Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Rise of the White Wolf

A changing world; new, more dangerous monsters; fisstech, slavery, banditry unpunished - Geralt

I was preparing to purchase a certain heavily-promoted, medieval fantasy RPG sequel, when I decided to play the demo beforehand; I was completely underwhelmed with it. Then I recalled another demo I had played some time ago, of a game which is about to release its very own sequel; it was that of The Witcher.

The now classic PC game grabs you right from the start, with excellent presentation and gameplay that matches it. This is by no means an undiscovered gem, though not as much of a bestseller as better marketed RPGs. The Witcher clearly owes its well-deserved success to word of mouth. Is there anything in gaming quite like a rainfall over the outskirts of Vizima?

The Witcher employs a modified version of Bioware's Aurora Engine, so in a sense, CD Projekt's creation is closely related to Dragon Age: Origins, though that game runs on Eclipse. However, the former behaves more like the latter's big brother. Scanning the forums, it is quite remarkable how even non-gamers have been attracted to this title. Elaborate essays can be found there. The Witcher is also riddled with glitches yet its fanbase is resolute in their support. A game in which you get lost in the swamps due to their size, even with a map, speaks for itself; the most gloriously nonlinear game I've ever played.*

Partially based on the book series of the same title by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, the amnesiac Geralt of Rivia and the other Witchers are genetically mutated hunters, in a quest to fight their foe, the Salamandra. Gone is the morality system employed by many games, as the lines are less clear cut. Considering that The Witcher preceedes DA:O, then the treatment of racism, here less thinly disguised, reinforces the excellent execution. Minorities were blamed for everything in medieval times as they are now; the human animal has changed little.

There are various memorable set-pieces, such as a standoff dealing with the witch Abigail in the outskirts of Vizima. If the Temple Quarter is where the plebe and the dirt is, then the Trade Quarter is all about posh intrigue, and in fact, a confrontation takes place between Geralt's more earthy love interest, Shani, and the worldly Triss, over the protection of a powerful child, Alvin. This entire setup is truly well handled, with Dandelion, the bard, offering some spot-on comic relief. The cast of dozens of important characters adds incredible depth.

The game can be played in two isometric views or over the shoulder, all of which function marvelously. There are different fighting styles suited for differing enemies, as well as alchemy, or potions, and levelling up, while Geralt goes to meditate by a fireplace. The Witcher can be upgraded to an Enhanced Edition, with graphical updates and side-missions. At this juncture, european-based developers CD Projekt and Starbreeze have clearly become forces to be reckoned with. Here's hoping the sequel makes it to consoles. *Except for Skyrim.