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Friday, 07 January 2011 00:00
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The Witcher - Director's Cut Edition
I want my RPG light please
That tastes good! What is it?
The world out there
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Developer: CD Projekt RED
Publisher: Atari (World wide) CD Projekt RED (Eastern Europe)
Game Price (at review time): $13 (basic retail) or $40 (Director's cut retail) or $20 (Director's cut via Steam)
Demo Download (1.97 GB - Hosted by Filefront)
Official Site
Vista/Seven compatible: YES For the Director's Cut edition (older versions requires patch 1.5 to get rid of the DRM which causes the game to not launch on Windows 7)
16/9 support: Native

ESRB Mature (blood and gore, nudity, strong language, strong sexual content, violence)
PEGI 18+ (strong language, violence)
 

The Witcher

 

What happens when a Polish video game publisher suddenly decides to go and develop their own game? Well, an interesting gem of gaming with a real publishing mess (the publishing being the fact of Atari, not CD projekt RED that for once acted as a developer only). For reasons no clearly known, The Witcher game was originally released in two separate versions, one censored for North America and one uncensored for the rest of the world. I say that the reasons are not clearly known because for once they were not the fact of the ESRB. The ESRB granted to all the versions of The Witcher the same rating: Mature. So it seems that for once the publisher (Atari) decided to second guess the ESRB and to censor the game themselves.


To cut a long story short, at the time of this review, three versions of the game are available in North America. The original censored edition, the Enhanced Edition (also censored) and the uncensored Director's Cut Edition. Of course those who still have to play the game are well advised to go directly for the Director's cut. But, and this a good news for the others, even owners of the original edition may upgrade their copy to Director's cut level. They just have to download the complete 1.4 patch which will upgrade their version to Enhanced Edition standard, then to apply the patch 1.5 which will upgrade their Enhanced Edition to the Director's Cut uncensored version (also removing the copy protection in the process that prevented the game to load on Windows 7)


So with those considerations out of the way, we can turn our minds toward the game itself, shall we?

 

The Witcher

 

A bit of the story first.

The story and the characters of The Witcher are based on the series of eight books of the same name (three being a collection of short stories and the five others one big saga) by the Polish author Andrezj Sapkowski. With such an amount of work, CD Projekt  has certainly enough stuff to build one game (several in fact). The game itself starts a few years after the events depicted in the books. Rest assured that you don't need to read the books to understand the game which is a rather good thing as only 3 of them made it in English at the time of this review, 3 years after the initial game release... a shame; in our Western countries the full set is only available in Spanish and German while 6 of the books are available in French. Here we have a direct effect of the video game industry in litterature because in Europe, publishing of The Witcher books really exploded after the game release. Before that, The Witcher was a license mainly ignored except in Poland, Russia and other Eastern countries.

Anyway, the developers had quite the idea when they gave Geralt (the main and playable character) a giant amnesia so he doesn't remember a thing and doesn't have any particular ideas or feelings about what happened to him and his friends several years ago. A lot of people in the game will mention events that occurred in times passed. If you read the books, you'll know what these events mean and if not you'll just have to stick with Geralt and pretend to have amnesia too. That shouldn't be too difficult.

Killed five years before the beginning of the game during a anti nonhumans pogrom in Rivia, The witcher Geralt of Rivia is unexpectedly found alive by his fellow colleagues not far from the witchers fortress of Kaer Mohren. First spotted by the sorceress Triss merigold, he's running in the woods, attempting to escape a ghost entity known as the King of the Wild Hunt. He has lost his memory and doesn't remember anything of what happened before being rescued. Triss and the other witchers do their best to help him recover physically but his memories appear to have been wiped out for good although Geralt still remembers a bit about a witcher's work and experience some weird attraction toward Triss -- he figures that she was a woman pretty important to him before he forget all about her.

One day, the Kaer Morhen fortress is assaulted by a group of bandits lead by a powerful mage, Azar Javed, and an assassin known as “The Professor”. They are after something pretty specific, the mutagens that give witchers their stunning abilities required for their daily work (chasing and killing monsters). Despite putting some good fight during what is the tutorial part of the game, the witchers cannot prevent Javed to steal their secrets. Leo, the youngest of the witchers, is killed and Merigold is wounded in the process (Triss being amusingly allergic to magical treatment she requires a special potion which is good because this bit allows players to understand how the alchemy process work in game).

 

The Witcher

 

After restoring Triss' health and having no reason to stay there, the four remaining witchers (Geralt included) and Triss Merigold decide to leave Kaer Morhen and to chase down the offenders. Each of them goes in one direction Geralt heading South to Vizima, the capital of Temeria where he hopes finding a clue about these scoundrels and their whereabouts. He quickly learn that the scum are forming an organization called Salamandra and as fate would have it, he lands right in the middle of their dirty business which will eventually put him right in the middle of Temeria politics -- so long for the famed Witchers' neutrality.

