The Witcher (PC)
Unless you're Polish, you've probably never heard of Andrzej Sapkowski -- the fantasy author behind The Witcher. His eight-book cycle follows the adventures of Geralt, a white-haired monster hunter in a morally ambiguous medieval world. Sapkowski's bawdy tales of swords and sorcery spawned a TV series, a film and, finally, a videogame by first-time developer CD Projekt RED STUDIO.
Up to this point CD Projekt was best known for localizing and publishing international games for the Polish audience. The Witcher, a startling debut for a fledgling developer, proves that CD Projekt learned a thing or two when bringing classics like Baldur's Gate and Planescape: Torment to Poland. It's more than a little ironic that CD Projekt's debut game is nearly hamstrung by half-assed English-language localization. The game's American publisher Atari isn't exactly in the position to toss money around. Despite shoddy translation, frequently terrible voice acting and straight-up censorship, The Witcher remains an imminently playable role-playing adventure.
Sadly, The Witcher doesn't make a great first impression. The game starts with Geralt cloistered in a crumbling castle under siege. Here players learn the nuts and bolts of the game's combat and magic, which to be honest, are serviceable but nothing to write home about. To fight, players select targets, then make timed clicks to trigger stronger attacks. Geralt handles the rest. Initially Geralt doesn't feel very agile; he doesn't always run up to the enemies you are trying to cleave in two. Frequently you will find yourself needing to manually re-position the warrior so he'll start fighting.
This introductory level also marks the beginning of an epic wrestling match between the player and the game's camera. None of the three options (over the shoulder, high isometric and low isometric) are ideal. To add insult to injury, the game's plot kicks off feeling like an Uwe Boll flick. Much of the blame for the Z-grade vibe can be pinned on the game's stilted translation and cheesy voice acting. But the core plot, one that involves a gang stealing a bunch of potions and killing a paper-thin character, doesn't really do much to flesh out Geralt's motivations.
When Geralt finally ditches his allies and sets off on his own, the game's strengths really begin to coalesce. The first act finds Geralt in a village on the outskirts of the walled city Vizima. The town is quarantined because of the plague, so Geralt must try to work the angles in the small exterior village and find a way to breach Vizima's security. The game opens up here, giving players multiple ways of attacking the story. There's nowhere near the amount of freedom afforded by The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion -- a game that could be The Witcher's distant cousin. But The Witcher is much more hemmed in than Bethesda's sandbox-style behemoth. Geralt is locked into a small village, with clear boundaries. But from the outset the adventurer has tons of options. While following his leads Geralt can do favors for villagers, gamble and brawl for dough, and drink bar-goers under the table.
Unlike Oblivion, where the number of available choices feels paralyzing, all of The Witcher's extra tasks help push the story forward (or at the very least line Geralt's pockets). In fact, players will probably feel a little World of Warcraft d&eacure;jà vu. You can stock up on quests and side-jobs, fully confident that you'll achieve a good part of them while chasing the plot.
It's also in the first act that players get to dip their toes in the game's depth: Geralt's three combat styles (strong, fast and group) become more useful; the game's spare but useful magical signs come into play; and alchemy begins bearing fruit. It's not until later that Geralt's two swords (silver for monsters, steel for humans) add another layer of complexity.
Still, at an early hour The Witcher is sufficiently meaty. Tomes and scrolls, many scattered throughout the world (most for sale from various vendors), become vital. Reading the right books will grant Geralt insight into a monster's strengths and weaknesses or give him enough understanding to harvest potion ingredients from corpses and wild plants. This is when the game starts giving players the chance to make interesting choices. Do you save up for a monster tome before plunging into a crypt or cave, or just dive headlong into the fight and return later to farm for reagents?
Then, of course, there are larger moral quandaries that come into play. At many junctures Geralt can choose sides, opting to help a character or throw them to the wolves. Unlike a morality-based game like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, the rewards for doing good and doing evil aren't so cut and dry. Frequently Geralt will be rewarded for being ruthless or be punished for doing the 'right' thing. The Witcher's complex morality makes it hard to second-guess and is all the more refreshing for it.
Technically, The Witcher comes with a few hitches. A patch has shortened nearly interminable load times. It's also highly recommended that you try installing and running the game's demo before playing, since some have had trouble with glitch crashes and other compatibility problems. These fairly typical PC gaming hiccups aside, The Witcher is a remarkably beautiful game. The environments teem with life. Little touches like the fluttering bats that swoop along dungeon ceilings or the skittering rats that infest Vizima make the world feel alive. It's this well-realized medieval vision that overcomes the game's localization woes.
But woes they are. The voice acting in the game is incredibly uneven. Some characters are great, performed with an &eacure;lan that really brings out their unique personality. Others are downright terrible, spoken in dead voices that don't match from one line to the next. Don't be led astray by the BioWare logo on the box cover: The Witcher uses BioWare's dialog engine, but doesn't come close to meeting the dynamite conversations seen in Mass Effect. Players who take story seriously could very well find this weakness a deal-breaker. The game's censorship is an additional bummer, considering how bawdy the game is already. Characters spew all kinds of profanity and Geralt frequently seduces and beds the women he befriends, but while gouts of blood and moral ambiguity are fine for an M-rated game, apparently a handful of nipples are too much for game-playing adults to handle. Hot mead anyone?
When The Witcher fails it fails mightily, and when it succeeds it kicks every loving ass up and down the muddy city streets of Vizima. Make no mistake, The Witcher is a difficult game that caters the more hardcore among us. It is exceedingly long and in some parts quite hard, but The Witcher is never unfair or cheap. A long hard think (and the judicious use of potions) is all it really takes to down even the toughest beasties. Those equipped with an up-to-date gaming PC and a spare forty or so hours are in for a flawed but engrossing treat.
This review was based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.