I thought I'd do a little write-up of my experience thus far with Witcher 3 since the GOTY edition is coming out next week (August 30th to be precise). There are a ton of reviews out there (the game isn't exactly new any more) and the vast majority are positive. But do those reviews still hold true for someone just now experiencing the game?
The answer, for sure, is yes. This game is awesome (with some mods, which I'll get to in a minute). I would highly recommend it to anyone looking for an open-world RPG. You do not have to play the first two Witcher games to play 3. I've only played the first act of the first game before and had no trouble following the story. I'm sure I missed some nuanced details of the plot and didn't have a complete backstory for everything, but I never felt utterly lost as to what was going on.
I'm probably sitting right about 100 hours of gameplay after finishing the base game (mostly). I just started one of the expansions, and I'm guessing the two expansions will give me at least another 40-50 hours of play. Plus I still have a couple side missions from the base game and lots of undiscovered locations to hit. Overall, the game is a good value. I don't know what the GOTY will be priced at, but if it's around $60 or lower I would give it a thumbs up. Even if it's higher, just wait for the inevitable sale.
The game plays very much like Skyrim. There's a set of main quests and lots of secondary quests. As you venture out into the world, you find undiscovered locations on the map. Usually they're either human bandits or monsters, often guarding some kind of treasure. All quests are level-based, so it's pretty simply to know what to tackle and what to save for later. The main quests give the most experience, and if you level up too much the quests give paltry XP. It's designed this way to keep you around a certain level for different parts of the story. I didn't find it to be a big deal and I kind of mixed everything up, usually doing a chunk of main quests, then a bunch of side quests, then back to main quests.
The combat in Witcher 3 is interesting. At first I wasn't really thrilled with it, but once you get the hang of it it's fun. You don't really have "magic", but you can cast signs that do a variety of things. You also have a lot of potions. The game is odd in that you need to find a recipe and ingredients to make a potion the first time. Once you do that, you get more simply by meditating (fast forwarding the game an hour or more) and having hard liquor in your inventory. You can only have a certain number of a particular potion at a given time, so you can't craft like 100 healing potions. It's nice that you don't need to scavenge for a laundry list of ingredients just to make thing, but it's also annoying to have to stop after every battle to replenish (especially at the beginning when you can only have 1 or 2 of the potion).
The crafting is fairly shallow. You can't craft much on your own, so you need to find blacksmiths or armorers to make you weapons/armor. You find a ton of diagrams, which basically unlock a certain item to be crafted. The problem is almost everything sucks. It doesn't take very long to get diagrams for witcher gear, and I pretty much used that the entire time. Sometimes I would find a decent piece of armor or sword I'd use for awhile, but almost everything I found I sold because it wasn't better than what I had. Also, your playstyle will dictate the armor you use. Heavy armor, for example, slows stamina regeneration which means you can't cast signs as often. If you like casting signs, you pretty much have to ignore all heavy armor.
The story and quests are what make Witcher 3 really stand out. Even most of the side quests have at least a halfway decent reason behind them. True, most of them involve you going to kill some monster (that's what witchers do), but it's not just a simple "go here and kill this beast because it's killing people". There's usually a distraught wife wondering why her husband hasn't come home, or a tale of jealous lovers, or a greedy dude tried to swindle a mage. I very much enjoyed the "extras" you can learn in the conversations - most of the dialogue options have a main line of answers (shown in a different color) that will get you to the end result, but also have other options to learn more about the subject at hand. There were quite a few stories where I genuinely felt bad for the people because it was basically just the world bending them over through no fault of their own. In the same vein, the entire world is pretty bleak. There's a war going on and not everything is sunshine and roses. Many of the people are complete a-holes. Sometimes there's no good guy (even if you want to be) and it's basically just deciding between the lesser of two evils.
Now, the game isn't without its faults. I don't know if I would've made it without mods. I only used a few, but they made all the difference in the world. First, I did the HD retexture mod. This isn't necessary, but I wanted to push my 1080 as far as I could. If you have the power, it's a cool mod, but the game looks gorgeous without it. I also used some quality of life mods. There's one to up your weight limit to 9000, one to auto-apply oils, and one to show all map markers. The normal weight limit is stupidly low. If you want to have money, you need to sell shit you find. The normal weight limit makes it so you need to unload your crap way too often, so I chose to ignore the "immersion" and made Geralt a pack mule. I don't care. The oils is another odd thing. One of the things you can craft is an oil, which, when applied to a sword, will deal extra damage to a particular type of foe. This is great and all, but it's a pain in the ass to open up your inventory, drag an oil to your sword, and exit your inventory every time you run into something. The mod simply applies the appropriate oil based on whatever monster it detects. Much smoother for going into a battle. Finally, the in-game map is great for seeing new things and where to go. However, it only shows the mission marker for the currently selected mission. This is very annoying if you're trying to find things to do along the way. The marker mod makes all mission markers show up, so you can plan a route to tackle multiple things. There's a bunch of other mods, but I didn't care to try them. I did try auto-loot, but it was too hard to know what I was looting.
Also, I assume this game is very irritating on higher difficulties. I'm playing it on easy, or maybe normal, but definitely not the higher tiers. You can change the difficulty at any time, but I can't imagine playing it at the highest levels. Especially in the beginning, there's a big chunk of time when you don't really have any abilities, awesome weapons/armors, etc. Even at the level I'm at, there were some monsters it took me a few tries to beat. Making them way more difficult would've been no fun. However, if you're into that kind of challenge, I think Witcher 3 can deliver.
Overall, Witcher 3 is a great game. Be prepared for some storytelling though, and listening to lots of dialogue. And don't let children watch you play. There's plenty of boobies and blood, and the language isn't for the feint of heart.