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Pew! Pew! Preview!: The Witcher

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I'll admit, it's been a heck of a long time since I've played and enjoyed a true action RPG. The last one I actually played to completion was Fable; the last one I really enjoyed was Diablo II

It was with a great deal of hesistant interest, then, that I sank my teeth into the preview build for The Witcher -- a game which, according to its press release, "return[s] to the roots of the role-playing genre with a fresh and modern approach" and seeks to implement real moral dilemmas into the story, rather than the shallow, black-and-white, good-or-evil choices available in every nonlinear RPG.

So, how does The Witcher deal with the conventions of the RPG genre? How ambiguous are your moral choices? What the hell is a "Witcher?" Hit the jump for answers.

The Witcher takes place in a world of swords, sorcery, and monsters -- basically your typical RPG setting, filled with the obligatory use of allegory (Dwarves are discriminated against in roughly the same way Middle Eastern people are in a post 9/11 environment, the government figures tend to be corrupt more often than not, etc) and violent combat. It also, however, manages to include quite a bit of adult language, and some sexual content; in other words, it's a regular RPG world, but slightly more violent and "adult" than the kind we're used to.

The main plot follows the story of Geralt, a Witcher ("Witcher" is just a cooler-sounding synonym for "monster hunter") who loses his memory during a mission. Geralt starts the game in a hidden fortress full of other, friendly Witchers, who suddenly come under attack by a group of evil wizards and cutthroats. After losing some important alchemical items to the attackers, Geralt and his friends decide to spread themselves out across the world in an attempt to retrieve their lost items, defeat their foes, and, in Geralt's case, potentially restore his memory.

Or, to summarize: the story really isn't anything you haven't seen before. Amnesia, evil wizards, sex and violence...in terms of simple surface narrative, there's really nothing new here. I'm aware that the game is evidently based on a series of books by Andrzej Sapkowski (don't fret if you haven't heard of him -- he's Polish), but the world, based from my experience with the preview, feels more or less identical to a typical Dungeons and Dragons universe. 

Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course; nobody's asking The Witcher to break the RPG narrative mold. CD Projekt obviously wanted to set their game in a dark, fantastic land full of spectacular violence and stylized creatures, and they did -- more power to them. Just don't go in expecting a harrowing, immensely unconventional RPG story unlike any you've seen before.

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Graphically, The Witcher is impressive. I was running it on a low-to-mid-range PC, so I didn't have the settings on full tilt, but the character models are quite detailed and the combat animations look pleasingly cinematic. When you're using the Group style on five or six enemies at once, or gruesomely dispatching a baddie with a special execution move, it's difficult not to pause for a moment and reflect on how damn cool the animations looked.

The combat feels like a mixture of Diablo, rock-paper-scissors, Knights of the Old Republic, and Taiko Drum Master. I'm tempted to limit my explanation of the combat mechanics to that one sentence and that one sentence only, as I'm quite proud of it, but the fighting warrants further discussion. Essentially, combat in The Witcher takes place in real time and, keyboard shortcuts notwithstanding, can be more or less controlled with the mouse and the mouse alone. Left clicking an enemy initiates a physical attack, and right clicking executes a magic attack, a la Diablo II. The action can also be paused at any time, not like KOTOR or Baldur's Gate or Planescape or whathaveyou, so as to allow the player more time to think tactically and make decisions without fear of having his face caved in by a mace. 

But that's all standard, right? Where The Witcher sets its combat apart from the pack, and where it implements some new and unusual stuff, can be found within the rock-paper-scissors and rhythm mechanics. While The Witcher may initially seem to borrow several pages, if not an entire chapter from the book of Diablo II in its mouse combat scheme, the introduction of the rhythmic attack makes the fighting feel much more unique. Basically, clicking on an enemy just once will initiate an attack sequence, wherein Geralt slashes a few times in a very fluid-looking combat animation. After starting the attack sequence, the player must wait for the cursor and/or Geralt's sword to flash a bright red, at which point the player can click again to continue the attack and do additional damage. As a result of this mechanic, the fights, rather than becoming an irritatingly Diablo-esque click-a-thon (clicking before your sword turns red will prematurely end the attack sequence and leave Geralt standing there like a helpless buffoon), forces the player to use a sense of timing and quick reflexes to continue attacking and do progressively more damage. Rather than rewarding the player for the speed of his clicking, it rewards rhythm.

The rock-paper-scissors mechanic is, of course, never actually referred to as a rock-paper-scissors mechanic. Ostensibly, the six different combat styles are meant to add greater depth and freedom to the fighting, making for a freer combat experience. It doesn't really work that way, but that's not to say that it doesn't work at all.

