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Before going any further, let me first just say that I have no idea why the game was ever coined as an "action RPG." Sure, the combat requires some (carefully timed) mouse clicking, but the team was clearly aiming for a classic role-playing experience. This is a story-driven game with a significant amount of dialogue, a multitude of quests, a surprisingly thorough and intricate journal system, and a vast assortment of character development options. You have to put a considerable amount of thought into many of the choices you make in the game, so hopefully nobody out there is expecting a Diablo clone or something similar from The Witcher. If so, scratch the game off your list and save yourself some cash and the subsequent disappointment. If a classic single-player CRPG experience is exactly what you're looking for, then you're in luck.
The game begins at the abandoned castle of Kaer Morhen with you assuming the role of a witcher - a professional sword-wielding monster slayer - known as Geralt of Rivia. You were found near death by a fellow witcher and have been brought to the castle for recovery. The whole experience has left you with amnesia, meaning that the stronghold basically serves as the game's tutorial section. Thanks to an attack by a sorcerer and his small army of Salamandra thugs, you'll be able to relearn how to utilize the game's three primary combat styles and make use of its alchemy and sign systems (more on these later). After the castle has been not-so-successfully defended, the witchers part ways and you'll find yourself outside the city of Vizima where you're able to go about adventuring on your own. The main storyline seems to be fairly linear, but there's nothing stopping you from doing side quests, fighting monsters, ransacking villagers' homes, harvesting herbs, and generally exploring before moving on to each step of your journey.
Control over Geralt can be done from one of three selectable viewpoints - high isometric, low isometric, and OTS (over the shoulder). The high and low isometric viewpoints could best be described as Neverwinter Nights with a zoomed out or zoomed in camera (respectively). OTS places the camera just behind Geralt's left or right arm (whichever you prefer), providing a clear view of everything around you and putting you closer to any combat that takes place. In fact, it's the only viewpoint that will let you see the sky or ceilings. Having tried all three, I finally settled on the OTS viewpoint simply because the game looks better and I feel like I have a better awareness of my surroundings as I travel.
While I'm on the subject, let me also say that the graphics in The Witcher are easily some of the best I've ever seen in a role-playing game. The game might be powered by a 2007 version of BioWare's Aurora engine, but it's leaps and bounds beyond Neverwinter Nights. Using my main gaming rig (which runs Vista and sports a quad-core processor and a GeForce 8800 Ultra), I'm able to play the game at a very high resolution of 2560x1600 with all other graphical settings set to maximum and it looks nothing short of amazing. Smoke billows out of hut chimneys, water laps upon the beach, and light from campfires and torches dances realistically on any nearby objects and buildings. The day/night cycles are particularly worth mentioning - there have been several times that I've literally just stopped to watch the incredibly lifelike sunrise and sunset. Once the sun goes down, the whole countryside is cast into darkness (aside from guards' torches and the light streaming from the windows of inhabited structures) and you'll find yourself using the moonlight or swapping your sword for a torch in order to navigate properly.
Obviously, the system I quoted above is on the high end, so I also loaded the game on my nearly three-year-old Windows XP system with an FX-57 processor and a GeForce 7800GTX. The game still ran great using an above average resolution of 1920x1200 and mid-range graphical settings, which is good to know for those of you planning to install the game on an older system. It's also worth noting that the game ran without a single bug, crash, memory leak, or otherwise unwanted problem on both XP and Vista. Given the experiences I've had with other games on Vista, I'm very happy to report that CD Projekt seems to have conquered both operating systems equally.
The combat system is quite unique. Geralt has six different sword styles at his disposal - strong, fast, and group for both a steel and silver sword. Each of these grants greater effectiveness against particular opponents. If you're going up against a single slow-moving, heavily armored Salamandra lackey, then you should be using the strong style. If, instead, you're surrounded by a group of Ghouls, then the wild maneuvers that make up the group style would be a better fit. You won't have access to the silver sword until a little ways into the game, but you'll find that it makes a better choice for monsters while the steel sword should typically be used against human opponents. Once you've closed into melee range, a single click executes Geralt's initial sword attack. If the attack succeeds and isn't dodged or parried, then Geralt will go through a few motions and your mouse pointer will morph into a flaming sword for a brief period of time. During this window of opportunity, you can click again to chain consecutive combo attacks, each with greater damage potential than your initial swing. Click too early or too late and Geralt will lose his timing, forcing you to restart the combo. The timing really isn't all that difficult to master, so this shouldn't be cause for worry. On the positive side, it does give you the ability to assume an active role during Geralt's fancy swordplay.
Geralt can also use up to five different signs - Aard, Igni, Quen, Axii, and Yrden - which are essentially the game's version of spells. Before you can make use of a sign, though, you must first learn it during the course of the game. For the purposes of this preview, I picked up Aard and Igni within the first dozen hours of gameplay. Aard allows you to launch a concussive blast capable of clearing debris and knocking down your foes (after which you can finish them off with a downward thrust of your sword), while Igni sprays jets of flame from your fingertips that will damage an opponent and potentially start them on fire (therefore doing additional damage over time). Once you've selected one of your available signs, simply clicking the right mouse button will unleash it. Each use of a sign drains your endurance, though the yellow meter seems to regenerate fairly quickly.
