[center]I'll come back. I'll slay every lice-ridden peasant, anything that moves and can't climb a tree. Or you can try to lead honorable lives, clear your conscience, and start again. The choice is yours. - Geralt, The Witcher
The Witcher is like Knights of the Old Republic, only with a story that demands the player make truly ambiguous moral decisions and live with the ramifications hours later. It's like Neverwinter Nights except the combat is fast, streamlined and not weighed down by a ponderous lists of spells. It's the Gothic series without all the bugs or awkward translations. The Witcher brings a lot to the table that we've seen before, but the end result is something unique. It's good, real good.
Based on a series of popular Polish fantasy novels, The Witcher follows Geralt, a sardonic wanderer whose past is long and bloody. You don't customize anything about him before you start the game, the scars on his face and his penchant for swords and magic are all set in stone. The man has walked many paths, but conveniently for those of us who haven't kept up with popular Polish literature, he can't remember any of it. Rescued at the brink of death by his fellow Witchers, Geralt remembers the basics of sword fighting and sarcasm but little else.
You'll want to settle in for the introductory parts of the game. After a long, opening cinematic you're treated to more exposition through conversations with the other Witchers and a sorceress with some connection to Geralt's past before you have a shot at the combat. Even though the game throws quite a few enemies at you to start, it does a good job explaining the three stances (fast, strong and group) and how to switch between them quickly depending on the situation. Attacking is simply a matter of left clicking once on an enemy to initiate at attack and waiting for your cursor to flash and clicking again to continue the combo.
It's a simple system and it works well but you may find yourself put off by repeating the same attack animations until you unlock better skills and a few spells to spice up the encounters. Even with all six spell types unlocked, the combat doesn't vary much from timed sword swinging and knocking back enemies, setting them on fire, slowing them down or throwing up defensive shields. For all the potions and options available when fighting, you'll spend most of your time just clicking in time to the attacks. You can pause the action and give commands if things are moving too fast for you, but it's simple enough that you'll rarely need to for more than searching for the right potion.
While at first the more distant isometric camera seems best for moving around and fighting large groups, as you get used to things you may find yourself spending more time in an up-close, over the shoulder 3rd person view that controls with the WASD keys. Both methods work well, so it's completely up to your own play style.
When you're not slaying monsters or thugs, you'll spend quite a bit of time immersing yourself in the unique world of The Witcher. It's not just a question of graphics or sound, both of which are actually very good, it's all the other details. The people in the city of Vizima don't just stand around waiting for you to talk to them, they go about their lives begging, sweeping or just walking around town. When it rains, most will run inside their homes or get under some eaves for shelter. When night falls, the streets empty until it's just thugs, guards and a few others prowling around. Pushing through the seedy part of town you might find yourself and the surrounding inhabitants beset by a vampiric beast. You could leave it to the thugs, but vampires can be tough to take alone so lending your sword is a good way to collect some high end alchemy ingredients from the corpse.
Even some of the main NPCs in the story will be at different places depending on the time of day. One woman could work at the church tending plague victims by day, and have more time for personal chats in the evening at her home. Assuming you can get past the old lady landlord who keeps throwing you out of the house. Sometimes just getting the right person at the right time will require branching story paths before you can move forward with the main plot line. Thankfully there's a great map system that makes tracking NPCs, quests and locations of interest easy and intuitive.
Putting aside the main plot and all the branching quests that come of it, there are also other things to do. You can fulfill contracts from bulletin boards, play poker dice with various people you encounter in your travels or get into fist fights at the local Inn. The fighting is more of a Fight Club style affair, only with more betting. You win money as you fight and if you want to move up in those circles, you need to find bigger and tougher opponents to take on. The quest log will keep track of who you've beaten, so it's completely up to you how far you want to go with finding new opponents. The fisticuffs are simple, relying on one button to punch and the other to block. You can pull off more intricate moves if you spend skill points on some brawling skills. It's not deep by any means but it can be a nice two minute diversion when you're at the Inn looking for someone.
Also of note is the Alchemy system. In The Witcher you have to LEARN how to make things. From BOOKS. Then you have to figure out what to get, where to get it, and only then can you sit down and make something useful. With your ingredients in hand, you can create concoctions that do anything from seeing in the dark, aiding your recuperation or even creating explosives. This is not a health guzzling style of game though, drinking a "swallow" potion which slowly revives your health is ok once or twice, but more and you will poison yourself. Everything in The Witcher comes with a price, especially if it's good for you. Like bran muffins.
Because The Witcher is a mature game that assumes you're, well, mature, there is sex to be had if you're into that sort of thing. This being the North American version, there are a few instances where the hair on your nubile target is obviously a little longer than it needs to be, but I wouldn't say the game suffers for it too much. Being that you play a heterosexual man, you only sleep with women. Sorry ladies. When you've managed to bed a woman (Witchers are infertile and immune to disease so why the hell not?) you'll be treated with a painted card of the woman posing, often fully nude. So 3D nipples are out but painted ones are in. There are no sex scenes per se, just an artsy kind of background filter that fades quickly. It's actually quite tasteful.
There are numerous load times which could be an impediment for folks on slower computers. Even with a speedy system, a small house can take up to five seconds to load while a large game area can take up to thirteen by my watch. I can't say it's impacted my enjoyment of the game in any fundamental way, it's no better or worse than the Neverwinter Nights series from Bioware. It's also relatively bug free and stable despite the shaky Atari pedigree backing it, so PC players can buy with some confidence. There's already a 100 meg patch waiting for new owners, but I can't say I had any problems before or after I installed it.
After all this there's still a lot to say about the game. The story is well realized for the most part. Some warts will pop up here and there with a poor turn of phrase or a small plot point that could have been more clear, but not often enough to detract. The promised "lesser of two evils" decisions are in full force throughout the game, I've already been surprised many times by twists and turns in the story based on my past actions. No matter what happens, Geralt always has something to say about it and he's rarely apologetic about the decisions he makes. I've regretted a few, but even looking back I'm not always sure I would have handled some things differently.
The Witcher is a good game. It's not always perfect, but it positively oozes with interesting moments and details well worth exploring. It's not likely to change any minds uninterested in story-laden RPG's, but for the rest of us it's a godsend in the current PC landscape. On any platform, the amount of control the player has over the shaping of the story is unprecedented in modern times. It's not an "Action RPG!" nor is it a "Which of my 200 spells do I want RPG." It's The Witcher, and it's about damn time PC roleplayers had something to crow about.
For more on The Witcher, check out the latest GWJ Conference Call podcast!
- Shawn Andrich