Once in a while there's a game that comes along, breaks the rules and hacks down the boundaries in a glorious visceral display of sheer audacity. There's a reason that Bioware gave this particular game a recommendation and I can fully support and agree with it. I'm talking about the Witcher from Atari and CDProjekt RED.
The game is based on the world devised by Andrzej Sapkowski a Polish author who has taken the great fantasy conventions and stood them on their heads. Sapkowski's world isn't one of your happy elves and dour dwarves swilling ale in time to gnomes dancing a merry little jig, it deals with real issues and addresses some very dark/stark concepts.
The lands of the Witcher are full of monsters but there are no greater monsters than humans, humans are capable of the most terrifying deeds of all. The game takes the motifs of Sapkowski's world and translates them into a satisfying and enthralling experience that has kept me entertained since the official release on Friday. Normally I'd wait for a review copy to appear from Atari but not in the case of the Witcher, this is too good to wait.
I had mine on pre-order for a while since I'm a bit of a fan of old Geralt even though I have yet to get the Last Wish in the UK. I know what I do of the world and the game from keeping an eye on the news and tabs on forums across the internet.
The game brings us into the story of the Witcher 5 years after the final book, where a certain event transpires that the developers have been able to lay to rest and a burning question on all the lips and in the minds of all Witcher fans is finally answered. I won't say any more since I don't like giving out spoilers.
Through a certain way in some very solid storytelling new fans of the Witcher are brought into Sapkowski's world, allowing them to experience the same eye-opening as Geralt in a way due to the aforementioned event. The Prologue to the game serves as a tool to teach the player about the Witcher and its concepts, as well as introduce various gameplay mechanics that have only really been seen in the likes of Jade Empire.
There's a lot to cover here and I'm going to be as succinct as I can, in terms of gameplay, graphics and just plain story and atmosphere. So here goes.
Based on a completely revamped Aurora Engine (seen in Neverwinter Nights) the Witcher presents a dark fantasy world with many twists, the story is told through the medium of beautifully done CGI (the intro is one of the best I've seen and easily stands with Blizzard and Squaresoft) and in-game cut-scenes that are also very sharp and well animated.
The game is broken into a prologue, acts and an epilogue and there's a lot of gameplay in terms of side-quests and story to get through. I'd say that the game boasts about 80 hours or more of play, since it took me a couple of days playing to get from the Prologue into Act 2 and I'm no where near finished on that act.
A lot of these quests aren't just over in a moment either; they're broken up into phases that can take a while to complete. They range from the usual monster slaying and collecting (seen in games like WoW and Guild Wars) of certain items to following a conspiracy down through a group of people and having to make an agonizing choice between several factors, knowing full well that the results might not be immediately visible and they're going to come back and bite you in the ass when you least expect it.
That's one of the strengths and appeals of this game, the fact that you're not just making black and white choices, every action has consequences and if you don't think carefully you could find a dear friend pays with their life later on just because you thought someone else could be trusted. The conversation system works well in the Witcher and it's through this interface that you can usually make the best decisions or worst of your Witcher career.
The game tracks quests with the very comprehensive Journal, this Journal deserves an award and is constantly updated with information about the characters as well as monsters, in fact there's a talent Geralt can acquire that allows him to learn about the Beasts as he encounters them. You can also read scrolls and books to learn information. There are so many entries in the Journal that it would take a page of this review to list them all, suffice it to say that other RPG's could learn a lot from the way this information is presented.
It's not just boring text either, it's written in a way to make it engaging as well as informative and when you find out that the Drowned Dead who attack in numbers can be defeated by a Group Combat style, you'll thank the Journal for it later on. The Journal also lists the Alchemical Formulae that you'll discover as well as a list of ingredients as you learn about them, the Herbalist talent is very useful and a lot of components can be harvested from plants, animals, beasts and other creatures.
There's also a map of the world as well as a location map, again these are presented in a perfect style and are easy to comprehend and read. The game also gives you a small mini-map in the GUI just to make sure you know where you're going, with the ability to track quests and so on, it's a life saver. Tracking quests is as easy as clicking on a location or the Track Quest button.
