Friday, August 24, 2018

First Play Review: The Witcher

I embraced Bioware's Dragon Age and Mass Effect franchises so fully since the turn of the century that I missed out on what are regarded as two of the best RPGs ever. One is The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and the other is The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. At time of writing both remain unplayed in my  playlists, oversights I believe I may finally have a chance to rectify in time mainly as I believe the the energy of Bioware's star may now be dying.

I was put off playing either Skyrim or The Witcher 3 because they were not the first games in the franchise. However I learned from the several people I spoke to who have played Skyrim only two have played any other Elder Scrolls games so it's not necessary to have done so and not get rewarding value of the experience. The Witcher is a little different however as you play the one character throughout all three games and in a fashion similar to Bioware games - some of your choices are recorded and used from the final save. So before I could ever play The Witcher 3, I would really need to establish my canon by playing the previous entries.

The Witcher was released by Polish developer CD Projekt in 2007 (who also established and while it received praise and favourable reviews, it lacked the spit and polish of it's peers and suffered some instability as well as poor voice acting. An 'Enhanced Edition' was released in late 2008 that corrected the instability and other bugs, added new animations, side-quests, NPC models and recoloured generic NPCs and mobs. It was also noted that it vastly expanded and corrected dialogues as well as voice acting replacements and load times were reduced by roughly 80%. It's this Enhanced Edition (known as The Director's Cut in the U.S.) that's available on both Steam and GOG.

Graphically, the game uses a bastardized version of Aurora, the successor to Bioware's Infinity Engine, featuring full 3D environments, real-time lighting and shadows and surround sound. Aurora was used to produce Neverwinter Nights in 2002 so it was five years old when The Witcher was originally released but there was so many graphical enhancements (by CD Projekt and modders) that one would think it was a more modern engine than Aurora, or at least a game that graphically on par with anything from 2008. The character and monster models and animations are sub par but the lighting is something I found very effectively used in this game. Things hide in the shadows and you use what's essentially night-vision goggles by drinking a 'Cat's Eye' potion (which you must craft yourself). Artificial intelligence is pretty standard but I like the way that when it starts raining, that NPC's run for shelter and complain until the shower stops.

Combat in The Witcher received very bad press at launch because it's different to any other game. The Witcher's game manual describes the nature of combat, what needs to be done and when as it's an event that needs timing. Paying attention during the tutorial level will also help. It's worth noting that the easy difficulty gives you an nonintrusive colour coded cursor assist for attack combinations whereas the harder difficulties this assist is absent. I played in easy mode (because I'm old) but I did not find the system difficult although it took a bit of getting used to. You will likely ever use one of two weapons for the most part, a steel sword (against man) and a silver sword (against monster) and you will need to be in one of three combat styles: quick, strong or group to be in any way effective. I found the combat one of the more interesting aspects and a welcome deviation from the standard single click for an attack on an enemy in almost every other RPG. 


I would say that CD Projekt concentrated more overall on story than graphics or gameplay, while I think most players would prefer a better mix of the two, the story here is certainly enough to allow players to overlook it's shortcomings in other areas. The setting for The Witcher is a bit more realistic than Dungeons and Dragons' staple of fantasy or Dragon Age's dark fantasy. I would class this more like a medieval fantasy, just with the obvious additions of monsters and magic. The original creator, Andrzej Sapkowski, author of The Witcher series of novels drew heavily from Slavic mythology for his monsters and fusing them with Tolkeinesque ideas of dwarves and elves of modern fantasy. The final piece of the puzzle is of course the titular Witcher himself, Geralt of Rivia who has been compared to Philip Marlowe in that he is both cynical and noble. The result is a truly compelling setting for a detail-rich RPG where one may need to abandon one's traditional concepts of good and evil as well as order and chaos in order to get the most of the incredible adventure that this would seem merely the first part of. 

To the best of my knowledge, some fan-made enhancements have made it into the official release of The Witcher which also enhanced it's value. Ten years on, while playable it's strongly recommended that one uses some extra modifications which correct the last few possibly game-breaking story bugs in some of the side quests and enhance the graphics for modern systems. While I will say I noticed a distinct enhancement to the graphics especially as I played in 4K, there was a large amount of crashes but fairly isolated to going in and out of taverns. Sadly you do this a lot so the game crashed a lot (about 50 or so crashes over the 60+ hours I played the game), but the story and desire to stick with such an impressive game kept me hooked enough to ignore the excessive crash inconvenience. It just made me quick-save when going near a tavern.

Pros: Compelling story. Interesting characters and setting.
Cons: Combat will be too odd for those who cant adapt. Quite buggy and unstable, but your mileage may vary.

Handy links:

The Witcher is available now from:
But as always find it for less than €2 during frequent sales.

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