The Witcher: Enhanced Edition

As someone who frequents quite a few message boards, I’m well aware that opinions on video games can already be rather divisive. But the titles that tend to come from European PC development studios are the most likely to result in polarizing opinions, even if they're coming from the same person. I understand where they're coming from. Sometimes I would walk away impressed with a game that was far more ambitious and innovative then its resources allowed it to be, but only by having the patience for multiple system crashes, infuriating design choices, and an overall lack of polish. Sometimes I would dismiss the game as the broken unplayable mess it appeared to be, and later grit my teeth at people somehow managing to have those memorable game experiences I wished I could relate to while trudging through another soulless big budget action title. It was always a dilemma, where either option felt like a compromise I didn’t want to make.

The Witcher, originally released on Halloween last year, was no exception to this rule. Many reviewers fell in love with the game, including a co-founder of this site, and yours truly. As someone who usually struggles to finish games, I became so engrossed that I was watching the ending credits a few short weeks later. To me, it reflected the direction I always assumed this genre was going to go. This shouldn’t be surprising, as The Witcher is the first internally developed game by CD Projekt, a company that was born out of a desire to translate and publish older CRPGs for a Polish audience. True, the world relied on fantasy mainstays but it also avoided a lot of the clichés. Dwarves, elves and humans still didn’t get along, but there was more cultural and political complexity behind the reasoning. It wasn’t a story of good fighting against evil, it was a story of people trying to get on with their life after evil was pretty much declared the winner. Geralt, the main character, was just as interested in getting paid and getting laid as he was saving the world. When he rescued a village from a demonic threat, the villagers didn’t praise him so much as be marginally less racist towards him for the time being.

While nearly every Western RPG over the past few years made lofty promises about the consequences of your decisions affecting the gameworld, The Witcher arguably went much further to deliver on it, and did so with a significantly lower budget. Having become conditioned to hitting the quickload button until I’m certain I made the “correct” roleplaying decision, I was now forced to actually roleplay. Many times, making one choice over the other didn’t result in an immediate statistical change or more points towards the “good” ending. I was given a choice between two options, neither of which was ideal, and either one usually made my life more difficult. Sometimes, just to ensure I couldn’t boil down the choices to a binary decision, I would need to play the game for another five to ten hours just to find out exactly how previous judgments would come back to haunt me.

Of course, The Witcher also carried the same baggage as all the others from that neck of the woods. There were weird bugs and stability issues with certain setups. Aspects of the game felt unfinished and sometimes combat was unresponsive or sluggish. Performance was a hit-or-miss affair, with even people owning modern systems failing to maintain a healthy framerate. A desire to save costs on voice acting resulted in an extreme trimming of the English version, resulting in a rather jarring experience at times. Those who didn’t make it past the opening segments of the game without giving up were convinced that those of us praising the storytelling were certifiable nutcases. Some just found this strange, unlikeable world not worth spending time in. Even though I loved the game, I had to admit that it was an acquired taste, and required a lot of tolerance for issues that would be instantly deemed unacceptable if it had an EA logo on it.

This usually is where the story gets predictable. The game is released to mixed reviews, has a cult following, and maybe three years later has a variety of unofficial patches and mods that make it more desirable to a whole new audience wanting something in the bargain bin to play on their laptop. However, a completely different legacy unfolded. The game became a massive hit in its homeland, and a moderate success everywhere else. Instead of taking that modest profit and immediately making a second game with it, CD Projekt decided to take the criticisms at heart and spent the resources to rework the game, something that may not have been justified before they knew it would be as successful. Insanely, this Enhanced Edition was also provided free of charge to anyone who already purchased the original. However, packaging of all the extra bonuses that puts most modern "collector's editions" to shame was available to those purchasing the game for the first time, or in my case, for the second time. Yes, I liked the game that much.

I won’t spend my time re-iterating the entire laundry list of changes to the enhanced edition that have been posted on nearly every gaming blog, review site or forum thread about it. What I will say is that the changes are instantly noticeable to those who played the game in its original form. Load times, which varied from tolerable to excruciating upon the original’s release, now are so quick that the other modern game based on the Aurora engine – Neverwinter Nights 2 – can’t even match it. The combat feels more natural and less fussy this time around. It now more closely matches what I assumed they were going for in the first place; providing the visceral excitement of an action-oriented RPG while also making me concentrate on my surroundings like a more tactical one. A more diverse colour palette and improved spell effects produce a gaming environment that, combined with its already impressive day/night cycles and weather effects, is truly a living and breathing one.