The game plays from several camera angles and it gives you the option of using an over the shoulder (where you can switch and flip the camera side) view to bring you closer to the action. I love this camera view and prefer to play the game using the QTS mode. It allows you to experience the detail of the world as well as the fluidity of the combat system.
WASD in QTS mode drives the character, or you can point/click if you prefer a more traditional style of play.
Geralt has two kinds of Witcher weapons he can use, a steel sword (for humans) and a silver sword (for monsters). When he uses the Witcher blades he can select from 3 styles used in the Witcher combat forms. These are, the strong style, the fast style and the final style: group. Some foes are more susceptible to a particular style and a heavily armoured knight or tough bandit, might be defeated by the strong style, whereas a single nimble assassin is easy prey to the fast style.
You can switch styles on the fly, either in real time or pause.
Lastly a group of small thugs might be better tackled in the group style, where Geralt can cut down droves of them with a few timed swings of his steel sword.
In addition to his sword styles, Geralt can also master hand to hand, useful in the Fist Fight mini-game and certain events. It's also possible to manually dodge, just double-tap a direction and Geralt will attempt to move, roll, spin out of harms way in combat. If you double-tap towards a foe there's a chance our hero will use a flip to jump over them and leave them vulnerable to a back attack.
Combat is not all about just clicking on your foe to attack either, there are numerous talents to buy to extend Geralt's combinations and provide bonuses to his weapons. You must learn to time your attacks with a careful left mouse button press, watching visual and listening for audio clues as you learn the combat system. A well timed attack leads to a more brutal assault and eventually Geralt becomes a whirling-dervish of steel-swinging death as his foes fall.
That's not all, there are also finishing moves (that become more flamboyant) as you begin to unlock the secrets of combat in the Witcher. Knockdown or stun an enemy you can unleash a devastating finisher that can seriously wound or in most cases outright slay an opponent. I used one of the Witcher's art signs to stun a thug's boss and then Geralt neatly lopped his head off with one blow for example.
The combat system is great, it's fluid and after a short learning curve it really begins to shine as you enhance Geralt with talent points acquired from levelling up and other means. The talent trees in the game with over 250 or so skills to master are some of the most thoughtful skill selections I've seen in a RPG to date and they make you choose between some of them, because you can only get about 60% of the skills in one playthrough, so it's worth working out what kind of Witcher you want to hone.
Geralt has several attributes to enhance, but rather than just adding +1 per point to a static value, you're picking talents that hone those values even more. For example you might want to up his strength to allow a wide range of damage and endurance increases, compared to just adding a talent in the strong style to give you more damage that way.
There are also vital intelligence based talents, dexterity ones too. There are talents that allow you to extract more ingredients from monsters or just learn about those creatures you face by slaying them. So that you can be better prepared the next time a random encounter pops out a bunch of Barghest for example.
Whilst I'm on the subject of talents, you gain experience from doing things, killing monsters, finishing quests. When you level up you have to mediate (like sleeping in Oblivion) then you can distribute your talents and depending on what you've chosen you'll rest for an hour or even more.
You can only rest in certain conversation dialogues (usually with an inn-keeper) or at a camp fire (at first you'll need a flint to light them, but later on, Igni - the fire art sign allows you to do that yourself). It's worth noting that you can also perform alchemy at a camp fire and adjust your Witcher medallion to detect monsters or magic.
The alchemy system has shades of Oblivion and Two Worlds, you can mix various ingredients based on formulae you acquire during the game or even attempt to experiment yourself. Thankfully the game has a save anywhere (except in combat) option and the quick-load and quick-save function is going to see some use on the harder difficulty levels.
Usually the alchemy formula is gained from books, scrolls or in the rare case certain conversations can lead to a new formula or two. Once you have them they're stored in your journal and they pop up in the alchemical menu allowing you to easily mix potions and so on. There are potions that you can use to give you an edge, Cat potions allow you to see very well in the dark, Blizzard potions slow down time and allow you to act quickly in combat.
There are also oils, these can be applied to weapons and have different effects. Some might increase the damage done by a certain amount and some might make a wounded opponent bleed to death. The effects aren't wimpy either, neither are the timers, some of these things last for several days.
If you find a Blacksmith you can bring them ore, red and blue, usually three of a kind is required and they'll reforge a sword for you with special abilities, these can range from extra damage to causing pain or excess bleeding depending on the ore combination. You can also bring them runes to enhance your silver blade.
