The Witcher PC Review
When you look at the really good top quality RPG's out there, most do seem to come from the better known studios with plenty of experience in the genre. But they had to start somewhere, right? The thing is, the RPG gaming scene is so advanced these days and fan expectations so high it isn't quite as simple as, say, starting a developing studio on the basis of a FPS release. Nevertheless, Polish based game company CD Projekt are willing. These guys are not only new to the RPG development scene, but they
are new to the game development scene altogether, launching their CD Projekt Red Studio developing arm in 2002 after years of focusing entirely on distribution of world class games in their homeland. Since then, the team at Red Studio has been working on one title and one title alone - The Witcher. Based on polish fantasy author Andrzej Sapkowski's writings of the same name, The Witcher is a traditional style Action RPG that involves a heavily detailed and rich storyline with a lot
of sword and spell based action, and while Red Studio's freshman effort is not quite as sturdy as some of the more refined names in the genre, this game is right up there as one of the better PC RPG's on retail shelves.
For those not familiar with The Witcher from the books and other media - which unfortunately probably includes most English-only speaking readers due to their limited marketing outside of eastern Europe - the story revolves around the life of one Witcher known as Geralt. As you'll learn very early on in the game's impressive opening cinematic, a Witcher is a dying breed of warrior combining human and mutant elements to combat the many monsters and unsavory beasts that roam the lands. Geralt, however,
is caught in a changing world where his typical neutral and loner stance is tested. United and divided by common friends and enemies alike, Geralt finds himself amidst a brewing conflict between human and non-human beings and decisions need to be made - or, at least, destinies followed. The story's premise lends itself well to a non-linear approach to the gameplay however much of the storyline and events in The Witcher are in fact 'on rails' - at least the primary story and events anyway.
The game, like any good Action RPG, does feature a lot of side and secondary quests across its prologue, 5 chapters and epilogue that are not compulsory to complete and the outcome of these can vary from experience to experience, but most of the core primary events in the game are quite linear except for a few instances here and there, which admittedly are very significant despite being few and far between.
It's understandably hard these days for an Action RPG to really separate itself with unique gameplay mechanisms as the genre is so well developed, but even with this in mind, The Witcher does manage to impress with some rather unique and refined features. One of the first things you'll notice about The Witcher is the game can be controlled either via a traditional point and click mouse system, or by a WASD control system more akin to a FPS or third person action title. In fact, in many ways,
The Witcher could be seen as a third person action title as you can even select a camera option that brings the view right down to Geralt's level - handy for some of the close quarter moments in the game.
The combat system in the game is also quite unique. Being the warrior that he is, Geralt is naturally involved in his fair share of hand to hand combat over the course of the game and it was important that The Witcher did something to make fighting more than a dead boring hack and slash fest that relies totally on attributes and weapon strength to determine outcomes. These two still factor in of course - this is an RPG after all - but to expand the combat, a timing mechanism is included that
really makes or breaks your success during a fight. What the game does, once you've initiated an attack on an enemy, is offer you windows of opportunity to string attacks together by a change of icon. When the attack icon changes, another press of the attack button will string to a new level of attack, and depending on Geralt's current level, you can string together up to 5 attacks if your timing is right. Now, this technique doesn't introduce a whole lot of complexity to the combat system, but it does keep you
on your toes even deep into the game when you'd think you've got the timing down. Adding further to the combat system's depth, the game also features the ability to carry multiple weapons including a silver and steel sword (for beasts and humans respectively), and these swords can be used in three different styles - strong, quick, and group attack stances. Of course, there are certain magic spells that can be cast as well (wouldn't be an RPG without them right?) ranging from setting opponents on fire to mind
tricking them into siding with you, which you obtain by visiting certain shrines throughout the game, although these are executed in a more simplified traditional manner - just point, and click.
The Witcher PC Review
Sure, the combat system is pretty cool, but it gets better. Perhaps the coolest feature of all in The Witcher is the presence of a time-of-day system. While obviously being based on an accelerated model, The Witcher has authentic nights and days that develop in front of your very eyes. The cool part specifically comes from how the game utilizes the day-night system in its missions and general gameplay - some missions can only be done at certain times of the day, and some areas such
as villages can change dramatically in atmosphere from light to dark. Lets just say, when the moon comes rising, many of the game's baddies come out to play, and the once bustling friendly day time environments turn into deserted spooky landscapes of death. It just adds so much to the gameplay and atmosphere and, thanks to Geralt's ability to meditate around a fire or rent a bed, you can accelerate time as you wish. It is also during the meditation phases in the game where you can spend any experience points,
and create many of the games potions - one of the greatest tools at a Witcher's disposal.