As Geralt progresses in levels, he'll earn bronze, silver, or gold talents that can be used to unlock upgrades to any of his four attributes, five signs, three steel sword styles, and three silver sword styles. Underneath each of these fifteen categories is a variety of upgrades that are further broken down into five consecutive levels. Each level has three to four different upgrades, meaning that each of the fifteen categories has around eighteen upgrades in total. Bronze talents will unlock the upgrades in levels 1 and 2, silver talents will unlock the upgrades in levels 3 and 4, and gold talents will unlock the upgrades in level 5. As an example, let's say you've leveled twice and now have six bronze talents to spend. You can distribute these talents across as few or as many categories as you wish. If you want Geralt to specialize in dealing significant damage to one human opponent at a time, then pick up a handful of upgrades under the Strength attribute and steel sword power style. If, instead, you want Geralt to be skilled at alchemy and capable of incinerating his foes, you might want to pick up a few upgrades under the Intelligence and Igni categories. The whole system works surprisingly well and offers quite a bit of diversity.
In addition to the game's main quest, side quests, and witcher contracts, you'll also be able to participate in a few different mini-games. Dice poker and fist fighting are both entertaining and can earn you some extra Orens if you're willing to bet on your skills (and luck). The sex mini-game (if you could call it that) is a little more unusual, however. Throughout the game, Geralt will have the option to sleep with quite a few different women. Every time he "scores" (for lack of a better term), you'll be shown a playing card depicting the woman in a seductive pose. While you're not privy to the events that actually take place betwen Geralt and his female friend, this extra curricular activity can still have some awkward moments. For example, after saving a damsel in distress, she invited Geralt to the old mill outside of Vizima for a little rendezvous as a reward. After bringing the wine she requested, the game switches to a cutscene showing the local residents discussing the possibility that "something haunts the old mill again" due to the, uh, moans coming from within. I can't say I'm familiar with Sapkowski's work, so I can only assume that his novels have a sexual theme embedded in them and the developers felt it was a necessary addition to the game. This mini-game does seem to be entirely optional, though, so you can probably keep Geralt celibate through the whole game if you really want to.
To keep you well-informed about the NPCs you've met, the monsters you've fought, the locations you've discovered, and many other gameplay aspects, the game sports one of the most impressive journal systems I've seen in a video game to date. It's also linked to the gameplay, in that missing journal entries may keep you from taking certain actions. For example, if you haven't previously read about, been told about, or otherwise researched Hellebore Petals (a type of alchemical ingredient), then you can't gather them from the plant that produces them. As another example, if you haven't learned anything about the Bloedzuiger monster, then you won't be able to accept any witcher contracts that deal with slaying such beasts. It's a great system that actually has you spending your hard-earned Orens on books and scrolls from vendors just so you can read up on certain topics and, as a result, add a new entry to your journal that may or may not unlock some additional options for Geralt.
It's also worth mentioning that despite the fact that The Witcher was entirely developed in Poland, the English localization is very well done. The game's voice acting is certainly above average and there have only been a couple of instances where I noticed an oddity in the translated text. Given the track record in this regard for other games that have come out of eastern Europe, I'd have to say that I was pleasantly surprised.
Despite enjoying my time with The Witcher immensely, I do have a few quibbles. Obviously I wasn't playing a gold version of the game, so these items could be ironed out before the game's release later this month. First up is the way Geralt abruptly stops whenever you run him into even the smallest obstacle (some small bushes, a tall weed, or a bit of rubble, for a few examples). If you need to get past something, you're forced to turn a full 90 degrees and walk around it. This also comes into play when you're trying to ascend a flight of stairs. If you don't hit them just right, Geralt will refuse to climb the stairs and often times he'll just strafe to the side of the stairway instead.
The NPC character models could use more diversity, too. While running around the outskirts and streets of Vizima during the day, it's not uncommon to see two or three NPCs that look identical standing within just a few feet of one another. If they're labeled "Old Townsman," "Village Militia," or "Priest," for example, chances are that they are one in the same. It's certainly not game-breaking or anything, but it can ruin the immersion factor somewhat when you see the same character model strolling down the road, cutting some wood, and tending to a garden - all at the same time. On top of that, there are also quite a few loading screens in the game. Once you're in an outdoor area this problem isn't an issue, but expect at least 10 seconds of loading every time you pass through a doorway - even if it's just into a small one-room hut. CD Projekt was kind enough to place some sweet-looking concept art on all of the loading screens (that even change depending on whether it's day or night), though, so at least there's something to stare at during the transition.
Those few issues aside, The Witcher is quite an achievement. Its unique take on character development and combat combined with a healthy dose of dialogue, a comprehensive journal system, a well-developed alchemy system, and distinctive art style make it a welcome change compared to what we've been seeing from other RPGs lately. While it doesn't quite reach perfection, CD Projekt's debut title is probably the best CRPG I've played in years. Gamers looking for a fulfilling, mature-themed, single player role-playing experience should definitely pick the game up when it hits store shelves later this month.