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The Weight of the Witcher

I don’t mention it a lot here, but my gaming life started as a PC gamer. Sure, there were handheld forays in high school, when I’d sit in Joe Faul’s basement and play his brother’s Game Boy while the Mike Tyson fight was ever-so-briefly on HBO. Those were just passing moments, though. My real game playing time started in 1997, when I got my first computer.

I remember it like it was yesterday, mostly because I ordered a Gateway which promptly broke down with a shoddy CD drive. The replacement was also shoddy and the replacement for that replacement was DOA, a tragic situation made all the more tragic by it coinciding with my wife being away for a week while she helped her brother drive cross country. Eventually I ditched Gateway but not before reaming out the useless tech support rep, dashing off an angry letter to Gateway, the Better Business Bureau and PC Gamer. What can I say, I was pissed. I ended up with a Dell, and I have owned Dells ever since, even when I moved over to gaming exclusively on consoles.

I’m telling you this because when I talk about the Witcher 2 for the 360, I want you to understand that despite my console allegiance, I do have fond memories of days when weight meant something in RPGs.

One of the things that impressed me off the bat about The Witcher 2 Enhanced Edition was the sheer physical weight of the product. I was gaming during one of the greatest eras in computer RPG history, when games like Fallout 2, Baldurs Gate 2, Icewind Dale, Diablo 2 and Deus Ex were released. I played those games and Planescape and Nox and Arcanum and Neverwinter Nights and Wizardry. During it all, one thing and one thing only was the best starting point for evaluating an RPG: the weight. A heavy box meant multiple discs, a beefy manual, maybe a map. Were there heavy RPGs that lacked in quality? Sure there were, but if you were thinking of picking up an RPG and the box weighed as much as the box for the latest shooter, you had to pause. What kind of world were they building that I didn’t have pages upon pages of character classes and subclasses to pore over? What magical system was in place that didn’t have dozens of spells to investigate? What the hell was I going to do while the game installed and my device drivers updated if I didn’t have a manual to read or a map to look at?

The Witcher 2: Enhanced Edition is a heavy game. The manual it comes with is thick and beefy, a rarity in console games, even RPGs, these days. There was a time, not long ago, when I would play the game for an hour and then bring the manual upstairs with me to read while the wife and I watched TV. Here I would try and gain a deeper understanding of the dozens of hours that were still to come. Nowadays, if there’s a manual at all, it consists of a list of commands and the associated buttons and maybe a picture of the HUD. Most of the time you get an epilepsy warning, a piracy warning, a EULA and a link to a company site where you can download the manual as a PDF. Nothing hearkens back to the days of rerolling characters for an hour quite like curling up with a PDF for the latest Assassins Creed game.

The Witcher 2 breaks this cycle with a manual that leaves nothing to the imagination. Combat techniques, signs, character upgrades, it’s all here. Do you want to know how Quen changes with two upgrades rather than one? It’s here. Would you like to know what the different types of alchemical ingredients are? It’s here. Whether you want to know what the HUD looks like, or you want a reference guide for planning out Geralt’s character advancement, the manual has it covered.

More importantly, having such a detailed guide at your fingertips gives the player the impression that only are the developers proud of their work, and they want you to experience it in as many ways possible, but that that they encourage a level of contemplation outside of what you can get while playing. Do you need the manual? No, probably not, but to be able to read about things away from the chaos of battle helps crystallize how you play the game. At least for me it does. Many times, the reason you don’t get a manual is because there isn’t enough game to support it. The Witcher 2 laughs at that. Here, it says, take this manual, you’re going to need it.

This is to say nothing of the quest handbook that details the main quests, the side quests and the options for all quests, great and small that reside within. I certainly don’t expect publishers to provide you with a guide for every game they put out, and I doubt I’ll use this much that much, preferring to find things for myself. You could say that the developers don’t have faith in their game and the guide is a hand-holding device, and there maybe some truth to that. The opposite can be said also. The developers want you to see this through to the end and if giving the player a nudge in the right direction, or some help in choosing a path, then all the better. Here, the guide says, sit back, let us take you on a journey.

