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The Witcher Review

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The Witcher Review

Review - posted by Cardtrick on Sat 1 December 2007, 15:34:27

Tags: CD Projekt; Witcher, The

Overview
Two positive Codex reviews in as many months? Indeed, friends, the RPG Renaissance may have arrived. First time Polish developer CD Projekt Red brings us a game that is, simply, wonderful. It's not without its problems, but The Witcher is one of the best roleplaying games in years. It retains the qualities that made classic RPGs so great - choices and consequences, interesting character development, challenge, story - and blends them with a solid modern engine, tactical real-time combat, dark medieval fantasy setting, beautiful artwork, and some genuine innovations in RPG mechanics.

A quick caveat: if you're the sort of person to be upset by violence, racism, or sexism, this is not the game for you. The game is full of adult subject matter, much of it potentially offensive. There are violent deaths, frequent opportunities for sex, and references to racism, rape, terrorism, incest, child abuse and sexual torture. This is not a game for kids. Not all of this is shown as outrageous, either, particularly the stuff against women (peasant women being beaten by their husbands is presented as commonplace), so if you expect that to bother you then you might give this a miss. On the other hand, it definitely fits the grimy, realistic medieval setting. Oh, there's also some profanity, but I can't imagine that bothering anyone who wouldn't be turned off by the other stuff ("Your mother sucks dwarf cock!" and "Abso-fucking-lutely" are among my favorites).

Caveat the Deuce: This review is based on the European English version of the game. I cannot speak for differences between this version and others, so look around elsewhere for second opinions if you're interested.

Setting
Based on the series of fantasy novels by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, although not requiring any previous knowledge of the books, the world of The Witcher will feel refreshingly unique to many gamers. In some ways it's typical medieval fantasy - there are blacksmiths and markets, monsters and maidens, drunken dwarves and tree-hugging elves. Yet the game turns these conventions on their heads, with a darkly unromantic atmosphere. The game takes place in a land recovering from a bloody inter-species war, and tensions run high. Temeria is filled with small-minded, money-grubbing racists dealing with everyday problems: poverty, stupidity, small-minded rulers, and (yes) monsters. The capital city, Vizima, where you will spend most of your time, is sprawling and sinful, yet beautiful, with a real sense of history. It looks like some forgotten European city that has had both good times and bad, filled with twisting streets, dirty slums, unnecessary stairways, and unexplained monuments. This is a far cry from Oblivion's pristine collections of dollhouses.

All of this is brought to life with numerous NPCs, solid use of environmental audio, and great scripting. Not since Gothic's Old Camp has an RPG city felt so real. Characters have scripted schedules, so you'll find the inn full of people drinking, fighting, talking, and gambling during the day and early evening, but empty in the early hours of morning. Shopkeepers head to their homes after dark, and sleep at night (except for a couple of the shadier ones, who reverse this schedule, which is a nice touch). Characters will have short, voiced pre-written conversations with each other, typically about their daily lives but sometimes about your actions. When it rains hard, NPCs run for cover and complain about the weather. At one point I was followed through the city for some distance by two small children; after a while, one of the boys ran up to me, told me that I was "huge and weird looking" and then the two boys ran off, their courage evidently exhausted. All in all, it's an incredibly immersive world, which is hampered only slightly by the fact that (as in most RPGs, really) some minor NPCs are obvious clones of each other, down to the clothing and single line of dialogue (believe it or not, hearing that the local witch sells a cure for boils really does get old after a while).

Of course, the game doesn't take place entirely in the city. From the opening in the gorgeous, crumbling Witchers' stronghold of Kaer Morhen, to swamps populated by druids, out-for-themselves lumberjacks, and anti-human elven terrorists (along with a group of genuinely creepy Lovecraftian brick makers worshipping sea creatures) and eventually to an eerie, icy dreamscape, The Witcher has a solid variety of environments. These are populated by monsters drawn in part from Sapkowski's series and in part from European folk mythology, which fit the setting quite well; each and every monster has an entry in the bestiary in your journal (more on the fantastic journal later). One note on locations: caves and crypts are freaking dark. This is such a little thing, and yet I love it. You won't be able to see without brewing a potion to give yourself night vision or holding a torch - which can't be used at the same time as your swords.

