Heed my words, for here comes the age of the sword and the axe, the age of the wolfish storm. - The Prophecy
After years in development, it was nice to finally see The Witcher in fighting form at Gen Con. With a large chunk of the game playable, I ran through the first 30 minutes and checked out some of the later parts of the story.
Unlike most RPG's, you're locked down into playing one character (Geralt) who has a face, a name and a long history already behind him. Even more unusual, most of the game will be spent fighting with the same two swords, which is completely contrary to the usual carrot-on-a-stick school of game design. I'm not used to character creation limitations in our PC RPGs, but they enforce them for good reason. With an established character comes opportunity to lend greater depth to the story and dialog. Games like Oblivion are wonderful in the range of choices they present: races, classes, experience, development. But when the vendor on the corner doesn't care whether you're an Orc Fighter or an Elf Wizard, it's hard to get in to a deep narrative.
Good interactions and story are nice, but what really makes The Witcher stand out are the choices you can make throughout the game and watching the results play out hours later in the story. Instead of showing me the genesis of one of these fateful decisions, the developer jumped straight to the outcome. Ten hours earlier in the game, he decided to treat some Elves in a forest as freedom fighters rather than terrorists after hearing what they were about. With this in mind, he let the Elves take some stolen weapons and put them to use for their cause. Later in the game, an NPC vital to a quest was dead, killed by the same Elves he choose to help. At this moment, the game loaded a voiceover narrative explaining how the earlier choice lead to the death of the NPC. He wasn't out of luck on the quest, but he was forced to deal with some morally repugnant individuals to move forward.
Claiming over ten large decisions to make throughout the game and plenty of small ones within individual quests, CD Projekt has clearly made choice and repercussions a focal point of the game.
The combat, which could loosely be described as Diablo meets Neverwinter Nights, also offers a new twist to a tired game mechanic. We've all suffered from the click-click-click combat system so heavily favored in action RPG's. Rather than clicking for each swing, The Witcher relies on a single click to get an attack rolling, with another timed click to string together combos until your enemy is dead or you screw up. This extends even further to clicking smoothly among multiple enemies to dance from one to the next with your swords. To add some variety, there are also different stances that can be switched to on the fly depending on the enemies you're facing. The right mouse button can unleash a fire blast or other magic attacks between weapon strikes. It all flows well, once you get the hang of it.
Unfortunately, with so much focus on sword fighting comes fewer choices for the player. In order to focus on getting the sword combat right, CD Projekt sacrificed weapon and skill variety along the way. Two players will ultimately have a similar character by the time the game is done. All this despite 250 different skills to choose from that only tweak Geralt and his base proficiencies. It could be a downer for players who want to focus more on their favored RPG style of play, but there's a clear upside to doing a few things well rather than trying to offer every weapon and skill combination imaginable.
Along with the isometric, zoomed-out views we're used to seeing in games like Neverwinter Nights and Titan Quest, you can also bring the camera down to an over the shoulder view and move using the WSAD keys. Combat worked so well in this mode that it was actually preferred by the developer showing off the game. You still click to attack and do combos, it's just closer to the action and more visceral. I found myself jumping from the standard, distant PC RPG view to the more direct camera depending on how many enemies I was dealing with in a given situation.
I was surprised at how well the graphics held up once I zoomed right in. Coming in fresh off the Crysis demo, The Witcher still impressed with sharp graphical touches and stellar art direction. The first city in the game looked both authentic and lived in. The townsfolk wandering around, old beggars asking for coin and prostitutes offering their services made for the kind of bustling, immersive city we want to see in our virtual worlds.
In case the mention of prostitutes didn't tip you off, this is a more mature game than we're used to seeing in North America. The European version will have bare breasts and a few other elements missing across the ocean thanks to a more uptight ESRB and political climate. When asked, the developer suggested that the definitive version of the game for North Americans will likely be the UK version.
I've been starving for a good PC RPG for some time now. The Witcher is quickly moving up the ranks as the one to watch this year. My main concern at this point is if CD Projekt can overcome the stigma both European developers and Atari games have with buggy releases. We've been burnt many times before (I'm looking at you, Gothic 3) but it's obvious that CD Projekt has poured a lot of love into The Witcher. If they can iron out the remaining bugs and polish the game to a shine, RPG fans could be in for a pleasant surprise this Fall.
- Shawn Andrich