The game itself also has weight, in part due to jumping to a story that is in the middle of being told and jumping into the shoes of a character with a significant backstory. There’s something about the scope of conflict in this game that somehow makes it seem weightier than ones where the fate of the world or universe is at stake. In those games, fighting is an absolute necessary. To not fight is to perish. Here though, Geralt fights because he chose to serve and protect a king. It’s possible that the scope of the conflict will expand as I get further into the game, but right now, Geralt risks his life not for the universe, but for one man. Like those he kills, Geralt is in the piss and the shit, fighting, killing and, in my case, dying, while the powerful watch from on high.

When Geralt stops Fortest’s men from sacking a house and killing those within, I don’t feel bad about asking for a reward. After all, if Geralt wasn’t fighting for Fortest, he’d be scrounging to make a living, helping those who despise him. In this situation, not asking for money seems more out of character than requesting payment. Again, it comes down to a matter of weight. What did Commander Shepard do in between ME2 and ME3? Who knows. More importantly, who cares? With Geralt, I know that when his service to Fortest ends, it will be back to hunting monsters by night, searching for herbs and any trinkets and treasures that can be sold to stave off poverty. Geralt lives in a world that hates him and needs him in equal measure and this gives his world and his interactions with it a weight I haven’t felt in an RPG in some time.

I ‘ve barely scratched the surface of the game so much of what this world has to offer has yet to be shown, but so far, The Witcher 2 gets my vote for weightiest game of the year. I won’t be at all surprised if “weightiest” ends up synonymous with “best”.

The Wonders of The Witcher 2

So you are a console gamer, specifically an Xbox 360 owner, who has heard PC gamers sing the praises of CD Projekt RED and its stance on DRM and how awesome The Witcher series is, going back to the 2007 original. So what is it about Geralt of Rivia and his monster hunting ways that makes the game such a hit with PC RPG fans? What can you expect tomorrow when the 360 version drops?

As I said, this is a long, long game and there’s a metric ton of dialogue so speed gaming through The Witcher 2 simply doesn’t work. Get ready for a journey with a huge scope. It’s not Skyrim big, but it’s also not Skyrim aimless, either. The campaign is focused. You know what you are trying to do and while there are a lot of “side quests” none of them have anything to do with trivial nonsense. FedEx quests and cats stuck in trees — Witchers don’t play that. Ok granted I could do without the arm wrestling and fistfight contests. One of the best aspects of the game is that you can see Geralt doing all of this stuff. You will not find a quest in this game that seems out of place. After all, Geralt is a Witcher and Witchers are professional monster hunters so going off to kill a Nekkar nest or hunt Harpy feathers for money fits perfectly in what Geralt is all about.

A man has to eat, right? Geralt calls it Witcher’s work. I call it a game with meaningful side quests. Hooray!

While the campaign is tightly focused there are myriad of choices that you are forced to make that will radically change the path of your quest. Some of these choices might even seem mundane, until you realize– they weren’t. I made choices in hour one that had an effect in hour ten. The game does a brilliant job in making things come full circle.

A huge personal attraction is the world of the Witcher itself. While I am leery calling this ultra low fantasy, there remains a certain grimness to the setting that I find appealing. It’s dirty. At times a bit obscene, even. When one of the Dwarf NPCs says about a lesbian female sorceress: “Everyone knows she doesn’t go for cock” it should tell you all you need to know. Crass? Oh yeah. But when you meet this Dwarf you can see him saying that. Sexist? Sure, the Dwarf is, but the game isn’t going for cheap thrills. This world is bleak, dirty, mean, and sexually charged.

The use of sex and sexual imagery is a 180 degree turn from games such as Dragon Age or Mass Effect. In those games, sex is treated like a goal. It’s fake sexy and handled so poorly to be a distraction. Gamers would use every conversation, looking for those subtle clues that the person you are talking to might want to have sex with you.

