Monday, May 13, 2013

The Witcher: Enhanced Edition (CD Projekt RED, 2007/2008)

How long is a game? How long should a game be? These are questions that get tossed around on message boards from time to time. Some people refuse to play a game that takes more than 10 hours, while others feel ripped off if a game lasts for less than 20. The earliest arcade games were only meant to be played for a few minutes at a time. The longest games tend to be of the Role Playing Game genre. If you've been keeping up with my posts lately, you might have noticed that my last three reviews, Softick Freecell, Bad Dudes Vs. DragonNinja, and Devil's Crush, were all games that don't take very long to play through. Have I been slacking off? Nope, I just wanted to keep the new reviews flowing as I spent several weeks finally playing through The Witcher: Enhanced Edition.

There are many types of RPGs. Because of this, fans of certain types sometimes don't consider other types to be role playing games at all. The sandbox RPGs are quite different in feel from the JRPGs, which are in turn quite different from the Action RPGs. Some people prefer well defined characters and engaging stories, while others prefer completely customizable characters and just want to soak in the atmosphere of the world's happenings, without having a specific narrative forced at them.

As far as RPGs go, The Witcher is definitely on the more linear side of the bell curve. Rather than spending the first ten minutes selecting a race and class or deciding what eyebrow color and nose shape you want, you start the game right away as Geralt of Rivia. Geralt is a witcher, a member of a clan of professional monster slayers, genetically mutated to be the best at what they do. The game opens with the witcher's base being attacked by a mysterious gang known as Salamandra. The rest of the game is spent mostly tracking down this organization, but also taking part in a growing conflict between the human and non-human residents of the city of Vizima.

In standard RPG style, the game consists of quests. There are the main quests which take you through the game's story, side quests you receive by talking to random NPCs in need of assistance, contract quests picked up at various job boards throughout the game, and skill quests encouraging you to improve you abilities at gambling or fist fighting. Unlike traditional RPG quest chains, it's not always about kill X of this, or collect X of this, or deliver this to that guy. Ok, a lot of them are still like that. Others, however, are more introspective in nature.

Geralt is a recently resurrected amnesiac, so one of your quests is simply to discover more about your identity. This quests lasts throughout the game, and is advanced with various choices large and small that you make throughout the game. Another quest is to investigate the disappearance of a fellow witcher. This quest is slowly advanced as you discover clues throughout your journey, and it has various outcomes depending on how it is pursued. Many of the quests overlap, and the same course of action can simultaneously advance both of them. It's the type of thing that could easily turn into a tangled mess, but luckily it was implemented beautifully, so it never seems to get in the way. After advancing any quests, text prompts fade into the bottom of the screen one at a time showing which quest was advanced with a quick synopsis of what the next step in that quest chain is. On top of that, any one quest at a time can be tracked with markers in both your map view, and the mini-map in your main UI.

As with most games of the genre, The Witcher relies heavily on its storytelling. It's not the expected "stop the bad guy and save the world" type of story either. While there is an obvious set of bad guys you are after, the rest of the characters are largely ambiguous. You are cast into the middle of a conflict in which both sides are entirely justified in their actions, and yet equally justified in seeing the other as evil. The game constantly puts you into moral dilemma situations, with your choice of action in each helping to establish Geralt's missing identity. While there are plenty of generic NPCs wandering around the game with names like Peasant, Guard, or Nurse, the NPCs that you actually interact with all have well rounded personalities and interesting back stories. I spent a good amount of time in the game simply asking them about their lives and getting their various perspectives on the events of the world. I've heard that the game is based on a series of books written by Andrzej Sapkowski. I haven't read those books yet myself, so I'm not sure if the game closely follows the stories of the series or simply exists in the same world. Either way, the world feels alive and lived in, which I imagine owes a great debt to the book series.

An interesting aspect of the game is how the story can branch off in so many different directions depending on your choices throughout. There are the obvious options such as siding with one army against another, or choosing between two redheaded romantic interests, but there are other more subtle aspects such as the guest you invite to a dinner party, or even how you choose to answer certain questions in the middle of a conversation. The game likes to sneak in these choice moments when you're not expecting them so you'll make honest decisions instead of trying to game the system for the ending you want to see.  It's the type of system that could lead to some great replay value if I was the type who had time to play through a game this long more than once. I've got too many other games to get to for that. First world problems, I know.