Character and Character Development
You are the infamous monster hunter Geralt of Rivia - which comes as something of a surprise to pretty much everyone, since you begin the game with no memory, five years after your supposed death. Folks, you heard me right: you don't get to create your own character. You can't choose to be male or female, you can't choose your class (the game has no classes), you can't choose your name. You can't even play as some kind of anthropomorphic animal person!

This is all okay, though, because Geralt is a great character. Understated, cynical, great with the ladies - he's everything an action anti-hero ought to be. One of the witchers, a group of sterile, genetically modified freaks designed and trained to kill monsters professionally, he's also an expert swordsman blessed with supernatural abilities and gorgeous hair. Over the course of the game, you will earn experience points by killing enemies and completing quests - perhaps surprisingly for an "action" RPG, more from the latter than the former - which will eventually lead to gaining levels. Doing so earns you several "talents" - basically skill points - that can be used to raise a stat or skill. There are 4 stats (strength, dexterity, stamina, and intelligence), 6 sword styles, and 5 magic signs. Each stat, style, or sign has 5 basic levels that can be earned, and at each level there are several special abilities that can be purchased. It's a somewhat unusual system, but hardly earth-shattering, and you will get used to it very quickly. It's worth noting that virtually all abilities relate to combat in some way, and there are no dialogue or stealth skills. Early in the game, gaining levels will result in bronze talents that can be used to upgrade the first 2 levels of skills; later, silver talents will give access to the 3rd and 4th levels, and gold to the 5th. This means that the game essentially forces you to distribute your skills quite broadly initially, because it will be quite some time before you are able to push any skill past its second level. Ultimately, the result of this system is that almost all characters will have roughly the same low-level skills (presumably to match Geralt in the books) but can theoretically have quite varied upper abilities, since the number of talents available in the game is finite. Not all characters will be equally skilled in everything at the end of the game, which is good. The system has some depth to it, although it likely won't be satisfying to spreadsheet-junkies or avid fans of complex PnP RPG systems, and it works very well. If it has a flaw, it is that the combat system - discussed below - doesn't really reward focusing on one skill in particular, at least for sword styles. Most players will be forced to invest relatively equally in all sword styles if they want to be as effective as possible, which cuts down on the variety that the character development system could otherwise foster.

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The Witcher features a cunningly named "Hero Screen." That's right, man. You're not just a "character" . . . you're a goddamn hero.
Roleplaying and Dialogue
The Witcher is one of the first games . . . well, ever . . . to actively hype its choices and consequences. This alone should make it interesting to the average Codex reader. The basic idea, in case you've been living under a rock (or, you know, have a life outside of games) is that The Witcher presents you with choices during the course of the game without clear answers. Only much later in the game do you discover the consequences of your decisions, which can have significant impact on the plot.

This works well. The choices really do influence the story, which is absolutely fantastic. Depending on your decisions, important NPCs may live or die, you may have allies or additional enemies for important battles, and you may completely close off some quests. Moreover, it's great that the choices don't fall along good/evil lines, with some exceptions, so that for each such choice you will have to think hard about how your version of Geralt would respond. Do you choose to negotiate with the oppressed nonhuman terrorists with genuine grievances who have killed civilians and taken hostages in a bank, even though it means alienating your friend, one of the more moderate voices amongst the humans? Do you kill the werewolf, a monster with a murderous appetite, whose fur could be made into a potion giving you a significant permanent ability, or do you attempt to cure him for little reward, recognizing that his victims have been criminal scum and giving him a chance to reunite with his love. (And by the way - in the world of The Witcher, doing the "nice" thing doesn't necessarily have positive results.) Do you spare one somewhat evil witch, at the cost of many other, probably somewhat more evil, lives? Do you sleep with the pretty redhead with freckles, or the other pretty redhead with oddly low-slung breasts? Choices abound. Although some of them come down to supporting the non-humans, supporting the humans, or remaining neutral, many will present interesting quandaries regardless of which faction you choose to side with. The Witcher makes such choices and consequences an integral part of gameplay, rather than mere add-ons to the storyline. However - and perhaps as a result - the choices sometimes seem a little bit gimmicky, a little bit too much like a choose-your-own-adventure book. This is partly because of the way that the consequences are presented, which is unambiguous: there is a voiceover, mention is made of your past choice and its ramifications, and typically there is hand-painted art in the background depicting a key moment. It's a little heavy-handed, but still quite satisfying. At first, the art and the voiceover bothered me, but I soon realized that it's an awful lot like the ending slideshow from Fallout or Arcanum displaying the results of your various actions, only spread out over the entire plot of the game. It's fun, new, and it works.