The Witcher 2 opens with Geralt and Tress in bed, in a tent near a battlefield. You are presented with a shot of Triss’ ass and bare breasts. A guard walks in and his eyes nearly pop out of his head. Geralt looks at him, waiting for him to leave as he gets one last peek at the beautiful woman. Immediately you know this: Geralt doesn’t have to work or beg for it. No trinkets required. There will be no dialogue trees asking gamers to hope that your character has sex on screen. You want Geralt to get laid? Go to a whorehouse. Done. There are only a few potential romances in the game and even then, this isn’t some long drawn out charade. And while Dragon and Age and Mass Effect tease you with its sex scenes, The Witcher holds no such punches.

There’s a ton of sexual imagery in the game, like the aforementioned sorceress — she has a female student/slave that she loves to ‘play’ with. The Witcher 2 doesn’t hide its sexuality. It’s a mature game for mature audiences. I have never had a problem with intense sexual situations in videogames, they just need to fit in the story, make sense, and be handled properly. I hate the sexual stuff in Bioware games. I’m totally fine with it here.

Combat is fast and fluid. In the original game it was more timing based — you watched as Geralt went nuts with his sword and you had to click the mouse in rhythm in order to pull off advanced moves. That’s been toned down a tad in the sequel and while there is still a rhythm to combat it’s not as precise as the first game, which I admittedly miss a bit. Additionally, alchemy is also streamlined. Still, one of the most rewarding aspects is when Geralt faces a tough fight — it becomes highly tactical not only in how he approaches combat but there’s also the question of traps — do you use any? Pre-fight oils for your sword? Do you cover your weapon in a specific oil to aid you in the fight? What about potions? Do you have time to create or drink any? Remember, you cannot drink a potion during combat; you need to meditate in order to consume them because they are all highly toxic. Planning is key, especially when going up against a lot of foes. I also suggest playing the game, if you are an experienced action-RPG player, on the hard setting. Normal isn’t a total cakewalk but as Geralt improves his ability some of the fights become a bit easy and playing on Hard makes every single fight worth thinking about.

And the best part? You can change the difficulty mid game.

Crafting is another key element, not only buying new items from merchants but finding diagrams and formulas. This is why money is so important and why Geralt going out of his way to fulfill a monster killing contract makes sense. Diagrams and alchemical formulas aren’t cheap — and he needs them.

Character customization, while not as deep as in the original, does allow you to focus Geralt’s ability in multiple areas. While you can’t specifically do typical RPG things like “add 1 point to your strength value” — which again makes perfect sense to me. How exactly does that work? Geralt looks pretty strong already, no? Anyway, here you decide what Witcher path to take: you can make Geralt more adept at swordplay, alchemy, signing (spells) or general training. You may also mix and match so you don’t need to put all talent points into one area. It’s a neat system and it forgoes the traditional, and stale, pattern of most role-playing games.

As I said before on Friday, this isn’t the perfect game as there are certainly things I don’t like. The quest map, for example, can be a pain in the ass, especially in Vergen in Chapter 2. Hoo lordy that place is annoying as hell to get around in. When others temporarily join your group for a quest the pathfinding can be frustrating. The interface of cycling from the map, inventory, quest log, etc is much faster on the PC. The dialogue can go in circles and people will greet you like you have never met even though you had a 10 minute conversation a few hours earlier. Those are certainly annoyances — but the good far outweighs the bad.

I’m really excited to hear how people who haven’t played the games on PC react to it. I guess we’ll find out tomorrow, eh?

The Oddities of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings on the Xbox 360

I love The Witcher. I think it’s a marvelously grim world full of low fantasy awesomeness. It also happens to be a hell of a game.