As with Mass Effect and God of War, The Witcher also deals with more adult situations. In addition to being a resurrected amnesiac mutant monster slayer, Geralt is also a womanizer. Or rather, Geralt has the potential to be a womanizer depending on the choices you make throughout the game. Several of the women you meet over the coarse of your adventure can be, for lack of a better word, bedded. If you're expecting a porn simulator, you'll be disappointed. These encounters usually consist of a playful exchange of double entendres followed by a fade to black, then the blurry out of focus Geralt is getting it on montage in the background as you are awarded a collectible card featuring a painting of the character in a provocative pose. Sure, it's not the classiest thing in the world, but it's far from the plague of corruption some conservative fundamentalist doomsayers would have you believe. Womanizer characters have existed in books, movies, and TV shows long enough to have them cross over to video games. It actually reminded me a lot of the intimate encounter scenes in the classic NES game Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode. Yes, sex has existed in video games for decades. As with other forms of entertainment media, not every release is designed for children.

In the genre of RPG video games, combat is undoubtedly one of the least consistent features. It can be turn based as in the classic Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games, smooth and flowing as in Fable and Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, or it can be deliberate and just a little bit awkward as in the Risen and Elder Scrolls games. Yes, I know that speaking ill of the Elder Scrolls series borderlines on blasphemy, but when people explain what they love about those games, combat is never at the top of the list. Digressions aside however, combat in The Witcher uses a much different mechanic than I'd experienced before. To start with, there are three views available for playing. There's a Diablo style top down view, a closer up top down view, and then there is a more standard over the shoulder view, which as far as I can tell from youtube and image searches is the only view that anybody playing this game has ever actually used.

The Witcher's combat mechanic was developed to work equally well in any of the three views. it consists of placing the cursor (the aiming reticle in the over the shoulder view) on an enemy, and clicking when you see a sword icon. Once you've started the attack, the icon changes, and if you click again during this you will interrupt your attack. At the end of the attack, the cursor will quickly light up, and clicking again on the enemy during this will chain your next attack as a combo of the previous, increasing the amount of damage being dealt. These attacks are performed with one of two types of weapons: Steal weapons, strong against other warriors, but weak against monsters, or silver weapons, strong against monsters, but weak against other warriors. There are also three combat styles to choose between, a strong yet slow attack that can do more damage against armored foes, but is useless against the more nimble enemies, a fast yet weaker attack that can hit anybody, and a group attack that while not as strong as as the other two, can damage multiple enemies around you as you swing your sword in wide circling arcs with each attack. On top of this, you also get magic that can be cast by right clicking.  You can launch fireballs to ignite your enemies, knock them to the ground to possibly disarm them, or even set traps on the ground to lure them into. As would be expected in a game like this, each of the six attack/weapon combinations and each magic type has its own page of skills that can be upgraded as you level up your character.

Potions can also be used to enhance your fighting abilities. The game has a rather elaborate alchemy system for creating potions from recipes you find, and I have to admit, I never actually used it. I was able to collect enough useful potions to get me through the tougher boss fights in the game, and the rest of the time I simply chose my battles carefully so I never got overwhelmed by too many enemies at once, or at least ran away whenever I was. Having extra potions would certainly have made the game easier, but since I was never in a situation where I absolutely had to figure out the alchemy system, I never bothered to. I know that some RPG players really get into the crafting systems of these games, but I've never personally been one of them.

Visually, the game has a nice look to it. It might look a little dated now, especially when compared to the Witcher II screenshots I've seen, but it still looked nice. The world is smaller than what most RPG have to offer, so in trade it is much more detailed than I was expecting. Even in the swamp forest, things still managed to look unique. The city of Vizima had a charm to it, and after a few weeks I started to feel like I was actually a resident as I cut through alleys and dashed around through the streets. The character models, while still on the other side of the uncanny valley, all had a consistent look to them so you could after a while get used to this simply being how people look in this world. Some of the character models do get reused quite often though, so just because you think you see the person you met in the pub earlier, it doesn't mean that it's the same person.

A big part of getting lost in these worlds is in how the story is presented to you, and a big part of that is in the dialog. In The Witcher, every line of dialog is spoken by a capable voice actor, which helps with the immersion factor. The only weird part was that the accents were inconsistent. Most of the cast has british accents, pretty standard for the fantasy genre, some have scottish accents, and still others have american accents. Compounding the situation is that many of these characters are supposed to be local to this town, having spent their entire lives here, and possibly many generations of their family. It just seems weird that they would speak so differently from each other. Musically the game sounds amazing. The combination of orchestral and renaissance folk music captures the mood of this fantasy world perfectly. Don't be surprised if you find yourself humming along with the melodies from time to time.

I played through the Enhanced Edition of The Witcher because that's what's available these days. I've never played through the original non-enhanced version, so I can't really say what exactly was enhanced, but I can say that this game played great. For a game of this size, everything held together and never felt buggy. If you're the type that doesn't mind the time investment required by a long game, then this just might be one worth checking out.

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