As a story in its own right, The Witcher video game does well, even though it borrows some plot elements directly from the books all the way up to putting in Triss Merigold's mouth some sentences that were pronounced in the book... but by another character. Other than that, the game and characters are fairly faithful to the books -- in which Triss for example, despite being a sorceress herself, is really allergic to magical treatments. At one point in the game, a pub owner in a place called "Murky Waters" has a story to tell you (if you care asking); what he comes up with is the (very) short version of the full story related in the books.

As I said, one doesn't need to read the books to appreciate the game as it was intended by CDProjekt RED team, but if like me you like the universe of the game and the characters, it might be a plus to read them at some point. They are not boring and draw a pretty accurate picture of some of the important characters you meet in the game and of the gloomy medieval world Geralt evolves in. On the other hand, some people who read the book before playing the game complained about some aspects, particularly the fact that one of the most important characters of the books is not even mentioned once or the relationship between Geralt and Triss Merigold which is possibly the only real point of the game story that without being completely unfaithful to the books has been sufficiently twisted to make it a bit weird. But the books in fact leave enough room so one could come with a couple of explanations for the curious switch; I guess only Triss really knows what's behind her obvious lack of urge to help Geralt recover his memory. Maybe she's just using his amnesia to get what she wanted long ago and was denied. And maybe the answer will be provided to us in the upcoming game, The Witcher 2: Assassins Of Kings in which Triss Merigold will be once again at Geralt's side.

Anyway, such questions can only arise if you read the books. So let's talk about something else.

 

The Witcher

 

 



The Witcher

I want my RPG light please

The Witcher is a RPG game but without all of the complications of the D&D license as featured in titles like Neverwinter Nights. Moreover, being heavily story driven with a character that was already in existence and that the story relies upon, you won't be able to choose between different classes, gender or races in this game. You're Geralt Of Rivia, you're male, you're a witcher... period.

Is that a bad thing? In my opinion and granted what the game intends to be... certainly not. In fact any other approach would have likely been to the detriment of the story process.  I read some complaints that there should have been a choice of the witcher being a witcherette (because apparently everyone expects that coming from a RPG game, being able to choose the gender) but what would be the point? Developers would have been forced to go through multiple hoops to adapt the story and the romance plots and such distraction always come with a price generally resulting in  other aspects of the game development being left aside.

That doesn't mean however that The Witcher is not a RPG game. Aside the fact that there is only one gender and one class available, you'll have to earn your skills during the course of the game like in any other RPG if you want to be able to cope with the multiple monsters you'll encounter on your way. In some way, there are so many things to learn to be the ultimate witcher that focusing on only one class is more than enough.


The Witcher

I'm a witcher... let me cut the cheese

A witcher is above all a melee fighter specialized in swordplay who received a special training (involving a magical mutation) that adapted his physiology and his capabilities to better fight monsters which of course also gives him an edge over more “normal” opponents (be them humans, elves or dwarfs). The job of a witcher is to lend his services to all kind of persons who want to get rid of monsters problems. To be able to gain the advantage over ghouls, vampires and whatnot, the witcher has three kind of tools at his disposal: his two swords, his potions and his magical signs.

I carry a steel and a silver sword... both are for monsters, usually...

The two swords of the witcher have each a special purpose. The meteorite steel sword can be used against monsters that have no or little resistance to steel (or those humans foolish enough to confront a witcher). For monsters that are resistant to steel, the silver sword comes into play. Very few monsters are able to resist the cuts of a silver sword for long. Both swords can be enhanced through the game by finding meteorite pieces for the steel sword or special runes for the silver sword. The reforging of the weapon must be done by a blacksmith though and for a cost depending on how good the result will be. To be frank, there's no real need for upgrading the steel sword as searching a bit around the world one finds soon enough better tools to replace it. Same cannot be said of the silver sword for which a really good replacement is only given as a reward far into the game.

Both swords can be used in combat in three different styles with variations that depends on the sword in use and Geralt's level. Higher is the level and the more points you have dedicated to primary skills (strength, dexterity and stamina), the more attacks you'll be able to perform, sword skills allowing you to augment the attack damage and to learn special attacks. At the beginning of the game, Geralt, having lost his memory, is only able to perform very limited attacks with the steel sword which may give a dull effect to sword combat (but when I remember the time it took in Neverwinter Nights for low level characters to perform just one strike I find The Witcher low level characters fighting system pretty dynamic). As Geralt gain ranks through Novice, Experienced and Legendary Witcher and that you invest points into primary and sword skills the sword play becomes much more fun and much more lethal too. 

