The Witcher is a new role-playing game by CD Projekt RED Team that runs on a modified and improved version of BioWare’s Aurora Engine and is based on a series of books by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. It’s an expansive game that has a great storyline and promises over eighty hours of nonlinear role-playing. Now, while there isn’t anything that is necessarily “new” in this game, I find many elements of it to be more satisfying than that monster RPG series by Bethesda that everyone should be familiar with.
Oblivion was the last major RPG that I sunk plenty of hours into, so I’ll likely be making at least a few comparisons in this review. Like most people, I think Oblivion was a great game overall but I did find many things to be repetitive in it and the storyline not profound. For example, after the third or fourth Oblivion gate, I’d just run to the top, bypassing all of the monsters, to close them. Yes, that’s right, I used “godmode” so that I wouldn’t run out of energy. Don’t even get me started on the dungeons. Having said that…
“Welcome to the world of The Witcher – a world ravaged by postwar chaos, where rulers, heedless to the misery of the common folk, have taken to amassing spoils instead of rebuilding what has been destroyed. In these lands devastated by plagues, amidst charred ruins and on blood-soaked battlefields, monsters and beasts have proliferated. They testify to the eternal need for witchers, dedicated professional monster-slayers.”
In The Witcher, you take on the character of Geralt, also known as White Wolf, a witcher from Rivia. A witcher is a mutant and a dedicated “monster slayer,” and there are only a few remaining after the war. Geralt seems to follow his own rules, has his way with women, and of course slays monsters as a profession, but he also seems to follow a set of morals, often rescuing helpless people in distress and punishing those that oppress and participate in criminal and evil activities.
Basing a game on a novel or series is always a great way to go, considering that most game storylines are rather trite. Companies often seem to focus more on raising the technical bar (enter Crysis) than what really should matter; the writing. Ars Technica posted a couple of articles in the spring that discuss this problem in the industry, and I would recommend that gamers and game companies alike read up (even though I don’t agree that Half-Life 2 is an example of great writing). The Witcher has an in-depth storyline and, in this aspect, the game is better than Oblivion. I’m not going to get into the storyline at all within this review because I’d rather not give anything away.
Like many RPGs, you have the main quests and several side quests that are available. You are, however, confined to certain regions; you cannot roam around to different areas whenever you wish. The regions are fairly large, but if you’re really set on a free-roaming RPG, then you might suffer from some slight feelings of claustrophobia with this game. The areas you are confined to are fairly large, so I never really had a cramped feeling. For the most part, areas are fairly open but there are some areas where there are obstructions. Being able to walk off the sides of stairways, docks, etc. would have been better, in my opinion, and there were some areas in the swamp where you can only walk along a set path.
When the game advertises nonlinear gameplay, I don’t think it’s necessarily focusing on the order of the main quest, because that does follow a fairly straight order. There are, of course, side quests, but it seems to me that the nonlinearity term is focusing on Geralt’s decisions along the journey. You have to make small decisions all the time, such as whether to help someone or not, to be friendly or not, to do a quest or not, etc., and these decisions seem to take on a ripple effect in that they change many things.
|"...decisions seem to take on a ripple effect in that they change many things."|
You play the game in the third person perspective, but when you get too close to walls it will change to first, which won’t happen very often. You actually have the option of playing in three different viewing modes: over-the-shoulder (default), high isometric mode, and low isometric mode. I gave each mode a shot but stuck with the default because it seemed to work the best for me. I’m not always a huge fan of over-the-shoulder viewpoints but it seems to work quite well in this game. The game also includes different character control modes. You can control the movements with the mouse and keyboard, or you can choose to only use the mouse – in other words, click and move. I’m used to using the keyboard and mouse for movement, tried both, but stuck with the usual.
Combat is very simple and some gamers may not like it as much as others. Instead of swinging a sword on every mouse click, Geralt will take a few swings per click. The flaming sword icon will appear momentarily, and if you time your clicks correctly, you initiate more powerful attacks in the sequence. You also have the option of employing magic from the five Signs and, as I’ll also mention below, there are five levels for each sign and various enhancements available. Magic comes in handy quite often and can be very useful during the many fights that Geralt will encounter. One issue I had with the combat is the fact that you cannot switch weapons while on the move and the process is somewhat slow. If you accidentally activate a steel sword in the swamps, which are filled with monsters, you’ll want to switch to the silver sword. Doing this while in a battle will stop Geralt in his tracks, and the motion of unsheathing the new weapon isn’t quick enough to avoid taking some damage most of the time.