The bigger pleasure comes from how all these little touches combine to create a richer experience overall. For instance, the new dialogue translation and re-recording, additional expository scenes, revised character models and facial expressions are certainly excellent individual bullet points. But combined together, they create a more cohesive and believable universe. When I played this game a year ago, my immersion was consistently broken due to an unexpected tonal change, an out-of-context line or a conversation that felt like everyone was talking with ellipsis. This time around, it was only broken once when I wondered why George Stobbart was a witcher instead of a patent lawyer. (For those not dorky enough to get the reference, all you need to know is some voice actors were completely replaced this time around and it’s a great improvement.) The storytelling is just as compelling as ever, except now much less effort is needed to enjoy it. If anything, this new translation is easily the best improvement, especially since the mediocre job of the original was the one aspect that the developers had the least amount of control over.

Another noticeable aspect is that all of the international translations are available to every region. While for the most part it is just filler material – unless you’re dying to play an RPG with Italian voices and French subtitles – it does provide the ability to play through the game in its original Polish language if desired. As is usually the case in these circumstances, playing it in the developer’s original language probably provides the purest experience. That said, newcomers turned off by the idea of reading pages of text in their video games in this day and age need not be concerned. The gap between the English and Polish versions is no longer as wide as some people are making it out to be.

Much ado was made with the enhanced edition including two additional adventures, but neither is persuasive enough on their own to warrant time and bandwidth. One is essentially a glorified fetch quest, the other a glorified series of dialogue trees. If they were somehow part of the original game, they might have held more significance. As they stand, they are merely entertaining diversions. They may serve more as decent background stories if you’re really invested in the world, but I found reading the books that the game is based on does a much better job on that front.

It should be made clear that despite the impressive amount of dedication presented in this package, a miracle did not occur. Recycled character models are still more common than is ideal, and Geralt's beautiful long hair still likes to clip through nearly anything it comes in contact with. More importantly, it still carries a lot of idiosyncrasies that leaves much of the game design, from the character interactions to the interface, while revised in many different ways, wearing the game’s East European heritage on its sleeve. If you did not find the world inviting the first time around, where the language coming out of dwarves sometimes has more in common with Irvine Welsh then J.R.R. Tolkien, there is nothing in this two gigabyte patch that will change your mind. My second play through isn’t drastically changing my opinion as much as re-enforcing it. The Witcher was a great game before, and it’s still a great game now, the presentation has just been turned up a couple notches.

If you’re an RPG fan who has never even tried the game before, there’s no better time to enjoy an adventure too unique to be easily compared to anything else out there. If you’re a returning player, you may be wondering if there is enough substance in the linearly structured storyline to journey across lands of Temeria for a second time. I’m still struggling with that myself. On one hand, there is a pleasure in discovering how a section of the game that was of significant impact the first time around is now inconsequential because I took a different path, and this pleasure is heightened now that many of the niggling technical frustrations I may have put up before no longer exist.

On the other hand, I can’t deny that there’s a feeling of guilt as I enter this dark and mature place as if I were Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, purposely ruining my own immersion with the unfair advantage of hindsight. CD Projekt, through a labour of love, has gone through great strains to make my choices in the world have more meaning then deciding whether I'm a Lawful Good or Chaotic Evil character. And now I’m trying to poke through the curtain to reveal the superficiality they tried desperately to conceal.

Of course, the alternative is to have my memories of the game tarnished by imperfections that were never intended to be there in the first place.

It’s a choice I don’t want to make. Give me a moment to think about it.

Comments

Great review! Or re-review?

I picked up the enhanced edition as soon as it came out, and right now it's got a hold of me like no other game since BG2. I never bought the original version, and the demo's horrible load times and lack of story context just persuaded me to buy Gothic 3 instead. But it's now become obvious that I'll be finishing the Witcher long before G3 (which I may not bother to finish at all).

