Within the first two hours of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt's upcoming expansion, I fought three bosses, angered a royal family, prevented a beheading, committed a beheading, battled the spirits of a legendary bloodline and attended a wedding while possessed by a sarcastic ghost.
There are still eight more hours of content I haven't touched.
Hearts of Stone, The Witcher 3's first paid expansion, bolsters a game that didn't need any help to begin with. But as with the rest of CD Projekt Red's massive RPG, the new content is well written, well paced and replete with vibrant characters offering nuanced quests. I'm hesitant to detail my journey too much, as spoilers would ruin its impact -- but this expansion seems to have it all: backstabbing, political intrigue and even comic relief.
This new content is also easy to access in the open world. The recommended character level sits around 30, CD Projekt told us during a recent demo, and can be completed before or after you finish the main game. In fact, you initiate it much like any number of side quests: by reading a notice on a town bulletin board. From there, it propels you forward, introducing new characters and storylines with various options outside of the main narrative. GameSpot video host Danny O'Dwyer played the expansion as well, and experienced quests I didn't see at all.
Both of us, however, accepted a particular Witcher contract. Rumors existed of a malicious beast attacking people in the sewers, and someone named Olgierd von Everec wanted it dead. And as a Witcher, protagonist Geralt was the one best equipped to get the job done.
But as is often the case in The Witcher 3, things took a sharp turn. I met Shani, a scholar from previous Witcher games, whose motives for chasing the beast were unclear. Shani's dialogue is sharp and cutting -- you can tell she's smarter than Geralt -- and that gap affects conversations more than once. I got the sense Shani was dumbing down her vocal skills on purpose. I also got the sense that Geralt noticed. And much of the give-and-take between them, these two characters who've known each other for the entire trilogy, was endearing and sincere.
But there was still a beast to track, so we slogged through the sewers until we found it. And it was massive. Unlike other monsters, this one didn't fall into the archetypes other Witcher contracts might: this wasn't a wraith or a griffin or a slimy drowner. This was something else. And again, I don't want to spoil anything, but as a boss fight, this creature was versatile and difficult to bring down. But when I finally finished it, the story took another sharp turn. As it turns out, von Everec, the contract giver, had ulterior motives of his own. At this point, I stopped trying to analyse Hearts of Stone, and let it pull me forward on its own whims.
It was here when the expansion's breadth of content made itself known. There are various paths to go down, and differing plot threads to chase. I took another quest from von Everec, who asked me to bring his brother out for a day of partying, which brought us both to a wedding. This scene was among CD Projekt Red's best, with hilarious encounters well suited for some sort of fantasy sitcom. It also served as welcome comic relief.
My co-worker Danny chose a different quest involving a heist. He gathered a crew, walked through the planning stages, and carried out the scheme to great effect. And charming as the wedding was, I can't wait to see the heist myself.
The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone is full of varied quests to follow, and striking characters to meet. There's so much I can't share, but only because the expansion is so story driven, and laced with powerful moments throughout my two hours. It's also well paced, a facet that's hard to come by in an open-world RPG, wherein players have every chance to venture off the beaten path. There's no shortage of promising games releasing this fall. But judging by the time I spent with it, Hearts of Stone deserves as much attention as any of them on October 13.