Over the last few days all gaming has come to a near standstill thanks to The Witcher. I figured I would put down what really strikes me about the game. Notice that this is all purely based on a limited amount of time with the game, specifically up to the start of Chapter 3, which is perhaps 20 hours in, so things might get better/worse as I get further in.
First I’ll just cover the basics; The Witcher is gorgeous, and not just in a ‘million polygons per model’ technical way. Everything in the game looks ‘right’, it all fits together and never draws you out, while still having its own unique look. The characters, the towns, the monsters, even the weapons, it all works. The sound is equally good, oftentimes being used as a queue for combat, be it to continue a combo or to inform you that something just popped up behind you and is ready to take your face off. The voice acting, while always debatable, works for me. From the random banter in town between NPCs, or towards you as you pass them, to dialog during the many in-game cut scenes, nothing you hear will ruin the gaming experience for you, and at times will make you laugh or slightly shock you in its directness. More than once I’ve been running through town only to stop on a dime and turn around due to some NPC yelling something vulgar at me. While amusingly childish in a game like Grand Theft Auto, for some reason in The Witcher it sounds real, and at times it can be tough to disconcert random quips from something story driven, which is a huge plus towards immersion.
The combat system, a timing driven take on the Diablo’s ‘click to attack’ model, is solid but not great. If the appeal of The Witcher relied heavily on its combat model, it would simply be an average game, but due to the fact that everything else in The Witcher is top notch, the combat being serviceable is not an issue. This is not to say that the combat is bad, as visually all the combos and finishing moves look fantastic, and the system itself has a bit of depth with the different sword types and fighting styles. For me however, I find I look at combat as a means to an end, I engage to push the story along, rather than engage for the pure enjoyment of the system itself.
This brings me to the parts that I feel The Witcher hits dead on, story and immersion. In most RPG’s you either play the good guy hero, or are given obvious choices whether to play the good guy, the neutral guy, or the ‘kinda bad but ultimately going to save the world anyway’ guy. The Witcher is all shades of gray, with most choices being a tough call between the lesser of two evils, with future impacts that are very difficult to predict. Knowing that regardless of the choice you make, a possibly innocent NPC is going to get butchered actually makes you stop and think. And instead of trying to pick the dialog option that will yield the most gold or grant the best item, I often found myself thinking about which path will leave the characters I like alive, or which choice I should make to exact revenge. It’s odd that such meaningful choices are so rare in games, that it is so rare for a game to come along and do a great job in hiding the outcomes so naturally. Without even being halfway through the game, I’ve already been genuinely surprised a few times by the consequences of my past actions, choices that at the time seemed so unimportant are coming back to haunt me and determine the future of my progression. Once you see a result, you honestly get that ‘what if’ feeling, leaving you to wonder how different things would be if you made a different decision a few hours back.
The story itself is also interesting, a simple case of chasing a murderer and thief that quickly gets very complicated. The game is filled with great characters, each one as two faced as the next. That seemingly helpful grandfather turns out to be a cannibal, the local thug leader becomes an ally, and the shady merchant turns out to be nothing more than a shady merchant rather than some greater evil, despite his best effort to make himself seem important.
Everything has an adult overtone to it, which is mostly successful. The f bomb gets used, plenty of women get called whores, actual whores walk the streets, you sleep with a bunch of women, some of them whores, racism is rampant, kids get sold into slavery, and it seems everyone you talk to is a murderer, rapist, or just plain crazy. The few times you talk to a seemingly honest character, you suspect them more than anyone else, since it feels like everyone in The Witcher has skeletons in their closet. All of this would not matter much if the choices you made did not have so much impact, or if the game did not pull you in as much as it does. A classic case of the sum is greater than its parts I guess. To me personally the whole ‘adult’ thing works, and feels natural, but others might find it crude, offensive or maybe even childish.
To me The Witcher is a breath of fresh air, not only for RPG games but gaming overall. While not one single feature is revolutionary, the game overall just feels so different than any game before it. While a game like Oblivion gave us a huge world to explore, it was still filled with the generic RPG characters we have seen time and time again, with a story that while well crafted, did nothing truly memorable. In contrast, it’s going to be difficult for me to go back to another RPG after playing The Witcher. I think that more than anything else is a statement to the impact The Witcher makes. Highly recommended.