After an in-depth analysis of why The Witcher 3 sits atop so many top ten lists, we put the two major expansions under the microscope and see if they elevate the base game to something even higher.
My very first PC game review played it fairly safe. A video essay on The Witcher 3, an almost universally loved game, ending it with a high rating.
A good start, yes, and while my content has gotten more diverse since then, I did admittedly leave something out from my critical debut. In the DLC section of the video, I sing my praises for a few seconds and then move on; but I didn’t go into detail about why they were good, which nobody who calls themselves a critic should ever do. The Witcher 3’s two paid expansions – Hearts of Stone and Blood & Wine – are some of the finest pieces of downloadable content for any game – new or old – and here’s why.
Five months after the game was put out, and about four months after I had already put it down, the first expansion was released – and I already bought the season pass, so what did I have to lose?
Hearts of Stone is a relatively short, self-contained story line centered around a deal with the devil and repaying old debts. Our roguishly handsome white-haired protagonist is roped into assisting a near-immortal criminal with three seemingly impossible tasks; only when all three are completed will their freedom be returned.
Hearts of Stone has five main story quests and a very solid structure, and the whole story is told in a tightly woven package in about ten to twelve hours. New and old characters share the spotlight, and chills, thrills, and laughs are had by all.
After the exhaustingly long and occasionally forgettable main quest the vanilla game had on offer, it was wonderfully refreshing to play through a compact, character driven short story, much akin to the stories found in some of the Witcher novels. Olgierd von Everec, the man with the titular heart of stone, has a deep character arc, and the devilish Gaunter O’Dimm legitimately strikes fear into the player and NPC’s.
The first expansion offers more than just this tale, however. Eight side quests of main game quality, a slew of new treasure hunts, as well as a new and powerful NPC.
Geralt happens upon a foreign craftsman who offers the unique service of enchanting your gear; buffing it with unique and powerful attributes found nowhere else. A free magic shield upon entering combat? Sure. Make your heavy armor have the weight properties of medium armor? Absolutely! Have enemies ignited by fire explode on defeat, damaging nearby foes as well? Yeah, why the hell not!
Enchanting is expensive and time consuming, but offers a legitimate challenge and a unique method of powering up your build after the endgame. An excellent addition for many players, such as myself, who had already exhausted just about everything else there was to do in the base game. The best part of it all? This whole shebang would only run the player ten bucks.
Seven months later, a full year after The Witcher 3’s initial release, the second and last of the paid expansions was released. It was promised to be huge. Like, Shivering Isles or Taken King huge. I had my doubts, sure, we all did. Everyone has been spurned by the gaming industry at least once, and that particular type of disappointment is not easily forgotten, or forgiven. My doubt was misplaced, however, as Blood & Wine was not only huge…
it was basically a medium-sized sequel in a twenty dollar package.
While Hearts of Stone took place in the fringes of the vanilla world with a few new locations, Blood & Wine literally added an entirely new world map comparable to about half the size of the Velen & Novigrad region, and about twice as densely packed with monsters, characters, cities, and places to explore.
Geralt receives a royal summon from the Duchess of Toussaint, the south of France countryside equivalent to compliment the dour dampness of Geralt’s familiar stomping grounds. Once there, players are tasked with hunting down a murderous vampire responsible for the brutal murders of local knightly celebrities. But, of course, not everything is as it seems, and there is quite the mystery to unravel.
Blood & Wine has over 15 main quests, and two branching paths from the ~75% mark to the end, making replays more enticing. Having done all three endings, I can say that they are all quite good, but for very different reasons.
The Duchess Anna Henrietta, Regis the lovable vampire, and the noble Damian de la Tour are just a few of the fully fleshed out characters who accompany the player on this grand adventure. A full blown Knight’s Tourney, a fancy wine conspiracy, and a full-on war between monsters and knights await – and that’s just the main dish.
Side content is staggering – pages upon pages of secondary quests, new Witcher contracts, an absolute mountain of new weapons and armor, and two endgame upgrading methods rather than Hearts of Stone’s one.
The first is pretty simple. It’s a new craftsman who can upgrade your weapons and armor from the previous cap of ‘Mastercrafted’ to ‘Grandmaster’. This not only changes the stats considerably, but also changes the appearances of the Witcher gear, and they look damn good.
Yes, it’s very expensive – but well worth the effort.
On the other end of the spectrum, the third and final method of powering up is via Mutations, unlocked in Blood & Wine through a series of difficult side quests. Mutations are much different in the sense that they give Geralt himself new abilities, rather than his equipment. And similar to enchanting, you can’t get these anywhere else. You can freeze enemies with the magic “Aard” sign, make your killing blows guarantee a dismemberment or a finisher, or even gain a ‘Last Stand’ ability where you get a second chance after your health hits zero.
These mutations are deadly and incredibly powerful, and understandably hard to obtain, requiring perk points gained by leveling up rather than money or physical resources.
Grandmaster gear and mutations offer even more new and exciting ways to enhance your endgame and have even more fun beyond the limits of what the crafted experiences can offer.
These two expansions can teach the gaming industry a few important things about DLC.
Firstly, that DLC should address and not repeat flaws in the base game. As much as I love the OG main quest, it’s length, complexity, and amount of characters (some a lot more forgettable than others) are valid criticisms, and these mistakes are not repeated in post-release content.
Second, pricing and amount of content. Being ten and twenty dollars respectively, the $24.99 season pass feels like using the five finger discount for the 50+ hours of stuff to do. If they had a tip jar, you can bet I would be in CD Projekt Red’s top tier. It feels bad to get ripped off, but it feels way better to get a damn good deal.
Lastly, giving the players reasons to keep going. Expanding your endgame is tricky; too much and it’s a grind and not worth the time. Too little and the player becomes overpowered, trivializing everything that’s left to come. With the enchanting, grandmaster, and mutation systems, the player can choose to dedicate time and resources to powering up way beyond what was possible originally, with said time and resources paying off in spades. More importantly, keeping players engaged and giving them higher and more exciting goals to work towards.
CD Projekt Red proved their worth as developers when the game was released, yes, but they achieved the more difficult goal of proving themselves as a company post-release. Sixteen pieces of small DLC for free, updates and fixes across platforms, two stellar paid expansions, and best of all – continued support for the game after they had gotten our money. Not every company can say that about themselves, and I look to the horizon and eagerly anticipate their next big IP.
Thanks very much for your time. Hopefully someone has been swayed to give these incredible expansions a go. If you’re looking for more, head over to my YouTube Channel, and follow me on Twitter for updates about what’s coming!