E3 2004: The RPGs

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Reaching the end of the Sabbat hideout, we finally encountered the Stone Gargoyle mentioned back in the Confession night club in an old abandoned building. The graphics were absolutely amazing; the camera zoomed in on the Gargoyle's face while he threatened our life for showing up unexpectedly. Our demonstrator explained that we could talk our way out of a fight with the Gargoyle if our social skills were high enough, but we decided to fight anyway. At the beginning of the battle, we took our character on top of a balcony and watched as the Gargoyle began demolishing the balcony from below in order to drop us down where he could make short work of us. Once we were forced to jump down, we opened fire on the beast and realized that the text we read back at Confession was true - the Gargoyle was totally invulnerable to all but bludgeoning weapons. Therefore, we equipped our trusty sledge hammer, invoked the Potency discipline to strengthen our attacks, and proceeded to beat on the creature until it finally crumbled into a pile of rubble.

The Stone Gargoyle's destruction marked the end of our demonstration, and we were left awe-stricken at what we had just witnessed. Although we only saw a fraction of the entire game, what we did see was absolutely amazing. The game looks and plays like a finished product already, making it very obvious that Troika has gone to great lengths giving the game plenty of polish. Unfortunately, Bloodlines won't be released for quite some time (it can't even be released until after Half Life 2), but from what we saw at E3, the game is destined to be a masterpiece. This is one RPG you don't want to miss.

The Witcher

Just before we left for E3, BioWare contacted us to see if we'd be interested in taking a look at a new RPG in development by Polish game developer CDProjekt called The Witcher. Although BioWare isn't actually involved with the development of the title, it's their Aurora Engine (the same one used for Neverwinter Nights) that is powering the game. Of course, any RPG that has BioWare's support and a dedicated team of developers interests us, so we jumped at the chance to see it.

During our appointment, we met with several members of the CDProjekt team, who I can honestly say seem to be some of the most committed developers I've ever met with. They're all hardcore RPG fans, citing several role-playing games from the past two decades (including the Fallout series) as their influences in creating The Witcher. It's good to see such enthusiasm from a group of developers, which makes a very good foundation to create a fantastic RPG.

The demonstration began with an explanation of how The Witcher started - first with CDProjekt's own technology, and later with BioWare's Aurora Engine after a meeting at E3 2003. The team has done a great deal with the engine in the last several months, including the total removal of the D20 system (opting for their own advancement system entirely), a completely renovated combat system, and several graphical optimizations.

Combat in The Witcher is considerably different than anything you've seen in recent role-playing games. Initially, the protaganist starts with three combat "slots" in which you can allocate different combat maneuvers. When combat begins, the timing of each mouse click determines the success of each of these combat maneuvers, which likewise determines the amount of damage you inflict and the amount of experience you gain from your enemy's defeat. As you advance through the game, the character can obtain additional maneuver "slots", allowing for more sophisticated combos during battle. The team also explained that all combat animations were captured from a famous Polish swordsman, which makes such battles look much more fluid and lifelike. For additional excitement during combat, the team told us that they are implementing speed potions that allow your character to fight in "Bullet Mode", which (if you've read this entire article) you'll know is also present in games like Enter The Matrix, Max Payne 2, and Jade Empire.

The Witcher takes place in a grim world full of violence, with the storyline being based upon the book by European author Andrzej Sapkowski (which sold over three million copies). The team promises many plot twists throughout the game, and certain encounters will not necessarily match traditional fantasy stereotypes. For example, we were shown a good-natured NPC that had taken up the art of Necromancy simply to try and revive his dead wife. A Necromancer that doesn't use his skill for evil purposes shows that the team is striving to offer something a little different for RPG veterans.

Since the game is single player only, character advancement and customization is very important. The main character in The Witcher will have four attributes (Strength, Agility, Vitality, and Endurance), with each of these factoring into the mechanics of the game. For example, Strength will determine how much equipment you'll be able to carry and Agility will affect your defensive skill, among other things. Similar to other RPGs, your character will level up as he gains experience, with no level cap at the present time (although the team is not sure if there will be one at release or not). Equipment is gained through your adventures either from battle spoils or purchasing from various merchants throughout the game, with some of the more powerful items being hidden in "Easter Egg" areas. During the demonstration, the team even showed us one of the Easter Eggs that involved accessing a hidden tunnel where the character would find a chest that contained a Jade Empire poster.

We'll definitely be keeping a close eye on The Witcher. From what we saw of CDProjekt's devotion to the game, along with BioWare's firm backing, The Witcher could prove to be one of the best RPGs of 2005.