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Review: The Witcher

Game: The Witcher: Enhanced Edition Director’s Cut
Recommended price: $10 (current full price)
Metacritic Score: 86
Completion Time: ~52 hours
Buy If You Like: Immersive, mature, point-and-click action RPGs

Expansive views.

The Witcher is a lot of things. Deserving of an 86 Metacritic score is not one of them.

To be charitable, The Witcher can be seperated into two overarching qualities. One of those is the setting: the implied world, the zeitgeist, the plot, the dialog, the visuals and sounds and mood. All of those things are based on a series of novels by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, so in one respect The Witcher “cheated” compared to other games that had not the benefit of an established world. Then again, The Witcher absolutely possesses a personality that comes across perfectly fine to someone with zero knowledge of the books, to say nothing of the games impressive visuals and music which have no written analog.

Unfortunately, the other overarching quality is a little-known thing called “the actual game.” And this is where things begin to break down.

See, The Witcher is able to create a compelling setting through the implied world, of which you see very little at all in actuality. This is not unlike the Japanese art concept of Ma, which means “negative space,” in that it paints enough of a picture that you as the viewer fill in the rest. This works for art… but it does not work for gameplay at all. Combat in The Witcher appears to have a depth to it, but as the thin veneer rubs off from frequent use you begin to realize how much negative space the designers were actually papering over.

On the surface, Geralt of Rivia has two swords, one steel and one silver, and there are three fighting techniques for each: Strong, Fast, and Group. Additionally, there are charge-up attacks for each of the six combinations, and each combination has up to four chained attacks. Then there are the five magic spells which also have charge-up secondary functions. Finally you have potions (more on that in a bit) which can alter your fighting prowess and oils/poisons you apply to either of your blades. Oh, and there are bombs too.

Kidding aside, daaaamn, this looks good.

Beneath the surface though? You left-click on a mob, Geralt performs a fancy sword move, you wait until the cursor “lights up” to left-click again in order to move onto the 2nd hit combo, and so on. If you click too fast or too slow, the attack is interupted and you just do it again. Repeat. In the “Making Of…” videos the designers mentioned how they wanted The Witcher to be more action-oriented than the sort of Neverwinter games they were inspired by, but I have to wonder whether Diablo was ever released in Poland. I ask because The Witcher straddles (and then falls off) that line between Diablo-esque quality mouse-clicking action and a mind-numbing Quick Time Event that is solved entirely by fixating on an inch square of the screen and left-clicking every 3-4 seconds. The motion captured moves are very impressive the first hundred times you see them, but eventually my eyes would unfocus in the interm period while waiting for the cursor to light up. Once you recognize the enemy and whether to use steel or silver, whether to use Strong or Fast styles, combat is essentially a forgone conclusion. You press Q-X (or similar), then Left-Click every few seconds until dead.

Nowhere is the thin veneer more aparent than the Talent trees or the Alchemy aspect, both of which are usually touted as Big Deals in reviews of this game. Simply put, the Talent system in general is a diluted mess of vague game mechanics. You have Bronze, Silver, and Gold talents, and you start out by getting just Bronze ones, then Silver, and so on. In practice, you will have damn near 100% of the Bronze talents and more than enough Silver ones, so all the vaunted “choices” boil down to which ones of the remotely useful talents you want first. Similarlly, Alchemy allows you to collect a huge sum of plant and monster parts to create ~20 different potions, only 3-4 of which are at all especially useful. There is also a Toxicity aspect of potions, presumably designed to prevent players from stacking huge amounts of potion buffs. However, since most potions last for 8 hours and Toxicity can be reduced to zero after resting for 1 hour… well, you see where that is going. Perhaps this sort of “exploiting” is necessary for the harder difficulties, but honestly, why bother otherwise?

There is one more negative aspect I wanted to mention because it is likely the cause of 90% of the players who quit the game before finishing: all the goddamn running around… which gets completely absurd when combined with a Day/Night cycle. At one point in game, I had to perform an autopsy to move the story forward. When I approached the nurse friend about this, she told me to wait until after-hours to talk about it. So I waited until dusk, then talked with her. Then she told me to get the body from the Gravedigger on the other side of town. I go to the other side of town, but the gravedigger isn’t around at night. So I waited until morning, talked with the Gravedigger, and he said he’d deliver it at midnight. So I had to wait until midnight, then run back across town, perform autopsy. Afterwards, nurse friend wants to schedule a get-together, asks me to get booze and invite someone. I run across town to buy booze, but the tavern doesn’t have all the required types. I wait until morning, buy from the vendor near the nurse’s house, wait until dusk. I go to where the friend I want to invite is usually located at, and he isn’t there. I run across town trying to find him, but fail. Then I wait until morning, finally find him where he usually is during the day, invite him, then wait until night to have the party.

You will be doing quests like this all the goddamn time, at least in the first half of the game. And have I mentioned that despite a Day/Night cycle, you can only pass time at campfires or very specific NPCs who might wander off or inexplicably refuse to give you the option to Meditate? Well, consider it mentioned.

Nothing quite like a screen full of Alp ass.