But it has its share of faults and quirks and if you are coming into the game without having first played the PC version, there are a few things you need to keep in mind. I’ve been playing the Xbox 360 “Enhanced Edition” for the better part of a week and I’m still in Chapter 1 — it’s a long game and I’m not ready to write a full on review but I can certainly discuss the ins and outs and the oddities.

Today’s post is about the quirks found inside Geralt’s Quest to find a king killer. Not all of these are technically “bad” (although some are) but even veteran role-playing fans will need to learn the ropes when jumping into the world of The Witcher.

*First the important bits: The game looks fine on the Xbox 360. This whole notion of how it looks just as good on the console as it does on the PC — that’s silly. In fact I’d say the game looks a lot like The Witcher 2 on the medium setting on a modest PC. It looks slick, sure, but the Witcher 2 on a beefy PC is a stunning game. This isn’t that. It looks good and let’s leave it at that.

*The gamepad control is excellent. After a brief tutorial I was up and ready to go. The game was really made for a gamepad so the move here is a smooth one. A and X attacks (fast and heavy), B does the roll dodge, Y uses a Sign (a spell) LB activates a wheel to select your spell or to choose a trap, bomb or dagger. RB throws said trap, bomb or dagger. RT parries. Done.

*The camera is very sensitive. You use the R-Stick to move/spin it and that took some getting used to due to its sensitivity. Still, all in all the translation to the 360 appears to have been a success.

*INSTALL YOUR GAME. Seriously. Otherwise load times are terribly long. Even then there are a lot of load screens when moving from locale to locale.

*The Witcher 2 removes one of the staples of classic videogame role-playing — the sucking down of potions during combat to keep your avatar alive. The Witcher 2 is a hard game because combat is brutal. Swordplay in an RPG SHOULD be dangerous. It shouldn’t be simply a matter of wading into a mass of enemies and coming out unscathed. Particularly early on, even a group of bandits can kill you if you aren’t careful. I consider this a huge boon to the game as a whole but one that you may need to get used to at first. In order to drink a “healing” potion you need to meditate and you aren’t going to do that while a group of Nekkars are leaping at you. Potions are also toxic and you can only drink so many before getting a Witcher tummy ache.

*Geralt might be a famous monster hunting Witcher but he also plays the role of prized herbalist and barrel scrounger. This game does a very poor job of item finding because it makes you play scavenger. Everywhere you turn the “search” icon appears or the “Pick Herbs” text appears allowing you to rummage around like a common street urchin. Even inside someone’s home — with them standing right there — Geralt can browse open chests and table drawers and take 10 gold here and 12 gold there. Geralt picks up alchemical and crafting ingredients this way so it’s almost required that you do this and it gets old and feels totally out of place with the rest of this very real, vivid world. I’d honestly rather have a button that automates me going out in the forest looking for alchemy herbs and then I randomly find stuff. Hey at least there isn’t a “picking herb” animation. It IS fast, which helps.

*There isn’t an animation after you meditate and drink a potion though. Not a big deal but I miss seeing Geralt slam down those glass vials.

*The conversations can get circular. This is classic dialogue tree weirdness and anyone familiar with Black Isle/Bioware games will feel at home with this quirk. You can “restart” conversations and will even get into the exact same discussion with an NPC that you literally had two seconds ago. Some of the conversations with NPCs (and there is a LOT of talking in this game) doesn’t flow as well as it should.

*Quicktime events. More than I’d like. Fist fighting contests and even some actual gameplay elements require pressing the keyed button sequence. I have been playing Resident Evil IV a lot of late and The Witcher 2 has more QT events than that game. That’s too many.

*Repeated canned dialogue — there’s a lot of that too. If you are familiar with The Witcher 2 you likely recall the “Plough em all” song sung by the drunk guard in Flotsam. This song is laugh out loud funny the first time you hear it. The 20th time? Eh… The banter offered up by the NPCs isn’t varied enough and it sorta pulls you out of the world when people keep saying the exact same thing over..and over..and over.

Tomorrow I’ll talk about what makes this game so special. And this is a special game.