Doesn't this guy realize that I'm The motherfucking Witcher? The infamous slayer of monsters and devilry? The pale-faced, bar-hopping amnesiac? The sterile, dwarf-loving tough guy? I have silver swords and shit. What is he thinking?
"You fight like a lass," he says, taunting me.
What the hell is this game?
The Witcher isn't exactly a breath of fresh air. It's more like the musty, stimulating smell of an old library; somewhat stale, but comforting, nostalgic. It's a throwback to an age when the ESRB didn't exist, and when game designers were free to fling as much sex and violence around as they saw fit; when they were willing to fill their RPGs with outlandish one-liners and depressingly realistic scenarios, and to pose nude on box covers.
Take the main character of Geralt, The Witcher's silver-haired antihero whose role you'll be playing out. Within the first 30 minutes of the game, players will see him coring the chest cavities of guards, banging his female co-star, and attending a reverent funeral. From there, it's a short hop to an inn, where you can participate in an endless round of bar fights and drunken slavering.
No, this isn't your average G-rated Star Wars RPG. This is something else. This is European.
The world of The Witcher is based on a series of novels by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. Witchers are essentially the mutated Ghostbusters of Sapkowski's fiction, a band of sterile humans with supernatural abilities and enhanced fighting skills. Almost immediately I lost track of the main thread, forgetting which witchers were good, and which witchers were bad. The grandiose storyline begins with an attack on a laboratory and Geralt losing his memory, another example of how deeply rooted this game is in its own genre. No RPG released in 2007 that looks this slick has any reason to be carting out that tired videogame cliche, but for whatever reason, The Witcher still works despite it.
Maybe it's because I haven't satiated my appetite for a good, solid, singleplayer RPG in a while. Maybe it's because I'm tired of cookie-cutter MMO-style quests, tasks which almost never make an attempt to capture your attention or stand alone as any kind of substantial anecdote. Or maybe it's because you just have to admire a game that so thoroughly knows what it is, and isn't afraid of playing it all up to gloriously overblown effect. Sure, the 100% voice-acted dialogue is uneven, and at times badly written, but how can you not dig a line like, "Finally! This place makes my flesh crawl... Did you bring wine? Thanks, I'm not scared now."
Geralt himself is a sardonic fellow, often cracking wry jokes or narrating his own thoughts. After noticing an over-sized set of armor in the corner of a room, without any clicking or cutscenes, he comments, "From the blood and dents this armor is a warrior's, but this fatso's more familiar with a tankard than a sword." This constant usage of voice effectively involved me in the world, and within an hour, I didn't really care whether I knew what was going on with the overarching plot or not--simple exploration was more fun.
The Quandary of Quandaries
But let's get back to Mr. Dwarf Cock for second. A game that's willing to step far over a line like that should probably allow me to outright kill the fucker who said it. Instead, The Witcher locks down the Geralt-on-villager combat in some areas, while allowing it in others. You can't draw your weapon indoors, and you can't kill anyone outside until an area becomes "dangerous"--typically at night. There will be no wanton pillaging and slaughtering townsfolk at all hours of the day. You won't be soiling your naked victims to the detriment of Youtube. Hacking the groins of children will not be tolerated.
This murder law illustrates the difference between The Witcher and something like Oblivion. Whereas you won't be stealing people's jewelry or rearranging their physics-enabled furniture in The Witcher, you do have a far more fleshed-out story to chew on than is presented in Bethesda's game. A huge amount of NPCs are waiting with full dialogue trees and quests to present, and while playing the game, I never once felt the boredom that would lead me to a mindless slaughter of innocents. I wanted to hear what these people had to say.
For instance, once while wandering around in the wilderness late at night I ran across a traveler, some random fat guy in a robe. He soon came under attack by a dog, which, strangely enough, had been chasing me to that point. After coming to his defense, the man introduced himself. Turns out he knew me before I lost my memory, and his business has been doing so well thanks to my help that he was willing to give me a wad of cash, right on the spot. I didn't have to save him, but if I had let the sucker die, I would have never known gotten the cash. Rather than allowing you to act in a bluntly negative way, The Witcher instead allows you the choice of not acting at all. You're a kind of Batman character, perched above the world's common concerns, indirectly choosing who lives and who dies.
Of course, offering the player moral choices is the mechanic de rigueur of RPGs, and The Witcher is no slouch in that regard. Shacknews editor Chris Faylor wrote an excellent preview outlining the unconventional method The Witcher employs to remind players of the choices they have made in the past--choices which can impact gameplay hours later. You are sometimes faced with choosing the lesser of two evils--or five or six evils, depending on the varied amount of dialogue choices--but more often than not these quandaries appear to be straight forward right-and-wrong affairs. Saving a dwarf from racist bullies is about as clear-cut as it gets.
