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Review of The Witcher (2008 Enhanced Edition)

The Witcher : Enhanced Edition
(PC-only videogame, June 2008).

I’m a six-foot mutant EuroMan with long white hair and a thing for tightly-laced leather. I can flip swords, slaughter ugly monsters, and er… collect pretty petals. And that’s my one and only character choice in The Witcher, a PC-only role-playing game from Poland. Want to play as a dwarf? Nope. As a woman? Nope. As an archer? Nope. Want to walk rather than run all the time? Nope. So much for personalised role-playing immersion. You can’t even make the game’s interface more transparent.

Once I got past the lack of character and interface customisation, there was an equally unpromising “Prologue” to plough through. This had some well-edited and elegantly-lit cut-scenes, and also trained me in a combat system that’s fluid but which takes some taming. I quickly realised that the Enhanced Edition‘s character models, animation and voicework are all vastly better than Oblivion, but not quite as polished as those in Mass Effect.

But the “Prologue” plot and scene-setting seemed as weak as dandelion tea. It didn’t become more promising during the start of the “First Act”, although at least I was now out in the countryside and could be distracted by the realistic, subtle, and lived-in landscape. There are no Oblivion-style “pop-up” hills/trees, but something has certainly nibbled the SpeedTree foliage back to the bare minimum – presumably to boost frame-rates. In practice you don’t notice the detail of the trees, but it’s clear that the skybox, weather-effects, clouds, stars, and sunset/dawn lighting effects all trail far behind the mighty Oblivion.

Yet the NPCs are very well done, and make Oblivion‘s NPCs look shoddy. It’s a real pleasure to converse with Witcher NPCs, who have finely-crafted and earthy dialogue (mostly spoken by British actors), strong motion-captured animations (vastly improved since the first retail release), characterful if somewhat repetitive 3D modelling, and a basic but competent dialogue-tree system. When I met my first NPCs I realised this was actually likely to be a fun game, one with a passable and restrained sense of humour. The game started to feel much more reassuring at that point, and during the first in-game night it became deeply immersive. It all finally came alive for me, in terms of the start of a blending of the game mechanics and the story, when I realised what was happening to the local dogs (I guess you had to be there).

Most local quests in the “First Act” are satisfying, useful, diverse, mercifully short, and there’s no really tedious “deliver five parcels all exactly alike” quests. Although half-way through there is one annoying “carry five petals” quest that almost breaks the game because it’s vital to progressing the plot. At this point I began to worry about possible game-breaking flaws. By the time I reached the end of the “First Act”, my suspicions were confirmed. If you never obtained Spectre Oil and one Willow potion (who knew they were so vital?), then your complete inability to defeat the final boss monster of the Act is likely to hang up your game and horribly break your immersion. The game’s designers apparently didn’t think to make available a little chest of these few vital things, for those who thought them unimportant to obtain before. And in an even more thoughtless disregard for players, there’s no save-game allowed between a long and emotionally-critical dialogue sequence and ethical choice, and the final battle of the “First Act”. Fail that battle – almost certain if you don’t have the Spectre Oil and/or one Willow potion – and you’ll have to play through the dialogue again. And again and again and again, thus robbing the dialogue and choice of its initial power. It’s an appallingly bad design decision, and it confirms that the main weakness of the early part of The Witcher is the combination of a weak plot and weak game design at crucial moments. But if you can get over this massive blockage (eventually I had to edit a save-game to get a Willow potion, rather than tediously replay the last six hours to get one) there’s a great deal to like in the game.

The gritty “morally ambiguous” setting, gore, coarse language, sex and sexism are all over-hyped by journalists who’ve probably never even played the game – but combined in small doses they certainly refresh a stale genre. And by the time you reach the end of the First Act these elements have intelligently shaped the outcome of the main storyline. As has our hero, who feels rather Catholic (the game is from Poland, remember, and is based on a series of novels) in that he is presented with the problem of how to act in a right manner amid a world that is irredeemably on a slippery slope into ruin and sin. Interestingly, given the casual accusations of sexism and suchlike, the game was written by two women — Sande Chen and Anne Toole.

What has not been over-hyped is the $1-million of new voice work, which completely re-recorded the sub-standard English voices of the original retail game. The Enhanced Edition‘s new English dialogue seemed perfect to me. No-one in The Witcher sounds like they’re from Wichita Falls, Texas. Previously lengthy load-times have also been dealt a mighty blow, and the camera and inventory are also said to be improved. The best that can be said of the sound effects and music is that you don’t notice them – the music certainly isn’t up to the stirring hummable standards of a Morrowind or an Arktwend.

I’m ten minutes into the “Second Act” now, and it looks this is going to be an 80 hour game for me. It also seems like The Witcher is a game that has to be played with a full walkthrough / Prima strategy guide at your side, to prevent you skipping the purchase of a seemingly insignificant potion that’ll make or break the plot in five hours time.

The politics seem juvenile and sixth-form at present, but it’s widely said that the storyline improves rapidly once a player gets past “Act One”. Let’s hope so, since one of the most interesting game elements is that the consequences of your constant stream of ethical choices don’t become apparent until much later in the story. Many Adventure/RPG games claim something vaguely like this, but it seems The Witcher actually makes it happen in a subtle and sophisticated way. This innovation might be made even more interesting by the addition of some sort of divination, although there’s no sign of it yet. Perhaps divination is something that could be added in The Witcher 2, now in development following sales of 1.2 million copies of the first game.

The Enhanced Edition of the game, packed with extra goodies as well as the game, currently seems to sell for between £12 and £16. That’s a bargain, and a prime example of the huge benefits PC gamers often get if they can wait a year or two before playing a game: it’s then properly patched, polished and (mostly) bug-fixed; it’s sold at far less than the original retail price; it runs at better frame-rates and screen resolutions on better hardware; and often has free add-on content and fan mods.

Oh, and a final technical note – the game plays as smoothly as silk for me at 1920 x 1200 pixels widescreen, with all in-game graphics options at maximum and 8xQ anti-aliasing forced via the NVIDIA Control Panel. It installed easily and hasn’t crashed once. The game is running on Windows 7, DirectX 11, and an NVIDIA GeForce 9600 GT 512Mb graphics card.

The big Enhanced Edition box comes with a paper map, “making of” bonus DVDs, soundtracks, a stripped-down version of the Prima Strategy Guide book, thousands of hours of new NPC voice work, tweaked interfaces, and much more. If you’re buying from the U.S., be aware that their edition was censored.

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