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Paintings with narration and subtitles present some of the consequences of your actions. Here, siding with the Order in a couple of key battles results in the elves' long hair going out of style. Creepy faceless helmets are in this season.
There are at most three, and much more commonly two, choices available at each "branch point" in The Witcher, and it will usually be very obvious when you are making an important decision. (Although, refreshingly - so much about this game is refreshing - at least it's obvious that you only have two or three choices. There are no Bioware-esque pseudo-choices with no real meaning.) Moreover, the branches "merge" back into the trunk eventually - making different choices early in the game won't result in a totally different story later. There are three endings, although your choices throughout the game have a great impact on the endgame sequence, affecting not only the final dialogues but also the course of events and even which characters are present. The Witcher has fewer of the subtle choices and consequences seen in games like Mask of the Betrayer, times when you might not even realize you made a choice until you see the results. This is not to say there are no such consequences, however. The main plot in Act 2, for example, involves a great detective quest that takes place over the course of the whole long Act and involves gathering various clues. Your perceptions of various suspects (and, correspondingly, their entries in the Journal) will change as you uncover more. It's easy to miss some of the clues, and there are multiple results to your investigation, some with negative consequences. Obtaining the "best" result and getting the whole story requires talking to multiple suspects repeatedly, performing several small quests, mounting your own night-time surveillance, reading a book on conducting an autopsy, reading a rather obscure book on a peculiar breed of fly, investigating a locked area, which will require either a bribe or a favor, and choosing the right options (this is pretty obvious, admittedly) during an autopsy, which means that most players will probably achieve a suboptimal result, missing out on some positive consequences.

The game's plot begins with the theft of some alchemical secrets from Kaer Morhen and the murder of a young witcher-in-training. Desiring the return of the alchemical formulae, and not averse to a little revenge, you set out in search of Salamandra, the shadowy group responsible for the assault on the Witchers' stronghold. Along the way, you find yourself dragged into the conflict between humans and nonhumans and embroiled in the political machinations of Vizima's elite. The plot starts personal, ambles through political, and ends epic, but not in a totally cliche way. In fact, The Witcher's plot is a strong point: fairly nonlinear, full of interesting characters, and (of course) quite dark. Naturally, you will also find plenty of sidequests, which vary widely in quality. Some are almost laughably typical - kill 10 giant insects and bring back their claws - but this is less of a problem than you might think. After all, Geralt is a witcher, a professional monster-slaying bounty hunter. Somehow, quests like this are a lot less annoying if they make sense for the character, and there are always a few bounties available if you choose to pursue them. The pay is good, and the combat is enjoyable enough that it's pretty fun. The quests within Vizima tend to be stronger, or at least more interesting, with surprisingly little combat and a good deal of talking. In fact, despite being an "action RPG", The Witcher has less meaningless filler combat than just about any major RPG released in years.