All in all, the sword fighting system is pretty straightforward and based on chained attacks. Each sword styles (strong, fast and group) contains a maximum of 5 attacks. Hitting the mouse button against an opponent will trigger the first attack at the end of which one has a limited time to hit the mouse button again to engage the second attack and repeat the process until the final (5th) attack, each attack being more powerful and visually nicer than the previous one. If one fails to hit the button at the right moment (either too soon or too late) the chain attack fails and one has to start with another first attack. The chaining will also fail if the opponent successfully dodges the attack or if Geralt performs a task (moving, switching to another fighting style... etc.) The trick is that each fighting style possesses a different series of moves during attacks resulting in different timings and the timings also change between the two swords which makes a grand total of 24 timings to remember (the 5th and final attack being not timed). However, in order to help the novice, the game displays a whole lot of text messages that describes the combat phases which is useful for knowing if you succeeded in chaining or if you failed and a flaming cursor as well to tell you when it is time to hit the button. At the highest level of difficulty, all these helpers are turned off so the fight only goes by the feeling (at the end of each attack, Geralt performs a certain move with his sword that is flaming briefly producing a particular sound). It requires more accuracy in the timing but it's also funnier and less distracting than having messages popping everywhere. Allegedly, you can turn the messages off for Easy and Normal difficulty levels (not the flaming cursor though) but it apparently  just reduces the number of messages not eliminating them completely. For example the messages “Too Fast” or “Too Slow” are still being displayed (for that matter they are still displayed even in Hard mode) with all the combat feedback options off. Not a big deal but still it would have been nice to allow players to really turn off everything at all difficulty levels, including the flaming cursor. As it is, the only way to get the closest to real combat with minimal text feedback is to play at the hardest level of difficulty.


The Witcher

As for the three styles, they are here so one can adapts to the situation and the opponent(s) at hand. The strong style is best against armored and slow moving enemies, the fast style is best against enemies that move fast and can easily dodge your attacks and the group style is absolutely the must if you have to confront multiple enemies (the more enemies surrounds you the more efficient this style is).

While some may argue that The Witcher sword fighting appears pretty basic if not dull in its principle I would argue that I like it's simplicity mixed with just the needed dose of tricks. And it prevent me from swearing (like in some other games) because I missed this particular mouse movement at this crucial moment (yeah, I'm looking at you Oblivion). Actually the combat can become really fun when you really get the hang of it.

When you successfully mastered the sword combat, you'll even be able to dispatch a monster with for example 3 chained attacks then to immediately attack another  monster with the fourth chained attack that will probably kill it on the spot so powerful it is. It requires timing and knowing exactly when your first opponent will die so you can turn to the second immediately before breaking the chain but it can be done. You may also perform your first attack against one opponent then the second chained attack against another opponent... etc. In short, the chain is not broken if you switch opponents (as long as you keep the timing right)

The exception is the group style with which you really only need to target one opponent. All the other opponents attacking Geralt will suffer from his swordplay no matter their position (in fact those behind him may suffer even more than those in front). And the more they are the stronger will be the effect. It may not be so obvious at the beginning of the game but killing 5 drowners attacking you toward the middle of the game with a couple of chained group attacks is a piece of cake. Then again, drowners remain the weakest monsters in the whole game.

You may also quickly change styles during a fight against one opponent. Sometime the change appears to take them off guard. However as it also breaks the chain, it's better to use the right style for the right opponent from the start, something players easily learn with practice. And if your character progress far enough in levels and in skills, the style is not that much important anymore with the weak opponents (a drowner that easily dodges the strong style at the beginning of the game has a pretty good chance to take it in full face no matter how hard it tries to duck when Geralt approaches the levels of his forgotten skills and glory).

Yeah, that's true... The Witcher is the kind of RPG where your character's progression is really making a difference (against monsters anyway). For the sake of the story some human characters and monsters will always pose you quite a challenge but there's not many of them -- in other terms, these are bosses. Most monsters does not progress in level as you do so you may beat them more easily by developing Geralt skills through the game. For example, although swarms of drowners are likely to severely damage Geralt at the beginning of the game they'll pose the same threat level than a pestering mosquito later on.

A word about parrying: Geralt parries automatically all incoming attacks so players don't have anything particular to do – except performing some rolling moves during a combat and that is only if you want to. However the success or failure of a parry depends on the current skills of the witcher and the type of monsters.

Aside the two witcher's swords, Geralt may also embark up to three (depending on the armor) sidearms that in general have no real purpose except in these cases where our hero is disarmed by a stronger opponent. As Geralt cannot pick up anything during a combat, not even a fallen sword, it's always handy to have a sidearm just in case. However combat styles (strong, fast, group) does not apply to sidearms that are not swords although the chaining system is still enforced. On the other hand some of these weapons may deal more damage per blow than the standard swords.


