Gaming Today Reviews The Witcher
System: PC (XP or Vista)
Rated: M for Mature
Geralt of Rivia may not be a common literary figure in America or many parts of Europe yet but his translation and introduction to video games makes a mark with The Witcher. The dark fantasy world set in a realistic (if you can call any video game about magic and monsters realistic) world full of moral dilemma and shades of gray illuminates the lack of such storytelling among the RPG genre.
Since I first saw The Witcher in a little booth at E3 2006 next to the then obscure Red Octane Guitar Hero, I saw something I knew I liked. The game was developed by an unproven team with no solid publisher. They had delay after delay as the licensed engine – Bioware’s Aurora, the same one powering the now archaic looking Neverwinter Nights – failed to offer them the presentation they were after and testers and press alike struggled to comprehend the different and challenging control scheme that more closely compared to a combo based fighting game than a by-the-numbers RPG.
Two years later with Atari as a publisher and a good amount of polish and progress The Witcher has arrived and for some it may change how they define their expectations of what a good RPG should present but is it as ground breaking as CDProjekt Red promised it would be back in 2006? Is the RPG market ready for a game that isn’t based on D&D or Star Wars?
The reality is that despite the production values, graphics and gameplay advancements an RPG live or dies with its fans based on its storytelling. The Witcher draws from a popular series of books and short stories written by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. The tales of Geralt and his fellow Witchers as well as the dark fantasy world they inhabit are filled with moral ambiguity, hard choices and characters acting not out of some greater good or nefarious evil but in shades of self interest and selfish enlightenment. While I may sound like a cynic for saying this, that means like real people do to me.
Characters in both the literature and the game are meant to be ‘human’ and flawed. The pastor tends his faithful flock out of concern for them but also because he enjoys the power it gives him. The elves fight prejudiced humans with an ecological eye at balance and nature but also as a means of revenge for their position in society and the treatment they receive from mankind. These are not simple characters. These are not simple situations with clear cut consequences and apparent repercussions. Sopkowski pushes this in his fiction and the game’s creators do a pretty good job of giving that impression it the game as well.
Geralt begins the game amnesiac. While this is an all too common trick in games to draw players into the world without preconceptions and a a lazy storytelling method in many cases, The Witcher’s approach feels valid and meaningful in telling the story of Geralt’s return to the world after his apparent death. Players and Geralt alike have to discover the connections and history between the lone wolf and his acquaintances – sometimes to the detriment of all. He is not quite a clean slate but the amnesiac recovery allows players to play a character with skill who slowly rediscovers his abilities without cheapening the fact that Geralt is regarded with awe and dread thanks to his reputation and great skills.
I’d be remiss if I failed to mention that some players may not like the fact that the game does not allow players to completely define who Geralt is and what he can do. Within the scope of the RPG aspects, players will gain experience and learn new talents. They have discretion to place the talents where they like and advance the story very differently based on a few customization choices. This tight character evolution allows the story to progress in a logical way and keeps the game true to the source of the character and his world.
Controlling Geralt is different than in many similar mouse driven RPGs. While there are two modes of control – one purely mouse driven and featuring a more Neverwinter Nights like 3rd person isometric camera, the closer over the shoulder mode feels more unique because it pushes the player’s perspective closer to Geralt’s in the game. Both control schemes are predicated on the concept of timed mouse clicks. Players must click on a combat target and then click again when the sword icon changes color. The timing of that second or successive click will determine the chance for a combination or critical attack. Based on the skills chosen during advancement, Geralt pulls off a number of impressive animations when combinations happen.
The animation and feel of the world are well realized. It is apparent that motion control was a large part of the game’s production as the virtual actors move with human grace and sword combat for Geralt feels fluid and realistic. The modified Aurora engine requires far more horsepower graphically than one would expect even with some of the bells and whistles turned down or off. Do not take the recommended graphics requirements lightly with this title – the more power you have, the more it will use.
The Witcher promises a fairly linear core game with a number of challenging side quests. Overall on the normal and easy settings the game felt too easy at first, with combat only seriously ramping up in the first act during the boss fight. Thanks to a Rock-Paper-Scissors like combat system that requires not only timed clicks but also players choosing the correct fighting stance to best foes the tactical element comes from identifying what each foe is weak against and utilizing that attack as effectively as possible. The game has a complex inventory system common to RPGs as well, with alchemy and the mixing of ingredients playing a very important role in the setting, story and gameplay.
The American version of the game has also seen a number of changes from the international version. The translation from Polish has not fared well. Though the game features spoken voice-acting throughout, it’s obvious where the localization team re-recorded dialog for the sanitized American version. Dialog often feels purposely clumsy and I suspect that translation is often to blame.
The Witcher is a serious, dark and adult game. It deals with subjects like drug and alcohol use, sex and copious amounts of betrayal and violence to people of all ages. The American version still has all these things but some illustrations have been cleaned up to make the folks at Atari feel better about selling it at Walmart. (Remember Atari is the same publisher that forced Troika to remove a brothel sub-quest and all children from Temple of Elemental Evil a few years back on fears of parental reprisal regarding an M rated game.)
The only thing that will keep The Witcher from changing the RPG market is that by definition the number of players who notice it will be small. It won’t have the pull of the next mindless plot-less FPS. It also requires a commitment of time and interest from players, that could leave some short of its 40+ hours of gameplay.
The Witcher is impressive for an isometric RPG. While its not as eye-bleeding beautiful as say Crysis, it is no slouch in the graphics department and eats video memory for breakfast.
A good soundtrack drives the game but uneven voice acting is somewhat disturbing. Some lines in the American version are obviously re-dubs because of the blatant difference in fidelity during the same dialog scenes. Some actors sound like they phoned it in.
The simple controls and fun combination system make this a very different RPG experience. The time element keeps it from becoming a click fest while being able to do everything without touching the keyboard makes the whole experience more newbie friendly. The option to revert to a more traditional control scheme is nice as well for those who can’t master the one-click approach.
Replay Value: 7.5
The main storyline will not change with repeated play though the side-quest and changes made through player decisions offer a few different endings. Experimenting with different skill choices and the drive to sleep with all the attractive ladies in the title will bring some players back for more though.
The Witcher is a breath of fresh air in a crowded holiday season. Other than Mass Effect for the 360, there is no other RPG with this depth or attention to storytelling on the market. The adult conventions and ethically fuzzy world make the impact of the story stronger and hopefully will lead to more tales of Geralt of Rivia in the future. Gamers who dislike story-driven adventures should steer clear of The Witcher as the game hosts a great deal of spoken and written dialog.