You know by now that you can't choose your character's class, race, or even gender: you are Geralt of Rivia. Frankly, I don't have a lot of sympathy for people who can't get past that; if you think a game can't be a great RPG without letting you choose such details, then I implore you to try such masterpieces as Planescape: Torment and Ultima VII. What might be more of a problem, though, is that there's a level at which you can't choose your character's personality, and that might legitimately bother people. Often your character will speak to people without your guidance, and many of the more inconsequential dialogue choices from a Bioware (or even a Troika) RPG have been stripped out. Dialogues very rarely have two functionally equivalent ways of saying the same thing, so you're limited to dialogue responses that fit Geralt's hard-boiled, somewhat sarcastic, occasionally suave badass persona. You will, from time to time, insult people without having any choice in the matter, for example. Basically, you're taking on the role of an established character and are constrained to work within that role. You can make real, meaningful choices in the game, and you can decide Geralt's deepest values, allegiances, and even lovers; but you can't deviate too far from the character as established in the books, and you can't make him talk like either a Nancy-boy diplomat or a dumb brute.

This is a good time to talk about the dialogue in general. It's not bad. Unfortunately, it's not great, at least in the English version. This will probably be the biggest non-technical problem that most people have with the game. The dialogue does a solid job of establishing characterization, particularly of Geralt but also of many of the major NPCs, who have quite distinct conversational styles. It's also often genuinely funny, and not only in a vulgar, cartoon-y way. This is good, because you will spend a lot of your time running around the city talking to people. However, conversations tend to be somewhat limited in length, and attempts at deep philosophy or convincing verbal arguments come off as hackneyed and a little trite. If you're expecting dialogues with the brilliance and wit of those in Planescape: Torment or Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, you will certainly be disappointed. You will likely find that your favorite moments in dialogue will be simple jokes, and you won't be deeply moved by conversation or fall in love with any NPC's mode of speech. None of this is unusual - most RPGs don't have great dialogue, and The Witcher certainly beats the crap you find in Oblivion, for example = but it's a little sad given the consistently high quality of just about everything else in the game. There is evidence that portions of the dialogue were cut from the game before localization, so Polish fans may very well have quite a different experience.

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Even so drunk he can barely see, Geralt's a smoooooth operator, babe.

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Life lessons from dwarves.
Interface and Journal
The Witcher uses a (heavily!) modified version of the Bioware Aurora engine, derivatives of which have also powered Neverwinter Nights, Knights of the Old Republic, and their sequels. This comes with certain negative connotations for the seasoned RPG gamer, but I'm happy to say that CD Projekt have almost completely rebuilt the engine so that it features a really great new interface and better stability, along with (of course) an improved renderer. In particular, the camera has seen massive improvements. You can choose between an over-the-shoulder mode, in which you control your character with the (remappable) WASD keys, and two isometric modes (identical except for a different level of zoom), in which you point and click to control Geralt; all three camera modes work smoothly and intuitively. You're free to stick with the mode you find most comfortable, or you can switch between them with a single keystroke as the situation demands. Personally, I played the game primarily in OTS mode, preferring to explore the beautiful environments up close and personal, switching to isometric mode for difficult combat against multiple opponents, when I appreciated the broader and more tactical view.

The inventory is simple and fairly functional, although marred by a couple of annoying features. Geralt can only carry a few weapons - one steel sword (for humans), one silver sword (for supernatural creatures), one small weapon (a knife, small axe, torch, etc.), and one large weapon (or, alternately, an extra sword). This has a couple of consequences: first, it means there is some strategic element involved in equipping yourself, since you can't carry a weapon for every possible eventuality; second, it means no "phat lewt" syndrome. You won't be spending your time grabbing weapons and armor from all your fallen foes and dragging them back to the store. You just can't carry that much! Most money in the game will come as a result of payments for completing quests, although there are certainly other sources of wealth.