In addition to the expansive side-quests and main core story there are several mini-games in the Witcher, these are not your usual tacked on additional content either. You can gain some pretty good prizes by competing in all three. First up there's the fist fighting tournaments that allow you to lay the meaty-fist smackdown on your trash-talking opponents in order to finish a quest line as well as let off some steam. If you beat a particular opponent you'll get some kind of reward. The fight system is the same as the sword combat so you can buy Geralt a talent or two in that area, allowing you to dominate the combats and unlock a whole range of brawling attacks.
Then there's my favourite, Dice Poker, I've never been a gambling man myself but after I got to grips with Dice Poker I have to admit that I can't stop playing this little side diversion and I'm getting pretty good at it too.
Finally there's the drinking game, where you take turns to quaff all kinds of alcohol until one of you falls over. You can use this game to get vital information from someone who refuses to cooperate or just challenge the locals at it. You can also win various prizes such as an amusingly named hangover cure formula.
With all these elements there's probably something I've forgotten but I'll repeat once more that none of these things feel tacked on, they're all part of the Witcher's world and they fit it like a glove - none of them are particularly taxing either, the balance is perfect.
So with all this gameplay goodness, where does the Witcher fall in terms of graphics and so on? Well that's an interesting question. I'll say it again, for a game that's running on a modded version of the Aurora Engine from Bioware there's a reason the company recommended the Witcher. The developers have done wonders with this old workhorse and they've given it a complete overhaul, revamp, rework, spit and shine polish so I didn't really recognise it.
The dark world of the Witcher is brought to life in the game extremely well, there's a significant feeling of time as the game hours pass and the atmosphere changes with the NPCs and environment reacting to adverse weather. It has a full day/night cycle that makes use of the new skyboxes and effects. A storm in the game is truly spectacular and sometimes you can catch a glimpse of the jagged bolts of lightning as they tear through the sky.
It uses top-notch shading, lighting and texture effects to make the environments stand out from one another. The Outskirts of Vizima are different to the various quarters of the city for instance. This isn't just reflected in the excellent texturing and design but in every level of the process, the modelling and the architectural layout of the various places brings to life a slummy medieval city or a fetid swamp, plague ridden outlands feel like desperate and desolate pockmarks on a pristine rolling plain.
It's not just in the static features either, there's a plethora of wildlife and small effects that you'll miss if you're not looking around for them. Fireflies at night, dust in the light of lamps and windows, frogs by the river and lakeside. Flocks of birds take flight when disturbed and wild geese, chickens and so on wander around the dirty village lanes.
It's this attention to detail that elevates the game from something that's just been slapped together, it feels as though it belongs and every object/crate and box has been placed with care to make sure it matches the environment you're exploring at the time. Every location has a specific motif to it and one of my favourites so far is the ruined Witcher fortress: Kaer Morhen.
It's a place where you can feel the atmosphere from the crumbling stonework and the spacious interior as you track down various things as part of a quest in the Prologue.
Even the design of the various information screens and the GUI is a work of art, there are small pictures and illustrations scattered throughout the various pages and the whole thing takes on a sense of wonder, which is rare for me from a game, as I found myself just spending an hour looking at all of this determined to leave no stone unturned for the review. The art for the level loading is also suitably excellent and atmospheric.
The only thing that I have a slight problem with and it's a minor niggle is the inventory, there's no button to auto sort items but since you can't carry everything and the kitchen sink, it's a moot point. The developers have even included Tarot cards for certain mature scenes in the game (yes the Witcher has sex scenes moral majority, take down the flag-waving banners and put away the righteous indignation - it's tasteful and mild - children will have more access to real porn or internet based T&A than in this game). As a flag-waving rant of my own, if you're complaining that your child is playing the Witcher, you're the one who needs to actually take responsibility for your actions not the developers, shame on you for allowing a kid to look at or play an 18 rated game! No cookies for you, yes, I said cookies.
It is a point to note right now the Witcher is rated 18 for a reason, it's got foul language and it's got violence/some gore and as I said above sex. Oh noes, not the sex! Quick, hide the game from Jack Thompson. If he went as mad as he did over Hot Coffee it's thankful he never saw Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophesy) but I digress.
