Oct 30, 2007
Fantasy games come in many shapes and sizes, but most of them strictly follow the code of featuring the great, the good and the virtuous fending off the bad, the corrupted and the green-skinned. Sex is generally confined to a pretty elf wearing a chain mail bra, and political comment never strays much further than a Greenpeace quest in which raw magic has infected some wandering hedgehog creatures and not only rendered them mad, but also significantly upped their armour stats.
The Witcher, then, enters our midst as somewhat of a game of our times. The authorities in and around the plague-ridden city of Vizima perpetuate a culture of fear and suspicion - freedom fighters could just as easily be called terrorists and racial segregation is rife. Moral values aren't so much blurred as smudged about the place by a recently-licked thumb - even those who might openly oppose the oppressors are seeking some kind of capitol gain, the undead have a conscience, drug use is a major issue and individuals will use whatever means necessary to get their way - by betrayal, or by allowing you pump them for information. And by that we mean with sex.
Characters doing the nasty are often hidden behind layered and blurred sequences, and you don't get to see much drug abuse but with mention of rape, suicide and revenge, the world of The Witcher makes Azeroth look like Sesame Street.
The story focuses on you, Witcher "White Wolf" Geralt, one of a roving band of mercenary monster hunters. The crumbling fortress of their once revered clan has been attacked and the secrets behind your mutation abilities are stolen. It's your job to find a way to recover the secrets before they are put to nefarious use, all while finding out about your past and that of your dwindling clan. It's perhaps not the most exciting premise, but the presentation and pacing of the story is excellent throughout, from the lengthy opening cinematic even to the hand-drawn screens that guard the transitions as new areas load into memory. Most noteworthy are the cutscenes, which have been storyboarded and edited with real cinematic flair and, together with the voiceovers and script, make The Witcher one of the best examples of interactive fiction we've enjoyed.
Those who like to spend hours rolling characters and selecting facial furniture might be upset to hear that you get what you're given. Geralt is square-jawed, with cat-like eyes, white hair and a face that's endured more stitches than a Bangladeshi T-shirt factory. You can't even change his name. Customisation comes later, with experience points turned into coins, which can be spent on new and upgraded skills. There are no character classes to speak of. The Witcher is a master swordsman, with disciplines that vary from heavy-hitting armour twattage (our term), to fast attack and dealing with groups. You spend your bronze, silver and gold experience coins on specialising in these, either using your normal Witcher's sword, or your silver one.
As you learn (or, rather, re-learn, since you seem to be forever recovering from amnesia), spells in the form of "signs" become available, which can be upgraded in the same way as your fighting and attribute skills. And as you find and read books and scrolls, your in-game info repository allows you new abilities and to take on new missions.
The game's structure is a series of chapters, with some quests spanning and evolving across a number of acts, and of course a fair number of side-quests that require you to go somewhere and slice up a specified number of monsters and bring back evidence of the massacre to secure a reward.
In this area, perhaps there is little that is startlingly original, but that doesn't detract from the essential fun of visiting new areas, slaying new monsters or meeting new characters. Yes it can get repetitive going from one area of the city to another to complete a mission, but then so was Grand Theft Auto, and so was Oblivion. As with these games, the world of The Witcher is one you always feel a part of and that alone compels you to explore every corner.
Much has been made of the game's combat system, which allows you to chain together attacks, so long as you time your mouse-clicks correctly. In fact, at higher experience levels you can link together enough leaps and devastating blows to secure an honorary degree from the Jedi Academy. In practise, whilst the combat isn't quite as dumb as your usual action-based RPG, it's no Street Fighter II. But the combat is an enjoyable diversion from the main course of weaving your way through 40-plus hours of cracking storyline.
If we had to gripe about anything it would be that in open areas the illusion of freedom is diminished somewhat by impassable fences that in reality would splinter on a windy day. There is far too much repetition of character avatars as well, with some NPCs looking identical, even in the same areas of the game. Other problems are more ones of personal taste.
We found the supposedly tactical zoomed out view to be overly-cumbersome considering you control only one character - the over-the-shoulder view is just so much more immersive. And finally, the world of The Witcher is primarily a man's one, and whilst there are female characters with strong roles, they are primarily there to be conquered sex-wise or otherwise.
To be fair though, it's something of a novelty to have room available in a list of negatives to be able to castigate a game's misogynist overtones - because in every other department The Witcher is an intelligent, adult and thoroughly compelling adventure.