You don't need me to tell you The Witcher 3 is a great game. Andrew has already done that in his review, all the big sites have been doling out 10s and high 9s and its generated a lot of *ahem* healthy discussion in the games industry.
I love RPGs but there's a good reason I didn't write the TR review — I'm unfamiliar with the Witcher story and I've never played 1 & 2. Often when I'm playing The Witcher 3 I feel like I'm being waterboarded with names I should know but don't. Especially on Skellige, which is populated by Irish men and women with Nordic names and mythology, it is a minefield for story comprehension. I mean seriously is Arinbjorn a person or a town? No peeking!
Anyway, not the point. Because I have no attachment to the series prior to this game (probably why I prefer Triss at this point) I've found myself noticing details that take The Witcher 3 from a very good RPG to an incredible one. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive list of things to like about The Witcher 3, nor am I saying other games don't have similar features, but these are what have me spending 100+ hours on this game. I'm overleveled to the point of ridiculousness and I don't see an end in sight.
Food restores health slowly - like food does
It's an old gaming trope that immediately scarfing down food in the middle of a battle heals you. Everyone's seen a version of the same Skyrim comic: "Wait Dragr while I eat all these apples! Ha Ha! That wouldn't have been possible in a real fight!" We should put this on a BustedTees shirt!
The Witcher 3 has healing items but I've only found one that instantly heals you and its magic. If you eat a sandwich, it replenishes your health slowly almost like you're digesting it - because it's food, not morphine. Sure, you don't digest food in seconds and it's still impractical to eat raw wolf livers in the middle of battle, but I'm chalking that up to Geralt being a mutant.
You can slide down hills without taking fall damage!
This might seem stupid, but if you played as much Dragon Age: Inquisition as I did, you'll understand. In Inquisition, like a lot of games, there is an animation for your character sliding down a hill - one hand up, braced legs, the whole thing. Imagine my surprise when I slide to the bottom of this hill and I still take fall damage! So what was the point? Why taunt me with this ability then take it away? Why do you mock me BioWare!?
Meanwhile in The Witcher 3, Geralt treats sliding like you should, as a quick way to get down a hill! You can screw up and fall, but if you do it right, you'll be fine. Once you get good at it you can basically snowboard down a mountain without the snowboard, they should put that in the recruiting materials for Witcher-ing.
Swords behave like swords, they cut things!
In most RPGs, swords aren't swords, they are sticks that remove hit points, beat your enemy with it for a while until your numbers deplete his numbers and you win. Sometimes you can cut a bad guy's head off in a flashy finisher or cutscene but for the most part swords and clubs are interchangeable in RPG-land.
I vividly remember the first time I cut someone's arm off in The Witcher 3. I remember because it wasn't a cutaway finisher (though the game has those as well) and the character wasn't special, he was just some dumb bandit who tried to rob me while I was picking flowers. I saw an arm on the ground - it was as if the game was saying "Yeah? And? You're swinging a sword, swords cut things. You're surprised you cut someone with your sword? You're an idiot."
Compare that to a game like Metal Gear Rising where a large chunk of the marketing was "OH MAN YOU CAN CUT STUFF" and it felt genuine, organic — as if the developers never considered not doing it.
Carry weight that makes some sense!
Hammerspace is another constant RPG joke. "Why do the Iron Boots weigh nothing until Link puts them on? Maybe the weight is offset by the Hover Boots? Video game logic right!?" Yuk yuk yuk.
I ran up against the carry limit early in The Witcher 3 and I thought I was going to have to start pitching out alchemy ingredients and that broken rake I was sure I would need later. I asked a friend if there was any way to increase your carry weight, like putting points in stamina in Skyrim, she pointed me towards the Saddlebag item. I bought a nice one that bumped up my carry weight from 60 to 130 and I noticed that Geralt's horse Roach actually does have bags.
So thats where my apothecary of plants are, where I keep the 14000 crowns I've accumulated, theres even a spare sword on there. Its not a perfect representation of your inventory, but it makes more sense than your goods disappearing into the nether when you pick them up.
Choices that aren't choices because life is awful (mild spoilers for this entry)
RPG joke number 186 — Moral Choice. Would you like to cuddle the puppies or strangle orphans? I mean- Paragon or Renegade?
I was given a quest by some obviously evil witches (they cackled a lot) to solve some murders. Turns out the murders are connected to this spirit in a tree who says that the evil witches imprisoned him there. I thought "all right!- that must make him good!" He tells me how I can free him, and to be honest it sounded like a lot of work, so I just killed him, I mean I was right there!
So the result of this is that the witches do a bunch of evil things and I don't even get to kill them! It makes sense though, I did the lazy thing so I get punished. So while I'm feeling like a jerk for letting the evil thing happen, I look up what happens if you free the spirit, it turns out some equally awful stuff happens! There are no-win scenarios in The Witcher 3, because there are no-win scenarios in life, sometimes there are just no puppies to cuddle.
Sidequests that matter
That world shattering quest I mentioned above, it was the result of a bunch of sidequesting I fell into by accident. It wasn't until I finished the entire questline that I realized that it weaved into the main story of the area. The sidequests in this game actually matter, no one's telling you to collect X number of Y; The Witcher 3 has more respect for you than that.
Geralt's beard grows throughout the game. This feature is introduced perfectly through a scene where Geralt is getting gussied up to visit the Emperor. You start with a beard, it's shaved off in-story, you're clean shaven for a while and then you notice your beard is growing back. Do you like it? Cool. If you don't, shave it off! No one would have cared if CD Projekt Red said "you have a beard, deal with it" but they put this element in anyway. Maybe I just like it because I have a beard, I don't know.
Armor makes sense relative to its abilities and worth
The first time I found some armor that was unquestionably better than my cool-looking starting armor I was bummed. I didn't want to wear it, because every piece of armor I found made Geralt look like a doofus wearing his dad's sweater. Later when I started crafting my own armor and finding better sets, it made sense to me. That armor looked so crap because it was crap, you found it in some discarded box in the starting area, why would it be good? The Witcher 3 makes you work for cool armor.
Unique characters that don't seem like a mix of assets.
I met a Nilfgaardian officer early on who had an interesting look. Heavy lidded eyes, long scraggly black hair and a prominent nose. My first impression was "hey its Bronn from Game of Thrones!" Witcher 3 Bronn features in 2 cutscenes and I haven't seen him since. He felt like a character someone designed, not like they picked eye model 3, nose model 7 and pushed him out the door, which is how Skyrim felt a lot of the time. This wasn't a major character, but effort had clearly been put into creating him, and while you might see a few generic townspeople in your playthrough, CD Projekt RED made sure its characters were memorable.
Very little instancing
One of my big gripes with Skyrim was all the loading. It wasn't that they were particularly long (though they were), but that they were everywhere. If I wanted to leave my house, go to Dragonsreach, get a quest and leave Whiterun, that was 3 loading screens I'd sit through and it got old quick. The Witcher 3 does have some really long load times on console but I can't remember once getting hit with one as I walked into a building. The Witcher 3 has a staggering amount of buildings you can enter and they all feel like they are in the same world, not these separate worlds accessed via a loading screen with a cool spinning sword.
Oh yeah, the combat is satisfying, the crafting is rewarding and the story is excellent with a surprising amount of deep female characters you wouldn't expect had you read certain reviews of the game. You already knew that, and so did I, but those things make a good, even a great game — these things here are what have made The Witcher 3 a classic for me. Now excuse me while I play some more.