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Dice poker is another way to get money. This is poker, played with dice. Clever name, no? It features literally the stupidest AI I've ever seen in a game. Your opponents will often discard a key die, forfeiting a winning hand for no reason. In fact, they will discard the same die almost every time. Seriously - most of your opponents will discard the second die from the left, completely regardless of what their hand looks like. I wish I was joking.
For smaller items, like food, potions, books, and alchemical components, Geralt has a limited amount of space in his inventory. Items have no weight, and all small items take up the same amount of room, so effectively you are limited to the four weapons already discussed, plus a given number of small items.This is where the inventory gets a bit problematic. Thankfully, the inventory supports autostacking of equivalent items, which helps save room, but it has no sort feature and no way to group items by use or type. This is especially annoying because you will very likely be carrying around a variety of alchemical components (see below), and it would be really nice to have a way to group these according to the elements they contain. Moreover, the limited space in the inventory is annoying for obvious reasons of inventory management; I know there are people who enjoy the process of keeping a tidy inventory, but I'm not one of them. When looting items from containers, there is (happily) a take-all button. Bizarrely enough, however, there is no way to put items back into the container. If a container has five items, and you take them all before realizing that you don't really need one of them, you can't put it back, and are instead forced to drop it. This is not a big deal, but it's awfully weird. A final note about inventory: innkeepers give you access to infinite storage. Even better, the storage is shared between all innkeepers, so you can store excess stuff at one inn and access that stuff at any other. It may not make a lot of sense, but it goes a long way toward eliminating the annoyance of your small personal inventory. The rest of the interface is unremarkable, which is probably a good thing. One more odd omission, however: unlike virtually every PC-only RPG made in the last decade, you can't name your saved games. This is pretty damn annoying for me, and it's hard to imagine a good reason for it. Still, it's a minor issue.

Now, the part I've really been waiting for: the journal. The journal, you ask? Who cares about the journal! Well, I do - and so will you. The Witcher features an absolutely brilliant journal system. This is a genuine innovation in CRPG design. The journal is divided into tabs: Quests, Characters, Locations, Monsters, Ingredients, Formulas, Glossary, and Tutorials. These tabs start out basically empty, and fill up as your character learns more about the game world. I can barely express to you how great and how sensible this is. Every time your character learns something, your journal gets updated, whether the knowledge is gained from dialogue, exploration, or reading a book. The truly great thing about this is that the journal entries (and thus, the things your character has learned) have real importance in the game. Some of these are obvious: reading a recipe scroll for a potion will add its formula to your journal, and with the formula you will be able to brew it up easily. Similarly, you need to have learned about monsters from books or NPCs to be able to harvest important body parts from their corpses, and you have to be familiar with specific plants (and have invested a talent in the herbology skill) to harvest alchemical components from those plants. More subtly, information learned about various characters and about the world in general actually affects your dialogue options, and in some cases the solutions to quests. It's a great system, and I have no complaints about it. Every single enemy in the game - even the most minor of monsters - has an entry in the journal, with background information (often quite creepy), notes on tactics, and alchemical information. Fighting a lowly ghoul is somehow much more interesting when you know that your enemy is the twisted remnant of a human who once was forced to eat human flesh and was cursed to existence as a cannibalistic monster.

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Geralt makes notes in his journal after reading or learning about various monsters. Ghouls are creepy.
What the journal really means for The Witcher is that knowledge is absolutely essential. I spent more money in the game on books than on anything else. Books! Not the latest +7 sword, but books, scrolls, bribes and gifts for informants. The society of The Witcher is shadowy, and characters have many faces. You will need knowledge to survive and thrive. And that, my friends, is great.

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Reading is gud.
Combat
The Witcher is an action RPG, so you can expect to face a fight or two. Or two thousand. Happily, the game's combat system is quite good. Much has been made of its "timing based" combat system, which is unique in the RPG genre. Overall, it's an interesting direction to take RPG combat, and it works quite well. Combat is in real-time, with an "active pause" that allows you to adjust the camera, drink potions, or switch combat styles, but not to queue up attacks. Clicking once on an enemy will initiate a short string of attacks. When that combo finishes, you will have to click again (on the same enemy or another) with proper timing in order to "chain" together another set of attacks. This is essential, since each step in the chain does more damage (and has a better chance of secondary critical effects) than the step before. You can switch between one of six combat styles (using either your silver or your steel sword, in fast, strong, or group mode), and can eventually unlock special attacks in each style, achieved by holding the left mouse button and then releasing. Different combat styles will work best against different enemies, so switching in mid combat can be essential.

