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.