Back in my day, the only way to get more out of your favourite video game was to buy an expansion pack. These were pre-“reliable internet” solutions to bugs and glitches that also brought new modes of gameplay, improved AI, new characters, new storylines, and new areas to explore. It really was as though you had expanded the game.
As time has passed, expansion packs have fallen by the wayside (though Maxis doesn’t seem to agree. Do you, Maxis?) and the provision of downloadable content (DLC) has become the norm. For most modern games, the DLC is a new weapon, a single new quest or a skin for a character- a far cry from the mass of content that classics like the Age of Empires II: The Conquerers expansion delivered back in 2000.
But fear not my weary traveller, CD Projekt RED, developer of the multi-award winning The Witcher 3 (a game that was released only a year ago this week but can already claim a cult status), are bringing the expansion pack back into vogue. In October 2015, they released the critically acclaimed Hearts of Stone Witcher 3 add-on adventure that featured a minimum 10 hours worth of new storylines, characters, and monsters, and they are soon to release the second and final expansion, Blood and Wine.
I sat down with Jamie Bury, lead animator of the Witcher 3 and Senior Animator of the Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine expansion packs, to discuss whether Blood and Wine lives up to the hype generated by its predecessor. “Like with Hearts of Stone, we didn’t want this expansion to be a case of being a couple of quests and then you’re done,” he says, “It had to be a significant addition to the game.”
With Blood and Wine intended to be a 20-30 hour experience with 14,000 lines of dialogue (compared to 6,000 lines of dialogue in Hearts of Stone), a significant addition, it certainly is.
The Witcher 3 is an open-world action role-playing game in which the player controls Geralt of Rivia -a Witcher (monster hunter)- as he fights monsters and completes quests across the Northern Kingdoms. Unlike with Hearts of Stone, Blood and Wine takes the player to a new region- Toussaint; a bright, vibrant, lush, french-inspired locale.
“This new region creates a bit of contrast,” explains Bury, “In the Witcher 3, there were only really 3 different locations and they were all quite similar in terms of land mass and the people… the people were all unhappy and miserable. So when you’re playing for such a sheer amount of time, it could be a bit depressing… the greyness, the darkness and the miserableness…”
“In Toussaint, you see the difference straight away- the trees and grass are much brighter, there is a fairytale castle, people walk around differently. The people are a bit more proud, walking with their chins up. Women walk around in these beautiful dresses with stylish umbrellas. The world is a lot brighter.”
At first glance, you would not believe that this expansion is set in the same world as a location as oppressive as the swamps of Velen. And I do not mean that in a negative way. The beauty of Toussaint is not at odds with the rest of the world, rather it is complementary. I cannot overstate how stunning this game looks (and I was playing on a 3-week old PC build that is apparently too yellowy and has already been improved upon).
However, Bury is quick to point out that despite the brightness of Toussaint, the “dark Witcher tone” is still present. Indeed, despite the flamboyant knights and some rolling green hills that Julie Andrews might like to sing about, the undercurrent of evil in Toussaint is noticeable immediately. You’re always keenly aware that the cellar of a vineyard or the highest tower of a fort could harbour a gruesome enemy.
“Setting the Witcher 3 in a place like Toussaint also meant we could step outside of our comfort zone and do something a little different in terms of characters and creatures,” notes Bury, who was responsible for the co-design and animation of many of the classic Witcher 3 creatures. Blood and Wine features 20 new creatures, and the title of the expansion gives a clue to which creatures may make up the main bulk of the game’s villains.
“The title, Blood and Wine, was inspired by the backstory of the Witcher. For vampires in the Witcher, blood is like alcohol. The high vampires can be drunk on blood, and this ties in with the French theme and the vineyards.”
The Witcher trilogy is renowned for its excellence in storytelling and for the team at CD Projekt Red, developing a captivating new storyline while remaining true to the history of the Witcher was at the core of their approach to Blood and Wine.
“We’ve always felt that the story in the Witcher 3 and its expansion packs needed to be as strong as it possibly could be,” says Bury, “the story always came first, then the characters, then the gameplay.”
Having only experienced 2 hours of Blood and Wine, I can’t speak to the quality of the entire narrative but the small portion I did experience, comprised a cast of diverse, charming characters and an engaging Brothers Grimm-esque plot.
And you don’t need to have completed the Witcher 3, to appreciate the story of this expansion. Where Hearts of Stone required previous knowledge of Geralt’s backstory, Blood and Wine is intended to be accessible to anyone who has completed the tutorial portion of the base game. This is evident from the beginning of the first quest when the Knights of Toussaint refer to Geralt as the one who “slayed the Griffin at White Orchard” (reference to a very early quest in the Witcher 3 base game). Further, players who have not quite reached level 30 (recommended level for Blood and Wine) with Geralt in their copy of the game, can load a pre-levelled Geralt for their adventures in the 90 new quests of Blood and Wine.
One feature that Bury is particularly keen to show off is the updated mutagen system, which boasts a much more intuitive and user-friendly interface. “The mutagen system can make Geralt’s abilities particularly powerful, and these abilities will carry across into the new game plus mode.” The way you invest in abilities has implications for the way you approach combat. For example, investing heavily in swordsmanship at the expense of defensive abilities makes every sword blow incredibly powerful but requires the dexterity to execute Dark Souls-like evasion.
Further opportunities to buff Geralt can be found at Corvo Bianco- a vineyard and estate bestowed upon Geralt, early on in the expansion. Corvo Bianco acts as a home base, and was developed in response to player feedback about the uncertainty of character arcs post- the Witcher 3 main story. Now Geralt has an established place in the world; somewhere to be when he is not on a contract.
Vineyard renovations (which come at the cost of precious gold) can provide different buffs (for example, upgrading the stables increases Roach’s max stamina) or provide a location for weapon and armour repair. Players can also display armour, hang paintings… and Geralt has his own bed! Bury seems pretty content with this feature.
Another feature that was hugely requested by fans was the ability to further customise Geralt’s armour, and Bury confirms that CD Projekt Red have complied with this request. “We have added a dye system,” he explains, “ Now you can dye all of your armour. If you want a coloured set of Geralt armour, then you can. I saw one of the girls on the animation team playing and she had Geralt in a pink outfit with a weird haircut… We’ve allowed for much more customisation.”
And, of course, what of Gwent? It has always amused me that despite the time-sensitive nature of his quests, Geralt is always willing to wager his hard earned gold on a trading card game match, and that he treats said matches as vehemently as he would a real battle. In Blood and Wine, there are new cards, new Gwent competitors, and a 5th Gwent deck makes an appearance- the Skellige deck (passive ability: Brings back 2 random unit cards from your own graveyard, on round 3). I questioned Bury about whether Gwent will receive its own app, similar to Hearthstone. “I can’t speak about that,” comes his reply- his tone left me wondering if that is due to ignorance or censorship. If only I had access to the Axii skill in real life…
This is looking to be a fabulous expansion, both in quantity and quality of content. With Blood and Wine, CD Projekt Red have delivered a plethora of engaging new quests, terrifying creatures, a diverse range of NPCs and new (and refined) game mechanics, all set against a visually stunning world that contrasts but does not conflict with the established Witcher settings and story arcs. This is a fitting conclusion to the Witcher 3, and one that all players should get their hands on. Pending success on some final tests, The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine expansion will be available from May 31st.