The Witcher

 



The Witcher

A drowner tongue with two ounces of cadaverine please

The second witcher tool that one uses a lot (especially if playing at the hardest difficulty setting) are potions. Witchers brew themselves their own potions that only them may absorb without experiencing too much bad effects (most of those potions would be fatal to "normal" human beings). There are too many potions to all list them here but they cover a variety of situations from combat potions to healing potions or simple helpers. The simplest of all potions (and the one used pretty often) being Cat, a potion that allows Geralt to see in complete darkness sparing him the need for a torch (problem with the torch is that one cannot draw a sword while carrying it). There's a whole lot of other potions to increase health, endurance, the power of Geralt's attacks... etc. There's even a Perfume formula in order to impress the ladies.

The drawback of potions is that they are toxic, some mildly toxic and some others very toxic. The toxicity bar is always on the screen and fills in green as Geralt absorbs potions. The more green there is, the worse it gets. When the bar is about half-full, Geralt begins to feel the effects of toxicity – which for the player translates in colored dots randomly appearing on the screen. At this point it is   best to stop drinking any more potion unless you really have to. If the bar if fully filled, Geralt falls in a coma and eventually dies. To reduce the toxicity, there are two options, either to meditate (it may takes several hours if your toxicity level is pretty high) in which case the toxicity may decrease while still keeping the good effect of the potion (it only works with long lasting potions though) or to drink another potion called White Honey that will immediately reduce the toxicity to zero but will also cancel all the effects associated. A third option is also provided if you learn a specific skill: using a magic source for desintoxication (those can be found in several places in most maps -- welcome to automatic rehab).

Of course toxicity is also there for gameplay purpose, to prevent players from ingesting all the potions available in order to start any combat in an almost godmode state. Instead, players have to think about what potions are the best for a given situation. For example, when entering a crypt filled with bruxae, alps and fledlers (all bloodsuckers)  it may be useful to drink a dose of Blackblood that makes Geralt's blood highly toxic for any vampire-like creature foolish enough to attempt to suck it while when one has a wyvern, basilisk or cokatrice problem, the anti stun/knockdown effect of the Willow potion will be a good choice against the kind of attack performed by such creatures.

Then there are a few potions that will always come in handy whatever the situation is, like Swallow (increase health regeneration rate) or Tawny Howl (increase endurance regeneration rate). Other choices of all purpose potions is best left to players' discretion as it depends on each player's style.

Brewing potions is rather uncomplicated. You need a) a formula, b) the necessary ingredients and c) a potion base (alcohol). Formulas can be found, given to Geralt (as part of the story or after completing a quest) or bought. There is also a fourth way to acquire formulas: experimenting. That's one thing which set The Witcher apart from most RPGs where it is required to have something particular to perform certain tasks – especially alchemy. Geralt may indeed mix ingredients randomly, brew them and drink the thing to see if it has any good effect. If a valid formula is found, it is automatically entered in Geralt's formulas book. However the procedure is risky. When the potion is failed, drinking it may have a number of effects that range from pain to loss of health passing by drunkenness. When experimenting it's always useful to have some White Honey and Swallow at hand should the result of your experiments be disastrous.  In any case, experimenting may allow you to acquire formulas faster (and considerably cheaper) or even to discover some formulas that you couldn't obtain otherwise.


The Witcher

Ingredients from the potions may be found, given or more generally gathered. To gather ingredients from a particular plant or monster you need to have the knowledge of this plant/monster. This knowledge may be acquired reading books or talking to folks around (some will tell you what you need to know in exchange for food or alcohol; more rarely for free).  Each ingredient gathered is placed into your alchemy pouch where you can sort them by the substance they provide. There are six substance an it's these substance that need to be combine to form a potion – at least 2 different substances must be mixed, up to 5.

The potion base required in the brewing is alcohol. The stronger and purest the alcohol, the more potent the potion will be. Low quality alcohol allows for mixing three ingredients, high quality alcohol allows four ingredients and top quality alcohol allow the maximum of 5 ingredients (which are required by the best formulas). The good thing there again is that you can brew any alcohol, even of low quality, to turn it into White Gull, the top quality alcohol used by witchers. It will cost you just a few ingredients. And don't worry, alcohol is probably one of the most common element in The Witcher world either to be found or bought so no problem finding some.

If you want to do some easy brewing, you just find a fireplace, put Geralt in meditation mode, switch to the potion screen, select a formula in the list which will automatically place the required ingredients and alcohol (if you have them in your inventory) in the appropriate slots then click on the mix button. Potion done!