Near the beginning of the preview, I had three stances: strong, quick, and group. Strong was good for burly-yet-slow opponents, quick is used for baddies with high agility but little strength, and group is used for groups of weaker enemies. The stance which serves to counter each enemy type is pretty much non-negotiable: if you try to attack an evil thief while in strong stance, he'll continually avoid all of your strikes and eventually kill you -- the same thing which happens if you attempt to kill a barbarian using the quick style. You'll do some damage even if you're using the wrong stance, yeah, but it'd take roughly a half hour to stubbornly kill someone with the wrong stance when switching to the correct one requires nothing more than a button press. Hence: rock-paper-scissors gameplay. In combat, one must learn which stances counter which sorts of foes, and when to switch between the two.

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It doesn't really add any significant sense of freedom to the combat, but -- like the rhythm mechanic -- it keeps you active and involved in the fighting so as to prevent it becoming a mindless clickfest. If played over many, many hours, I can see these two combat mechanics going either one of two ways: you'll either embrace them and feel totally at ease with The Witcher's unconventional approach to realtime action-RPG combat, or you'll get bored as hell by it and will subsequently decide to stop playing the game.

But you shouldn't, because you'll be missing perhaps the one thing that prevents The Witcher from being an otherwise generic action-RPG in a fantasy setting: the moral decisions. In a game like, say, Jade Empire, the player is presented with numerous moral decisions, which influence both gameplay and story. Do you save a group of children, or do you kill them and take all their stuff? Do you help a peasant clear his name, or do you take him to the corrupt police and collect the reward on him? These types of choices, while interesting and entertaining back when nonlinear choice was sort of a big deal, now seem shallow and morally absolute. In the world of most RPGs, there is either good or bad, black and white -- the line between good and evil seldom blurs. 

This is where The Witcher comes in. Rather than providing the player with only "good" and "evil" choices throughtout the game, The Witcher attempts to reflect the sorts of decisions we all have to make in real life: morality becomes relative, the truth becomes muddied, and the player is often forced to pick between the lesser of two evils. For instance, at the very beginning of the game, on the eve of the Witchers' flight from their home, an obnoxiously buxom, redheaded warrior-sorceress whom you fought with minutes before engages in conversation with you and, after alluding to the fact that you and she had something of a history before your character lost his memory, she propositions you for sex.

The player is forced to consider: should I have sex with this redheaded she-badass and strengthen my emotional connection to this character, possibly resulting in some more quests involving her down the road (and, of course, getting to indulge in the pathetically satisfying act of getting my virtual alter-ego laid by a chick who looks like a pre-cocaine Lindsay Lohan), or do I stay true to my honor-bound duties as a Witcher and insist on leaving the base as soon as possible, so as to have a better chance of catching our attackers? On the one hand, you get laid but delay your progress in Geralt's main quest; on the other hand, you act like a studious hero but fail to create any connection, emotionally or physically, between Geralt and the redhead. It's not a simple question of good versus bad, and you won't know the true consequences of your action until you're hours further into the game (so as to prevent the exploit of saving before making a big choice, then choosing one option, then loading your game and choosing another just to see which of the two you like better). 

By way of another example, at one point, the player has to decide whether or not to give a cache of weapons to some freedom fighters living under a fascist dictator. The freedom fighters aren't particularly great people -- they're murderers and cutthroats, and could only be classified as "good" in comparison to the guy who rules over them -- but on the other hand, the despot is pretty bad, as well. So, let's say that you choose to give them the weapons so as to aid them in their fight. A few hours go by, you play through the game, distract yourself with other sidequests, until suddenly, whilst talking up to a local tavern, you see the corpse of an innocent, unarmed woman, riddled with crossbow bolts. It appears that by giving the freedom fighters weaponry, you gave them the power to enforce their own law on anyone -- resulting in the death of this innocent bystander.

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Since the player doesn't have the luxury of immediately experiences the consequences of his actions, he must give a great deal of thought to each of his moral decisions before making them; unless you're willing to go back and replay six or seven hours of gameplay just for the sake of refusing to give weapons to the freedom fighters, you're more or less stuck with the decisions you've made. The sense of weight and consequence present in the game's moral choice mechanic is unexpectedly mature, and damned interesting, often to the point of making up for the otherwise cliche story.

As I said before, the moral choice system, to my mind, is the one thing which truly sets The Witcher apart from other titles of the genre. The story seems cliche and the combat system is serviceable, but if you buy The Witcher, know that you're doing so for the opportunity to make tough moral decisions with unclear consequences. Without the decision-making mechanic, I'd probably classify The Witcher as an adequate, reasonably enjoyable action-RPG which could be just as easily played as ignored. Since it does have the mechanic, though, I'd urge any and all action-RPG fans, or anyone who enjoys the prospect of making tough moral decisions in a harsh fantasy universe, to stand up and take notice.

The Witcher comes out for the PC on October 30th.

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Anthony Burch
Anthony BurchContributor   gamer profile

Lead writer of Borderlands 2, curator of  more + disclosures


 


 



Filed under... #Atari #Previews #Role-Playing Games #The Witcher

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