Because it is Sunday and I have no energy left for a clever article, here is a review of a video game I am currently playing: The Witcher. Before anyone complains about this review, please have a look at this other blog: Terminally Incoherent, and particularly these posts, to which I subscribe entirely. Let's face it, I consider Morrowind (TES III, by Bethesda Softworks) to be the best RPG video game ever made. I play nearly exclusively RPG's, and mostly not on line, so that narrows it a little.
In general (and quite in accordance with Luke's ideas as developed in the blog above), I like/dislike the following in video games:
* limitless is good. I hate being constrained by character choices, artificial barriers to the game world or artificial moral alignments.
* immersion is good. Anything which breaks the immersion process should be banned from RPG's (the typical example are doors which don't open because they are in the decor only). If you feel like you should be able to do something in the game and you can't, then it breaks the immersion. Alternatively, things that are in the game and should not be also break immersion (the best example being too repetitive dialogs or NPC faces).
* one should always be given the option to play in a first person perspective (i.e. like in most shooting games). I see the world from my own perspective in real life, so my character in game should also see it that way.
* DRM sucks and should not be allowed around any piece of software...
* of course, games should be pretty and artsy and look nice. There should be a good ambiance, lighting and so on.
* last but not least, games should tell a story and I should be able to change the story. That's all an RPG is about. Anything which goes against this is making the game too linear and/or boring. I hate linear games.
* as a detail point, but which should not be overlooked, a game should be exempt of too many bugs and problems. Conversely, a game which lets fans add good stuff and improvements to the game gets bonus points in my books.
So what about The Witcher. Well, it has pros and cons, like most games. Let's tell this immediately, it does not beat, in my mind, the 9 years old Morrowind, despite having been released in 2005. However, and in my world, this is a huge compliment, it comes close.
Let's see the bad stuff first:
* the game lets you no choice about the character, as you can play only one person, the "Witcher" Gerald of Riv, a white haired, amnesia prone, womanizer monster killer with a very murky past. This is bad, but there is however a good reason for this. Geralt of Riv is the hero of a series of Polish fantasy books. These are the basis of the game and the author seems to have participated to the game design. This makes the absence of choice bearable (added to the fact that the hero in question has quite a lot of depth and is kick ass to play), except of course for female players who will probably find his constant flirting (and subsequent shagging) quite annoying. Geralt keeps indeed a "card" for each of his female conquests... ;-)
* the game abuses the "impassable fence" trick, particularly in country side areas, which breaks the immersion. Geralt is not allowed to jump, climb or crouch (the UI simply does not provide anything for it) and I find this ridiculous for a supposed master killer. It is all the more frustrating when you see the intro videos where he does saltos and climbs the crumbling walls of an old castle.
* also about immersion are the rather repetitive faces of NPC's. I can excuse this for generic ones with no quest attached, but it is also the case for main quest NPC's (like the Leuwaarden one in the Wyzima area of the game). This is lazy development, I am sorry to say... :-(
* the game is hard to install and hard to make work on Vista SP1. There are countless bugs that make several tricks necessary just to launch the game and to avoid it crashing every five minutes, even on a solid and recent configuration. Additional point: although there is the possibility to add their own adventures for game fans, these are not included into the main game and must be played "apart". This, for me, breaks half of the interest of such an option.
* I would also like to nag a bit about "game containers", such as barrels and boxes. Unlike in the Elder Scroll series, it is impossible to place something back in a container, and they have no rightful owner. I find this stupid, immersion breaking and difficult to justify anyway. Plant containers (flowers and other bushes) also "grow back" and can be plucked again as soon as you leave and reenter the cell. This is totally unrealistic.
* last very bad point is the impossibility of playing first person. There are no less than three 3rd person views possible. This is ridiculous and should have been avoided. Considering how demanding the game is in terms of graphic resources, having one character less on screen should have been seen as positive.
* as an extra annoying thing, and a consequence of the absence of jump function, the smallest step becomes an impassable barrier too, which makes path finding in the game extremely tedious, even on interior game cells.
Now on the good things:
* first and foremost, the game has a very good story. It is dense, absolutely not easy. There are choices all the time, and the results of these choices have far reaching consequences on the hero, the story and the world. This is great. I would contend that this is even one of the only two cases where The Witcher beats Morrowind. The Elder Scrolls III had a great story, but it was fairly obvious from the beginning of the game. No such thing in The Witcher, where each quest gives very small clues on the main plot(s). The plot has to do with racism (but in an uneasy way), religion, science, ethics and knowledge. I won't say more...
* moral choices are complex. There is often no obvious answer, and ethics does bite you down the road if you make the "wrong" choices. The story becomes different, and the NPC attitude will change. This is very well done and does not feel artificial in any way. It helps bring back a lot of the immersion that was so badly hurt by the elements I mentioned above.
* combats are really cool. At first I found the 3rd person "clicking only" combats quite an immersion breaker. Then I got the trick (waiting the flame pointer) and I realized how visual and good and technical combat is in this game. It still feels a bit too much like rolling dices (no localization of damage...), but the various effects and techniques that can be bought and happen on good strikes are absolutely fun to watch. Combats are difficult in the game, although not as much as in Oblivion. After all, Geralt is supposed to be a master killer.
* I think a very important point is that the game is extremely beautiful. After Oblivion, I was quite demanding. But The Witcher is totally awesome for this. Lights are mysterious, there is art all over, NPC's are very nicely made, their animations are fluid. Monsters are frightening (the Cerber of the first part in Wyzima scared the hell out of me) and well drawn, without being ugly. The game world feels like a fantasy version of Central Europe (obviously not a coincidence for a Polish game). This is I think a second point where Morrowind simply can't compete with The Witcher.
* The passage of time is extremely well rendered and some missions have to be realized in limited time or at a certain time of the day (or night). This helps the immersion and does not feel artificial in any way. It is greatly done and well complemented by the weather effects. Also, some monsters or NPC's will appear only at a certain time, and this forces to some nasty choices too... ;-)
* Although the game had some basic DRM, this has been removed in the latest patch (version 1.5), released 8th July.
All in all, The Witcher is pleasant to play, good fun and a great story. I think it is still below Morrowind in quality, but not by much. If the studio had (would) allow jumping and crouching in the game, plus had removed some of the stupid barriers and modified the game "containers", it would even be better than the Elder Scrolls series. Although the plot is not linear, it is uncool that some areas are simply wiped out after the beginning of the game (such as the Witcher base or the suburb of Wyzima). It limits the freedom unnecessarily. Still I give this game a rank 2 on my list of best video games ever.