The Witcher has employed the dark imagination of a fantasy writer to carve some genuine depth of plot and character from the shapeless, malleable clay of the single person RPG
RPGs have become the staple diet of any and all PC based games, it seems. Because of the proliferous, almost viral nature of this over-explored genre, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find one that offers something new. The Witcher, however, is one of them, though it offers it amidst a sea of familiarity.
The Witcher’s been rated as an 18, and it doesn’t take long to realise why. Not that we’re complaining! It’s nice to see some decent adult gaming for a change
The towns are rich in detail and the life in them feels real and full of purpose
Not unlike Clive Barker’s well-hyped FPS, Jericho, The Witcher has also employed the dark imagination of a fantasy writer to carve some genuine depth of plot and character from the shapeless, malleable clay of the single person RPG. The sheer weight of soulless mediocrity we’ve seen in recent years from the RPG fraternity has bred a distinct and difficult to repress cynicism when it comes to believing the box blurb about rich, story driven gameplay and never-before-seen immersiveness.
Mainly, these claims fall among thieves as soon as it becomes apparent that the programmer wrote the dialogue, and all conversations are trite, featureless exchanges of minimalist information. This (hopefully) burgeoning trend of enlisting the services of a seasoned fiction writer to help shape the characters and their worlds is no bad thing, and certainly feels to lift a good game from the doldrums of uneducated, unpractised storytelling and structures the proceedings into an enjoyable, easy to follow interactive tale. If The Witcher can be accused of any shortcomings, it’s won’t be the narrative since the talents of Polish dark fantasy scribe, Andrzej Sapkowski, are clearly at its core.
Sapkowski’s most celebrated creation is a collection of stories based in the world of Geralt; the Witcher who lends his professional title to the name of CD Projekt’s latest action RPG. This solid grounding sets The Witcher off on exactly the right foot, avoiding many of the fantasy clichés that seem to mire modern RPGs in a bland mud of elves, dwarves and a hackneyed battle between good and .... yaaawn...... evil. Geralt’s world is one of vast moral ambiguity, and as such, the enemy is not a particularly clear one (although this isn’t a criticism).
The lead character has his own set of moral codes that, despite not being shared by many of the other entities living in The Witcher’s world, give the player a distinct standing from which they can determine a suitable path through the ethically challenging gameplay. Likewise, Geralt’s unmistakably gallant profession is just as clearly defined (being trained as a monster hunter since childhood), so there’s no confusion about precisely what’s expected of players from the moment they begin the rather linear quest of The Witcher.
There aren’t many places in The Witcher that are quite so picturesque, but the BioWare Aurora engine does a good job of giving them genuine beauty
Meditating, relaxing and living it up are important aspects in Geralt’s journey. Overlook them at your peril
The main character may be clearly laid out for players to understand, but this doesn’t detract in the slightest from the explorative nature of the RPG elements. In fact, The Witcher highlights the inherent over-complexity and vagueness that permeate the characters of many RPGs, leaving a lot of players unsure about professions, classes, races and all the other weighty baggage that comes with trying to get a role player to actually start playing. One single, selectable character is a refreshing change for an RPG, and it’s nice to be able to get straight on with playing the damn thing rather than changing eyebrow colour and deliberating over the defensive properties of a dozen different cod pieces.
Once into the grey and sombre world in which Geralt lives and works, it becomes apparent that Sapkowski’s influence stretches beyond the main character and into the lives of the many NPCs roaming, living and working in the squalid villages and towns. A genuine sense of community purpose pervades the villages and dwellings, from brick foundries located in dangerous, monster infested swamps to ridding a colony of its rampant supernatural problem for money or information. The dialogue, for once, is believable and conversational – direct from a well written novel rather than the disposable, pick’n’mix one liners usually found in this kind of game. That said, there seems to be a fair number of discrepancies in both questions and answers: often enough a relatively new NPC will be discussed as if they’ve already played an important role in the story, while others will forget the steaming argument they just had with a drunken Geralt (yes, your character can get impressively lashed up in The Witcher) and begin it all over again.
The linearity of the game demands a few sacrifices in the expected freedom most RPG’s now boast, and many quests or characters are simply unavailable until a specific in-game trigger has been pulled to progress the plot. While this might cause consternation for a diehard role player, the subtly of the forced direction and advancement of the overall storyline is repaid to the gamer (and then some) by way of an absorbing narrative that maintains a remarkable amount of empathy with Geralt. Indeed, The Witcher could quite reasonably be accused of being an RPG for non-role players; a game of middle ground and familiar mechanics for those who don’t want to wander the countryside murdering wolves or designing their own costume.
To that end, the magic-and-melee combat system is a hybrid of the various styles of keyboard and mouse battle we’ve seen - and been generally disappointed with - across the PC gaming spectrum. By adding an air of rhythm play to the usual mouse bashing of PC fighters, a unique, and largely successful, combo-attack system is utilised. Successful, that is, so long as your rig is up to the task of rendering the murky world of The Witcher. System lag on a moderately spec’d PC was a little more than I could easily forgive, and while it doesn’t seem to be wearing the lead boots many previewers feared, The Witcher is certainly a software heavyweight.
Often, the increased action of a fight meant a reduced frame-rate, which is not entirely unexpected with PC gaming, but the system also failed to catch up with button presses and mouse clicks that, taking into account the rhythm based attack combos, meant Geralt became something of a clumsy warrior. Tweaking the graphical options didn’t make a huge impact on the admirable environments, so processing wimps needn’t worry too much about turning down the settings to keep the gameplay hot.
Conversations with the locals are top notch, although they can get repetitive
Overall, The Witcher delivers on its promises. While an ardent RPGer might miss the expansive free roaming of Oblivion, the highly absorbing storyline (which has been deliberately avoided in this review so as not to spoil it for those who buy the game on this strength) coupled with a game that, for once, actually makes good on claims of early decisions directly affecting the gameplay makes it a worthy addition to the burgeoning dark fantasy genre. Perhaps not one for the hardcore role player, but an FPS gamer or MMO addict might well find The Witcher to be a great alternative to watching a DVD during the evening.
Top Game Moment:
TOP GAME MOMENT
Getting drunk and seducing bar wenches is a terrific character trait of Geralt’s, but it’s also handled with genuine storyline care, so don’t shy away from indulging The Witcher’s darker aspects.