Now, you might also want to be a bit more selective about the process and do some manual tweaking that the automatic system seems to have real troubles with. See, beside the six primary substances, there are also three secondary substances. If you put ingredients that all contain the same secondary substance, you'll obtain a potion that possesses not only the desired effect but also the special effect coming from the secondary substance. A potion containing nigredo will increase the damage done by Geralt in combat for some time, a potion with rubedo will help restoring Geralt's health faster for some time (it's equivalent to a Swallow potion) and a potion with albedo decreases not only the toxicity of the potion containing it but also of those swallowed after that during the time the albedo effect lasts.

All in all the alchemy system of The Witcher is well done for those who don't want to have a headache over it but it's also flexible enough for those gamers who like to control everything.

But are the potions really that important to beat the game? Let's put it that way: at the easiest difficulty setting, potions are mere helpers that can give you an edge but are not necessarily needed in most cases so you may even jump your alchemy classes in this case. The hardest difficulty is an all other matter. There you'll have to make full use of potions if you just want to survive. Especially during the heaviest fights and especially if you're lousy in developing your character skills. Potions are there because as in every other RPG you won't be able to turn your character into a semi-god (there's not enough XP and levels for that) and the potions are there to balance this fact. They temporarily turn Geralt in some areas in a character of a higher level than the one he currently is.

However the hardest difficulty level has also some special tricks when it comes to potions. The slow health regeneration that exists in Easy and Normal mode is removed so Geralt has to rely on potions to help maintain his health especially before and during combat either to start a regeneration process or to recover some of the health lost. This fact alone always force you to a least take a Swallow potion before entering a series of fights and possibly during some of the heaviest fight to swallow a White Raffard's Decoction (a very potent health restorer but also highly toxic). Consequently the toxicity margin left is much lower than in Easy or Normal mode which means that you'll have not only to carefully prepare your potions but also to only use what is needed for a situation.


The Witcher

Igni, Aard, Yrden... What tongue is that anyway?

The last – but not least – of the witcher's tool are magical signs. Granted, witchers are not sorcerers (otherwise I guess the game would have been called “The Sorcerer”) and their magic is not as extended as the one of real sorcerers but it is nevertheless pretty useful. Witcher's magic is based on the use of signs that can be quickly drawn in the air during combat with one hand (no need to draw a dusty parchment or to vomit a delirious and enigmatic formula). The first sign that the amnesic Geralt will learn anew is Aard. Aard allows you to stun or knockdown enemies during combat (a stunned enemy can be killed with one strike of any sword) and can be used outside of a fight to bring down some obstruction in your path. The four other signs allow Geralt to perform fire attacks (or to light up fireplaces), to slow down enemies, to create a magical shield around him (useful to drink a potion without being hit) or even to temporarily switch the alliance of an opponent so they will fight for him.

Using signs has a cost however as it draws on Geralt's endurance. The endurance is limited and although it replenishes even during a fight, the process is slow (same as the health, there are potions to temporarily increase both the total endurance and the recovering rate). You can also enhance the power of your magical signs temporarily in a number of ways, either by drawing power from a magical stone or by finding a magic source (if you have the needed skill), or simply drinking the appropriate potion.

Not much else to say about magic. It works, it's efficient (even more if you spend points in those disciplines) but some signs are less useful than others. I find myself using mainly Aard (stun) and Igni (fire). Sometime Quen (shield) when I have a difficult combat ahead or when needing to drink a potion during a fight. Practically I had little use for Yrden (slow down opponents) and Axii (converting enemies into allies).

And what about armor?

Well, to be frank, finding armor is not the main occupation of a witcher. In the game there are three armors total all of the light type. One basic (granted for free) a good one that can be bought and a third "awesome" that can be gathered after accomplishing a multipart quest near the end of the game. Armor mainly provide a boost to some of Geralt attributes as well as more potions and or weapons slots. Visually they're not different except for the awesome and rare endgame armor. Anyway, this is being faithful to what witchers are. Witchers rely on speed and agility, not on armor. A witcher in full armor would be like food in a tin can.

But yeah, sure, for those who like dressing, undressing and dressing their character again, The Witcher is definitely not *that* kind of RPG.


The Witcher

 



The Witcher

The world out there

One thing that can be said about The Witcher is that the game world is as close as possible to real life. In the course of the game, Geralt has many occasions to get drunk, to gamble, to fight bare handed and even to get laid.

The game world features a full day night/cycle which is of some importance as some people can only be found during daytime while most of Geralt targets (monsters) are especially active during nights. In some areas of the games, one may find some type of monsters exclusively at night while during days one may find other types of monsters less sensible to sunlight. The weather system is exhaustive too with sunny days, shiny moonlights, storm, fog... etc.
 
