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» The Witcher - PC

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When Gothic 3 hit the shelves  earlier this year it was met with mixed reactions. Some (including Gaming Heaven) thought the game had a lot of potential and was enjoyable enough to ignore some of it's rather glaring shortcomings . Others however weren’t as forgiving and gave the game developers a hard time. Unfortunately the games developers soon bit the dust, so any real hopes Gothic 3 had of becoming what it was meant to be were snuffed out then and there. But just as RPG fans started losing hope for a more dark, brutal fantasy RPG ... out of nowhere (well, not really – the game has been on every RPG player’s list for a while now) came The Witcher with its dark, almost realistic approach at fantasy adventuring.

Geralt of Rivia

For a fantasy RPG, the land of the Witcher is remarkably glum and dark. Towns are dying because of plagues, old spirits haunt forests and villages and even though a war has just ended another one is on the brink of starting. On top of it all, the various races that inhabit the world (humans, elves, dwarves, etc.) are involved in major feuding. You have to agree that it is not exactly common practice for game developers to create medieval fantasy worlds that closely resemble actual history with dirty cities and political problems. I personally rather like this approach and actually favour it over the more traditional, fairy tale offerings like NWN2 or Oblivion.

In the midst of all this suffering and strife the player takes control of a witcher, a mercenary for hire with extraordinary abilities. Though human at first glance witchers are actually mutants, with improved reflexes, stamina and the ability to cast signs (spells). They are not perfect however, as they have been left sterile due to the mutations. A second curse of the mutations is that no race actually accepts them as one of their own, so they are outcasts wherever they appear. On top of it all Geralt, the witcher you control ingame has had a near death experience and as a result has suffered memory loss.

Throughout the drab grey world of the Witcher you’ll be presented with many moral decisions. Right of the bat you’ll have to decide how to defend a castle under siege, focusing on preserving the witcher secrets it holds and risking heavy losses. Later on such minor decisions turn into greater dilemmas, where the fates of entire races are at stake. The problem is that unlike many other RPGs where one choice is clearly the good, morally correct one and the other bad; you’ll often have to choose between various shades of gray, picking up the lesser of evils according to your own personal feelings. Will you help the elven resistance with supplies? Or will you rather help the humans against these elven terrorists? There are literally dozens of choices like this to be made, and depending on the path you take you’ll get to experience 3 different endings, all of which are tied to your entire path, not just a final decision (like in Kotor for example).

Martial arts master

Like any decent RPG The Witcher isn’t all about combat, but relies heavily on it. Being based on the Aurora (NWN) engine many expected the game to be a standard D&D ruleset based phase (dynamic pausing, dice rolls in background, etc.) combat RPG. Instead we got a more action oriented approach which relies both on statistics and background dice rolls as well as player interaction in form of clicking the left mouse button at the appropriate time. Starting an attack is a matter of clicking on a foe and watching the attack animation roll out (if the foe is in range that is). This however only grants you a few seconds of attacking, so you’ll have to click again once the attack is finished. Do this long enough and your foe will die. There is a faster way however – right as the attack animation is about to end you can watch for the cursor to change shape (turning red or yellow) and click again. This will initiate a chain attack, continuing the previous attack and scoring extra damage. You can link attacks for as long as you want, but it usually won’t take more than 3 or 4 links to kill a foe.

Some foes won’t go down as easily. Whether it is because they are fast or well armored, you’ll often have to change your combat stance to adapt to your current foe. Agile opponents will easily dodge out of the way of your slower but more powerful stance whereas it will take an eternity to kill stronger opponents with your quick strikes. There is a third stance available, useful for dealing with groups of enemies. It does little damage, but it can keep an entire horde of foes at bay for longer periods of time (or just long enough to lash out a few stronger swings at a specific assailant). For more information on the combat system, check out the video at the start of this review.

As you level up (gaining experience from both combat and quests) you’ll get the chance to invest skill points into hundreds of available skills. These range from stronger attacks in various stances over the ability to knock down opponents to more pacifistic skills such as herbalism or potion brewing. You also unlock stronger versions of the spells you know this way, or rather unlock additional effects of these spells such as increased range, lower power consumption or increased duration. At first you won’t be relying on signs (spells) much, but later on they’ll mean the difference between life and death (unless you are heavily specialized in melee combat).

I’ve mentioned herbalism a few lines back so this would be a good time to have a closer look at that. Witchers are well known as excellent fighters, but they are also reputed for their heavy potion reliance and to some extent alchemical knowledge. While this aspect of the game isn’t really necessary at the easiest difficulty setting it becomes pretty important on the normal difficulty and is a necessity on the hard one. Brewing potions is rather easy – once you have the recipe you only click on it and if you have all the necessary components (gathered from local plants or bought from merchants) the potion will be made. Well, actually it’s not really that easy. To brew potions you need to rest for some time and since this is only possible at fireplaces and camps you can forget brewing potions in the middle of dungeons. Also, some of the best recipes require some very rare components and usually don’t last that long when consumed. So what are the possible effects of the potions you make/buy/loot? Regeneration, night sight, faster reflexes (going as far as making the whole game a slow-motion experience) and extra damage are just some of the possible concoction effects you’ll experience.

Drinking potions has a side effect however, namely toxicity. The more you drink the lower your statistics are, so using potions is a double edged sword which can all too quickly be turned against you. Resting lowers toxicity, but it also cancels the effects of the potions, so you can’t wriggle around the problem.

Based on the Aurora engine

The game looks great. There, I’ve said it. With that out of the way, let’s talk about the why. First and foremost, the environments are huge and filled to the brim with life. In villages children run around playing hide and seek, chickens run around from close movement and crows take flight from tall grass patches when somebody comes too close. When it rains people run to shelter and during night the streets are empty with most in their beds dreaming of a better world. It all runs surprisingly well considering (previous gen hardware can cope with it just fine) the high details and almost photorealistic textures used on people and creatures. In cinematics there are also some very nice post processing effects used such as DoF blur. All is not peachy however – during conversations most characters are completely stiff and their lip synching isn’t fabulous either. A more annoying issue however are the long load times. They aren’t that big of a deal when exploring the countryside due to the size of the individual areas, but when walking around towns seeing a loading screen every time you enter a building gets really irritating.

In line with the realistic approach, the sounds mirror medieval times as well. Chatter between characters is often harsh and sexually colored and nobody in their right mind wouldn’t take the main characters seriously due to the threatening tone their voices carry. The music is great as well, with low key, sad orchestral music giving the necessary feedback about the locales you visit.

Conclusion

What Gothic 3 failed to deliver The Witcher not only brings on a scratched metal plate, but brings it with a rusty axe stuck right in the middle of it. Metaphors aside, this is one of the best RPGs of this year and is second to none when it comes to delivering a more realistic, and particularly grim, story. The game does have shortcomings such as a clunky inventory and some minor technical difficulties. But all of this hardly matters when weighed against all of the positives such as rewarding and complex combat, great length (40 hours or more), a more adult approach to adventuring (including dealing with the ladies!) and one badass main character, Geralt. If you plan on purchasing one RPG this year, this should be it!

 

Gameplay
91/100
Hardcore combat, down to earth storyline and downright horrific world make this a fresh experience unlike most other RPGs out there.
Graphics
84/100
The looks are solid, but some minor animation issues and interface blunders make it less than perfect.
Audio
86/100
Voiceovers are excellent and the music fits the theme perfectly.
Value
89/100
With 40+ of gameplay and 3 different endings you’ll be spending a lot of time with this game.
Overall
(not an average)
87/100
Geralt is one of the best original characters featured in games this year. Do yourself a favor and see how well you fare...



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