The graphics for the character models are again well designed, the engine has been given a boost in terms of more polys per character and Geralt is looking mean/moody/badass and definitely equipped to the nines to fight evil. There's some repetition in the NPC models (as there was in NWN/NWN2 and Oblivion) but I feel that tends to be unavoidable in a RPG most of the time. You don't want to lavish as much detail on the side characters as you do on the main, but these are decent enough and they don't look bad.
Moving on from the graphics then, animations are the next port of call. The Witcher is packed with animations for the main character, his movement, his fighting styles and it would take even more space than I've allotted myself to describe. Suffice it to say that the motion captured combat stunts used in the game are some of the most innovative moves in a RPG I've seen to date.
Especially the finishing moves (of which there are quite a few for each weapon) that Geralt uses when an opponent is knocked down or stunned.
The animation in the game is all fluid and it is top notch, the developers even paid attention to making Geralt (and anyone else he drinks with) stagger around when drunk, your vision blurs as well, as a bonus. You can fight in this state but you're at -50% combat efficiency: unless you take a particular talent of course.
To sum it up, the animation is great and everything is extremely well animated from the environment, characters, monsters and the world itself. I love thunder storms and the animation effects from them.
All the graphics and gameplay in the world wouldn't be able to save a game if the sound design were not up to par; again the Witcher excels in this department and provides a veritable swell of special effects that are ambient, spot or related to the action being taken. The sound of steel on steel from a parry for instance marries nicely with the audio generated from the sword neatly slicing off an enemy's head or slamming through his guts.
The rumble of thunder in a storm or the swish of a nearby river is one of the things that the Aurora Engine has always been very good at. So it's nice to see that the developers made use of the feature to bring Sapkowski's world to life in an aural sense as well as a visual one.
Along with the top notch sound work there's of course the music, where the themes are nicely integrated into the whole package. The music accompanies the game's environments depending on various factors; day/night and location are all taken into account as well as action. Every piece of music from the Witcher even the menu theme is a wonderfully crafted tune that brings you deeper into the dark fantasy.
The voice work in the game varies from being fairly decent to bearable, it's by no means as bad as Two Worlds, but there are some performances that set my teeth on edge at times. The voice they used for Geralt took some getting used to but it fits quite well now and I can say that the actor manages to deliver his lines with the right kind of timing and spirit.
The dialogue in places is harsh, so beware if you do have younger eyes watching; you never know when someone will come up with a random colourful phrase in combat or even just passing by in the street. I won't repeat any of the phrases but they raised a couple of smiles I can tell you.
Sapkowski's mature dark fantasy world of the Witcher has never felt more alive than in this game, the atmosphere and attention to detail is second to none. The game's story is twisted and leads to some unexpected places where there is as they say, no good, or evil, just decisions and the resultant consequences. It's paced extremely well and the side-quests are plentiful, you might not tag them all on the first play either, so there's definitely replay value since there are also different endings depending on how you have tackled the game.
I've heard rumours that the game crashes on Vista, well, this game was tested on a fairly high end rig running XP and I've experienced no crashes and no problems at all. I've also patched and played it to the 1.1 and 1.1a patch that the developers put out on the release day. I tip my hat to them for that since it shows commitment to their game and the community that's been built up from it.
If you like PC RPGs and you're sick of the various clones in the genre, you should check out the Witcher since it takes the fantasy clichés and hits them over the head with a hammer so that J.R.R. Tolkien and David Eddings wouldn't even recognise them.
With a mix of non-linear gameplay (even though the story is fairly linear in places) you are given freedom to follow numerous quests and just explore the various locales at different times of day or night. Thanks to the excellent time-management system employed in the meditation screen you can choose to meditate till specific segments of the day and then change the time via a slider.
There's always something to do in the game and it never leaves you alone for long, you can turn a corner in Vizima and find a couple of bloodthirsty assassins are looking to hunt down a non-human mutant such as yourself. No one ever said the life of a Witcher was easy and for me, I'm glad that it's not.
This is one game that I can truly say deserves to be the best PC RPG of the year, even though 2007 is almost over, if not that then the best PC RPG period.