The Witcher

Heed my words, for here comes the age of the sword and the axe, the age of the wolfish storm. - The Prophecy

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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.

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- Shawn Andrich

Comments

The forest screenshot looks quite awesome.

i've been looking forward to this game for years it seems. I sure wish the books this games was based on would get translated into English.

Certis -- when you say the "the developer suggested that the definitive version of the game for North Americans will likely be the UK version," do you mean that he's saying if you really want to play "the" game, import the UK version?

Sounds like they're still on track. And those screens are gorgeous. Wow.

I find it interesting that in the last podcast, Certis praised the WASD controls. Considering how this is based off of the NWN engine, I'm impressed they can pull this off simply because the WASD controls for NWN2 (based off of the Aurora [aka KOTOR] engine) were so terrible.

sheared wrote:

i've been looking forward to this game for years it seems. I sure wish the books this games was based on would get translated into English.

Certis -- when you say the "the developer suggested that the definitive version of the game for North Americans will likely be the UK version," do you mean that he's saying if you really want to play "the" game, import the UK version?

If you want to see bare breasts and a couple other things they'll be taking off for the North American version to avoid an AO rating, you'll want the UK version. I don't think it's going to be fundamentally any different aside from a couple cosmetic changes.

Rat Boy wrote:

I find it interesting that in the last podcast, Certis praised the WASD controls. Considering how this is based off of the NWN engine, I'm impressed they can pull this off simply because the WASD controls for NWN2 (based off of the Aurora [aka KOTOR] engine) were so terrible.

The whole game engine is pretty much their own aside from a few small holdovers. They've left the Neverwinter Nights engine way, way behind. To be fair though, this is more of an action game than NWN 2 and KOTOR are, which probably makes it easier to justify spending the time getting the direct WSAD controls right.

Looks amazing! Wow!

UK = Boobies!

In terms of AO rating -- how did God of War series avoid that? Both I and II installments had plenty of bare breasts.

Did they drop the 'wenches I've tagged' trading cards idea? It was pretty hard to believe what they were saying about 'mature content' while pimping that feature at the same time.

Gorilla.800.lbs wrote:

In terms of AO rating -- how did God of War series avoid that? Both I and II installments had plenty of bare breasts.

It's such a black art, trying to skirt the ESRB rating line these days, I don't even know. It could be the context, or maybe even how often they show up. I suspect most publishers in a post-Manhunt 2 world will err on the side of caution for now.

kung fu grip wrote:

Did they drop the 'wenches I've tagged' trading cards idea? It was pretty hard to believe what they were saying about 'mature content' while pimping that feature at the same time.

I can't say it was mentioned at all, but who knows. Sounds fascinating.

Certis wrote:

To be fair though, this is more of an action game than NWN 2 and KOTOR are, which probably makes it easier to justify spending the time getting the direct WSAD controls right.

Problem was that KOTOR had it right, but for some reason NWN 2 didn't, which forced you to either use a top-down camera or just tough it out through the frustration.

Wait, they take off more in the US to avoid the AO tag? I figured taking things off is sort of where the AO tag came from!

Also, i really want this game. More than Bioshock? Yeah, it's possible.

Certis wrote:
Gorilla.800.lbs wrote:

In terms of AO rating -- how did God of War series avoid that? Both I and II installments had plenty of bare breasts.

It's such a black art, trying to skirt the ESRB rating line these days, I don't even know. It could be the context, or maybe even how often they show up. I suspect most publishers in a post-Manhunt 2 world will err on the side of caution for now.

kung fu grip wrote:

Did they drop the 'wenches I've tagged' trading cards idea? It was pretty hard to believe what they were saying about 'mature content' while pimping that feature at the same time.

I can't say it was mentioned at all, but who knows. Sounds fascinating.

Sounds like the MPAA.

This looks great. What platform(s) is it coming out for? If it's X360 exclusive I may have to go out and kill someone...

PC

I can live with that. Which means other people can too.

It's such a black art, trying to skirt the ESRB rating line these days, I don't even know. It could be the context, or maybe even how often they show up.

They're drawn from a pool of 'community minded' people in New York and that kept on retainer by the ESRB as part-time employees. Retirees mostly, who either worked in a legal profession or in education, lawyers, judges, school principals etc. make up most of the review teams. It's not really a quantitative process but really luck of the draw. Get three cool people with a sense of humour who can keep things in context and you'll score a M rating... draw three former Catholic school nuns and you're screwed. It's a fabulous process.

Anyways, one of the early previews of the game brought up that concept of 'wench cards'... there are x amount of women in the game that G-something can 'relate to' by paying them or by picking the right fruit from the dialog tree. You'd get a picture for your inventory. I guess they've dropped it.

Rat Boy wrote:

I find it interesting that in the last podcast, Certis praised the WASD controls. Considering how this is based off of the NWN engine, I'm impressed they can pull this off simply because the WASD controls for NWN2 (based off of the Aurora [aka KOTOR] engine) were so terrible.

Because KOTOR wasn't basing on Aurora, but on Odyssey ;). Developers outdid themselves when it comes to converting those controls in WSAD to Aurora. It's a completely new game...

And when it comes to "wenches cards" i have a good news for you - they are still there, in both versions (still US one got them censored :/).

I've been waiting a long time for this one. It's good to know that it looks like a winner so far.

I'll be buying the UK version (GoGamer usually has them in stock) since I don't need to have my game content censored, and I'm pretty sure the sight of a pair of tits isn't going to be psychologically damaging to me.

If you want to see bare breasts and a couple other things they'll be taking off for the North American version to avoid an AO rating, you'll want the UK version. I don't think it's going to be fundamentally any different aside from a couple cosmetic changes.