Stories in fantasy role-playing games are often an exercise in black and white. There's often a noble protagonist (your character) who usually starts out as an orphan or peasant unaware of his or her destiny, and then there's some unspeakable, monstrous evil that wants to take over the world for no reason apart from that it's there. But what happens when you play a fantasy RPG where you have to continually choose what you think is the lesser of two evils? That's what Atari and Polish developer CD Projekt are aiming for with The Witcher, an ambitious RPG based on the works of Polish fantasy writer Andrzej Sapkowski. With The Witcher finally nearing the end of development, we got a good look at how the game goes about creating a morally hazy world. Please note that this preview contains minor plot spoilers.
You play as Geralt of Rivia, one of the last of the witchers, or professional monster slayers. Witchers aren't normal human beings, but rather magically mutated killers with superfast reflexes, limited magic ability, extraordinary weapon skills, and a resistance to poison. But since they're basically mutants, they encounter hostility and prejudice in many human towns. Because the game picks up approximately five years after the end of the book's saga, The Witcher will feature a new story for fans of the series; but it's also very accessible to those who haven't heard of the books. That's because Geralt "dies" in the last novel, but somehow is resurrected without his memory in the game. His amnesia means that he has to relearn everything in the world.
Like the novels, the game will deal with many contemporary themes--an impressive feat considering that this is a medieval fantasy world populated by elves, dwarves, and other magical creatures. The game will touch upon ideas like terrorism, genetic manipulation, and racism. And one of the core principles of the game is that you inhabit a world where your actions will have plenty of unintended and unforeseen consequences. A lot of RPGs offer the illusion of choice, but many times the choices are fairly simple. For instance, you often get a choice between good and evil paths. In The Witcher, the choices are a lot murkier, and often you won't know the results of your decision until much later in the game, so you can't easily go back to a previous save point and explore the other option if you don't like how things turned out.
For example, one of the big choices in the game occurs if Geralt manages to get a simple job guarding a cache of weapons along a riverside. In the middle of Geralt's watch, a group of elves and dwarves appear for the weapons. You can either let them pay you off so they can take the weapons, or you can kill them. Either choice will net you the same reward, so there's no fiscal advantage for making one choice over another. It all comes down to your moral decision.
The consequences of your choice won't become clear until much later, as much as 10 or 12 hours in gameplay time. If you decide to let the elves and dwarves have the weapons, you'll eventually discover that they are using them against innocent civilians in their insurgency. Even worse, they kill an important non-player character, and his death removes a plotline and quests from the game. However, if you decide to kill the elves and dwarves, you'll eventually discover that their deaths sparked an investigation by the authorities. It turns out that you inadvertently are the cause of the insurgency's downfall, as the authorities identify the remaining rebel members and ringleaders, including another important NPC. His removal from the game denies you his plotline and quests. Note that there's no "good" option here; in either case, someone important to you is going to die. And the outcomes aren't something that you could have predicted, either. Over the course of the game, the consequences of your choices begin to cascade, and the state of the world can change wildly depending on your decisions.
The depth of storytelling in The Witcher makes it one of the more interesting RPGs in recent years, but the game also has plenty else to admire. One neat aspect of the game is that there are two ways of playing it. If you're a fan of top-down RPGs, such as Baldur's Gate or Neverwinter Nights, you can play The Witcher from a top-down perspective, in which case you use the mouse to control everything. However, if you like behind-the-back, third-person RPGs along the lines of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, you can play The Witcher this way and use the keyboard and mouse for controls.
The combat system in The Witcher represents a departure from most RPGs. First, you have to choose one of three different fighting styles. The quick fighting style lets you make fast jabs that don't deliver a lot of damage. Then there's the heavy fighting style, which is a slower style that lets you make powerful attacks; imagine a swordsman raising his sword over his head to deliver a crushing blow. Finally, there's the group fighting style, which features a lot of sweeping attacks that are best used if you're surrounded by foes. Regardless of the style that you choose, it's important that you maintain a rhythm in a swordfight. If you rapidly tap the mouse button, like you do in many RPGs, you'll interrupt Geralt's natural movements. Through practice, you'll discover the optimal moments when to hit the mouse button to initiate an attack. The system requires some skill, but that was the goal, as the designers felt that combat in many RPGs was either too automated or too mindless.
The Witcher is also an undeniably good-looking game, and it features one of the most realistic depictions of a medieval world that we've seen--granted, it's also one full of elves and other mystical creatures. You'll run around a lush, lifelike world full of animal life and weather effects as well as authentic-looking medieval towns and castles. CD Projekt rewrote a vast majority of BioWare's Aurora engine, which powered Neverwinter Nights, and the results speak for themselves: The Witcher looks absolutely nothing like that game.
All this makes The Witcher look to be one of the year's most promising RPGs. The game has come a long way since we first saw it a couple of years ago, and the thought of a morally complex story, along with a distinctive character and setting, should appeal to those looking for a slightly more mature take on the role-playing genre.