An ambitious game that delivers on most of what it offers
Every year or two, a highly ambitious RPG comes along that is aimed at hardcore PC and role-playing fans. Games like Arcanum, Boiling Point, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, and Gothic 3 offer wholly unique experiences, but at a cost. They can be very fun, but often, their lack of polish exceeds their ambition level. How many games from small developers like Troika and Pirhanna Bytes could have been Game of the Year candidates if they had only been free of bugs or if they had operated smoothly? Having to settle for well-conceived but buggy games is a frustrating tradeoff, and that is why The Witcher is such a refreshing game. It has gorgeous environments, an interesting setting, a unique cinematic combat system, a beautiful soundtrack, and a lot of gameplay choices. Best of all though, it is a great role-playing experience that arrives without the usual slough of annoying glitches and nuisances that accompany this type of game.
The package isn't perfect by any means. The dialog will have you scratching your head at times, thanks to spotty writing and translations. Voice acting is inconsistent. Loading times are too long and way too frequent. Poor animations during conversations take some of the luster off of the dialog. Too many quests involve item collection or monster killing. The combat is better than what is found in most action RPG's, but it is not as deep as you would hope. Most of these problems, however, are minor and easy to overlook. The one exception is loading times, which can be an enjoyment killer. For the most part though, The Witcher is not one of those games where you have to hold your nose while you play parts of it so that you can enjoy the rest.
Rookie developer CD Projekt appears to have built The Witcher without any modern conventional wisdom about RPG's in mind, and it excels for it. Gone is the conventional fantasy story about saving the world from a great evil, and along with it, simple good-evil dichotomous choices. The game takes the training wheels off and allows you to get slaughtered if you encounter an enemy that you cannot yet defeat. There is no level scaling here. Money is relatively scarce, so you won't end up the game overloaded with money and nothing to buy. Potion toxicity keeps you from spamming healing potions to cheese your way through a tough fight. It can be frustrating at times, but it makes the game more satisfying in the end. Choices have consequences. The Witcher feels, in every way, like a labor of love, and not a product of marketing or focus group testing.
At first glance, the game appears to be just another generic fantasy game with the same Tolkienesque clichés as dozens of other generic RPG's where you slay hordes of orcs and goblins. Once you get into the game though, you will find that The Witcher brings its own story and brand of fantasy into the picture. The game world feels more like Gothic and Fallout than Dungeons and Dragons. The Witcher is based upon a series of Polish fantasy novels, and the fiction seems heavily inspired by 20th Century Eastern European history. The world is full of plague, racial strife, war, and misery. The kingdom of Temeria could easily be Yugoslavia.
The Witcher fiction is heavily ingrained in the game, so much that every nook and cranny of the game world feels like a real world. The characters and the cities all have believable back stories. The journal system is excellent. Every plant, every monster, and every area have some kind of explanation if you want to read it. Every time that you read a book or talk to a new character, it fills in some good background material. When you converse with the major NPC's for the game, you get the feeling that they have been alive for decades, not that they are paper dolls created just for you to get quests from or kill. The environments feel truly alive. Like the Gothic series, the NPC's go about their daily routines, doing whatever it is they do during the day and then sleeping at night. Minor details abound, like packs of small birds that will scatter when you walk near them. Very few RPG's can achieve this level of life. It makes just exploring the world and reading about its history interesting.
Exploring the world is also made easy by the game's impressive graphics. The Witcher is not a graphical masterpiece, but it is still very easy on the eyes. The environments, in particular, are gorgeous. The lighting is superb and it changes with the game's dynamic day and night cycle. The game sports many breathtaking areas. One moment, you will be walking through rows of crops waving in the wind. The next moment, you will be in a forested swamp with brightly colored trees. Textures and character skins are sharp and highly detailed on the best settings, so much that you can see little details like all of Geralt's scars and the veins in characters' biceps. Visually, this game shows no evidence that it was built upon the same engine as 2002's Neverwinter Nights. Combat is truly impressive, as the main character (Geralt) can show off all sorts of dazzling motion captured animations and moves during sword fighting. Geralt twirls his blade, dodges with somersaults, and performs all sorts of spins and finishing moves that are practically straight from The Matrix.