The Witcher is one of those games that leave me in the uncomfortable position of deciding whether I want to meet it halfway or not. In the sort of verisimilitude of its narrative, The Witcher had me at damn near hello. Even the “contravserial” sex cards or naked vampires/dryads added to the gritty zeitgeist of a world where witchers mutate themselves into monsters to fight monsters, all for a populous unwilling to acknowledge a difference until they are in mortal peril. I want so much to give the rest of the game a pass… but I simply cannot. Combat is almost non-interactive; managing the massive amounts of ultimately useless inventory is a pain; there is so much goddamn running around; Day/Night cycles without a convenient Wait Anywhere feature is sadistic; frequent loading screens for indoor areas discourages exploration; hitting Quicksave creates a new 15-20 MB file every single time (my save game folder was 3.97 GB by the end of Chapter 1), and so on and so forth.

Ultimately, I do not at all regret my time spent in The Witcher’s world – I took more screenshots here than in Fallout: New Vegas – but it is not a game that I can recommend without caveats. And honestly, I am probably being so harsh because of how well Projekt RED nailed the non-game bits of The Witcher. But, well, the game bits of games are important too.

Currently Playing

I am normally a gamer that dislikes playing more than one game at a time. For some reason, I have been all over the place lately.

Shining in the Darkness

It have been 15-20 years since I played this game, and I still have most of the first dungeon level memorized. Funny thing is that I made the exact same mistake I did when I played the game the first time as I did this time around: the king gives you 200g to buy some equipment, and I ended up buying a bronze dagger for 100g that I already had equipped. Considering you spend levels 1-4 running around within the first 20 feet of the dungeon entrance killing slimes for 2g apiece, it was a costly mistake. And “Holy eight max inventory slots that count your equipped gear, Batman!” I haven’t busted out the graph paper yet, but I know the 2nd dungeon level has trap doors that drop into lower level coming up.

The Witcher

Played through the prologue, and just spent some time in the first Inn hustling the fist-fighters out of almost 100 gold orens. It makes me wonder though, whether the game designers put those fist fights in there as a way of rewarding “expert” gamers, or if you are intended to quintuple your starting wealth in order to succeed. Game is alright so far, but I sort of hope the combat system gets a little deeper than the truncated Action RPG/DDR simulator is feels like at the moment. I mean, I was seriously expecting a Block or Dodge button to be necessary, but so far all I see is a “double-tap WASD to do practically nothing” prompt. Really digging the steam magic-punk setting though.

As an aside, my first glance at the sort of leveling up/skill tree system in Witcher made my eyes glaze over. People talk about Blizzard dumbing down WoW’s talent trees and combat ratings and such, but this is why. No doubt it will become second nature by the end, but my first impression of that unintuitive mess of an interface is not good.

Far Cry

Far Cry 2 was the first review I posted on this site, so I figured I may as well try out the first game when the Steam deal came around. I knew ahead of time that it was nothing like its sequel, but wow, it’s nothing like its sequel. If difficulty is based on the number of times I have been killed, Far Cry is thus far a really difficult game. That being said, this “difficulty” feels more like the sort of trial-and-error LIMBO/Out of this World style rather than challenging per se.

For example, there is a stealth meter, but I don’t actually get the impression that it is a stealth game – a serious design issue I have with a LOT of FPS titles that pretend stealth elements can just be plopped down into any game. When I think about stealth games, I think about Tenchu and Metal Gear Solid and Assassin’s Creed. You know, games that A) dissuade straight-up combat by making it difficult, B) have enemies with relatively predictable pathing, C) have ways of silently killing foes, and D) aren’t first-person / giving you some way of knowing how stealthed you are. Maybe this is a personal problem I have with FPS games, insofar as I expect to bring my mad Counter-Strike skillz to a game that wants you to sneak into that merc camp instead of killing them all (and getting killed through an opaque screen wall that the AI can magically see through).

Fallout: New Vegas – Lonesome Road DLC

I ended up caving and buying this DLC right away for the full $9.99 price because, much like LIMBO and Bastion, I could not get them out of my head despite having other games to play until they went on a Steam sale. So far, the environments are amazing in that “this is why I play Fallout” sort of ways. I do have two “gamey” issues that sort of break the immersion though. First, one of the gating mechanisms is how you have to detonate nuclear warheads to clear paths of debris. That’s fine… except when you detonate nuclear warheads next to buildings to just clear out some wooden pallets. It’s Fallout, so I’m not expecting destructible buildings in a game where looking at your Pip-Boy freezes time. But… they’re goddamn nuclear warheads.

The other gamey issue is the signature weapon, the Red Glare, which is a sort of rocket-launching minigun. The weapon is actually fine, it’s the rockets. I’m playing in Hardcore mode, so each rocket weighs 0.25 lbs. As you may know, you can break down a lot of the ammo in the game for parts to create better versions – breaking down 2 rockets for parts to create a High-Explosive rocket, for example. When you break down a rocket though, you get a Cherry Bomb, a 0.50 mm primer, and a Conductor. A Conductor in Fallout: New Vegas weighs 5 lbs. So, yes, each 0.25 lbs rocket breaks down into a 5 lbs Conductor. It’s gamey and should be trivial, but the little things are sometimes the worse offenders.

That aside…

I forgive you, Fallout. I forgive you *forever*.

I haven’t taken this many screenshots-that-will-be-desktop-backgrounds since the original Fallout 3 and Point Lookout DLC.