Click the screenshot to read the full review of CD Projekt Red's game The Witcher.
This is a review of the UK edition available from Gogamer.com. Because of the ESRB ratings system the American version of the game has been censored. Thanks to the ESRB ratings system (remember, ratings aren't censorship!) depictions of nudity have been totally removed from the game via alternate artwork and the barbieizing of character models.
This was done presumably to avoid the dreaded Adults-Only rating that Wal-Mart, Gamestop, Best Buy, Circuit City and the other major retailers will not stock. While there are patches and downloads available to fix the American version I purchased the UK edition simply because I refuse to financially support any such censorship, no matter how minor. Even though the censorship was entirely voluntary on the part of Atari voluntary censorship based on fear is as bad as a government censor's office.
The first I heard of The Witcher was when a gentleman handed me a business card at E3 in 2006 and insisted on scheduling a booth tour. After hurriedly making the arrangements I finally took the time to see exactly who it was that had ambushed me above the central hall at the Los Angeles convention center. Glancing over the card I dismissed "The Witcher" as another Eastern European bugfest, playable in only the loosest sense of the word with bad coding, bad graphics and bad mechanics. When we all arrived at the booth the we saw a female mannequin dressed in burlap rags and swinging from a noose. She had elf ears and a sign hung around her neck that had "Elven Traitor" painted on it. It was a hell of an introduction to The Witcher and combined with the first technical demonstrations of the game that I saw the doubts fled from my mind. The Witcher provides us with one of the finest hard fantasy games we have seen in a long long time, a welcome departure from click-and-slash roleplaying.
The engine is the Neverwinter Nights Aurora engine seemingly in name only. Players of the original Neverwinter Nights, such as myself, will not recognize it as such by the graphics alone. According to some of the interviews and making of videos the engine has been re-done to the point where 80-90% of the code is different. The result is that the graphics are considerably improved and bear little resemblance to their predecessor. If you have a machine that can handle it The Witcher is a very beautiful game; the graphics are simply amazing but you will need a hell of a machine to get them. My machine can't keep up with the graphics set to their highest level and even with settings turned down as much as they are I still have to deal with slowdowns and the rare frame rate issue.
The creators of the game went overboard to create very beautiful and well thought out medieval cities. I suspect being so close to actual medieval cities, since CD Projekt Red is based in Warsaw, helped quite a bit. Much effort has been given to trying to make the setting of the game as real as possible. For example everybody but guards on patrol will run for the outside walls of buildings to take shelter under the roof overhangs when rain begins, and you can hear snippets of conversation between NPCs. As the only person not in uniform carrying weapons openly you will receive warnings and snide comments from passersby. The point is the developers have tried to make the NPCs act in a manner that starts to resemble real people, not just talking signposts that stand in the same place, night and day, rain or shine.
Another great facet of the graphics is the extensive motion capture work done for fighting animations. While The Witcher has lots of pretty intensive roleplaying you will spend a great deal of time chopping up other creatures and people.
This is where the Witcher takes its biggest hit by far but it is also the place where most of its strengths are found. Firstly, the load times are absolutely horrendous - I had to keep a book with me to deal with them since it can take sometimes over three minutes to go from one area to another. While my system isn't exactly top of the line there are many documented cases of people with very high performance systems having the same problems that I have. The best cure, and it is a stopgap, is to defrag before installing the game, though the effectiveness of this varies from person to person. The developers have mentioned that they are working on a patch to help with the load times but it has yet to emerge.
The inventory system is also atrocious. It's bad, really bad. There is no way of organizing your inventory. Some items are limited to stacks of 10, some of 50 and some of 99, with no way to discern exactly how they are stacked. This would not be much of a problem if it weren't for the fact that there are only a handful of places to store items (only in Inns) outside of your inventory and your inventory itself has the better part of forty individual slots to keep track of. That makes finding that one potion you're looking for a frustrating and time consuming process.
With the dirty laundry aired here's what's good about the gameplay. The combat is active and engaging without being twitchy, that is to say that it's not like Diablo at all. When fighting monsters or humans you have a small range of weapons to select from and, in the case of swords, three different combat styles that have to be adjusted on the fly while fighting different opponents. For example, when fighting an assassin the "strong" combat style is ineffective but the "fast" works great, while there is a "group" style for fighting multiple opponents. All attacks progress in a sequence that will do progressively more damage until the sequence begins. For example, you attack an enemy. Geralt will jump around and slash at it and damage will be dealt. When that first attack is finished you can initiate the next attack in the sequence, and repeat. Attack sequences get longer and more elaborate, and consequently you deal more damage for completing them, as you gain experience. Every attack you make, and every attack made against you, has a chance of causing crippling pain that will immobilize you for a period of time. There are also knockdown effects and other special abilities that some monsters can deploy against you, so be warned.
