Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Witcher Review

Over the last two weeks, my leisure time has been pretty much sucked up by this completely engrossing game: The Witcher.

The Witcher is a RPG set in a fairly typical Tolkein'esque fantasy setting. You have your dwarves, your elves, your dryads, your monsters (too many to list, but suffice to say you won't be whining that its simply a world full of short humans and point eared humans running around).

The game has you playing as the Titular hero, "The Witcher". Which in this world, refers to a special group of Monster Slayers. Far be it that they are normal, Witchers are a special breed in that they not only have mastered swordplay, but have also mastered sorcery, and also have special potions and other stuff that has mutated them far beyond that of a normal human. There are also normal human Monster Slayers in the game, but the game does a great job of explaining the difference between a normal human who happens to slay monsters and a witcher whose primary job is to slay monsters.

So far pretty rote right? Nothing special so far. Some might even be turned off that you don't get your choice in how you wish your character to be created...what if you don't want to be a sword wielding monster slayer, how about ranged weaponary? why swords? Well, the game doesn't give you any choice at all. You even have a name assigned to your Character....so those hoping for a Oblivon'esque experience have to be prepared to take this compromise or be prepared to skip one of the best RPG experiences in the last 5 years.

As mentioned previously, the game doesn't give you a choice in who to play...you have to play Geralt, who apparently is a famous Witcher in his own right. The game gets around the "this guy is so buff he doesn't need to level up" problem with playing a legend by giving him amnesia, so even though he knows how to use a sword, he's not great with it (yet). Although a bit of a cliched mechanic (how many more amnesiacs do we need to play??), it is very well handled through the great and mature writing.

Which brings us to what makes The Witcher a great game. The writing. The world that the Witcher takes place in is a very gritty world. Think Glen Cook's Black Company for a similar comparison. In this game, folks dying is just the beginning of the exploration of the mature themes. There is rape, torture, incest, and, well, Love. And that's just the tip of the iceberg! The developers however, cannot be credited with such a strong world, as most of the world buildling was done by the author of the Witcher series. Never heard of the Witcher series? Well, you're not the only one as it was previously a fantasy series sold only in Poland. An English translation of one of his novels is coming over the pond however, and it should be an interesting read.

What the developers can take credit for is how well they enhance the RPG experience. In most RPG experiences, you have your choice of being good, or being bad, with very little grey in between. When you're good, you're good as the purest snow, and when you're bad, you're like the lovechild of Hitler and Stalin.

The Witcher doesn't let you off so easily. There are moral ambiguities in almost every decision you make, and there is no right or wrong answer. Each answer can be justified one way or the other, and surprisingly enough, they even give you a choice of remaining neutral! With a character as powerful as Geralt, the game portrays what happens to neutral characters very realistically, and it is rather satisfying to see such thought put into the game story.

Beyond the whole moral "good", "bad", "netural" landscape of decisions to make, there are also other in-game decisions you make that affects how the game plays out. A decision you make in Act 1 (there are 5 acts, and 1 prolouge and 1 epilogue), can come back and affect you in the later acts. This is incredibly masterful in that it prevents the usual "save & load" syndrome that many RPGs have. By making decisions you make have an immediate payoff, and later payload unknown to you, it makes almost every decision you make seem weightier than ever! The best part is it really does make the world seem like a living world. A character you save in the beginning can come back to help you, or come back to haunt you (literally)....a decision to help a certain faction can deny you some side quests later...these decisions are never game breaking (they don't break the main quest), but it adds so much more flavor and details to the game that its hard to ignore.

A special mention needs to be made here for the story, the story is actually fairly simple, but the amount of details put into it is what makes it incredible. Add to it the choices you can make that customizes the game towards you, and it makes the story a rather rich multi-layered affair. Its fairly similar to something like Lord of the Rings (get rid of the ring) in that it is a fairly simple story, but the amount of details and layers added to it turns it into a classic. The Witcher is much the same way. Don't expect all threads to be revealed either, there's at least two pieces of ambiguity that never gets resolved at the end of the game, and its not really so much for "lets have a sequel" effect, as it is a "real life rarely reveals all either" effect.

There's also an option for the players to engage gratuitously in sex, and while some might object to it, its something easily skippable. Its also not explicit and non-interactive, for those really prudish about what they like to see in a game. I see it as an almost necessary feature in a RPG which claims to be gritty however.

The combat system is also fairly...revolutionary for an RPG. The game engine is a heavily modified NWN engine, and the combat is much the same: real time clickfest. Instead of just rapidly clicking until your enemy is dead, there's a timing aspect of it. You have to click at the appropriate moment within the animation to make the character combo into his next move. While it sounds like yet another simon says game, the timing is actually fairly complex and on the higher difficult levels, the window for the click is reduced, and there is no visual aid (on easy and normal, there's a flaming sword icon that replaces your mouse telling you "this is the time to click!").

The game graphically is gorgeous. Easily one of the prettiest games I've played, and I'll say the artwork rates higher than that of even previous heavyweights like Oblivion. Combat is a rather beautiful affair as long as you only look at what your character is doing...Geralt is very much a work of art when it involves swinging his sword, and even though it makes no sense why he has two styles of fighting with two very similar weapons, its mostly to give the players more eye-candy and more character customization options (max out silver sword? or steel sword? max out magic?).

The cutscenes in the game are mostly rendered using the game engine and I have to say I have never seen in game engine cut scenes rendered as beautifully in an RPG before. You'll swear the cut scenes are basically movies....until you get to the movies, and there its even better. They really did capture the way Geralt moves and fight. The scenery within the game are also spectaular, ranging from the complex city, a dreary swamp, to a very cheery village. Locales are varied and dungeons are kept to a minimum and only in sensible locations.

So...what are the shortcomings of a game like this? The first is that load times can be rather long, though the newest patch promises to solve this issue. The other is that you can't ever really be evil. Even when you side with the wrong faction, the game makes sure you realize the mistake down the road and corrects it for you. Though the correction makes sense, it can still grate on those who truly revel in what evils their in-game character can create. Given that this is a game about the titular character, it should be expected, but I can still see it as a problem. Oh yes, there are also numerous Crash-to-desktop bugs as well, but once again, all these problems appear to have been patched away (I didn't patch for fear that I'll have to restart the game over!).

The game is also long, 50 hours or so. Some might see it as a shortcoming, some might think its not long enough. =)

So..in summary, one of the best games I've played this year, ranking up there with Stalker, and Portal. For an RPG to engross me this readily is no longer an easy task (I stopped playing NWN2 and Oblivion within 10 hours of each), and I can heartily recommend this game with no second thoughts.
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