The fact that he doesn't remember anything from his previous life makes it easier for Geralt to get to know multiple ladies in that special way, each one being eager to give him a good time, generally in exchange for some gift (be it the obvious jewelry, a piece of garment or something much more unusual). Nothing special results from these affairs aside those attached to the two main female characters between which Geralt will have to make a choice impacting the rest of the story. Of course developers tried to make the whole thing interesting in the way of a mini-game for each lady, guessing the good approach or the good gift. Each successful intercourse will bring Geralt a new card to put in his journal, a memento picturing each of his conquests. The whole thing is an amusing distraction but sometimes feels more like a treasure hunt. What I mean is that a lot of gamers may feel like an obligation to hunt all these women down (more than 20) just for winning all the cards which seems like an achievement in itself. On the other hand, gamers may feel free to ignore the thing altogether as aside the cards it doesn't bring any kind of advantage to Geralt (on a pure RPG level).

Drinking is also a good occupation between combats and quests and is not even gratuitous. Most of the time beating someone in a drinking contest leads to gaining some useful information or trinket. Of course you can also be outdrunk by your “opponent” (it is based on your endurance and some character skills that you may learn may help you to remain on your feet). When such a thing happens you find yourself waking up on the street possibly with some of your gold missing because there is no such thing as an honest boozer. There's a moral in this I guess. The real drawback of drinking contests even when you win is drunkenness that makes Geralt unable to run or even to walk straight until the alcohol effects disappears. He still may fight however (at one point in the early part of the game he even has too) but from a gamer point of view the effect of being drunk is a screen visually blurry, distorted and always moving. Meditating (the equivalent of sleeping for Geralt) is an option to recover; there's also a handy potion to resolve the matter more quickly but one has to learn the formula first. Once you have the formula though it's always handy to have a couple doses ready because Geralt never knows when someone will drag him into a pub next; believe me that can happen even when you don't want it.

Only troubling point in The Witcher universe: why is it that Geralt may enter any open house and put his sticky hands anywhere even under the nose of the owners without having any of them reacting or shouting “Thief!”? No one knows and that is something prone to disturb some purists. Maybe they are really afraid of all the legends surrounding witchers and especially Geralt that some of them call The Butcher of Blaviken (which has only a meaning if you've read the books, let's say that he spread a few corpses and a lot of blood trying to peacefully resolve some matter in a the town of Blaviken; not his fault, really but the sad story followed him since then and although he lost his memory, other people didn't).

There's also a good dose of humor in this game though some of it requires the proper external references like the “Bronze Dan's Holy Grail theory” that an hermit explains to Geralt at some point.


The Witcher


Making money

There are several ways to make money in the game (and a few ways to loose some). Once you get to know how the game works though, you should never be broke. Beside quests, the most potent way to make money in the game is probably the one that newcomers will not think about because they're not used to that. Unlike with a lot of other RPGs, Geralt is not a hero in shining armor embarking on a paramount mission for the love of glory. No he's a pragmatic guy that has a job which is killing monsters for money. Most of these monsters allow him to gather special ingredients when killed. Most of these ingredients may be kept for use in potions but one quickly discover that some other ingredients are best being sold to relevant people (alchemists, witches or druids) for a wealthy pouch of orens (the currency of Temeria). One sweep in Vizima sewers may bring 75 up to 180 orens alone, just selling special ingredients gathered from drowners.

Fist-fighting is another way to make some money (not the quickest but still...) or to gain a trinket, provided that you're strong enough to win the fights which highly depends on your level and endurance (with there too some character skills that you may learn to help). You may go fist fight with any opponent who will accept your challenge. You can fist fight for money and there is also a quest that comes with this part; You have to beat one special opponent in each chapter of the game to become the greatest fist-fighter which in return and combined to another side quest allows you to put your hand on a very special item that can be quite useful – albeit not essential – in the last part of the adventure.

Poker Dice is another way to spend some time and also allows you to make money but the matter there is much more unnerving though. You may ignore it through the game because becoming a “legendary” poker player is just a rather unimportant side quest, but if you want to get involved seriously, you're in for a tough time because the dice are rigged. Obviously, blatantly, shamelessly rigged.  To put it briefly the game decides of the chances you have to win a game and that depends apparently on what stage of the story your at. For example, there are three opponents to beat in the first chapter. If you try them at the beginning of the chapter your chances of winning are vastly reduced but if you take them near the end of the chapter you chances greatly improve (and that is even if you never play a party with them before). Well it wouldn't be that bad if the cheating wasn't visually so obvious. In one game for example I had a pair of three and a pair of five and my opponent had just a pair of two. Next turn, my opponent drew another pair of five which wasn't enough to beat me but one of the dice got stuck in a mid position, hesitating between one and three. It could only be one of those then out of nowhere the dice made a full turn and ended on another five. That made him three five and of course I lose. This feeling to be constantly cheated before being finally allowed to win at some point clearly made of the poker game the less interesting part of The Witcher world to me. However this is the mini-game that may bring you the most money if you win (I emphasize the *if*)


