The Witcher 3 is many things: bloody, brutal and totally brilliant. With up to 200 hours of epic gameplay, the outstanding action RPG is certainly not brief. And there’s even more of it to come.
Having already announced 13 pieces of Witcher 3 DLC for free, CD Projekt RED has now released the Hearts of Stone (HoS) expansion. It’s the first of two self-contained new adventures from the Polish developer with the ominously-titled Blood & Wine set to follow next year. Much to our delight, HoS seems to be a considerably more cheeky affair.
Trio of intrigue
It’s difficult to discuss the main quest-line of HoS without giving away its many red herrings and twists, so we’ll try and avoid spoilers here. Essentially, the expansion revolves around a trio of characters, some of whom you’ll already be familiar with.
The story is kicked off Olgierd Von Everic, a powerful, cultured yet fickle David Beckham-alike who you will quickly love to hate, or hate to love. Inseparably tied into Olgierd’s fate is a familiar, minor face from the first hour of the core game - one you and protagonist Geralt might not remember at first glance - and who exudes even more mystery and fickle power. Another key figure from Geralt’s distant past (and the original Witcher game) also crops back up in the form of the young medic Shani.
All three characters are utterly captivating in terms of their snappy dialogue, convincing ‘acting’, and the way the quests delve thoroughly into their backstories and motivations. They’ll make you feel utterly entrenched in a grimy world with tricks up its sleeve that even take the seasoned Geralt by surprise. Both Olgierd and he-who-I-shall-not-name are two of the best characters in the whole series and one of my few complaints is that they’ll probably be constrained to this little slice of the universe.
HoS will also be remembered for one quest in particular. Geralt is tasked by Olgierd with showing his brother (who’s been a bit down, shall we say) a great night out, and with the help of Shani, has the idea of taking him to her friends wedding. Only, the brother Vlodimir is more than a bit down, he’s six feet under.
Upon resurrecting his spirit, the two of you figure out the only way for the fun-loving playboy Vlodimir to truly enjoy himself (he’s got a bad case of look-but-can’t-touch) is to possess Geralt and accompany Shani to the wedding as her escort. What follows is a set of sub-quests all tied in with the wedding that had me laughing out loud as the dour Geralt was transformed into a toffish frat boy who’s hell-bent on having a big night before the clock strikes midnight and Geralt escorts him back to the decidedly less booze-filled crypt.
Completely by accident, I discovered the best way to play this quest, by stepping up first to a table of halflings for a game of Gwent that I emphatically lost. As a forfeit, I had to put on a pair of furry donkey ears, which, in every bit of dialogue, someone would dare comment on. One man asked if I had any other horse-parts ‘down below’.
Laughs a plenty
Seeing a pissed up Geralt/Vlodimir deliver a speech about how he didn’t usually mix with peasants covered in mud and pig-shit while wearing a pair of stupid ears gave me worrying flashbacks to my uni days. It was hilarious and touching moment, seeing the ghost of a man cut down in his prime having one last hurrah at Geralt’s expense.
It’s a great sign that the developers feel they can have this much fun with the Witcher 3’s expansion packs. It would be weird if Blood & Wine was any more comedic but the more CD Projekt RED feel they can experiment with new ideas now the main story is over, the better.
Of course, in and around all the hi-jinks and new story content is the usual slew of monster hunts, side-missions, new items, Gwent cards and vendors, including a solitary Runecrafter with a decent side-quest that ends with the ability to upgrade your gear in powerful new ways. It doesn’t reinvent the horse, but it really does give it some fancy new stirrups.
Familiar combat ticks
The only thing this expansion doesn’t absolutely nail, is the chance to mix up the technical gameplay. In the grand scheme of things it’s only a niggle, but it would have been great for the sake of variety for Geralt to earn a radical new ability or skill-tree. Or if he was to have met a number of more unusual beasts.
There is a moment in the first couple of hours when you’re forced to fight a wizard with some unexpectedly powerful moves, without your usual gear, that hints at the kind of thing that could have set the combat encounters apart from the main game. Also, budding Witchers will have to wait until the following (apparently even bigger) expansion Blood & Wine to actually explore a new area. Whilst HoS repurposes existing acreage effectively, this issue could blur the line for some about whether it’s is an actual expansion or just DLC.
Witcher 3: Heart of Stone Verdict
Whether what you call it matters is another issue. In terms of pure value for money, which is always paramount with expansion packs, HoS probably represents an average of 8-12 hours (assuming you don’t rush through and do the main side-quests) which equates to less than a pound per hour of excellent gameplay.
If you’re already a big Witcher fan this is an absolute no brainer, and even if you thought you were quite happily done with the game, it’s worth the asking price just to steam though the main story in order to experience some of the best, most unusual characters, writing and quests in the series yet.