E3 2006: The RPGs

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The Witcher

I'm happy to report that CD Projekt's The Witcher continues to look amazing and hasn't veered from its course as a combat-heavy RPG set in an gloomy, dark, and unforgiving fantasy world. Andrzej Sapkowski's setting is a grim one, and, from what we've seen, the team has done it justice.

The game places you in the role of the witcher Geralt, a powerful warrior that was trained since childhood to utilize both sword and sorcery to slay the creatures inhabiting the world. Geralt also possesses superhuman abilities that greatly enhance his combat prowess and grant him other advantages like night vision. And with only five witchers left in the world, you won't be meeting many people in the game capable of the same feats.

The demo we were shown during E3 showcased the game's combat, graphics, and compassion/cruelty spectrum. The combat in The Witcher has become much more advanced since we last saw it in 2004. There are now over two hundred combat animations and all the related maneuvers have been broken down into six different combat styles. Once you have access to a maneuver, the timing of your mouse clicks ultimately affects how devastating it is. Get the timing down right and Geralt will perform a nasty combination that will do everything from a knockdown to a beheading. If your opponent falls to the ground, you'll also get a window of opportunity to run your sword through its chest for an instant (and very gory) kill.

There's more to combat than just clicking the mouse, however. The team has added a tactical feel to it as well by greatly increasing the damage done from an attack executed from behind an opponent. Geralt has the same weakness, though, so you always want to make sure that you're facing an opponent. In the event that you are surrounded by multiple opponents, you can make use of a group maneuver that will cause Geralt to whirl around during combat and swing his sword at each opponent. If that doesn't do the trick, you also have evasive moves at your disposal, such as rolling and sidestepping. Should an opponent be using a bow, you can use Geralt's sword to deflect the arrows, as long as you're facing the opponent and standing still.

When you see the game up close, it's hard to believe that The Witcher uses BioWare's Aurora engine at its core. CD Projekt has enhanced the engine in nearly every respect by including a physics engine, day/night transitions, thermal vision, and amazing water and weather effects. The demo allowed us to see each of these enhancements firsthand, and I can honestly say that they were all very impressive. The physics engine shines in both combat and non-combat situations, where both bodies and barrel fragments sail through the air and bounce realistically off the environment. Sunrises and sunsets look spectacular, with the amount of illumination easily revealing what time of day it is. Geralt's thermal vision is reminiscent of what we saw in the movie Predator - standard objects and dead bodies will glow with a (cold) blue/green tint while living creatures and fires will glow a (hot) red/yellow, even if they're behind a wall. Rain droplets make tiny splashes when they hit a water source, and if you submerge yourself in a river, expect to see the water realistically curve around you and leave a long ripple in the direction that it's flowing.

In addition to the above features, the team has also added over one hundred different emotions, gestures, and facial animations that characters in the game will make use of. You'll also see other special effects, one of which we were shown during the demo. After taking a few swigs of alcohol, Geralt started to stumble and the environment around him became very blurry. The more he drank, the more distorted his vision became until finally the master swordsman fell onto his back and passed out. According to lead designer Michal Madej, alcohol has both detrimental and beneficial effects. Assuming we hadn't drank ourselves into a sleep, the alcohol would have caused us to become less accurate in combat but would have given us enhanced social skills that may or may not have allowed us to glean more information from certain NPCs.

The game's compassion/cruelty spectrum is similar to what we've seen in other RPGs like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic or Jade Empire, but it isn't quite as predictable. To illustrate this, the team provided us with an example. After capturing a bandit that had attacked the secret witcher stronghold, Geralt is given several options, including a choice to simply kill the man, torture him for information, or let him ago. Each of these options is perfectly valid, but each has different consequences. Killing the man might give you immediate satisfaction, but without getting any information from the bandit, one of your friends will eventually be killed. Torturing him will get you the information needed to save that friend in the future, but it might cause another team of bandits to assault the stronghold again and/or cause alternate deaths. Letting him go might gain you some respect from the bandit, but it allows him to return to his camp and alert other bandits of the stronghold's whereabouts and defenses. Decisions like these will need to be made throughout the game, which should ensure that playing through the game multiple times can result in totally different experiences.

Aside from the above innovative features, The Witcher will also contain all of the standard RPG elements that one might expect, including upgradeable equipment, a vast assortment of spells and potions, and an advanced automap feature for navigating the world. The team plans on releasing the game in the spring of 2007, and if the demo was any indication of the final product, this is one RPG you don't want to miss.