The Witcher (PC) review
"There's a lovely quality to The Witcher's atmosphere, stemming from a combination of lush art design and the gripping plot on offer. It suffers from occasional pacing issues -- chapter one in particular requires a horrific amount of to-ing and fro-ing before it gets to the point -- but it's delivered in a generally satisfying, urgent and compelling way, driving the player to press on with the journey through Temeria. It certainly feels a lot more focused than some of its next-gen peers, which will relieve those who found themselves wandering around Oblivion's vastness with little clue of what was unfolding around them."
Aeons ago, when I was all but a wee nipper, my high school biology teacher told us a rather crass joke about pubic hair. I remember it more for having to explain it to the half-witted group of girls sitting in front of me than for its actual comedy value, but it stuck in my mind nevertheless. It came about after a discussion regarding the increasing number of people opting to colour their hair ginger, and went a little something like this:
How can you check if a girl's a real redhead?
Ask her mother.
Anyway, I was reminded of this joke a couple of hours into The Witcher. After saving the life of a ginger hottie by concocting a bizarre potion for her to drink, she invited me to test out the sturdiest bed in the land. Clearly, I accepted her proposal, and had the chance to see whether or not the carpet matched the curtains...
It most certainly did not.
Why, that's a mighty fine pussy you've got between your legs...
Just look at it! Talk about the sublime and the ridiculous. This piece of ludicrous graphic euphemism is the first in a series of Easter-Egg cards The Witcher rewards you with for nailing the various wenches and damsels-in-distress occupying its lands. These visual notches-on-the-bedpost are one of the ways in which Polish upstart developer CDProjekt seems to be shouting, "Look! Weíve made an adult videogame!" This is the less subtle side of The Witcher's theming and -- guess what -- such matters add little if anything to the quality of the narrative. Other tactics include a generally typical fantasy script with a few 'shits' and 'fucks' thrown in for good measure, and the odd obtuse drugs reference (a white powder you rub into your nether regions, of course). Luckily for The Witcher, it has quite a lot going for it regardless.
Down to business, then. It's a role-playing game in the vein of Neverwinter Nights and the like, mixing traditional hack-and-slash gaming mechanics with non-linear storytelling. It's based on a series of novels by a Polish author called Andrzej Sapkowski, whose name you're unlikely to have heard of or be able to pronounce. You can switch between a Gears Of War-style over-the-shoulder camera and what the game calls 'isometric view', which clearly isn't isometric at all as this is all rendered in a 3D engine, with proper camera manipulation and everything.
And it's really rather pretty! The atmosphere and detail increase with the close-up mode, but it's a bugger to control from this perspective during combat. Fighting incorporates an excellent combo-system, whereby the timing of attacks is essential in landing a critical hit, but it's difficult to pull off from behind the main character's shoulder. Action generally functions much better from the overhead view, which still showcases the quality of BioWare's Aurora code in fine form. All of the environments are built in 3D Studio Max then rendered in-engine, which provides a richness and variety to the world that's sadly lacking from many of its peers. It's not Far Cry 2-gorgeous, but it's a fine looking beast in its own right.
There's a lovely quality to The Witcher's atmosphere, stemming from a combination of lush art design and the gripping plot on offer. It suffers from occasional pacing issues -- chapter one in particular requires a horrific amount of to-ing and fro-ing before it gets to the point -- but it's delivered in a generally satisfying, urgent and compelling way, driving the player to press on with the journey through Temeria. It certainly feels a lot more focused than some of its next-gen peers, which will relieve those who found themselves wandering around Oblivion's vastness with little clue of what was unfolding around them.
One disappointing aspect is that the narrative borrows so heavily from other fantasy benchmarks. The adult themes and amnesia-trickery of Planescape: Torment? Check. The huge, non-linear approach of Neverwinter Nights? Yep. The grey-area moral dilemmas of Vampire: Bloodlines? They're in there. The high-fantasy universe of, well, everything since 'Lord of the Rings'? Bingo -- it's there too. The Witcher combines them all into a satisfying and cohesive whole, but it never really feels like it's entirely telling its own story.
Still, the same applied to Oblivion, and that sold enormously, receiving mountains of critical acclaim on the way. The Witcher lacks the go-anywhere vastness of Oblivion and the textual depth and enormity of old school classics such as Planescape and Baldur's Gate, but its happy middle ground provides for an experience as riveting and satisfying as any of those lauded games. I know us grumps at Honest Gamers weren't quite as impressed with Bethesda's monster as some other publications, but it's nevertheless telling that I found myself just as transfixed with The Witcher as I was with that.
And it's worth mentioning that, even though this isn't a truly freeform romp, it's still bloody massive and gloriously open. Split into five chapters (plus a brief prologue and epilogue), the main quest is an impressively lengthy campaign, weighing in at somewhere over the 50 hour mark. That's without any of the optional sidetracking, and there's plenty of that to tackle if you're so inclined. And if you're still after some additional game time after all that, The Witcher is more than worthy of multiple completions, if only to see how the frequent Big Decisions affect the narrative arc as a whole. Impressively, things change quite a bit.
If there's one significant criticism I'd throw at The Witcher, it's that it has a tendency to drag things out a little unfairly at times. When you can see your destination right in front of you, yet you can't access it for a further five hours, things become a little frustrating. When each quest you take on promises the reward of progression, yet this progression simply doesn't come into fruition, you start to feel somewhat cheated. There's a fine line between lying characters and a lying game, and The Witcher treads this line a little errantly at times. When you also consider the irritating placement of plot-essential characters -- usually on opposite sides of the huge map from each other, meaning endless trekking when you really can't be bothered -- it's this sort of cheap longevity trickery that brings the score down a point or two.
And if there were two significant criticisms I'd level? Well, if you thought the pubes gag in the introduction cheapened a review of what is a genuinely excellent game, you'll notice The Witcher does a similar thing. There's simply no need to objectify women in this way, yet it does, incessantly, to the point where few of the female characters have much real involvement other than as something to shag. I appreciate that the story carries noteworthy undertones of discrimination, and I appreciate that the sex scenes are optional, but when they're positively encouraged like this, it's a tough decision to defend.
There are a few other aspects people will be disappointed with. Character development is extremely straightforward in its approach, but still somehow manages to be slightly cumbersome, requiring the player to locate a campfire or important NPC to meditate by in order to level up. The out-of-game interface can be a little troublesome too, the journal making the reams of information on characters, locations, potions and spells inordinately difficult to navigate. And a tiny complaint that's more the result of me being rubbish than anything the game does wrong: it'd be nice if the in-game map were a little bigger. It does its job okay, but I found myself hitting 'M' to bring up the full-screen version a few times more than I would have liked. This happens in real life too, though, so don't take that last moan on board so much.
When you've been critiquing videogames for quite some time, it's easy to get wrapped up in details rather than focussing on the experience as a whole. The Witcher has a lot of details to get wrapped up in, and not all of them speak favourably of CDProjekt's efforts. But when you've been playing videogames for long enough, you start to get a sixth sense for that spark of quality that shines through, even against all odds. The Witcher has this too.
And while it won't quite trouble the masters at BioWare and Bethesda, this title shows more promise for a development house than any other debut I've played in a long while. Will we still be talking about The Witcher in five or ten years' time? Almost certainly not -- but if CDProjekt can follow it successfully, then I guarantee that their name will still be around in the exciting years to come.
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (October 16, 2008)
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