Geralt will automatically take care of dodging and parrying, but you can also roll or dash out of the way by simply double-clicking on the screen during combat, and can even spin around enemies and jump over them using the same context-sensitive double click method. (Alternately, in OTS mode, these moves are accomplished with double presses on the arrow or WASD keys.) This is best used tactically, to flee when taking too many hits or to bring Geralt in range of the greatest threat.

Additionally, there are five magic "signs" which can be learned during the game (the first is learned during the prologue and the fifth by the end of the second chapter). These are cast using your right mouse button, and have various effects: a "Force push" familiar to anyone who's played Jedi Academy, an explosive blast of fire, a shielding shell to buy you time for drinking potions, a stunning/damaging trap, and a mind-influencing ability. These spells synergize well with your sword combat: you can magically knock down or stun difficult opponents, and then finish them with a single blow, or use the fact that burning enemies take greater damage from the strong sword style.

Combat is fun. It's action-oriented, without being a clickfest like Diablo or Morrowind. There is satisfactory tactical depth, and a nice balance between player skill and character skill. Moreover, it looks fantastic - all of the animations are motion captured, and Geralt just looks like a badass as he slices and whirls his way through a battle. The system feels a bit unresponsive at first, but you will quickly get into the flow. Yet is it perfect? Hardly. The sword styles are a nice idea, but imperfectly implemented. Each monster is so susceptible to one style in particular and resistant to the others that you are basically forced into using the "right" style. This means that you have less freedom to develop Geralt in an interesting direction than you might otherwise, and are pretty much obliged to develop your skill in all styles rather than focusing on one in particular. Moreover, combat can feel a little unresponsive at times; although "stun lock" isn't as big a problem as in the Gothic series, it's still possible to mistime an attack and then be unable to attack again before moving. There also tend to be a few too many repetitive fights with easy monsters (in many areas, they respawn indefinitely), although fortunately you can avoid these by buying warding charms or just running past them. In any case, you can expect fewer tedious, repetitive fights than in recent "full" RPGs like Neverwinter Nights 2, so it's hard to complain too much.

Overall, I believe The Witcher features the best real time combat I've seen in an RPG. (Admittedly, this isn't saying too much - and let's agree not to call Mount and Blade an RPG, shall we?). The chaining of attacks works well, and the choice of six different combat styles and five magic signs, with some nice synergies between certain signs and attack styles, makes for decent tactics. The combat in The Witcher is probably most similar to that of the Gothic series, with shades of Neverwinter Nights, although it's less tedious and better balanced than either. Battles are visceral and intense, especially when using the OTS camera. Although many fights will be easy for veteran gamers, even on hard mode, there are some set-piece battles that should present a challenge for just about anyone. Even after many hours of playing, I don't dread fights, which is more than I can say for most RPGs.

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In the expert opinion of Peter Molyneux, RPG combat should be all about making you "feel cool." The Witcher succeeds.
Alchemy
What really makes the combat shine, though, is the alchemy system. Simply put, this is fantastic. Alchemy is integrally tied into the main plot, the combat system, character development, and the economy. It's fun and has some real depth. This is by far the best alchemy/crafting system since Darklands, and probably surpasses that too. There is an enormous variety of formulas available for you to create potions, which take the place of buffing magic in most fantasy RPGs. On the hard difficulty, some enemies will be basically immune to you unless you create and use the proper potions; on medium difficulty, you will at least have a hard time without taking advantage of alchemy.