The size of Geralt’s inventory is more real-to-life, but it is one component of this game that I became frustrated with. You have a very limited number of weapons you can carry, which didn’t bother me too much, but the number of other items did. Geralt has a satchel that is divided into two sections: the top section is used for only major quest-related items and things are automatically placed in it. The other section is where all of your ingredients, valuables (not Orens – the currency), side quests, books, etc. are stored. This second section becomes full quite quickly and I found myself having to make room quite often. It’s realistic, but I didn’t enjoy the small size and really just found the constant dropping of items to be a waste of time. If you want to pick something up and your inventory is full, the first thing to do is to eat any food in the satchel. After a while, I just stopped carrying food altogether because there isn’t really a need for it. Food supposedly helps to restore vitality, but I really didn’t see much of an effect after eating it. The next items you’ll drop are the side quest scrolls and then finally books, which can be very valuable. Not many people will purchase your books, which makes the re-sale value zero in many cases. This system could have been improved if CD Projekt had kept the side quest scrolls and books out of this limited inventory.
The leveling and the alchemy components are standard and easy to use. A message comes up on screen telling you when you have leveled and then you will need to meditate to distribute your new talents which can be distributed to many different categories. Yes, you meditate instead of sleep in this game. These talents include attributes, weapons, and magic. Each talent category is broken down into more specific categories, and each has five levels and additional enhancements. For example, the steel sword has five levels and several enhancements at each level: cut at the jugular, crushing blow, and bloody frenzy. That might sound a little confusing, but when you see the distribution chart, it’s fairly simple. Alchemy is also done while meditating and is straightforward. You can obtain formulas by buying books, completing quests, or though other character interactions. You also need to learn about plants, beasts, etc. before you can begin collecting ingredients from them.
The Witcher’s graphics aren’t the top of the line but still seemed very good. Environments are something that really stood out in this game, as weather moved in, and the sun set or rose. Plants and foliage are plentiful and also add to the game’s realism. The European style buildings looked fantastic, and most of the character models were better than adequate. In some areas, such as the swamps, I took frame rate hits with all of the grass, and I hope that CD Projekt might be able to improve that a bit with the next patch. Overall, I was quite impressed with the game’s beauty and you should probably be able to understand why by taking a look at a few of the screenshots. The team did a great job with the old Aurora Engine.
|"Environments are something that really stood out..."|
As far as the game’s sound is concerned, I was very satisfied with the majority of it. The voice acting didn’t start out very well but seemed to improve as I moved on. There were, however, some strange volume issues with some of the characters voices that could have been resolved. For example, while speaking with Raymond, the character’s voice would become quite loud in one sentence and then in the next sentence it would be at a completely different level, almost sounding like the actor is in a different room. The acting was also rather corny at times, but on the whole not too bad for a game. The music seemed great the entire time and changed from place to place and situation to situation. Sound effects, such as animals, the busy inns and taverns, weather, children playing, babies screaming, etc. seemed quite appropriate and helped to set the time period and living conditions.
There are some adult themes in the game but they are quite mild and can apparently be controlled with Windows LIVE parental controls. The majority of the time, you can choose to pursue these adult themes or just continue on your journey. The Witcher is yet another example of a game that has been censored and cut up for America’s strange game rating system. It’s fine for blood to spew from monsters and humans, but show some polygonal nudity and, well, you’ll pretty much be blocked from selling your game with the “Adult Only” rating. The ESRB really needs to either modify their rating system or add an extra rating between M and AO. It’s a really odd system that should just coincide with film ratings.
There are a few more issues that I need to cover before finally concluding this review. The current major problem in The Witcher is the load times. They are long, and I wasn’t expecting it on an AMD 6000+ machine with 2GB of RAM. Every time you walk through a door you’ll be hit with the loading screens, even if it’s just a house within the town or area. I know CD Projekt is working on it for the next patch, so hopefully this issue won’t be so bad in the near future. Another issue is that, even though you aren’t underground very often, there is a minor problem with the torches. Whenever you pick something up while holding a torch, Geralt will put it out and back into the inventory. If you choose to fight with the torch (yes, it can be used as a weapon, and I found it to be quite effective with wolves), Geralt will also put it out automatically when the “fighting” is over. The process of taking out the torch again and again is something that became very annoying and could probably easily be fixed. You can use the “cat” potion to see in the dark, but you have to have that mixed beforehand. Besides the weapon switching issue that I mentioned in the combat section, there were only a few other minor bugs that aren’t even really worth mentioning.
I’m very satisfied with The Witcher and have found it to be a solid game in the role-playing genre. There are many areas in which this game actually excels over top competitors, such as Oblivion. If you’re looking for a RPG that has most of the same components as other games but with a deep and intriguing storyline, then I would highly recommend this game to you. The Witcher is filled with interesting characters, great little features such as the dice games, and fantastic environments. There are some minor issues, but I have no problem giving The Witcher the high score that it deserves.