This has become my go-to game when I need a break from studying. I bought the original version (UK imported, to protest the censorship) and then let it sit once I learnt that the EE was planned. On the advice of some folks on this site, I'm playing it with Polish dialogue and English subtitles, which definitely gives it an interesting flavour. The EE is a huge improvement over the original in terms of stability, load-times, and dialogue, and I highly recommend it to fans of darker material.

The combat feels more natural and less fussy this time around. It now more closely matches what I assumed they were going for in the first place; providing the visceral excitement of an action-oriented RPG while also making me concentrate on my surroundings like a more tactical one.

I might be wrong, but I don't think that CDProjekt did anything with combat mechanics between release first and enhanced edition. Sorry ;]

UCRC wrote:

I might be wrong, but I don't think that CDProjekt did anything with combat mechanics between release first and enhanced edition. Sorry ;]

They didn't change the mechanics, but they definetely overhauled it. It's far more responsive and the animations match up a lot better. In the original there were glitches where he wouldn't attack when he was supposed to, or there would be a slight delay between actions - frustrating when the combat system is somewhat based on rhythm, and it didn't feel like your hits were connecting. I recall the first one sometimes making me feel like I was killing enemies through interpretative dance. Pausing to use an item in your inventory is also smoother.

All I want to know is when and if it is coming on Steam, I've been rpg-deprived for a while now and getting it from a store isn't easy for me

If you’re an RPG fan who has never even tried the game before, there’s no better time to enjoy an adventure too unique to be easily compared to anything else out there.

This is no joke at all. This was the best Bioware style western RPG I've played in a very long time. If you enjoy this particular sub-genre, you have should not skip this game.

It's already available on Steam, as well as Impulse.

I have installed this and Stalker CS but man, I have no time.
Christmas looks to be a gaming orgy for me.

I'm proud to say I'm dorky enough to get the George Stobbart reference, and laughed out loud.

"Don't shoot! I'm innocent! I'm an American!"

No The Witcher for where I live it seems... Yay free market!

kuddles wrote:
UCRC wrote:

I might be wrong, but I don't think that CDProjekt did anything with combat mechanics between release first and enhanced edition. Sorry ;]

They didn't change the mechanics, but they definetely overhauled it. It's far more responsive and the animations match up a lot better. In the original there were glitches where he wouldn't attack when he was supposed to, or there would be a slight delay between actions - frustrating when the combat system is somewhat based on rhythm, and it didn't feel like your hits were connecting. I recall the first one sometimes making me feel like I was killing enemies through interpretative dance. Pausing to use an item in your inventory is also smoother.

Yep, true that. At first I thought you were referring to some changes or addictions in combat system and rules.

kuddles wrote:

It's already available on Steam, as well as Impulse.

No luck, neither steam nor impulse have it available around here...Thanks paranoic publishers and game developers, legit gamers from the 3rd world appreciate your efforts to alienate us even further

Yon Rabbit wrote:

Great review! Or re-review?

I agree! I've been resisting buying this game since the extended edition launched on steam... Your review has given me the gentle nudge I needed to purchase this game.

So much for willpower :p

I think I may have been persuaded to buy my first new PC game for, well, ever! Cheers kuddles.

kuddles wrote:

It's already available on Steam, as well as Impulse.

Not in western Europe... But no matter, with all the good reviews I think I'll go buy it in *gasp* a shop. RPG deprivation does that to people.

It is a great game, but the EE has introduced some instability, at least in my case, and I'm having to navigate through consistent CTD's. And a quick glance at the official boards suggests technical issues are fairly widespread.

Not enough to justify skipping this game, however.

I am so weak!!!

Nice write-up kuddles.

Yep, with the huge gaming glut at the moment this is actually one of the few non-console games I'm really interested in.

I just picked this up for the first time, having waited for the EE. I definitely agree that, as an rpg lover, this game is fantastic. When NWN2 came out I quit playing the main story early on because I was bored to tears and I felt the graphics were ho-hum. To think that this game is made from that same engine is just amazing. I agree that replay is probably a bit low but no more so than a game like Bioshock. I'll just wait for my memories to get a little fuzzy and I'm sure I'll be playing this one again.

