The Witcher review
“This is the game they've always wanted to make in a genre they love and a universe that inspired them”.
So far, 2007 has been a pretty disappointing year for fans of role playing games. Many titles promising to continue the epic wonder of the genre only managed to cut off gamer enthusiasm through high or absurd system requirements. Bear Neverwinter Nights 2 in mind: while reigniting the flame of the Dungeons & Dragons system through the 3.5 set of rules and trough a fresh new storyline, it also experienced huge drops of performance even on dual core computers with SLI rendering capabilities. To this time, the over increasing number of patches didn’t solve Neverwinter Night’s 2 issues completely.
Truth is, it was a shock for everybody when Bioware gave away the Aurora engine (based on which the first Neverwinter was made) to the new set of developers at Obsidian, practically giving up the future of one of the most beloved games of all times.
“The Witcher”, is an RPG based on the writes of Polish novelist Andrzej Sapkowski. On the official website, this intro will strike you: “the game they’ve always wanted to make in a genre they love and a universe that inspired them”.
If you are looking for a fast paced mindless dungeon crawler “The Witcher” is not the game you are looking for.
Though this is an action-adventure RPG, it features a whole new combat system: you have to time up your mouse clicks to create more than four-in-a-row combos, so hack and slash would not work. Add to this the fact that Geralt can use three fighting styles (group, strength and fast style) each suitable for different kinds of enemies and you’ll soon realize that combat is a challenge to new players. But this is what the developers had in mind, to revolution an overused brawling system by forcing the gamer to change his strategy for every enemy he encounters in this grim universe.
Our hero can also learn magic if he ever gets bored, ranging from telekinesis to outstanding fire power. When leveling up, the player needs to meditate at a fireplace, where he gets the option to upgrade either his attributes, his fighting styles or magic powers, each of these unlocking powerful new features or combos, Diablo style. But some features are only unlocked through quests, as if Geralt would have to relearn what he has forgotten. This is one of the advantages of “The Witcher”: players can hardly get bored. As you advance through the storyline you always learn new things, from alchemy to skinning, you can even play mini-games like fist fights and my all time favorite, dice poker. The items you use, varying from swords to blunt weapons or daggers can all be enhanced trough spells or coating and the hero itself can be buffed through the use of poisons. These things all have an impact on the game, adding a drop of reality to it.
This is what makes the witcher’s universe so interesting – realism. Monsters only lurk outside at night so you don’t just simply hunt them and during the day most areas are safe and people tend to their chores. You can get drunk and finish all the quests with a shaking, blurry screen camera. You can be a lady’s man and have several love affairs (which unlock concept art bonuses) or a total loner. A thing that I would consider normal is that most NPCs in the game can actually die and this really affects the game universe, which somehow reminds me of Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. For example, I got rejected several times by a beautiful gal at the local inn in Act I.
After saving her from a couple of goons at nighttime she offered to show her gratefulness to Geralt in a nearby deserted barn the next night. But then I got killed and had to reload the game. When I wanted to redo the quest (was really curious how the affair would end up) the lady and the goons got attacked by a ghoul which killed them all instantly. The quest was no longer available and everybody at the inn was missing the girl’s presence. This is just one of the things that would make me play The Witcher over and over again.
Another would be the choice system similar to the one in Knights of the Old Republic. Bioware has really gotten into this trend of alternative storylines, but an odd thing in witcher is that you can’t seem to find the moral truth under any of the decisions you make. They all seem to lead to a bigger or lesser evil, which makes the game even more interesting.
Happily, the game camera is well suited to its purpose and almost never experiences glitches. You can play in three different ways, depending on what you like most: an isometric camera similar to the one in Neverwinter Nights, a top down free camera resembling the one in Knights of the Old Republic and an over the shoulder angle which reminds of most action games. All spells, potions and fighting styles are available trough keyboard quick-slots and the quest tracking feature is absolutely exceptional. The user interface is smooth and highly functional (though the object inventorz szmbols are rather small) and I found the medallion in the top left corner of the screen a nice addition. It vibrates when it detects forms of magic or hostile creatures and when Geralt’s life nears zero it induces a lot of thrill by making a heart bump sound and blurring or desaturating the visual effects, which makes it almost impossible to save your character.
Tickle my sight, play me a tune
Like Neverwinter Nights 2, The Witcher makes use of an updated version of the Aurora engine. But this time the devs really outdone themselves at optimizing the game experience. The engine has been modified to support motion-captured animation, physics effects, new mechanics and combat system, additional graphical effects (glows, advanced dynamic shadows, blurs). The renderer has been unified and it now features an additional light manager tool which allows the use of per-pixel lighting, dynamic omni–lighting day night light cycles.
Another thing that makes The Witcher stand out is the top-tech post-processing pipeline that is able to combine image filters and special effects (up to now each was stand-alone) :selective motion blur or blooming that add a lot to the cinematics of the game.
As a result, the game runs smoothly even on a 6600 Geforce LE while still looking extremely well. Loading times are small, cutscenes are made with the game engine and even though HDR and anisotropic filtering can be disabled trough the game options, they will always be active in these intermezzos. The game environment has been fully created in 3DS Max for export to the game engine and new special techniques take advantage of the DirectX 9 Vertex Shader/ Pixel Shader 2.0 support: generated light maps are both a boost to performance and visuals, texture paint and skybox effects spawn all over the place , water effects, bump mapping, environment mapping are visually appealing. Even hair and clothes dynamics (physic-based) are a pleasure to look at, adding a lot of lyrism to dialogues.
Music is always enhancing the moment as it reminds of Lords of the Rings tunes in romantic sequences and gets a more Braveheart approach during fights. The engine’s audio system can handle environmental audio and 3D positional sound sources with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound. Amazingly, all the dialogues in The Witcher (we are talking of over 22000 lines) were recorded using professional voice actors and lip-synced with NPC characters.
No action game can come without gore, and critical hits in The Witcher closely resemble Prince of Persia fatalities: enemies bleed a lot, sometimes spilling patches of blood on the gamer’s screen, they can get stunned and this is when Geralt tears their head off or jumps over them to split them in two.
To get to a conclusion, The Witcher is at this point the most surprising RPG game of the year. But it falls into the take it or leave it category. As a very flexible gamer, I found it more than a breath of fresh air to a very successful genre. But those who still long after a true Diablo or Baldur Gate’s successor might want to wait for Hellgate London, instead of getting contaminated with the lush stories of an outcast character