The potion creation system basically epitomizes the depth and detail you can expect to find in The Witcher. Rather than simply picking up ready potions from the slain bodies of your opponents, more often than not what you will find ingredients instead, which you must then take and combine with other ingredients and bases to create particular potions, and the potions in this game are nothing to be ignored, as they can easily be the difference between defeat and victory, giving Geralt enhancements
such as faster life regeneration, slowing down time, special immunities, and things of that nature. There are a fair few ingredients you can acquire, some very rare, and there are multiple ways to go about acquiring ingredients. For instance, if you make an effort to obtain and read books in the game from literature vendors and other sources, you can learn about wild plants and actually go out and pick certain ingredients from the world around you. You have to be careful with potions though, as too
many at a time can hurt Geralt as indicated by the game's toxicity meter, which you can deplete via meditation/sleep.
If you like detail, however, you won't find more in the game's quest system. As touched upon earlier, the game is broken down into primary and secondary quests as you'd expect, but the sheer amount on offer is remarkable - providing you're interested in going out of your way to experience everything the game has to offer anyway. There is still plenty of action and variation if you simply follow the primary quests, but there is hours upon hours of gameplay if you also choose to focus on as many secondary quests
as possible, and despite their non-compulsory status, a lot of effort has gone into making them quite detailed, and not just thrown together time wasters. You can become a dice/poker profession in the game's gambling scenes (often found in taverns), you can try and score with a few of the game's female characters (adding some adult themes to the gameplay), you can take up mercenary contracts posted on bulletin boards - the list goes on. There is just so much to do in this game, at times it was hard imagining
it ever ending.
And this detail isn't just subject to the primary and secondary quests, it's an evident theme across much of the game. The environments and locations you will find yourself, while featuring clear physical boundaries, never feel closed in and 'staged' like you can often see in games like this. They feel like living and breathing villages and communities, filled with different characters and identities every step of the way. While the game does recycle quite a lot of the faces and voices you'll encounter, you
never really get the sense anything in how the locations and environments were constructed in The Witcher was rushed - it all feels very carefully crafted with a lot of attention to detail, ultimately creating a quality gaming experience.
The Witcher PC Review
But there are definitely a few elements to The Witcher that don't live up to the same level of quality. Perhaps the first unflattering thing you'll notice in this game is the somewhat 'clunky' physical interactions between Geralt and the world around him. As you run around, you'll often find Geralt bumps into objects in an awkward fashion, often not being able to jump or climb over even very small objects and obstacles on the ground, which can get annoying at times. On top of this, when you're
moving about in less than specious environments such as underground sewers or tight indoor areas, the camera can often take on weird and confusing angles that interfere with your movement. The Witcher is based on the BioWare Aurora Engine which does help explain the somewhat dated feel, but I'm not sure how to explain the patchy frame rate performance even on low settings, the random crashes and the long loading times. Granted, two patches have been released that have helped improve in-game and load
screen performance to a degree, but the game still seems to suffer from optimization issues and crashes still occur far too regularly. While the graphics are quite good, there are other games out there that look better and run smoother on our PC so optimization seems to be a widespread shortcoming.
And, outside of the technical stuff, some general game design decisions are also lacking. To get the most out of this game, you're going to have to come to terms with periods of time where your primary quests are so dull and repetitive, you almost feel like packing it in. There can be reasonably long times of non-violent activity in the storyline and while it is nice to see some variation as it certainly does add to the complete package, it can get excessively tame. The make matters worse, some primary quests
in the game seem to rely on unnecessarily 'back and forth' style long traveling distances to extend their completion time which does nothing for the game at all except induce frustration.
Another area of slightly disappointment in The Witcher is the total lack of character customization. We can understand forcing Geralt on you to a degree - after all, the game is based on a pre-existing fiction - but some level of visual and character customization outside of choosing which weapons you carry would have been nice. On top of this, being an RPG, The Witcher of course has XP and a level system which grants upgrade points, and while there is a fair amount of upgrade areas
to choose from spanning across Geralt's strengths, endurance, dexterity, intelligence, prowess with each spell power and ability with each fighting style for both silver and steel swords, there comes a time pretty early on in the game where your options for spending points are pretty limited, basically creating an RPG game where the character you start and end with is going to be pretty much the same every time you restart the game. This limits The Witcher's replay-ability, because outside of a handful
of storyline related choices, the variation next time around is just not there.
In the grand scheme of things though, the game's positives do outweigh the negatives. It isn't the best flowing or feeling RPG out there, but The Witcher is still a solid game that will keep you hooked from start to finish, providing you can get into the story to the point the slow sections don't deter you for good. The PC platform isn't exactly starved for good quality RPG gaming, but nonetheless The Witcher manages to stand out with its highly detailed and rich story, crafted together
with some nice gameplay mechanics for safe measure. Ultimately, The Witcher is just too grand an RPG to dismiss, and CD Projekt should be proud of their development studio's first release. I wouldn't go as far to say this is a must have for the PC gamer but any fan of the RPG genre should definitely not miss out on one of the better PC RPG's in recent times with The Witcher.