The Witcher Preview

Walking into Gen Con Indy, I knew three things about The Witcher: that it was a PC RPG, that it was based on a series of novels by Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski--the first of which is planned for a North American release in spring 2008--and that it has been in development for around three and a half years. By the time I managed to escape from the crowded convention hall hours later, CD Projekt's The Witcher had become one of my most anticipated PC titles.

Part of this is because of the game's unique approach to the numerous ethical conundrums players face throughout its course.

"Most role playing games, if you give more money for one option and less money for another one, people won't think about what is actually right and wrong, they just go for bigger rewards," explained lead designer Michal Madej. "In normal life, if you have to make a decision, you have to think about the consequences of that decision. In a game, you can save the game just before making a choice, and then see what's happening, load your game, and see what will happen with [the] different options. So actually, it's not making a decision, it's more like testing what is best for your character.

"We realized that this saving-loading possibility in role playing games just destroys the idea of making a choice, so we separated your choice and the results of your choice with a quite long time."

To illustrate, the designer provided an example of a decision he had made 10 or 15 hours before in the game. While guarding a weapons stash from monsters, a few revolutionaries had appeared, hoping to beef up their armory. At that point, he had two options, neither clearly right or wrong. Since he had been only been hired to protect the weapons from monsters, he wasn't necessarily obligated to stop the rebels, who were adamant that they hoped to to make the world a better place. On the other hand, the person who hired him obviously wanted to keep the weapons, else he wouldn't have been hired in the first place.

At the time, Madej decided to give the weapons to the revolutionaries. Now, 10 to 15 hours later, he begins dealing with the repercussions of his actions. Following up on a lead, he walks into a bar to discover his contact dead, murdered by the very rebels he had helped so many hours before. Just to make sure there wasn't any doubt that this was a result of his previous actions, a brief cinematic played, highlighting his earlier decision.

All together, the various choices and decisions in the game lend themselves to three endgame scenarios. With the average runthrough estimated between 60 and 80 hours, that's a lot of replay value.

Another encouraging aspect of the game is its approach to battle. Though centered around clicks of the mouse, players can't simply sit there mindlessly and mash the left mouse button all day. "In most role playing games, you just click on a point and everything is happening without your attention--I call it 'click and forget,'" Madej noted. "In this game, you have to be focused, you have to be concentrated. We added a very simple element of timing in the game; it's not challenging at all, it's more of a way to pull people's attention to what's happening on-screen."

While an attack is being performed, an on-screen icon displays indicates when to click. Click on the foe while there's an X on the icon and the attack loses effectiveness, falls apart. Once an attack is finished, however, the icon glows briefly, presenting a chance for a combo. The more attacks strung together in a row, the more damage each consecutive hit does.

Three different combat styles--strong, fast, and group--also demand the player's attention. Depending on their attributes, each foe is vulnerable to a different style, and switching between them is a simple matter of hitting a hot key or pausing and selecting the style with the cursor.

In addition to its refreshing attitude towards combat and decision making, The Witcher also features several other interesting aspects. Players can't buy the health and ability-enhancing potions in stores, they must seek out the recipes and create them on their own. Furthermore, because lead character Geralt is part-human and these potions are poisonous to humans, they need to worry about how much toxicity is building up in his system between uses.

Madej also ran me through a few mini-games at a bar located in a bad part of town--I could tell because of all the prostitutes on the street as he approached. Among the activities at a bar available at bars are the requisite drunken brawling and a drinking game similar to blackjack, in that you have to drink more than your opponents but not drink too much. The more he had Geralt consume, the blurrier the game screen got and the more difficulty he had walking. If you get too drunk, he cautioned, you'll pass out and wake up in a different location, possibly sans some clothing, items, and money.

With the PC version of The Witcher approaching completion, I asked about the likelihood of a console edition. "We are discussing internally," he replied. "It will depend on how well the PC version will do. We also need to change lots of design elements because this game is controlled with a mouse, so it needs a new interface and controls." When asked what console he would bring it to given the choice, Madej responded "Xbox [360] for sure."

As for the future of CD Projekt's involvement with The Witcher, Madej was very optimistic, though unsure if the studio would pursue an expansion pack or another stand-alone title. "I think that this kind of world and this hero is so interesting that we can probably do lots of other games about Geralt the Witcher, about this world, and about his adventures. We haven't decided yet what kind of games we'll do [next], but I think it's a very good idea. It's a really good background, those books are excellent...I believe this world can be a good reason to make more games."

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Developed by CD Projekt and published by Atari, The Witcher is due out in October 2007.