The Witcher


This land is a frightening world

As a witcher, the main opponents of Geralt (at least by the number) are monsters, these coming in different varieties from lesser low rated threats like drowners to pretty challenging ones like the infamous Koschey. The most challenging monsters are the ones magically created (by a powerful mage). Some require tricks to be defeated and one of them – the above mentioned Koschey to be exact – just require brute force and the use of every witcher talent you have gathered along the way because this is a long and probably very painful fight (leaving you with very little health especially at the hardest difficulty setting). It fortunately happens near the end of the game so when reaching it Geralt should be pretty much in shape.

Aside these bosses (they are few) the remaining of the monsters can be defeated more or less easily depending on how players distribute their hard earn bronze, silver and gold talents among the diverse witcher skills. If you decide to skip some of the quests (and the XP going with them), which is always an option in a RPG, you might end up living through tons of hard times near the end. One word of advice, don't skip any occasion to increase Geralt's potential, even the hidden quests. Doing otherwise would be suicidal especially at the top most difficulty setting.

The other opponents that Geralt will have to fight are mere humans belonging to a secret organization known as Salamandra which is the one that stole the witchers' secrets from Kaer Morhen at the beginning of the game and represent the bulk of human opponents through the whole story and depending on how you make the story progress you might end up fighting elves and dwarfs (known as the Scoia'tel or squirrels) or an organization of racist knights (known as The Order Of The Flaming Rose) or both.

In any case don't worry, you won't be lacking opponents. And if you feel yourself deprived of fights at some point there are always some places where you can have some exercise most locations in the game replenishing their monsters stock once a day (generally at midnight).


The Witcher

 



The Witcher

Points of view and interface

The Witcher allows to play in three different point of view, pure isometric (à la Neverwinter Night), Isometric zoomed to better see the characters and OTS (Over The Shoulder) mode that places you right within the action. Of course it's a matter of taste but considering the dynamic nature of most fights, I find myself playing exclusively in OTS just because I feel it's the way to play the game which of course other gamers are free to disagree with. OTS makes of The Witcher a third person perspective action game while the other two modes are a bit too much strategical to me (regarding the kind of game The Witcher is of course).

In any case it's nice to be able to choose the view you want. There's no first person sure, but I can't really imagine fighting in the game in first person perspective especially because none of the combat animations would be visible.

As for the interface, there's anything you can expect from a RPG, an inventory screen from which you can access both your normal inventory and your equipment (weapons and armor) and additionally the content of the alchemy sack where Geralt collect the ingredients for his potions, oils and bombs; beside that there is the standard character screen depicting your current character level and capabilities and everything that you can learn in the future; there's a pretty exhaustive journal that allows not only to track the game quests but also to collect information about the game world, the characters, the alchemical formulas and the monsters (this part is actually useful describing the different monsters weaknesses and strengths and everything that a witcher should know about them including the ingredient that can be gathered from them). Of course this journal fills up during Geralt's adventures when he reads some books or learn about something from a NPC.


The Witcher


Bioware it is

A bit of technicalities now that we had a look at the game itself. The Witcher is using the Aurora 2007 engine created by Bioware (the same that is powering Neverwinter Nights 2). Sadly, The Witcher also come fully featured with the problems inherent to the Aurora engine, those same problems that one can be confronted to in Neverwinter Nights 2.

First there is the fact that Aurora despite its “2007” logo is not a multi-threaded engine. In other terms it is not made for dual or quad cores and rather relies on the raw power of a single core. How can you tell? Just looking at the usage numbers for all the cores. Non multi-threaded games will overload one core and leave the others at peace while games designed for multi-core will spread the load about evenly between the different cores. The problem is that multi-cores today range between 2 and 3.3 GHz per core for the best ones. The Witcher requires a 2,6 GHz core to be relatively at ease with all the options turned on and the more the merrier. In words more simple, chances are that the game will run much better on a 3.3 GHz dual core than on a 2.4 GHz quad core. Note that this is true for all the games that were designed with single core in mind.

The second problem with Aurora is the way games effects are handled. No matter what you do, when there is a lot of magic or complex foliage floating around, the framerate goes down sometime dramatically. The same goes for locations that are pretty complex with a lot of people. Not experiencing a crash in Chapter 3 of The Witcher (the Trade Quarter to be precise), is miraculous not to mention the simple fact of maintaining a good framerate.

