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While The Witcher kicks off with the somewhat overused "hero with amnesia" bit, you'll quickly realize that Geralt is not your typical hero and that the world you're traveling through is considerably different than what you've seen in previous role-playing games. Temeria is a land plagued with serious social issues and political conflicts, which (for better or worse) makes it a far more believable place than the usual high fantasy settings we've seen in other games. As Geralt, you'll spend a lot more time working with battered prostitutes, power-hungry political figures, and a womanizing bard than, say, a friendly farmer who's tired of wolves killing his livestock. Your primary goals are to recover the witchers' stolen secrets and to seek out another witcher named Berengar, though you'll soon discover that there's a plethora of other contracts, quests, and other loose ends to take care of along the way. Rest assured, you'll never run out of things to do, as you'll usually have access to at least a few different quests at any given time.
As you progress through the game, you'll encounter both trustworthy and seedy characters, many of whom are figureheads for various far-reaching organizations, such as the Salamandra, Scoia'tael, Temerian intelligence service, and Order of the Flaming Rose. At pivotal points of the game, these very same characters will present Geralt with tough decisions with no obvious answer. These decisions usually deal with Geralt's humanity (or lack thereof) toward others or his stance toward an opposing organization. Should you slay the guard captain stricken with lycanthropy or let him continue preying upon Vizima's criminals and other degenerates? Should you "free" the blue-eyed lass from her alleged vampiric keepers, as her brother requests, or keep an open mind to what might really be going on? Do you ally yourself with the Order of the Flaming Rose, take a stance with the non-humans, or pursue a neutral role? The results of such decisions aren't typically made known until much further into the game, so each one requires careful thought. Regardless of which routes you choose, The Witcher's storyline hosts a considerable number of plot twists and angles that will have you speculating all the way up until the final moments of the game.
Without a doubt, The Witcher is a mature-themed game. In addition to dealing with some tough real world issues, sex, violence, and foul language are in abundance. Typically, this adds a considerable amount of realism to the game, but there are times when it does go a little over the top. Most of these instances are for the sake of a little comedy relief, but I couldn't help but shake my head when Princess Adda demanded to see Geralt's "sword" or when the monster-slaying protagonist told the Lady of the Lake that she has a nice ass. If you don't give in to Geralt's apparent promiscuity, however, these moments are few and far between and don't detract from the overall experience.
As I mentioned in my earlier preview, The Witcher sports some of the best graphics ever seen in a role-playing game. In addition to the amazing architecture found in the city of Vizima, there are a number of unique and diversified landscapes that Geralt will explore, including the shores of a massive lake, a desolate swamp cemetery, and a vast plain of ice. Not only are all of these areas pleasing on the eyes, but they're actually believable. CD Projekt has achieved a unique and consistent art style that forms a world that you'll swear could conceivably exist. The only complaints I have are the lack of unique character models, a few obscure character animations during dialogue cutscenes, and a couple of rare but obvious clipping issues with Geralt's weapons. These are small quibbles in an otherwise amazing graphical experience, though.
The game's music, sound effects, and voice acting ranges from average to excellent, depending on what area you're exploring and who you're talking to. Some high points include the game's appropriate combat theme, the upbeat performances by local bands at the game's various inns, the realistic sounds of Geralt's sword cutting through flesh and bone, and our protagonist's crude but convincing attitude while speaking. Atari and CD Projekt have done a solid job with all of the English voiceovers for the most part, though this is the one aspect of the game's sound that could have used a little extra work. There will be times when an NPC's voice will suddenly rise or lower in volume for no apparent reason. There are even times when it seemed as though a different person might have voiced certain lines for the same NPC, though there's no way of really knowing for sure.
Beyond the storyline, graphics, and sound, it's also worth mentioning that the game features an excellent quest system that automatically updates your journal as you finish each step of a quest. This is a must-have feature, given the sheer number of quests that you'll be participating in. You're also given the option to track the next quest step through the game's automap, which is quite useful when you're not sure where to go next. Despite its user-friendliness, however, I couldn't help but feel like there were way too many fetch quests in The Witcher. While there are several thought-provoking quests as well, I'd wager that half of the game's quests simply have you running back and forth across one or more zones to acquire certain ingredients, deliver a message, or kill a specific creature. This might be standard fare for most RPGs, but the game's many loading screens can make finishing these types of quests a long, drawn out affair. The alchemy system helps alleviate some of the running around you'll do, though, as it makes the hundreds of monsters that you'll wind up slaying along the way that much more rewarding. With nearly 50 potions, oils, and bombs available for Geralt to cook up, you'll have to both harvest herbs from (known) plants and skin useful ingredients from slain monsters.
Minor issues aside, I thoroughly enjoyed The Witcher from beginning to end and feel that the game is triumphant on several different fronts. Not only does it significantly raise the bar in terms of stability and localization for European releases, but it also packs an intriguing story, a distinct art style, several unique character development options, a large number of interesting NPCs, and a good 60-80 hours worth of gameplay. It might not quite compete with the amount of time one could easily spend with a game like Baldur's Gate II, but it's one of the few RPGs that's come relatively close since then, which is testament alone that the team's intentions were in the right place. Despite The Witcher being their first stab at game development, CD Projekt has succeeded in crafting one of the best role-playing games I've played in years. If you've finished Mask of the Betrayer and are looking for another good CRPG fix, then The Witcher comes highly recommended.