Version tested: PC
Let's talk about the term "role-playing game", shall we? It's one of those phrases that has slipped into the gaming vernacular so easily that we tend to forget what it actually means, and end up using it all wrong. Common wisdom has it that any game in which your character earns experience and levels up accordingly can be tucked away under the RPG blanket. For me, that's only half right. The clue's in the name - role-playing. Games in which you create a role and then act out that character in the gameworld. Without the freedom to come up with your own virtual identity, what you're really talking about are adventure games with a few RPG trimmings.
So, by my reckoning, The Witcher is only half an RPG. The role you play is non-negotiable - you're Geralt, a white-haired growly-voiced amnesiac anti-hero. Nor can you choose his profession. It is, after all, rather set in stone by the verb-slaughtering title of the game. He's a witcher, a professional slayer of the supernatural, wandering from town to town ridding the countryside of foul beasts using swords, magic and a little bit of alchemy. You'll be using the same swords for pretty much the whole game (though you can augment them), your armour options are limited and you've got a fairly rigid vengeance-fuelled goal in mind. If you're looking for one of those games where you can craft your own jewel-encrusted golden armour, and spend months tinkering with optional side-quests, then move along. This one isn't for you.
If, however, you're a fan of compellingly realised environments, commendably realistic social interactions and full-blooded fantasy storytelling then pull up a pew, since The Witcher has a lot to offer.
That the game world is deep and convincingly fleshed-out shouldn't really come as a surprise. Polish developer CD Projekt not only had Andrzej Sapkowski's series of fantasy novels to provide the finer details, but they had experience translating such classic role-players as Baldur's Gate and Planescape: Torment for Eastern Europe. With Bioware's Aurora engine to provide the graphical muscle, the pieces are all in place for an above-average RPG-style experience.
The game can be viewed top-down, as in Baldur's Gate, in which case control is entirely mouse driven, or you can opt for a more action-packed over-the-shoulder viewpoint, which uses the expected WASD control-map for movement with mouse-clicks for interaction and hotkeys for magic and weapons. This close-up option is undeniably the more cinematic, offering a good view of the detailed environments, but it can be cumbersome in combat. The camera has an annoying habit of resetting in front of Geralt, all the better to admire his craggy features, but it does mean that fighting involves a lot of frantic spinning around as you try to keep your pointer hovering over an enemy.
The combat tries to find the middle ground between the turn-based approach of, say, Knights of the Old Republic and the mouse-mashing of Diablo II. Clicking on an enemy initiates a swing of your sword, but as the attack comes to an end your cursor lights up. Click again at this point and you'll follow up with another attack move, and so on. Chain your attacks successfully and your opponent will struggle to respond. Get the timing wrong, and you'll break the combo and leave yourself open to reprisals. The right button is your magic attacks and, like weaponry, these can be honed and improved by spending the bronze, silver or gold "talents" you gain from victorious quests and skirmishes.
It's not a bad system but, while it does a decent job of simulating a sword fighting mindset using very simple means, it can also leave you unsure of what's happening or why. There's often a pause before Geralt begins his attacks, and it's just long enough for it to be easily mistaken for a parried assault. So you click again, and break the combo before it starts. All defensive moves are handled automatically as part of the successful mouse-click sequence, so when you do find yourself taking a pasting, it can feel frustratingly out of your control. This is especially true in the fist-fights that you can tackle as a way of raising extra cash, where suddenly you can block with the right button, but are left even less sure of how or when Geralt will respond to your commands.
The system can be tamed with practice, and it's certainly preferable to yet another "point at the monster and hammer the mouse" game, but it's not an entirely successful experiment and you may find yourself thinking it's a lot of arsing around for not much benefit.
Thankfully, the game compensates with solid - if hardly new - RPG features elsewhere. Alchemical formulae and ingredients can be horded, goods can be traded or given as bribes, while a dice-based version of poker scratches the need for in-game gambling. Geralt can even get drunk and pissed up on booze, a state which can be made strangely beneficial if you choose the right levelling-up options. Non-player characters abound, all inhabiting a world that feels lived-in and rich in detail, while there's no shortage of quests to be found in the shape of witcher missions, culling the local monster population in return for money or information to advance the main storyline. There are moments of obvious padding, where vital quest characters won't speak to you until you perform another quest for them, but it's never a chore and when you stumble across conversations that lead to new quests, it rarely feels like you've been led to that moment - more like you happened to stumble on it yourself. An illusion, more often than not, but a fairly convincing one.
It is a shame the NPC dialogue is so rigid, however, since you can question them over and over until you find the right answers to yield your desired results. The game sometimes trips over its own narrative, with Geralt talking about characters he just met as if he doesn't know them, or asking questions to which you've already found the answer. These mood-breaking hiccups are all the more noticeable since the game does such a good job of creating an immersive milieu of windswept countryside, poverty-stricken towns and hedonistic cities. This is most noticeable in the seduction quests, where you try to talk comely maidens into bed. Shades of Groundhog Day soon emerge, as you outrage them with wrong answers only to ask again a few minutes later with no lasting reputation loss. Trial-and-error can earn you most notches on the bedpost, along with the already infamous "I shagged her!" soft porn collectors cards. They're unspeakably naff, of course, but as with the topless slave girls in Conan it's in-keeping with the bawdy tone of the game.
Your decisions do have subtle impacts though, often not becoming evident until much later in the game. For all the PR talk of grey moral areas, there's still some obvious "good choice, bad choice" stuff going on, but the elongated timeframe means you won't be able to cheat your way around them with quick-saves. Even the broad sweep of upgrade options is designed for the long haul, with far too many combinations to max out in one game. It's not a game you'll rush back to for another run through, but there's definitely replayability here for those who value such things.
Graphically, the emphasis is on consistency and tone rather than showboating. It looks nice - sometimes really, really nice - but if you're worried you'll be missing some state of the art visual trickery if you shunt a few sliders down to "medium" then, rest assured, it's all about effective mood rather than swanky lighting. You'll still need a fairly robust rig to cope with the strain of rendering the larger NPC crowds, but it's not the system hog many feared it would be. While we're on the presentation tip, the music is worthy of special note, with some haunting Celtic instrumentals, while the voice acting ranges from the effective to the, ahem, enthusiastic. Geralt himself talks in a rather off-putting Americanised snarl, a bit like Dirty Harry, while the villagers range from dim Mancunian to Dick Van Dyke cockerney sparras. Dwarves, somewhat inevitably, are Scottish.
Well-intentioned clickety combat aside, The Witcher doesn't offer much the dedicated role-player won't have already seen elsewhere, but that's not such a bad thing. CD Projekt has taken time-tested elements from across the fantasy-RPG spectrum and tied them to a solidly crafted story that includes elements of racial discord, religious fanaticism and sexual promiscuity in its adults-only mix. Admittedly, these elements are rather crudely introduced and are handled with a rather endearing "Look! Adult themes!" excitability, but there's certainly more to savour here than in most dungeon-crawlers. One for those who value story and character over technical innovation then, but definitely a game worth trying if the concept has tickled your fancy.
7 / 10