The Witcher

[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.

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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.

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For more on The Witcher, check out the latest GWJ Conference Call podcast!

- Shawn Andrich

Comments

So far, very much enjoying this game; there's some rough edges, but the good vastly outweighs the bad. One thing that really pops up though is that the dialogue at times feels ripped out of a Harlequin novel... it's weird, but I do like collecting the cards.

One question is that I'm near the end of act 1 but think I'm stuck and am unsure if it's a bug. Spoilers might follow.

[color=white]
I have the key to the Salamandra hideout, go there, kill everyone, but there's no leader to talk to and the quest remains unfinished. I then wander down the road, find Abigail in the cave, but then there's no mob outside? What should've happened at the hideout?
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Doug wrote:

One question is that I'm near the end of act 1 but think I'm stuck and am unsure if it's a bug. Spoilers might follow.

reply wrote:

[color=white]Look around the inside of the hideout. See any other exits?[/color]

Doug:

Use the he ALT key inside the hideout.

I was unable to order the European version of this game from Go Gamer, as they would not accept an order from outside the US, so for any other Canadians in the same position, I thought I would point out that NCIX Canada now has the European version available on their website.
http://forum.ncix.com/forums/index.php?mode=showthread&forum=114&threadid=1469149&pagenumber=1&msgcount=13&subpage=1&product_id=26920

Well after reading some of the comments in this thread I went ahead and bought the game. My very first impression wasn't so great. It took me awhile to get used to the interface, the camera angles and the fighting. However after a few hours all of that disappeared and I was totally sucked into the incredible depth of this game. I think I'm about 15 hours in and it looks like I have about half left and so far it's only been getting better and better. One thing I like is that the side quests don't feel nearly as superficial as in most RPG's.

I have had a few crashes but overall it seems pretty stable. I'm running it at low settings at about 35 fps on my laptop with a turion dual core 1.6GHz, a Geforce 7600 Go and 2 Gigs of RAM and it looks reasonably good. Also the loading times seem fairly reasonable to me although I haven't timed them and I tend to be fairly patient.

New patch targeting save and load times should be out before Christmas.

Certis wrote:

New patch targeting save and load times should be out before Christmas.

Good to hear, even though "before Christmas" sounds like a long time away. I think I'll put the game down until the end of the semester when I can enjoy it in longer sittings.

Speaking of length, I feel like I've been playing the game for a stupid long time and am still only in Chapter II. I guess maybe my MMO experience has me thinking about leveling up and gathering all the money and potions I can get instead of advancing the story, but I don't think I'm that slow. Is everyone else finishing the game while I'm still running around Vizima looking in every barrel? Probably.

You think you are bad, Montalban? I just exited the outskirts of Vizima and I've had it since day two.

Same here. Just entering the streets of Vizima myself. There is a lot to do in that first zone.

Just wait for the swamps, guys. Oh yessss...just you wait. Let's compare notes when we all finish this game in April.

Swamps were the bane of my life until I spent a good portion of my pennies investing in books about the wildlife there; archspore almost had me giving up in frustration. Glad I kept going though. Would love to compare notes on how people chose things with respect to Gramps down the line.

Been playing this game for about two weeks (finally making some real progress in Chapter 2 after a marathon session on Sunday) and it's just pure liquid awesome. The save and load times really are a bear (especially since I'm running in Vista where the game tends to crash every hour or two, forcing a lot of "quick" saves), but the rest of the game is just too damned good to let that ruin it.

And yeah, I think we ought to have a spoilerific thread to talk about plot points (like with Gramps and the Witch) to see how different paths played out.

ShynDarkly - I will say about Gramps (and as a warning to those who have yet to encounter him), if you agree to bargain with him, don't plan on being able to double-cross him once you get what you want. The game won't let you. And yeah, those spore plants in the swamp should rot in hell. Thank god for the monster books and the beastiary notes the game generates for you or I might never figure out how to beat those damn things.
---Todd

I'm late to the party, but I'll throw this out there anyway.

This is one of the first RPGs I remember playing where I've actually been spending money right from the get go. It usually seems I can be a tight-ass and just scavenge my way through the first third of the game, and by then my equipment's good enough that money is meaningless.

I attribute this to two things:
1. Because of the inventory, looting only gets you so far. (And I'm totally okay with that)
2. You actually need to buy and read the books people have for sale. ZOMG! There are books?!?!? That serve an actual purpose?!?!?

Because of this, I find myself actually gambling. Normally, I would skip any gambling or "fist-fighting", but now, I need the cash.

It feels good.

This was recently on sale on Impulse (I think) for $20. I didn't pick it up, but will next time it goes on sale. I still have too much in my queue from the D2D 5 year sale to play to justify an more purchases. But if it falls to $15, I just may have to...

