Since I saw CD Projekt's PC action RPG The Witcher in action at the Atari room during E3 this year, I've been eager to get my hands on the title. Based on a series of short stories and novels by Poland's premier fantasy author Andrzej Sapkowski, the title promised a rich, atmospheric world, statless leveling, an interesting, combo-driven combat system, and decision system that blurs the lines between good and evil. Happily the final title delivers, albeit with a few minor flaws and one relatively major one. If not for the absolutely staggering loading times, The Witcher would have easily been one of my top PC RPGs of all time. The Specs
Since PCs aren't consoles, it's probably a good idea that I show you the recommended specs for the game, along with the system I played on for comparison's sake.
* WinXP SP2 / Vista * Intel Pentium 4 2.4GHz or AMD Athlon 64 +2800 * 1 GB RAM (WinXP) / 1536 MB (Vista) * 128 MB Video RAM w/ DX9 Vertex Shader/ Pixel Shader 2.0 support (NVIDIA GeForce 6600 or ATI Radeon 9800 or better) * 8.5 GB hard drive space
* WinXP SP2 / Vista * Intel Core 2 Duo 2.13 GHz or AMD X2 5600+ * 2 GB RAM * NVIDIA GeForce 7900 GTX or ATI Radeon X1950 PRO * 8.5 GB hard drive space
My system is exactly the recommended requirements. Intel Core Duo 2.13, ATI Radeon X1950 Pro, 2GB RAM. When the game auto detects settings it automatically sets everything to high, causing me to do the happy PC gamer chair dance. You know the dance. Running the game at 1920 by 1080 on my LCD TV was a joy, with a bit of stuttering in big crowds but relative smoothness otherwise.
Once Upon A Time
Geralt is a Witcher, a human mutated into the perfect monster hunting machine. While he died at the end of Sapkowski's series, the beginning of the game finds him alive and well, albeit having completely lost his memory. He is taken to a Wticher stronghold by his compatriots, which is soon attacked by brigands led by a mysterious sorcerer. The mutagens responsible for creating the monster hunters is stolen, and a young recruit is left for dead, sending Geralt on a quest for answers and revenge. I know the concept of an amnesiac RPG hero is tough to wrap your head around, but work with me here. The world of The Witcher is like a dark, medieval version of our own. You'll find racism, drug use, profanity, rape, murder, jealousy, intrigue, etc. Geralt might as well be starring in a dark fantasy version of Law and Order. He questions witnesses, eliminates suspects, eliminates suspects, jumps to conclusions, makes judgments. The game has all of the hallmarks of a TV crime drama. When you aren't wooing women, crafting potions and explosives, performing escort quests or simply exploring, you're solving crimes. Plot lines are every bit as twisted as a detective show, with suspects becoming allies, and the innocent revealed as extremely guilty.
From the get go you are presented with decisions that will effect gameplay, but unlike many RPGs, the effects won't be readily apparent. CD Projekt has made sure that you won't be able to quicksave back to change your mind by making your choices matter much later in the game. My choice to kill a group of elves trying to steal weapons early in the game ended up with a major NPC getting arrested several hours of gameplay later. When such events take place your decision is recalled via a painted cutscene, showing the ultimate effect of your actions. Every time such a scene occurs it makes you wonder what would have happened had you chosen another path.
The choices themselves aren't often very clear. There is no real good and evil in this world. Throughout the game you'll find yourself wondering who the real monsters are that Geralt is hunting. In the first chapter alone you deal with brothers killing brothers over jealousy, a soldier who rapes a girl he claims to be in love with, and a priest who allows children to be kidnapped. Are they any less sinister than the evil hounds you find yourself facing throughout this corrupt village? Are you hero or anti-hero? The story is crafted beautifully to the point where I found myself questioning my own motives as it progressed. Brilliant.
