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The Witcher 3 is one of the best war games there's ever been

The thing that The Witcher 3 does best, better than most other games, is war. This doesn’t sound remarkable until you consider the huge number of games that are specifically about war – that make you do war and be in it – and that war itself never appears in The Witcher, at least not directly. We see battlefields and garrisons, occupations and barricades, but never open conflict. War is in a constant state of passing through, enormous and unseen, always at some distant proximity, but written into the land of The Witcher 3 and the people on it, in magic and misery.

Conflict in the world of The Witcher is born of a political situation so complicated that there is an NPC in Vizima whose only function is to explain to you what side everybody is on. He’s great, actually – Ambassador var Atlre, one of the dozens of quietly human characters that help give the game its sense of remarkable depth. He’s on to a loser here, though, because without obvious heroes and villains his dry account of frontiers and fighting remains impenetrable to all but the Witcher faithful. The war is confusing, indistinct – and that’s about right, actually, because the story of war The Witcher tells is specifically one of ordinary people, for whom war is confusing, and details superfluous.

Actually it’s misleading to call it a story – The Witcher 3 is more like a collection of stories, a chorus of fables and morality plays. So much of the character of the game resides in the weary, accumulated wisdom of the side quests and incidental plotlines that Geralt stumbles into. Here decisive ethical strokes are invariably parried, while a combination of duty, hunger, fear and idealism asserts over and over again the impossibility of neat and total fixes. One of the game’s first quests, Missing In Action, has Geralt searching through corpses on a fresh battlefield looking for the brother of a nervous villager. He finds the man nearby, hiding with a deserter from the enemy army – the two wounded soldiers had helped each other from the field, and now the found brother would shelter his unlikely friend. It falls to Geralt to make the imperfect choice – to murder the Nilfgaardian, or convince a man to put his family at risk for a stranger.