, so I certainly don’t hold it against Fool’s Gold. So yeah, overall, decent.

Skellige’s Most Wanted: Now this sidequest is really quite good! Another free DLC, Skellige’s Most Wanted sees Geralt walk into a trap set by some monsters who have heard of his deeds and want to see that he’s punished for them. What I really like about this add-on is that its climax, in which Geralt defends himself against his attackers’ accusations, really does a great job in laying out in clear terms the true nature of Geralt and the Witcher profession, as a bridge between 2 worlds, not just a slayer of 1. The nature of what is and is not a ‘monster’, and how the role of monster-slayer should be seen in an ever-evolving world of men, has been 1 of the more interesting questions posed by the Witcher trilogy, a dilemma that Geralt has puzzled at since the very first game and still grapples with balancing even now. I also like that Geralt defends himself based on your own actions and whether you, as the player, have understood the deeper levels of being a Witcher through what you’ve had Geralt do during various moments in the game. For a tiny little free sidequest, Skellige’s Most Wanted accomplishes a lot as another look at the philosophy of the series, a confirmation of Geralt’s character, and a validation of the player’s choices.

Scavenger Hunt: Wolf School Gear: Meh, I have no thoughts on this 1 either way. It’s a free DLC again, so I can’t fault it, but there’s also only barely enough story content to even give it a look. It’s the same as the rest of the armor set scavenger hunt quests: you look for some stuff, in finding it you find notes or somesuch from long ago, the end. The bit of lore you uncover with this is fine, but doesn’t really capture my attention at all. So I don’t really have anything positive to say about it, but there’s nothing negative, either. It’s just there, and free.

Where the Cat and Wolf Play: This is another good free DLC sidequest. I liked Skellige’s Most Wanted a little more, but this is definitely solid stuff. In this, Geralt discovers an almost entirely slaughtered village, and has a decision to make once he finds the culprit. As a sidequest story, it’s pretty good, not great, but what makes it stand out to me is that the decision Geralt has to make in regards to the killer is personal to him, for in many ways the killer’s situation bears similarities to certain experiences Geralt himself has had, and sins he has committed. The decision to be made is still pretty clearly a right-and-wrong situation, not as grey as most of the stuff in this game, but the fact that it personally ties to Geralt makes it compelling all the same. So Where the Cat and Wolf Play gets a thumbs-up from me.

Also, the reward the village survivor will give you if you return to her at a later time to check in with her? Love it.

Hearts of Stone: Having done with the free DLC sidequests, we can get to the add-ons most people think of first: Hearts of Stone, and Blood and Wine.

Hearts of Stone is pretty damn good. This expansion adds a sizable new quest with a good story that’s interesting, has several fun twists, and raises questions about human nature the way that The Witcher series is fond of doing. Hearts of Stone also pleasantly references and expands on the trilogy’s events and characters in ways you don’t expect--it’s nice that it brings Shani back, who we haven’t seen since the first Witcher game (although I’m not a fan of how hard it is not to sex her up during this adventure), I like that there’s a moment in which we get a little insight into Vesemir’s past, and even though I played this game long after the fan community was busily reporting to one another their ways of breaking the game’s economy, I still appreciate and chuckle at the metahumor of Geralt being accosted by a tax collector. I do so love when developers put in subtle little nods to their fanbase like that. It’s part of what made Mass Effect 3’s Citadel DLC so great.

Of course, the real stars of this DLC are its central figures, Olgierd von Everec and Gaunter O’Dimm. Olgierd’s a character whose after-the-fact development is handled well, and provides a good question of morality and redemption to us in the choice Geralt must make regarding him at the DLC’s finale. And Gaunter O’Dimm? He’s an awesome villain, far more compelling than any other in the Witcher series--as well he should be! Gaunter is a fantastic portrayal of the Devil (or a Devil-figure, at least): unique, charismatic, imposing, terrifying, able to command your attention with so little effort and fanfare. This guy definitely feels like a portrayal of an old-fashioned perception of the Devil, and CD Projekt Red very skillfully builds his mystery, his charm, and his foreboding.