The Witcher After Dark Make no mistake...this is an adult game. Adult language crops up often, and while I've not run into any outright nudity, the sexual innuendo runs rampant throughout the title. Sometimes it's subtle, like an extra bit of emphasis put on the word 'come' in a conversation. Other times the women in the game might as well have hiked up their skirts and painted a target on their privates. Geralt gets a ton of action throughout the course of the story, to the point where sex scenes included a trading card-like picture of the woman he's with against the backdrop of a blurry collage of bodies rubbing together. It got to the point where I went through every dialogue tree when I was speaking with females exhaustively, just in case. I don't get out much.
Swords and Sorcery The combat in The Witcher is almost a rhythm game, really. In a fight, you initially click your mouse on your target to initiate an attack. At the end of said attack, your cursor changes to a flaming sword, at which point you can click to string together the next attack. Miss, and you leave yourself open to counterattack. As you progress through the game you'll unlock longer combos throughout three different combat styles for each of your two swords - silver for monsters, steel for human monsters. The system is very satisfying when it works, but at times, especially fighting large groups, you'll find yourself on the receiving end of a string of attacks that leaves you unable to fight back. It didn't happen often, but it was quite frustrating when it did.
Magic is also a large part of combat, as a well-timed spell can knock your opponent on their ass, setting them up for a killing blow. Casting spells is simply a matter of right-clicking, while holding the button down can charge spells to make them more potent. Spells are used in and out of combat...for instance, the wind spell you acquire first can be used to clear blocked passageways as well as knocking your opponents off of their feet.
An odd note concerning equipment...early in the game I received two additional weapons - a dagger and an axe. They have stats and everything, but they can't be used with the combat styles, so I have never used them. They look great hanging from my belt though, so I won't complain.
Potions, Poker, and Other Distractions
Alchemy plays a pretty big role in the game depending on the difficulty level you choose at the beginning. On easy, crafting potions and explosives using materials you collect from plants and monsters is almost more of an optional sidequest, but at higher difficulties you'll find you rely on the beneficial effects gained from drinking such concoctions to survive. Personally I found the system a bit unwieldy, but for folks looking to get the most out of the game, mastering alchemy can be a very rewarding indeed.
Along with alchemy, Geralt has a couple other distractions to keep his mind off how much people in this world suck. The poker dice mini-game is entertaining enough, with an accompanying quest that pushes you to find more and more skilled opponents. There is also a fist-fighting side quest, where you use your bare hands to pummel the daylights out of a series of tougher opponents as the game progresses.
Sights and Sounds The Witcher does an amazing job of creating a living, breathing world. People line the streets of the busy cities and villages you visit, huddling under overhangs during the odd rainstorm and complaining about the weather. Blades of grass rustle as you wander fields and swamps in search of monsters to defeat. The music is definitely a high point in the game, with haunting Celtic melodies giving way to pulse-quickening battle music as your enemies move in for the kill. CD Projekt went to great lengths to immerse you completely in the world of The Witcher, which makes it all the more unfortunate that they spend so much time pulling you out of it.
The game would be perfect if not for this one, glaring flaw. Load times are ridiculous. They aren't so bad when going into a small building or cave, but when you enter a large city...forget about it. The initial village you quest in is particularly horrendous, as the large environment can take minutes to load. At one point exiting one of the houses in town I literally got up, went to my kitchen, made a peanut butter sandwich, came back, and the loading was almost complete. I could understand if I was running a below-spec system, but my computer matches their recommendations exactly. Does it hurt game play? Hell yes it hurts game play. I cannot tell you how many times I stopped playing out of sheer frustration over the wait.
The Final Judgment
I love The Witcher. Well, I love most of The Witcher. The story line, the combat, the characters, the environments...I love just about every aspect of the game. Having said that, I can't play for more than a couple of hours at a time until the load time issues drive me completely insane. It's really tragic that a game with so much replay potential has this one, huge, glaring flaw that makes me want to set it aside rather than go through it again. Perhaps a patch down the road will address the issue, but until then be prepared to wait.