CD Projekt, DVD Game
You have to appreciate what developer CD Projekt has done with The Witcher's visuals. Taking the original Neverwinter Nights engine and retooling it over the course of nearly four years, these Polish developers have crafted a very polished game. The animations, player models and architecture may not be on the level of Crysis, but they get the job done, and more importantly, they all meld in a coherent way. This is a gritty, dark world, and you rarely feel ripped out of that by something like a plastic wall texture or gaudy purple cloak.
Turn the page for more on The Witcher._PAGE_BREAK_ Perhaps my heaviest criticism of The Witcher lands on its control schemes. Played from a third person perspective, you'll have the option of two main camera angles--either an angled view from above, with click-based controls a la Diablo, or an over-the-shoulder view, with a more traditional WASD-based movement. These are two great options for an RPG to be offering, which makes it even more of a shame that neither succeeds fully. The Diablo-styled click-to-move mechanics become an issue when indoors, requiring you to manually rotate the camera as you ascend a staircase. Outdoors you simply miss the scenery, unable to view the horizon due to the elevated camera.
The best bet is the keyboard-based side of things, but I ran into problems there as well. Because the game feels built on the top-down, command-based engine, there is a small amount of lag when a running Geralt adjusts to camera movement. This delay isn't quite as painful as something like Dungeon Runners was at release, but it's a similar problem, and a blemish on an otherwise smooth operation.
Hang Up The Click Habit
The rest of the interface is your standard set of maps and quest journals. You'll have access to all sorts of abilities, accumulated by leveling up--a rather subtle process, rather than a constant numbers game--and gaining trait points, which can be applied to the many branching skill trees. In all, there are only five main UI buttons, which reside in the top right corner. The emphasis is on simplicity here, with most actions in the game only requiring a simple click to carry out. Want to pick up a sword? Click on it. Want to talk to someone? Click. Want to instantly skip a line of dialogue? Click. Want to skip it all? Click click click.
Strangely enough, perhaps the only time when you'll have to hold back on the clicking is in combat. Battle is a matter of matching up one of three combat styles--strong, fast, or group--and clicking on enemies to swing away, timing your follow-up clicks to the audio/visual indicator in order to initiate further combos. At the end of a combo, you might knock an enemy down with a force-like power, stabbing him in the chest in any number of gruesome animations. The level of violence is certainly high.
Violence aside, the system is reminiscent of Wind Waker's musically-timed combo attacks. And though it's ultimately involving, it's nothing revolutionary. You probably won't be playing The Witcher through the night because of the riveting combat, or out of an inextricable need to get to the next level. You'll be more interested in knowing what kind of crazy dialogue options the next seedy NPC is going to offer you.
Put on the Red Light (For +4 Strength)
With all of the monster mashing going on, it's important to note that the witcher's corruptive power also extends to the many females he encounters. The pale, long-haired, "emo" Geralt fittingly ends up in bed with more chicks than even God of War's muscle-bound Kratos. Depending on how you look at it, these sexual encounters come off as glaringly-dated, sexist trash that should only exist in pulp fantasy novels, or--ah. Exactly.
After saving one woman from a band of would-be rapists, I'm hit with a quest to run her back across town to her house, protecting her from roving helldogs in the process. All the way, she's teasing me with promises: "Hustlers always get rewarded, hee hee." Yeah.
"I live with my grandma. I'd rather not shock her," she says on arrival. Typical. At this point I figure the jig is up--Game Over--which is just when my sly character suggests meeting the next day, at a secluded mill down the road. At this point I'm talking to the screen: "Geralt, you cheeky bastard."
"You bring the wine, I'll bring the food," she replies, prompting a quest to find a bottle of wine in time for the rendezvous. Which I do, for science, and inevitably all of this triggers a cutscene.
"Something haunts the old mill tonight," says one nearby guard.
"We should engage a witcher or some other magician to look into it," replies his friend.
"Never around when they're needed, they are."
This is followed by scenes of polygonal passion, carefully hidden by a painting of Geralt's seductive, scantily-clad mate of the hour. The sequence is repeated for every sexual con-quest, with the witcher amassing paintings like a collection of trading cards.
Geralt soon steps out of the mill alongside the woman--a woman who, only hours ago, had thrown me a cold rejection: "I'm a decent girl."
The witcher can shamelessly corrupt women, easily cream a horde of zombies, and heroically protect a town of villagers, all in the same day--if you want him to. What else is there to life, really? If you're a fan of hardcore, unabashed fantasy RPGs, The Witcher is worth a look.
The Witcher is coming to the PC on October 30.