There are three stages to alchemy. The first is obtaining ingredients. Although you can buy them from stores, the only cost-effective way to take care of this is harvesting ingredients from monsters and plants. You can't harvest certain essential ingredients without knowledge of them, and you can't make potions without the right formula (or a walkthrough, I guess), both of which serve to make lore extremely important. The second stage is creating the potion, which is done through a simple interface available when Geralt meditates at an inn or a campfire. You can combine ingredients yourself, or simply click on the name of a formula you have learned, which will automatically choose ingredients from your inventory. Geralt can create potions to buff himself, oils to temporarily improve his weapons, and bombs to harm enemies; making oils and bombs require the investment of character talents and the acquisition of different alchemical bases than potions, but come in quite handy for difficult fights. Finally, you have to use your creations. During combat, this can be done either with the active pause or quick slots (the number of which depends on your armor). Unlike most RPGs, you won't be hoarding potions and keeping them for some rainy day that never actually arrives. It's worth noting that the potions are in fact poisonous, and drinking too many increases the level of toxicity in Geralt's body, with negative effects including blurred vision and even death, making the proper selection of potions an essential part of the strategy in difficult battles. At least on the hard difficulty, you will find yourself taking advantage of alchemy frequently, and some of the best rewards you find during your quests will be rare alchemical ingredients.

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Alchemy is, like, sooo 17th Century.
Visuals and Sound
The Witcher looks fantastic. It's simply the prettiest 3D RPG ever made. It looks far better than NWN2 and runs more smoothly, too. Partly this is the engine, which seems very solid, but mostly it's the art direction, which is nothing short of inspired. This is the first fantasy world since Planescape: Torment and Baldur's Gate 2 that is visually convincing for me. Man, when the camera in the opening scene pulled back and panned over to the Witchers' crumbling, half-destroyed castle glowing softly in the sunlight . . . I fell in love. Facial textures are particularly good, which is nice because the game automatically zooms to a cinematic close-up during dialogues. Be warned, however: the depth of field effect used during cutscenes and dialogues is enormously system intensive, so the game will run worse during cutscenes than during normal play. If things seem jittery during the opening cinematic, don't panic, and keep in mind that you can turn this off in the options menu.

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It's . . . well . . . sexy. 'Nough said.
I guess this is the place to finally talk a little bit about the much-mentioned sex. Yes, you can have sex with women in the game. Yes, upon having sex with a woman you receive a "collectible card" showing her, generally topless and in some provocative pose, which is accessible from her character entry in the journal. Yes, the American version is censored. (Americans do not have nipples. True fact.) No, you do not get to watch (or control!) any actual animated intercourse. Instead, a tastefully blurred monochrome cutscene of Geralt . . . uh . . . "laying-down-kissing" some generic woman plays in the background as the "card" takes center stage. Anyway, the point is that this is not a major element of the game. If you buy the game for the sex, you will be disappointed. If you are completely uninterested in the sex, it is not required and will have no influence on your enjoyment. One thing worth noting is that the sex fits surprisingly well into the plot of the game, often coming about fairly naturally as a result of saving someone's life or spending time with an ex-lover.

The music is great, if not exactly groundbreaking. I love the vocal choruses in many of the more ambient pieces, the lively Celtic-influenced strings common in inns, and the intense drums in some of the combat music. I'm far from a musical expert and I don't want to make an ass of myself by pretending, so I'll direct you to the game's website, where you can take a listen for yourself. The game also features excellent ambient sounds, particularly in inns, and you will often hear voiced conversations between NPCs as you walk through the streets. Combat sounds are of similarly high quality (although I had to laugh when I noticed that, through some oversight, the combat dummies used by NPCs for training apparently gasp in pain upon being struck).

Voiceovers: the bane of modern day RPG development. Given that the game was made by a Polish developer and translated to English, one might suspect a certain lack of quality in the voiceovers. A certain - what shall we call it? - "Gothic-ness", perhaps? However, with a few exceptions, the English voiceovers are of surprisingly decent quality. There are some mis-emphasized lines, and a few truly bizarre accents, but by and large the voice actors are very competent and manage to hit the right emotional tones. Geralt's voice actor (that's right, all of your lines are voiced, not just those of the NPCs) has a particularly good voice for the character: cool, dark, collected, and all man, baby. Characters never seem to change voice actors or accent in the middle of a dialogue (a sentence I could never have imagined feeling the need to write before playing Oblivion). This is not to say that the voice acting is great - among more modern releases, it is vastly superior to Oblivion, better than Gothic 3, comparable to Neverwinter Nights 2, and quite inferior to NWN2: Mask of the Betrayer. The main problem is not the voice acting, which is good, but the evidently complete lack of direction. It seems the actors were given little indication of the context for their lines, sometimes leading to the feeling that conversations are made up of two people talking, but not talking to each other.

