“Gwent: The Witcher Card Game” has recently entered public beta across PS4, Xbox One and PC – so it’s timely that we give our first impressions of the game at this ‘almost-there’ stage. A quick foreword, when it comes to CCGs (Collectible Card Games) I am a casual enjoyer at best. As a young pup, I (as did we all) loved the Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh card games.

However, I was more concerned about the pretty pictures than actually playing a game. Recently, however, I found myself belatedly getting quite into Magic: The Gathering – and I would confidently say I could hold my own in a session of Friday Night Magic.

When it comes to The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, however, I am much more knowledgeable. I have invested far too many hours into that game already, and will only continue to do so. Games like The Witcher 3 don’t come along very often. TW3 undoubtedly has the same potential longevity as the likes of Skyrim and it now sits firmly as a fantasy RPG classic. For those who have played TW3: Wild Hunt, I’m sure you’ve become just as addicted to Gwent as I have. If you’re one of the few who ignored Gwent, stop reading this and go try again, trust me. I was understandably delighted to see the beta for the new standalone Gwent game was available, and I’ve since sunk a few hours into it.

For the uninitiated, Gwent in TW3 was fundamentally a trading card mini-game. As you went on your adventure you could challenge NPC’s, win their cards, buy new ones from merchants, or in some circumstances receive cards for doing some side-quests.

The game is quite simple, the winner simply wins the best of 3 rounds by drawing a starting hand from his/her deck, playing the correct combination of cards to ensure your points total will secure 2 winning rounds against your opponent, whilst trying to stretch that starting hand and sustain it across the entire game. The strategy comes in when using spy cards, weather cards, perhaps deliberately losing a round in pursuit of winning the next, and so on. You could build one deck for each faction available – these included Nilfgaard, Monsters, Northern Realms, Skellige (Blood & Wine DLC) and Scoia’Tael – and collecting hero cards of characters from your quests (including yourself – Geralt) was incredibly fun and a lighthearted form of deliberate lore-breaking.

Gwent: The Witcher Card Game, however, is a very different beast when it comes to the rules and gameplay, but almost identical in lore and premise – which proves to be a winning formula in creating a new digital CCG worthy of challenging Hearthstone’s throne.

The factions, many of the cards, the 3-round system and the aim to have “the most points” to win a round all make a return. The card art, by the way, has truly outdone itself. I don’t say this lightly, but the artwork of Gwent is now (in my opinion) on par with that of MTG – a stalwart of fantasy CCG artwork.

The game’s interface, from menus to gameplay, is all remarkably well polished. The only slight annoyance is the frequency of load screens, no matter how brief they may be. Regardless, the game is beautiful to look at and plays wonderfully. It’s swift, fluid, and there are plenty of little touches that put the cherry on top.

When you are looking at a card, for example, rotating your controller (playing on the PS4 in my case) will alter the angle of the card’s artwork, showing its hidden depth and near-3D elements. It’s lovely to sit and just stare at.

The sound design is on a level playing field with the visuals. The same fantastic score returns from TW3, and the vast majority of voice-actors return to narrate the odd one-liner over the cards – and I imagine they will have more to say when the full version is released complete with a “campaign mode”. The only exception seems to be Charles Dance as Emperor Emhyr var Emreis.

From what I can see online, his contract does not allow reuse of his lines for other games, and bringing him back into record lines I imagine would be wildly expensive. It’s a minuscule detail and doesn’t affect gameplay at all, but it is jarring to have such a trademark dulcet tone missing when you first play his card.

Your favourite Rock Troll voice returns as a card salesman, and it’s nice to listen to his little “trollololo” quips as you open your “kegs” of cards. For whatever reason cards don’t come in “packs”, they come in “kegs”. Rest assured if I were to be given a keg not filled with beer in real life I’d be mildly disgruntled at best, but it’s a nice enough little gimmick for Gwent.

Speaking of Kegs, you can purchase one at a time using “Ore” that you earn by playing rounds of Gwent, be that in the beta’s few single player challenges, or (in tiny quantities) online against others, although the developers are tinkering with the ore distribution system all the time – it is a beta after all.

You can buy multiple kegs at once with real money if you so wish – a typical model used by free-to-play CCGs. You receive 4 random cards, and can then choose a 5th from a choice of three. You also earn “scrap” to craft cards that you don’t already have (but it is a real grind of a process), and stuff called “meteorite powder” which is used to convert a card from a standard form to a premium form. Don’t be fooled, nothing changes about the card’s ability, it’ll just be given animated artwork and added voices – but a nice aesthetic touch all the same.

The nitty gritty of the rule changes are best left to be experienced in-game through the tutorials, but in short, there is a lot more added nuance and complexity to the game, which in turn ensures it has the necessary depth to be a heavy-hitting digital CCG. It’s no longer just a race to use a few spies and the commander’s horn. Cards can now individually reduce each other’s power, weather effects have changed quite a bit and now don’t necessarily affect both sides of the board.

You will also find yourself drawing a lot more cards beyond your initial hand than you will have been used to in TW3, but these changes are for the greater good of the game once you grow accustomed to them. Just don’t expect a plug-and-play translation of TW3’s version of Gwent to this newer version.

This expansion of complexity and depth is pursuant to CD Projeckt Red’s final aim – which appears to be to challenge Hearthstone and become a big player on the digital CCG stage, and initially at least it seems to be working.

Several high-profile Hearthstone players have jumped ship to the Gwent beta and declared a shift in their allegiance. Personally, the lore and art-style of Blizzard’s Hearthstone doesn’t appeal to me at all and I never got into the game, whereas the art-style of Gwent alone is enough to draw me straight to it, so I’m delighted to see this early success. It will be interesting to see how the professional Gwent stage progresses, as that will ultimately decide its long-term success as a digital CCG.

One thing that plays favourably to both Gwent and Hearthstone, is that the games are not even remotely similar, so whilst they’ll be competing on the big stage, they both provide different experiences as games.

To summarise then, the Gwent public beta is a fantastic start for what is effectively a brand-new digital CCG. It has the visuals, the lore, the art-style, the gameplay. There are frequent loading screens and the single player element leaves a lot to be desired, but these drawbacks aren’t significant enough to justify true criticism – especially considering both will likely be remedied in the full game. If you enjoyed The Witcher series, or are a fan of fantasy card games – Gwent is worth a look.

Believe it or not, it’s not essential to have loved the original Gwent to love this game as the nuances of the gameplay differ quite a bit, so don’t turn this game down just because you didn’t pour time into Gwent in TW3. One confusing parting thought – I have no idea why this game isn’t available on mobile platforms. If CDPR wants to challenge hearthstone and attract a wider audience they’ll need to address that, but perhaps that’s an evolution further down the line.

Try Something New

Chris Duddy
Law graduate squeezing every last drop out of student life, still awaiting my British & Irish Lions call-up. Partial to a half pint of Ardees every other Sunday, preferably in the Winking Skeever.
http://www.quillstreak.com

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