I push through the trees, bursting into a clearing in the thicket on my way to the waypoint I’d marked on my map earlier. The dirt road that had became a narrow path now abruptly halts at the worn and weathered gates to a long abandoned ruin, the roof collapsed in on its furthest side. I venture through what remains of the doorway, using my witcher sense to quickly scope out my surroundings for any unusual noises or, more crucially, treasure, and instead an object directly ahead of me glows a bright ominous red, signalling its importance loud and clear. I focus my gaze at the object in front of me and it becomes obvious as to what it is – a man’s dead body, slumped against the wall. I investigate further, and discover a note and a key in his possession, hinting of further treasure hidden deeper within the ruin….
The Witcher 3 is full of hundreds of moments like that, little carefully scripted scenarios that you can stumble upon as you explore the beautifully crafted world, pulling you in to what is one of the most believable and carefully constructed virtual worlds I have ever had the pleasure of exploring, and I loved every minute. The Hearts of Stone expansion continues in the same vein, the above just another example of one of many seemingly inconsequential side quests that you can discover as you venture around the world map.
The thing about the Witcher 3 is how incredibly immersive it is. The above quest was a short one, ending when I cleared the tower of the harpies that had taken roost there and once I had looted the locked treasure box that was unlocked by the key I had found in the dead guy’s possession. Later I found a note on another dead body miles away from this abandoned ruin (there are lots of bodies to be found in the Witcher 3) that made reference to the harpy tower I had previously cleared, filling in the storyline around why the guy in the entrance way was dead, and how the harpies had come to inhabit the ruins – all this from a simple chance encounter as I had satisfied my slightly OCD desire to turn all the question marks on the map into actual locations, a habit I had picked up from my main game play through as I knew that this helps massively in the long run as it works to unlock fast travel points for use later on.
However that’s not to say exploring and venturing out on horseback has lost it’s charm – whistling to summon my trusty stead Roache is still as enjoyable as it has ever been, with horse combat having been tweaked in the numerous updates since I last played so that should you encounter enemies while on horse back, the enemy you are about to hit gains a faint shimmer, allowing you to better target a selected foe. Travelling around on Roache is also a handy way to discover the many secret and well hidden locations that more times than not lead you off on the hunt for treasure or usable items. This was always the beauty (or danger depending on your “real-world” responsibilities) of playing the Witcher 3 in that what you considered to be a five minute quest would suddenly turn into a five hour one – so much so that although I am well into my sixth hour playing The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – Hearts of Stone, I have hardly touched the main storyline, so much is the charm of exploring and discovering areas for yourself.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – Hearts of Stone is anything you would want from an expansion – new lore, new locations, new items and enemies to discover, building on what was already a truly amazing game. You can decide to play The Heart’s of Stone as a stand alone adventure or by continuing on from a previous save, which was the way I decided to play. I loaded up my level 35 Geralt who had seemingly been waiting patiently where I left him upon completion of the main storyline over two months ago, set off to the Seven Cats Inn and accessed the quest board to kick off the Hearts of Stone expansion. Many of the enemies I fought were levelled around the level 34 mark (and many of the new quests suggest a level of around 32) so continuing a previous game might not be a bad shout, but it is nice to have the option should you wish to make use of it.
After a few initial missteps as I reacquainted myself with the Witcher 3’s control scheme I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly it all came back to me, flipping between signs on the fly or applying potions that I had set up to my hot keys, and it is a true credit to the way the game is created that the expansion can run alongside any current campaign you might have running, working just like a regular quest in the main game.
As I’ve already stated I spend my time exploring the beautiful world that Geralt of Rivia inhabits, tracking the odd quest but preferring to stumble across quests dynamically, and the game allows and actively encourages this, tracking your chosen quest but not holding your hand or steamrolling you into completing things in a certain order or given way. What little I have completed of the main storyline I have done so by chance, wondering upto a large estate on my search for treasure to loot or monster nests to destroy and a cutscene kicked in, wherein I was introduced to the main protagonist of the expansion, one Olgierd von Everec, and it was clear that there is more to this storyline than meets the eye. I can’t go too far into spoiler territory because that is about as far as I have got, having spent my time completing the numerous side quests, such as defeating a new band of soldiers that have set up bandit camps in the area, or helping a travelling Runewright (a new tradesmen that can make use of the runes you collect on your travels to imbue your weapons and armour with stronger attributes and abilities) set up shop by the Upper Mill, or retrieve armour crafting diagrams for a merchant who had been mugged on his way from Ofieri. All are carefully crafted jaunts equally worthy or your time as the main quest, with new weapons and crafting diagrams available as your reward upon completion.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – Hearts of Stone is a great addition to what is already one of the stand out titles of this generation, and will be no doubt lauded as a modern classic for years to come. If you enjoyed the Witcher 3 then buying the Hearts of Stone is a no brainer, and with more to come in the Blood and Wine expansion that is yet to be released, there has never been a better time to experience the Wild Hunt. I’m off to explore the Oxenfurt sewers, apparently there is a monster who resides there worthy of my attention…
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