Developed by CD Projekt RED STUDIO way back in 2007, The Witcher may very well be the best RPG you’ve never played. My love (and that of thousands of other adoring fans) stems from the game’s rich world, complex story and morality system as well as the incredibly mature themes it tackles, such as racism, slavery and political intrigue.
The Witcher franchise is a dark fantasy world that contains almost everything you’d expect from a medieval fantasy setting with a few unexpected additions to the formula. The defining trait is witchers themselves, humans who have been augmented with potions and training to become super-human beings. The series follows the life of a witcher named Geralt of Rivia and his involvement with local politics despite his desire to be left alone.
The game is loosely based on the Polish novels by Andrzej Sapkowski, with the majority of the content taking place after the series’ conclusion. One thing that makes the world of The Witcher so fascinating is the mature nature of everything. There is a fair amount of nudity, but it’s never included just to annoy the censors and garner publicity. The same can be said for the vulgarity and violence. Everything, no matter how many boundaries it pushes, seems to fit in naturally with the tone of the narrative.
One of the main themes of the entire series is the concept of neutrality. Many witchers are so powerful that they consider themselves beyond humanity, and the majority refuse to get involved with the affairs of men. It’s this whole grey area that makes the world so interesting.
While there is an overarching story, the choices involved do not have a “good vs. evil” or “paragon vs. renegade” type of morality meter attached to them. The entire concept of Witcher 2’s branching plotline is choice versus consequence, and the consequences hardly make their presence known until several hours after the choice has been made. As a result, you can’t exactly resort to quick-loading if a choice doesn’t pan out the way you wish. Your decisions have more heft, and everything feels much more plausible and far less game-y.
The actual opening of Witcher 2 will differ based on your imported game from the original with three different openings in all and it all comes to a close with 16 different endings. What makes this an even greater accomplishment is just how much the story branches based on the choices taken. Take note of the below screen shot of the story tree and then realize that the final 20% was cut off. Each one of those pathways is a distinct narrative experience your game might take on as a result of your choices. Makes RPGs with one or two endings seem downright lazy, doesn’t it?
One of the reasons that The Witcher failed to get a good foothold on the gaming world were the different versions of the game. The original game featured all of the violence, cursing and sex intact but when it was brought over to the US, many things were cut such as the nudity. There were several issues with the voice acting and bugs made quest progression a hassle.
CD Projekt took many of these issues to heart and created The Witcher: Enhanced Edition, which featured updated dialogue, over 200 new animations, new NPC models, load times reduced by approximately 80%, redesigned inventory system and the vast majority of technical issues were fixed. As for the swag, it included a “making of” DVD, a CD with 29 tracks from the soundtrack, yet another CD with music “inspired by” The Witcher, a story from the first novel, a map on high-quality paper, the official strategy guide and the most popular user-created mods. All of this was offered completely free of charge for people who had already purchased the game.
The praise for CD Projekt doesn’t stop there, as a year after the Enhanced Edition was released they created a Director’s Cut patch which removed all of the censored images, violence and dialogue from the game so US players finally had the definitive version of the game. Once again, this was 100% free. It’s hard to find developers who are devoted to their fanbase as much as that. Even better, The Witcher 2 will be released with only one version, so this confusing mess will not repeat itself.
If there was one aspect of the original Witcher that needed improvement, it would be the combat. It was by no means clunky, but it was boring. It was a Diablo-style click fest in third person view. There wasn’t much finesse involved other than timing a click to when the cursor indicated you should. This is yet another aspect that CD Projekt claims to have solved, as The Witcher 2 will feature an entirely new and revitalized combat system. Unfortunately, there isn’t much information about precisely how the new combat system will function.
Graphics hold little weight with me in terms of gaming. I still play my original NES and SNES from time to time. As long as nothing is broken, I don’t usually have a complaint. All that being said, The Witcher 2 looks downright gorgeous. Every single screenshot in this article is being rendered by the in-game engine. It’s truly something worth looking at.
Witcher 2 also features a brand new engine specifically designed for the game (where the original title used a drastically modified version of the Neverwinter Nights engine). As beautiful as everything looks in Witcher 2, the actual requirements for the game are low enough for the average computer to run it. However, those with upgraded PC rigs will be able to enjoy the aesthetics more than the average gamer.
According to CD Projekt, there will only be “approximately 4 load screens” which is completely unheard of in an RPG of this size. At first glance the 700 loading screens of the original Witcher seems like a lot, until you factor in every house you can enter forced you to load. This means that in the sequel, the entire world, including interiors is always fluidly connected. That level of ambition and attention to detail tells me that CD Projekt is attempting to make a masterpiece rather than merely settling for greatness. With that kind of attitude, it’s hard not to hop on board.
CD Projekt is going for broke, actively saying that The Witcher 2 will win RPG of the year if not Game of the Year. I have to love their confidence, as they never come off as arrogant because they never insult other games or developers. They don’t waste words by underselling the competition. They’re just delivering a much-needed new coat of paint for the medieval RPG genre.
With everything I’ve seen, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings has given me no reason not to lose myself with the hype. I think it’s a very safe bet that this game will be the underground hit of 2011 and, at the very least, a contender for the RPG of the year. I’d set my watch and warrant it.