The Witcher 3: When Visual Compromise is a Good Thing
Graphics aren’t everything on current gen, even if the hype says otherwise.
Controversy, it seems, is no stranger to the gaming industry. While the same could be said for just about any enterprise, game developers are under constant scrutiny from not just investors and publishers but from fans as well to deliver the best product possible. It doesn’t help that many developers, especially the triple-A studios, are under pressure to deliver that high-end 1080p/60 FPS experience to validate consumers’ purchases of the Xbox One/PS4. It won’t be long before the desire to validate shifts towards sustaining interest in the franchise as a whole and while both are important priorities, the former is easily more important right now.
CD Projekt RED, developer of The Witcher franchise and currently working on Cyberpunk 2077 as well, occupy a rather interesting position. This is a studio that has chosen to focus on specific platforms in the past to crank out exceptional releases and still attain financial success along with critical acclaim. When it revealed The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt for PS4, Xbox One and PC, there was an almost universal love for the game’s visuals. CD Projekt has built up a reputation for delivering on previous promises and its outlook indicated that it wanted to build the prettiest RPG out there without fail.
"Shortly thereafter, gameplay shots and media began to emerge that indicated that The Witcher 3 wasn't quite the visual stunner we had been waiting for."
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was delayed from a late 2014 release to February 2015 in order to further polish the game. This hadn’t drawn much ire or attention since no fixed release date had been provided until then. Would it make it to 2014? Would it move to 2015 as many other titles before it? There was uncertainty and thus, not much of a fuss when a fixed date was given.
When the game was delayed a second time, the response was…intriguing to say the least. While many consumers would have railed against a game for a delay, recent launch controversies concerning games like Halo: The Master Chief Collection, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and Assassin’s Creed: Unity have made one appreciate delays all the more. It also helped that CD Projekt RED stated the very reason for the delay was to iron out bugs. The game’s content had already been locked and really, after offering several weeks of free DLC, what would a few more months be for the perfect release?
Shortly thereafter, gameplay shots and media began to emerge that indicated that The Witcher 3 wasn’t quite the visual stunner we had been waiting for. It’s all subjective of course – is there any denial that it’s still one of the best looking open world, action RPGs out there even without a 60 FPS frame rate or running only at 900p on the Xbox One? But suffice to say that fans had “had enough” and finally started complaining.
It’s interesting because this is one issue that gamers seemingly don’t want to compromise on. Recent surveys have indicated that one of the bigger reasons people purchase a PS4 is for the 1080p resolution. However, the logic goes that if you’re purchasing a PS4 or Xbox One, you expect the very best visuals, no compromise.
But what if the visuals are “compromised” to ensure the best gameplay experience? Is a version of The Witcher 3 that only looks and plays great as compared to looking like a masterpiece but handling like a wreck not preferable? On the other hand, one can consider that CD Projekt RED had shot itself in the foot by showcasing the original vision and hyping it up as much in the first place. It certainly doesn’t help that the developer promised the game would look far better than the earliest released screenshots.
"When you think about Watch Dogs' visual de-evolution, it's easy to make the same comparison. But the debate once again comes back to the kind of game it ultimately was rather than the visuals."
There’s still a paucity of information available though. CD Projekt RED has recently released footage of the PC version of The Witcher 3 and it looks amazing, though arguably still not that close to the game’s “original” vision.
In the end, it all comes back to managing expectations, on both the side of the consumers as well as the developers. One can immediately remember how Sega’s Aliens: Colonial Marines received significant backlash for the final version of the game looking significantly worse than previous preview gameplay footage. The difference in these cases is that CD Projekt RED’s game hasn’t changed that significantly in visual quality nor has the developer tried to hide the changes (which would have been far worse).
When you think about Watch Dogs’ visual de-evolution, it’s easy to make the same comparison. But the debate once again comes back to the kind of game it ultimately was rather than the visuals. Watch Dogs was an unmitigated disaster in terms of bugs and gameplay issues when it released (topped only by Assassin’s Creed: Unity) so the change in visuals, while disappointing, was a secondary issue. Suffice to say, fans might have accepted a game that still looked good without all the issues and was still fun to play. But when you throw in all the issues along with the change in visuals, it’s left to consumers to wonder exactly what the priority was in development.
For now, priorities on The Witcher 3 seem to be on delivering the best gameplay experience possible while also best presenting its world in the moments that matter. Not even Grand Theft Auto 5 looked good all the time so we’ll have to wait and see just how much The Witcher 3 shines in those moments. Can’t the power of the PS4 and Xbox One instead be used to showcase a world that isn’t possible on previous generation consoles? A world where stories, quests, combat, NPCs and player interaction intertwine in a meaningful way while still maintaining an epic scale? In that case, the compromise on visuals, however slight, would be worth it.