The only real downside to this expansion is that Geralt himself isn’t especially important to it. I mean, he’s the essential cog that moves all things forward, as any RPG hero is (well, almost any RPG hero...Final Fantasy 12’s Vaan was pretty damn superfluous), but beyond just doing what he has to as the protagonist, Geralt as a character doesn’t really seem all that significant a part to it all. Still, that flaw is far outweighed by the rest of the add-on’s merits, so in my opinion, Hearts of Stone is well worth the $10 it cost at time of release.

Blood and Wine: Well, this is different. But nice. The Blood and Wine expansion brings Geralt to another land, the duchy of Touissant, and it is very, very different from the Witcher trilogy we’ve known so far. This place is bright, colorful, and beautiful, and its people, though they have their problems, actually seem to largely be happy. If the rest of the Witcher is an unflinching look at the gritty, dirty nature of the medieval age, then Blood and Wine gives us a much appreciated, much needed snapshot of the medieval age as we like to remember it: an exciting time of wonder and chivalry.

As jarring as the setting is, though, it’s but a tiny part of this expansion’s commanding presence. Blood and Wine is excellently crafted, managing to be a brand new and exciting adventure, while also feeling like a perfect finale to the Witcher trilogy. Its plot is a solid and engaging one of vampires and vengeance, of the power of love to be a force both of corruption and of salvation. Its characters are compelling, particularly Regis and Anna Henrietta. It’s huge, with lots to explore and do, sidequests to perform both small and large. It’s full of meta-references to the games’ fandom and audiences in general, and it has tons of callbacks and connections to the rest of the Witcher trilogy. It’s got a lot of neat extras to enjoy, from Geralt’s vineyard to the illusion land you briefly traipse that’s both an amusing and somewhat sad look at fairytales left neglected. It’s got good development for Geralt, too--the use of Regis was a really smart move by CD Projekt Red, because as a character we’ve never seen before, we get the benefit of a new, well-written personality to meet and get to know, but as a character who has a history of friendship with Geralt, we also get to see more of Geralt’s past from the novels revealed to us, and used skillfully as a way to cement Regis in our minds as a buddy of Geralt’s to the same extent as we would think of Zoltan, Dandelion, Iorveth, or Roche.

Honestly, I could go into this expansion a lot, but ultimately, there’s really only 1 thing to say about it: Blood and Wine is really good. It’s really good on its own, it’s really good as a new and refreshing adventure for Geralt, and it’s really good as a final note to the Witcher trilogy. It values the history of the trilogy even as it takes the time to reveal 1 final part of the Witcher world to us for the first time, and it feels very much like the final love letter from CD Projekt Red to both the series that brought them into the world of game development, and to the dedicated fans who have loved that series. Blood and Wine premiered at a $20 price tag, which is pretty high, but not an unusual price for a proper expansion. And I can say pretty confidently that it is, was, and will be worth that and more. As a send-off add-on to a good, long saga, you won’t find many better than Blood and Wine.

And that’s that. So how does The Witcher 3 fare overall on the add-on scene? Unsurprisingly, it’s top-notch. Rare is the RPG which not only has high quality add-ons, but has consistency in that high quality.

And you may be wondering: if that’s the case, why bother to make 1 of these rants about its DLC to begin with? I mean, if there’s no reason not to get any of its add-ons, then what purpose does this serve? Well, I wanted to make this rant for me, and for anyone who, after having read my DLC rants and/or played the add-ons of the same games as I have, feels the way that I do. See, if I had to rate my overall experience with DLCs, expansions, and the like, over the course of all the RPGs I’ve played which possess such things, I’d have to say that it’s been overall negative. There have been a lot of great side stories, true, but there have been more mediocre and poor ones, and more often an RPGs’ add-ons will disappoint than delight. Even when you find a jewel like Fallout 4’s Far Harbor or Borderlands 2’s Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep, it’s frequently hidden among subpar or even outright poor-quality peers. But a game like The Witcher 3, whose developers and writers made sure to keep going the extra mile right to the bitter end with their add-ons, really gives me hope for the DLC scene and keeps me going. Great and consistent quality in add-ons like this is possible, and maybe, just maybe, this will be the standard, rather than the exception, some day. And I want to make my appreciation for this consistent level of quality, when such a thing is so much less common than it should be, publicly known. Doubtless the next game whose DLC I rant about will be back to the usual disappointing slog, but for now, I’m satisfied by The Witcher 3’s add-ons better than I have been by an RPG for quite some time.

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