CDProjekt has collaborated with Canadian studio BioWare for many years, having acted as a distributor for such games as Baldur's Gate II and Neverwinter Nights in Eastern Europe. Now the Polish company is trying its hand at development with The Witcher, an action role-playing game based on the best-selling Polish novels of the same name. The game will be powered by BioWare's Aurora engine--the same graphics engine that powered the award-winning Neverwinter Nights.
Like other action RPGs, such as Diablo, The Witcher will attempt to offer fast-paced action, but it will also attempt to offer what the CDProjekt team describes as a "deep story." In the game, you'll play as the titular Witcher. As he appears in the original fantasy fiction, the Witcher will not be an idealist, but rather a cynical monster hunter in a world of characters with dubious motivations. The Witcher belongs to a brotherhood of mercenaries that hunt monsters by trade--this peculiar vocation has led to subtle changes in these mercenaries' bodies that empower them with superhuman abilities, but inspire fear and distrust among common folk.
As we saw, the Witcher will hold his adventures in a world where there are no clear-cut evil or good characters; the game will actually have three distinct endings that you'll see depending on your own actions. We watched the Witcher encounter a pair of decrepit zombies that summoned him to their master, a necromancer wearing black robes. We found out then that the necromancer wasn't necessarily a horrible villain, but rather he was a grieving man who had recently lost his wife and had resorted to malefic sorcery to resurrect her. The fledgling wizard had unwittingly conjured the zombies, who he hates and fears, and he asks you to rid him of them. You can opt to help him by slaying the zombies, turn on him and attack all three, or simply go on your merry way. In another sequence, we watched the Witcher confront a grave robber who was standing watch at the mouth of a tomb on behalf of his comrades. While we were offered the choice of attacking the robber, we instead talked our way past him and entered the grave where we encountered the robber's cohorts who demanded to know our business. After threatening them once, then apologizing, the Witcher managed to avoid a conflict. However, from then on the distrustful grave robbers told us nothing but pretty lies about how they were actually upstanding citizens who were just visiting the tomb in search of a certain variety of medicinal mushrooms.
Though the game will have a number of vignettes, it will very much be an RPG that allows you to develop your character's skills and abilities over time. You'll also be able to fight with one of three fighting styles: a defensive sword-and-shield style, an offense-oriented dual-swords style, and a balanced style that lets the Witcher use his magical "gestures" in battle. The game's combat system will require decent reflexes, but it will reward highly skillful play. You'll go into battle with a queue of various actions, including different kinds of sword attacks and different magic spells. As the Witcher is performing his combat animations, you must click your mouse at the exact moment his weapon or spell connects with the enemy. Perfectly timing your mouse-click lets you move along your queued series of attacks. If you time each swing perfectly, your last attack will be a spectacular finishing blow that can obliterate many groups of enemies at once, and it will provide you with a substantial bonus of experience points.
From what we've seen, The Witcher seems to make good use of the Aurora engine's ability to render fairly complex environments with a handful of characters, a variety of animation, and special effects onscreen all at once, with little to no drop in performance. CDProjekt has made heavy modifications to the engine so that the game's environments are no longer tile-based (as they were in Neverwinter Nights), and to allow for a number of new special effects, like the game's good-looking water. The Witcher will most likely be released some time next year.