The Witcher Enhanced Edition has been sitting on the shelf above my computer collecting dust for months now. Funny this article would be highlighted from 2 years ago.

Maybe I should install? I still have yet to purchase Borderlands, Torchlight, or Dragon Age. Man, it's good to have choices huh?

I played Witcher during the week leading up to Dragon Age. I like it, alot. But I've got a lot of gaming to do before I'll be ready to dive back in and collect the rest of those cards...

I heard much about this game so I downloaded the demo and was very very underwhelmed. The game play was more convoluted than it needed to be all those stances and such are a good idea but not well executed. I think the whole game came accross that way to me. A good idea poorly executed. Horrible voice acting, bad animation, NIS' were laughable, it just all looked incredibly amateurish and unfinished. Like a half baked mod to something. I couldn't even bring myself to finish the demo.

If you're going to say that the story saves this game, well, if the voice acting, cinematics and animations are all bad, it sort of deflates that point. The execution and presentation of a story matters and if that is bad then the story suffers. Maybe it's just better to read the books?

Am I the only one that thinks this game is over rated because it tried to go "dark"?

Maybe it's just not the game for you. There's no rule that you have to like every game.

Scratched wrote:

Maybe it's just not the game for you. There's no rule that you have to like every game.

I'm not sure, I'm pretty certain that it's a requirement to gain the title of "Teh Ultimit Gamar."

The other thing I would say about the witcher, is that it's story is a slow burn, it doesn't give you a good taste of what it's like in the first act, or even the first few hours.

ruinate wrote:

I heard much about this game so I downloaded the demo and was very very underwhelmed. The game play was more convoluted than it needed to be all those stances and such are a good idea but not well executed. I think the whole game came accross that way to me. A good idea poorly executed. Horrible voice acting, bad animation, NIS' were laughable, it just all looked incredibly amateurish and unfinished. Like a half baked mod to something. I couldn't even bring myself to finish the demo.

If you're going to say that the story saves this game, well, if the voice acting, cinematics and animations are all bad, it sort of deflates that point. The execution and presentation of a story matters and if that is bad then the story suffers. Maybe it's just better to read the books?

Am I the only one that thinks this game is over rated because it tried to go "dark"?

The initial release of The Witcher was pretty notorious for its botched localization, but they went back and re-did the English script for the Extended Edition -- which is available as a free update for the original version, and included the original Polish voice acting to boot. I'm guessing the demo is based on the initial release, so it's not entirely representative of the game.

That said, not everyone is going to like everything, and if you loathed the demo, I don't think the updates are going to significantly change your mind.

I do think think you're being slightly unreasonable in your citicism of the presentation. When it comes to the production values, I'm hard pressed to come up with an rpg outside of BioWare's output that had as much effort poured into it.

The other thing I would say about the witcher, is that it's story is a slow burn, it doesn't give you a good taste of what it's like in the first act, or even the first few hours.

Ah I see. That's what I thought. It's too bad, designers can't afford to waste those first few hours in hopes that players will have the desire to slog through to the good stuff.

I wouldn't say I loathed the demo, just that I was very dissapointed with it hence my comment that it's over rated. It's always dissapointing when a genre you love gets a new entry and other genre lovers rave about it, but when you take a look, you can't see what they are raving about. You know?

I think I'm also losing my tolerance for games that tell a ponderous story and take their time with it. I like my story elements more layered in there and I don't equate story telling with copious amounts of dialog either. I had a Love/Hate relationship with Mass Effect for that reason.

I agreed when one of the GWJ recently podcasted that "story in games is like story in math problems, it sort of misses the point" These days if someone tells me that I should play game x because "game x's story is so great," it's actually a turn off to me. Of all the things about the game to sell me on you can only come to the story? Game play must be weak then, or cliched. It's almost like raving about a game because the graphics are so great.

It's all about the experience.

Nice write-up, Shawn. I've never played The Witcher but I've always come back to thinking about it since its release. At first I didn't have a proper PC with which to run the game. Then I got deep into console gaming. I was looking forward to the 360 ports scheduled for late 2009 until it was abruptly canceled.

Now I have a new laptop -- certainly not a world-beater in the specs department -- and with the Witcher available on Steam I'm running out of excuses to try it out.

Plus I always thought the cool-looking main villain from Hellboy 2 was cribbed from the design of the Witcher's protagonist.

Maclintok wrote:

Plus I always thought the cool-looking main villain from Hellboy 2 was cribbed from the design of the Witcher's protagonist.

It's not like Geralt is the first albino sword and sorcery protagonist of dubious morality.