Genre: Action RPG
Developer: CD Projekt Red Studio
Release Date: October 30, 2007
Atari has been in struggling financial straits for the past few years, but gamers have really been the better for it. While looking for the next big hit, Atari has been increasingly willing to promote more innovative and unusual products than most of their competitors. Not all of these titles turn out to be very good, of course, but there are occasional winners like Test Drive Unlimited or the upcoming, delightfully bizarre Jenga. Another one of Atari's unusual finds is set to release at the end of this month, and it's also shaping up to be one of the winners: The Witcher, a game by Polish publisher CD Projekt's new development branch, Red Studio. The PC titles coming out of Eastern Europe are often some of the best-kept secrets in gaming, offering amazing innovation and ambition hampered only by an occasional lack of budget. The Witcher is based on the work of tremendously popular Polish novelist Andrzej Sapkowski, though, so it's pretty clear that Red Studio is throwing every resource CD Projekt can muster at this one, and Atari seems determined to make sure American PC gamers stand up and take notice of the end result.
The end result is, well, interesting. It has a lot of the basic features one might expect from a top PC RPG, but the gameplay is considerably more streamlined and console-like in some respects. Combat is fast and emphasizes use of clever combos and juggling various power sets more so than manic mouse-clicking. The story is, likewise, nothing shockingly weird for a PC RPG, but makes several considerable departures from the usual formula. The titular Witcher is an amoral mercenary named Geralt who hunts down monsters with his supernatural powers and honed fighting skills, which players can choose to customize in the game. There are many Witchers, each born as mutants with inherent magical ability, who are carefully and rigorously trained in use of their powers. It is widely believed, even by the Witchers themselves, that they have no emotions.
So instead of telling an epic story of good versus evil as per usual, The Witcher is a more morally ambiguous game that emphasizes making difficult choices and seeing the results play out over a long period of time. Likewise, the setting has an unusually realistic look for a fantasy RPG, with towns and architecture closely resembling their real-world medieval counterparts. There's a dirty, gritty look to the designs, and the presence of crushing poverty and social injustice is never far away when traveling through urban areas.
The graphics use an updated version of Bioware's Aurora Engine, as seen in the Knights of the Old Republic and the Neverwinter Nights titles. The Witcher version of the engine is customized around the needs of a single-player experience and pushing the graphics as far as possible while using the DirectX 9 API. Settings are built of hand-designed 3D models rather than modular piece, including some light mapping and application of certain textures. The skybox model is newer and more sophisticated, as is the water effect model. Shadow shading and dynamic lighting are also more advanced than in previous versions of the engine.
Combat in The Witcher takes a lot of inspiration from God of War and similar console action titles. Geralt has three fighting styles at his disposal and can invest points in enhancing them as he levels up, and can be easily switched between during combat through shortcut keys. Each fighting style is customized for a different type of situation: There's a speed style that emphasizes fast strikes, a strength style that emphasizes heavy blows and a "crowd control" style that uses wide, sweeping blows to strike multiple enemies at once. When using a given style, Geralt can opt to fight using his magical silver sword, a longer non-magical steel sword, or with both blades at once. Both swords can be upgraded throughout the game for enhanced damage and other effects. The moves available in each fighting style change slightly depending on the weapon Geralt is wielding, allowing the three basic fighting styles to be further specialized. The steel sword is best for fighting ordinary enemies like humans, the smaller silver sword best for monsters and both swords best when fighting mixed groups or very humanoid-yet-monstrous opponents. Geralt can opt to combine various types of magic ability with his fighting abilities, allowing for even more flexibility in combos. Each of the five spells that can be learned in the game has both a ranged and melee variation, making it useful in either situation.
In all, the game offers 250 different skills to players, grouped along various skill trees. An especially useful ability Red Studio demonstrated was making potions that could enhance Geralt's stats. Consuming too many at once would poison the body, but being able to brew strong potions and then quickly consume them before entering a boss fight was a crucial component of success. While fighting ordinary enemies is relatively simple, combat grows more difficult (and even more console-like) when fighting bosses. Boss enemies, rather than being focused on given strategies, usually have certain patterns that must be disrupted or weak points that must be struck in order to deal damage to them. Sometimes, Geralt also has an AI-controlled partner who fights with him, although what little was demonstrated of this didn't give a clear idea of when or how you'd want to use these assistant characters. They seem to appear naturally as following part of certain storylines.