I am loving The Witcher so far. It just feels different enough from all the other RPGs I have played recently to be special. When I caught myself grumbling about how no one ever gives enough money for ghoul bits... I knew the game had me where it wanted me, which was to be Geralt of Rivia, then it crashed to desktop without a recent autosave and I lost an hour of playing.

I must be insanely lucky. Despite all the claims I heard, even when I played through the original, never got a single crash, and I'm running 64-bit Vista. It helps that my years of RPG playing has me hitting the quicksave button way more often then I need to.

This is my new number one!!!

Also I am on 64 Vista and this runs like a champ!!! I think I like what they did with the "engine" vs NwN 2...

When trying to complete quests within a particular chapter, do you typically know when you're about to leave the current chapter and thus lose access to current quests, or do the quests remain active within the next chapter? The prelude seemed to end on me without me knowing that's what I was doing, and with so many quests to do in Chapter 1, I'm not certain which one is the main quest that will end the chapter (and don't want to do that before I finish all these others).

They give you pretty good clues that you're about to complete the chapter, and if you miss the clues, well, you should have a save game to go back to, right?

Is there a legitimate censor patch for the Steam version, or would that be found using the more nefarious ways? It's not a huge deal, but I get annoyed at any kind of censorship. Are we just talking topless "cards" or has more been cut as well? There seems to be a decent amount of blood still.

By the way, loving the game so far. My first annoyance was that it doesn't support dual-card (or at least just ATI Crossfire) configurations, but even with everything cranked to the max it runs like butter, so I can live without that.

Love the setting, it's gritty, and it has some pretty cool music. I'm playing it with Polish language and English subs.

Great game so far!

Swat wrote:

Is there a legitimate censor patch for the Steam version, or would that be found using the more nefarious ways? It's not a huge deal, but I get annoyed at any kind of censorship. Are we just talking topless "cards" or has more been cut as well? There seems to be a decent amount of blood still.

Topless cards and two topless characters have been covered up, nothing else has been changed. Such a weird line in the sand for Atari to draw in a game full to the brim of beheadings and strong curse words.

There is a de-censoring patch on various bittorrent sites and other downloading areas out there. Technically, it should work on the Steam version since all you're doing is replacing texture and .bif files and not fooling around with the executable or anything. You'ld probably need to turn off updating for the game, because I assume Steam will automatically notice the file altering and thinks it's an error that needs replacing.

You mentioned buying the game a second time for all the extras. Amazingly, you didn't need to. One thing that impressed me most about the Enhanced Edition is that CD Projekt made all (or almost all) of the extras available on their site for those who bought the original game. I downloaded the soundtrack CDs, the Making-Of movies, and the extra maps.

CD Projekt really didn't need to do that. In fact, they might have made a few more sales of the Enhanced Edition if they'd purposely saved the extras for the boxed copy. But since they took that additional step to provide the extras for original owners, I'll buy everything they ever make. Definitely one of the class acts in gaming.

MervinBunter wrote:

You mentioned buying the game a second time for all the extras. Amazingly, you didn't need to. One thing that impressed me most about the Enhanced Edition is that CD Projekt made all (or almost all) of the extras available on their site for those who bought the original game.

Yep, we've noticed But some of folks here (including me) have decided that the game was worth buying for the second time in order to show support to CD Projekt.

//btw: Two owners of CDP were selected to be Polish contender for prestigious Ernst&Young Entrepreneur of the year award. I don't know how it went for them, but it just shows how massive success the Witcher and GoG.com were for CD Projekt.

I just picked this game up and have about 4 hours into it. I haven't really had a game draw me in like this since that first month of WoW. Like others have said, if you like RPGs just go out and get this

Much as I love the game, I'm currently stalled toward the end of Act II. Every once in a while I start it up and plink away a bit further, and I think I'm close to done with the act.

One downside to the game, for me, is that there are little jumps in logic or in assumptions about what you know that can throw me off. Normally not a problem, but in the long quest chains of Act II, these little jumps have accumulated to the point where I don't know why I'm doing what I'm doing, why I have the knowledge I do, even why this thread of story is what's pushing things forward. I'm just doing whatever the game tells me to do next and looking forward to the future chapters that people promise will flow better.