Graphically The Witcher is looking pretty good but these pretty graphics come with a price to pay considering the fact that they are rendered on an engine that is pretty sensitive to everything from huge graphical effects to dense foliage, passing by your graphic card drivers. There is no rule here as it depends on the driver set you're using (this point is valid for both ATI and NVidia). A minor changes in the driver can prove quite catastrophic in the game. Example for ATI: Catalyst 9.12 = crash every 2 to 3 hours; Catalyst 10.7 = crash every 20 minutes; Catalyst 10.9 = crash every 2 to 3 hours. As you guess, you can abandon the hope of a smooth experience with Catalyst 10.7. Independently of the drivers, some areas of the game will crash relatively more often than others like the trade quarter of Vizima which, due to its complexity, pushes the Aurora engine to its very limits.  

Since the Aurora engine, Bioware made some progress especially in the area of multi-threading and stability (not necessarily in matter of framerate though) as demonstrated with Dragon Age: Origin but the Aurora engine is certainly not the best of their work. Not to mention the cosmetic issue that seems to be the trademark of the Aurora engine: women breasts bouncing all around in a pretty unnatural fashion when walking.

I guess that CD Projekt RED wanted to limit the development costs and that the engine from Bioware was in their price range, another good point being that it was already adapted to RPG games. It remains that The Witcher behaves sometimes as a real frame eater, even on a good mainstream setup. The sequel The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is being developed based on a whole in-house engine codenamed "RED Engine" as in CD Projekt RED. From official videos released so far it should allow some interesting gameplay twists that couldn't be implemented in the Witcher due to the rigid nature of the Aurora engine. For example Geralt will be able to go stealth (although the extent of this feature is still unknown and The Witcher is not Thief anyway.). Being a new engine we can also hope that RED will be less of a resource hog and crash prone than Aurora. Time will tell. At least it comes with native multi-core support.

 

The Witcher


Mishaps In Temeria

Technicalities aside, The Witcher comes with some problems of its own that may or may not be due to the engine. One example being that the game world is a bit inflexible in its design, not allowing players to explore further than some limits and even more pushing them to go around some obstacles that could easily be jumped over. Yeah, that's true The Witcher also inherited of this feature from the Neverwinter Nights series that forbids players to perform a simple jump. Of course, that isn't exactly a problem when you play in isometric view but when you play (like me) exclusively in OTS mode, you quickly find yourself annoyed with that kind of limitation although to be frank this limitation problem really appears in some specific areas of the game, mainly the Swamp and the Swamp Cemetery in which you are forced to zigzag between fallen trees and concealed branches).

To be fair, there is one occasion where Geralt performs a jump it's when facing an opponent you double tap the forward key in which case he will jump over the opponent to land behind their back. Other moves includes roll on the sides and backward. Geralt is even able to perform beautiful jump during cut-scenes which makes the whole "no jump" thing even more ridiculous.

Another problem is linked to the game world population. Aside the main characters that are clearly differentiated by their faces and look, the rest of Temeria population all look the same based on a few typical locales. For example one has the peasant man, the peasant woman, the old woman, the town woman, the prostitute... etc. Unfortunately the differences between two NPCs of the same class are nil except sometime for the way they are labeled. To bring even more confusion, most of them tend to travel a lot within the same map over time which I guess is lifelike but renders some tasks a bit more complicated. See, most of these NPCs have things quite rubbish to say but occasionally some may give you some interesting info, like of the old women in the Vizyma Outskirts at the beginning of the game that can teach you in exchange for food how to recognize plants and even some monsters, sparing you the need to buy several expensive books for this purpose. Problem is that since those who have info and those who are useless often have the exact same look you may spend a lot of time just to track down the people you want to talk to. You'll eventually have to use the "display labels" key a lot to sort it out.


The Witcher


Conclusion

Technically The Witcher is not a perfect game due to an engine that was already flawed. In any other aspect however, it's a game that is a top pick for any RPG gamers out there especially those gamers that don't like to be buried under a thousand different rules that state what you may or may not do according to your level, your stats, your abilities (or lack of), the level of your abilities, the things you had for lunch and the person you dated the day before... etc. Humor is there, acidic satire too and thanks to being based on a series of books, the storyline and the world are rich enough so you do not get bored at any point.

And finally as the end movie of The Witcher raises some troubling questions everyone is waiting for the upcoming The Witcher 2: Assassins Of Kings. But that's a different tale (and review), entirely.
 

Review summary 9/10
 
Pros Cons

The Witcher performs very well as an ensemble of things including story, characters, atmosphere, graphics... hard to pinpoint specific points of awesomeness so I'm not even trying.

Technically the reliability of the engine used does not leave up to the game standards and its limitations are clearly there
 

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