The only major flaw in the game's graphics is that the conversations do not look good, thanks to stiff animations and blank stares on all of the characters. This problem wouldn't amount to much normally, but since all of the dialog occurs up close, it takes some of the luster off of the conversations when the characters just stand there without emoting or looking at each other. Other minor problems, such as beards that clip through clothing, are somewhat common.
The beauty in the presentation isn't just limited to the game's graphics. The Witcher is also endowed with a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack – the best RPG soundtrack in years. Every musical selection is perfect for the situation, like subtle moody tones at night or at dangerous areas, and percussion-filled action music that kicks in during combat. Combat sounds as visceral as it looks, with all sorts of swishes, clangs, and grunts from the combatants. The voice acting for Geralt, the main character, does a satisfying job. He sounds a lot like JC Denton or Max Payne and generally sounds like a gruff hero without looking apathetic or disconnected. The rest of the voice performances are okay, but some spotty writing and translations make some of the minor characters sound bad.
If your system isn't good enough to handle the graphics, or if you just don't care very much about the soundtrack, then you still have a lot to look forward to. The Witcher may look like a Diablo clone in its screenshots, but it is not. It borrows a little from a lot of sources, but the package is totally unique and very well put-together. Combat has more skill and depth involved than a typical action RPG. You left click on enemies to attack them, and then left click again at the right time to string together a combination. You can select from two major weapons (steel and silver) and three different fighting styles (strong, fast, and group). The combat looks amazing and it is an asset to the game, even though it leaves a lot of potential on the table. You cannot choose when to parry, and choosing what style to use does not take a lot of thought. It is a lot like the combat in Jade Empire in that it is a visual spectacle that is still fun despite being rather shallow.
When you aren't slicing up enemies, you are often exploring the countryside or cities talking with folks, accepting quests, resting to brew potions or enhance abilities, or shopping – the staples of PC RPGs. What separates The Witcher is their implementation. The main story quests are interesting, and the cast of characters that play them out are extraordinary. The game emphasizes trade-offs and choices, and it forces you to think about what you are doing before you do it. Inventory space is rather limited, so you cannot carry a lot of junk with you. Some NPC's will get offended and stop talking to you if you pick the wrong dialog choice. Best of all, there are some major choices in the game that drastically affect how those portions of the game play out. It can mean the difference between befriending some major NPC's and killing them.
One flaw in the quests is that many of them are mundane. Most of the non-story quests are of the "collect 10 plants" or "kill five monsters" variety. It is easy to overlook this problem, but one major issue is with the frequent loading screens that you will have to endure to complete many of them. Loading screens are, by far, the game's biggest problem. Outdoor areas are big, but you encounter a loading screen when you enter any building, and usually when you go up and down stairs. The game can bog down when you are backtracking to complete a quest and you have to cross three or four zones, some of which take 30 or 45 seconds to load.
An underappreciated area of success in this game is the interface, which is attractive and highly efficient, allowing you to access your skill points, journal, inventory, or map with just a key stroke. You can set the camera overhead for a more strategic view, or 3rd person for a more action-oriented view. Both cameras work well, but the overhead view ultimately works best. The HUD and menus have been designed so that you can easily figure out what you need to do to accomplish simple tasks. Tooltips abound, in case you cannot. So many RPG's have inexcusably bad interfaces that a game like The Witcher deserves praise for making a good one. Especially since it delivers so well on the core features that make a good role-playing game. It is because of this solid design that The Witcher is a great pick-up-and-play game. All of the your efforts are spent where they should be: making choices, fighting monsters, and allocating resources, not fumbling through menu screens.
The interface is a fine example of how The Witcher is a game that gets the important details right. A 50-hour game with good dialog options, a unique setting, and character development is nice, but something that offers those features without a bunch of nuisances is extraordinary. So many niche-targeted games fall victim to sloppy implementation, bad frame rates, or other glitches. The Witcher is the first effort from Polish develop CD Projekt, and it is a resounding success. They have put together a game that is incredibly ambitious, surprisingly polished, and best of all, fun. A few nagging problems keep it from being an outright masterpiece, but it was still the finest RPG of the year that it came out. A better engine that reduces loading times and more variety in combat tactics are areas for improvement for a sequel. Hopefully, we will see one of those.