The Witcher is one of the last games that we saw before E3 2005 closed its doors for good, but it's certainly an eye-catching one. This debut role-playing game from Poland's CDProjekt is based on the popular fantasy novels from Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski, and it uses a heavily modified version of Bioware's Aurora engine, the same one that powers Neverwinter Nights.
It's a bit difficult to describe the plot and setting of the game, as the Polish novels that it is based on haven't been translated to English yet. However, the game puts you in control of a character known as Geralt of Rivia, the main character in Sapkowski's novels. Geralt is a witcher, or basically an elite warrior trained and mutated from childhood to battle monsters in a medieval-like fantasy world. This isn't your typical fantasy world with clearly defined good and evil, though. Geralt lives in a morally ambiguous world, which is something that the developers are hoping to capture by giving you the ability to make a series of moral choices throughout the game. The sum of these choices will lead to one of the three different endings.
In the novels, Geralt is something of a lone wolf, a mercenary, a famed lover (which gets him into trouble with overly amorous and powerful women), and an outcast. This means that characters will react very strongly to Geralt, from hatred to jealously to suspicion, through the game. Sapkowski himself is assisting in The Witcher's development, mainly by providing input on the game's story. The game will feature three interweaving plotlines, more than 2,000 pages of dialogue, and enough secondary quests to bump the game's length to around 50 hours. Of course, the three different endings will lend a lot to replayability, so it should be possible to milk The Witcher for quite a bit more gameplay.
CDProjekt wants to "redefine" the role-playing genre, so while The Witcher looks like a traditional action role-playing game on the surface, it has a bit more depth to it underneath the hood. For example, the combat system doesn't follow the traditional role-playing game system where you simply click on an enemy and then sit back and watch as your character swings a sword until it is dead. Instead, the combat system is very action-oriented, so you'll have to control the swings of the sword by clicking the mouse button.
However, there's more to combat than simply clicking on the mouse button. Each witcher carries two swords: a silver sword for slaying monsters and a steel sword for human foes. Each sword has three combat styles that you can select from, depending on the situation. But wait, there's more. The skill system is both horizontal and vertical, meaning that you can choose to increase your abilities up a level, thus gaining more power, or increase your abilities throughout a level. For example, if you have a level-3 ability in steel sword fighting, you can upgrade to level 4 for more power, or you can invest in level-3 steel sword upgrades that give you an increased critical strike, or an equivalent improvement. The skill system isn't just for combat, either, as you will have a chance to increase skills and abilities related to intelligence, dexterity, and stamina.
Witchers also have access to a limited number of signs, which are spell-like abilities, such as fireballs or magical shields. They are also alchemists of a sort, and they can create a variety of elixirs that give them almost magical abilities, such as the ability to see in the dark. At higher skill levels, they can create even more powerful elixirs, so the ability to see in the dark can be enhanced with the ability to see thermal heat signatures through walls. However, these elixirs are poisonous, so a witcher cannot imbibe too many of them at once, else they'll slow to a halt.
CDProjekt has made extensive modifications to the Aurora engine, even going so far as removing the tile-based nature of the engine. The result is a beautiful-looking game that takes advantage of DirectX 9 graphical effects, such as realistic water. In fact, The Witcher looks nothing like Neverwinter Nights, even though it uses the same engine. Neverwinter Nights has a drab, uniform look, while The Witcher looks like a beautiful 3D action game. We saw beautiful medieval towns and villages, as well as the battles inside a sewer. And to top it off, the game features motion-captured animation, as well as Karma-based physics.
We came out of the Witcher demo impressed. It represents the first game by CDProjekt, a company that made its name in Poland and Central Europe by translating and distributing localized versions of Baldur's Gate and other American games. However, The Witcher looks like it takes the good parts from all those games and combines them into an intriguing whole. We'll see next year, which is when The Witcher is expected to ship. CDProjekt says that it will publish the game in its native market itself, but it is also in discussions to find a North American publisher.