The Witcher uses a unique decision system designed to encourage replay. Instead of decisions setting a player on a "good" or "evil" path, a player's decisions tend not to be cast in terms of right and wrong. When a decision is made, it has both a set of immediate effects and then consequences that a player is likely to experience 10-20 hours later in the game. Taking a particular quest and killing, say, a given NPC may earn you a short-term reward, but it also closes off a potential series of quests you could have taken later. Many quests are designed to have multiple outcomes, depending on how players make a whole series of decisions that are part of the line of quest-related events. There are even three endings, the outcomes of which are triggered by these sorts of decisions.
The combination as a whole is designed to frustrate players who like to use save/reload tactics to get optimal outcomes, or who just want to go into a game and kill everything that moves. The Red Studio developer who demoed the game for us noted that this was a very intentional design approach, as they felt the traditional ways of making "decisions" in games actively destroyed choice by making one outcome obviously better than others and encouraging mindlessly destructive behavior. They wanted to make it clear that players would face a "point of no return" when make decisions and would have to consider their actions in light of not being able to easily reset them with a save state. No particular outcome in The Witcher is optimal; the decisions you make simply reflect what you felt like doing at the time. Making different decisions on replays can result in very different games, but no decision can leave you in a state where you're penalized or unable to progress. Essentially, any single pass through the game only allows a player to see or complete about 60% of the total content.
Much of the game as demonstrated was more concerned with Geralt exploring the world and taking on quests as he pleased, in a manner surprisingly comparable to Grand Theft Auto. For instance, upon entering taverns, players can opt to have Geralt play games of skill and chance with the people drinking there. You might sit down and try to build up friendship with a particularly useful NPC by drinking with him (with drunkenness represented in-game by the graphics going blurry and Geralt's motions become sluggish and hard to control). Drinking too much could end with you passing out and being robbed, but drinking just the right amount impresses the NPC and inclines him to give you information. You can try to achieve similar results by playing darts and may find it's to your benefit not to win constantly so the NPC doesn't get angry with you.
The idea of building an RPG in which conflict between good and evil is simply not an element of the story but flows naturally from the content of Andrzej Sapkowski's The Witcher novels and short stories. The books are tremendously popular in their native Poland, where Sapkowski is considered something of a "modern Tolkien" and have been successfully translated into Czach, French, German, Lithuanian, Slovak and Spanish. An English edition of the second short story collection was recently published by British book publisher Victor Gollancz Ltd., in the United Kingdom, with no real sign of a translation into American English in sight.
The game's Geralt is the hero of both the three short story collections and the cycle of five The Witcher novels, sometimes referred to in English as the "Blood of the Elves" series. The game appears to draw more heavily on the short stories for inspiration, as there are few signs of the novel themes and characters in the current version. What is present is the classic The Witcher theme of using fantasy as a way to write about contemporary issues, essentially inverting Tolkien's literary approach. Red Studio promised that gamers could see issues including counter-terrorism, feminism and international politics covered in the plot of The Witcher.
If The Witcher lives up to even half of its promises, it's going to be a memorable game. The graphics are surprisingly sharp to be a DirectX 9 title, with some nice features like fully dynamic weather to help make the world feel more alive. While RPG gameplay has been growing ever more sophisticated and streamlined in modern offerings, the basic themes are often little advanced from the old days of Wizardry and other direct D&D knockoffs. At times finding your objectives or instructions can be a bit tricky, but never up to a point where you are totally lost, and while the game loads frequently between areas, even inside the same structure or location, they are quite short and also serve as auto save. Hopefully, The Witcher is going to be the little push that convinces developers to start building RPGs about slightly more challenging conflicts and perhaps tell their stories in more sophisticated ways.
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