Performance
The game's performance is a mixed bag. Minimum system requirements are high, and recommended system requirements are naturally more so, so don't expect to run this game on your old Geforce 2. However, it should run quite well on any PC built or bought within the last couple of years. So long as your PC is up to date, gameplay is remarkably smooth, especially considering how great everything looks. You can expect a PC capable of playing NWN2 at medium to play The Witcher at mostly high settings. Moreover, the framerate scales quite well with resolution and with advanced graphics settings, allowing you to find the right balance for your machine. Word to the wise: moving shadows from high to medium makes can significantly improve performance at small cost to appearance (pre-generated light maps ensure decent looking shadows even at medium settings, unlike Neverwinter Nights), as can disabling grass.

With the 1.01A patch, released within days of the European launch and prior to the US release, the game is unusually stable compared to other recent releases. In fact, ignoring the load times (see below), it runs like a dream. I have experienced a couple of minor bugs - some mis-ordered journal entries, an NPC who abruptly stopped walking and simply glided across the world - but no memory leaks or crashes. Note that my machine runs Windows XP, and I cannot speak for the experience on Vista.

On the other hand, there are a couple of problems that are nearly unforgivable. First, The Witcher is not designed to take full advantage of multi-core processors, instead using only a single core, which naturally hurts performance. Considering that the system requirements suggest using an Intel Core 2 Duo, this is both puzzling and annoying. Worse by far, though, are the load times. You will be doing a lot of loading as the game progresses, and unfortunately the load times can be painfully long. My PC exceeds the recommended system requirements and has 2 gigabytes of quality DDR2 RAM. However, I still have loadtimes as long as 45 seconds from the main menu to in-game, averaging 5-10 seconds on entering a building and 20 seconds on entering a large hub. This is long enough to be annoying, but not a huge problem. Woe upon you, however, if you have 1GB RAM or less - reports on the official forums indicate that you may have loadtimes of a minute or more each time you enter a hub like a city, and almost as long upon entering a building. Worse still, the game doesn't retain the external hub in memory upon entering a small area, like a building, so that you experience these load times every single time that you enter or leave a house. Considering that you will be doing this often (in one particularly annoying series of quests, an old woman repeatedly throws you out of her home until you choose the right dialogue or give her the right gift), it's probably the game's biggest flaw. Defragging your hard drive can improve matters slightly, but for the most part your options are to hold out hope for a patch, pick up another stick of RAM (it's cheap right now), or just grin and bear it.

[​IMG] [​IMG]
It's a good thing the painted loading screens are so damn pretty, because you're going to be staring at them. A lot.
Conclusion
The Witcher has heart. It has soul. If The Witcher sang the Blues, you'd want to listen. This is a game made by people who genuinely loved what they were doing, and it's clear that rather than asking themselves "How can we best serve the market?", the developers instead asked "Wouldn't it be awesome if . . .?" It has all the enthusiasm and the quirkiness (for better and worse) of an indie game, but the production values that only a multi-million dollar budget will buy.

It has flaws - plenty of them - but ultimately it's a great game. I have had more fun with The Witcher than with any RPG released in the last few years. The Witcher is not "game as art," as Planescape: Torment and (more recently) Mask of the Betrayer have tried to be. Instead, it is "game as game", something that has been equally rare recently in the RPG genre. There is a focus on gameplay, on RPG mechanics, on depth of setting and on immersion. The Witcher is enjoyable, addictive, and deeply satisfying, and I wholeheartedly recommend it. If the Codex gave numerical scores, I'd give this an 8.5 out of 10. Since we don't, pretend you didn't see that.

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