Another feature of The Witcher is the alchemy system. All Witchers are trained alchemists and are able to brew their own, highly toxic, potions in the field from ingredients around them. Potions are not essential to the game but they help, and become essential at the higher difficulty levels of the game. Some potions include Cat, which gives you night vision and White Gull, a hallucinogen that serves as a base for other more powerful potions. Alchemy also allows you to make special oils and coatings for your sword that will allow you to do more damage to certain enemies or to cause them crippling pain.
As mentioned in the graphics section combat animations are all motion capture no matter how impossible they look and are all beautifully done. Those fortunate enough to get their hands on the bonus DVD with the import-only limited edition can see some of the lengths they went to motion capture the great leaps and jumps in some of the more fantastic combat maneuvers.
Sound and Music: 10/10
The music really helps make The Witcher. The soundtrack is a curious blend of "medieval sounding" instrumentals with traditional instruments and electric guitar thrashing for big fights. The voice acting is surprisingly good, Geralt's voice matches the worn and weary look of the character without sounding demoralized, while the ambient dialog is quite creative, my personal favorite being taunts such as "your momma sucks dwarf cock", uttered by a random bar patron.
The Witcher has three possible endings that depend entirely on the actions you take in the game. On top of the multiple endings each of the actions that lead to them have different in-game consequences. Supporting one group of people over another, or taking a neutral stance, will affect the game multiple chapters down the road. For example, you are tasked by a merchant to kill some monsters that have been interfering with his business. After you are finished with them you notice a group of people are starting to run off with the merchant's stuff. How you respond to this situation will make the next chapter more or less difficult but I won't say how. The Witcher is full of little choices and paths like this. There are a number of sidequests that are not necessary to the main plot but help to flesh out the world and, of course improve your character through money, equipment and experience. There are also two minigames that can be found throughout the course of the game, fistfighting, essentially drunken brawling, and dice poker. Both are the subject of own, entirely optional quests. Dice poker is played by rolling a set of five dice, looking for doubles, triples, straights and the like while fistfighting and drinking games are accomplished as you would think - hitting things and drinking things.
The Witcher is one of the first roleplaying games with teeth that we have seen in a long, long time. It is what I would call "angry fantasy". Life is nasty, brutish and short, there are "heroes" such as they are, people who are not quite as mercenary as men like Geralt, the protagonist, but when not killing monsters they're usually found killing or persecuting the nonhumans of the setting. There are some genuinely good characters in the game but everything is tainted with moral ambiguity. Not even the monsters are black and white, some are intelligent and aware of what they are and their actions but need help to stop it - a Witcher can cure as much as kill someone afflicted by lycanthropy or other such fantasy afflictions. There is no black, there is no white, even the villains are only a particularly darker shade of gray. The Witcher touches on a number of very uncomfortable themes that few other fantasy works have gone near, and that is why I love it. The only reason I cannot give this game the highest rating are the problems with graphics and load times. The game is quite impressive but I fear that, even with the recently released patches, that there are too many problems for a full rating.
This review was written out of the box, as it were. Since this article was begun there have been two major patches to The Witcher. The 1.2 patch is available here and fixes a number of the problems with the game play. I am pleased to say that the load times are vastly improved, however the inventory system is unchanged.
Official website of The Witcher
CD Projekt Red, the developers
GoGamer.com, importers of the uncensored British version of The Witcher
Atari, the publishers of the censored American version
Homepage of Andrzej Sapkowski, author of the books from which The Witcher is derived. (Polish, Czech, Russian or Spanish only)
The Witcher wikia site, for everything about the game and the books.
Orbit Books, the US publisher of The Last Wish, a collection of the original Witcher short stories
This game was tested on a machine with the following specifications.
Processor: P4 3.4 GhZ HT
Operating System: XP Professional SP2
RAM: 2GB PC2600 DDR
Graphics Card: 512MB ATI Radeon X1650
Hard Drive: Seagate SATA 300GB
Other: Lite-On DVD+/-RW