Don't be afraid of change. Even though The Witcher may scare off some people with inventive combat that replaces comfortable old rapid-fire clicking with rhythmic sword swinging, there is no need to avoid one of the deepest, most adult role-playing games to hit the PC in years. Polish developer CD Projekt has crafted one of those landmark games that moves the goalposts for everybody, a truly grown-up take on swords and sorcery that breaks just about every fantasy tradition in the book. Once you experience a grimy medieval world so realistic that you can practically smell it, quests that reject simplistic good and evil for ambiguous "decisions and consequences," and, yes, newfangled battle mechanics that add welcome twists to left-click scrapping, you'll find it awfully hard to go back to the usual D&D rip-off.
Built on a 2007 edition of the Aurora Engine that powers Neverwinter Nights, The Witcher is something of a cross between action RPGs such as Diablo and more complex plate-mail potboilers such as Neverwinter Nights. Essentially, the developers work both sides of the street. On the one hand, you have exactly one character choice in the form of greasy-haired Geralt of Rivia, the monster-hunting mercenary "witcher" of the title, along with other ostensibly dumbed-down features such as big bunches of combat and Gatling-gun-quick leveling up. But on the other hand, you also get a postwar fantasy world called Temeria that feels lived in (if not postapocalyptic), as well as plot points that involve serious moral choices. Story and setting have been borrowed from The Last Wish, a Polish fantasy novel published way back in 1990 by Andrzej Sapkowski, and for once such an adaptation has been pulled off successfully.
Although there is a fair bit of saving-the-world RPG claptrap involving a powerful evil mage and a mysterious group called the Salamanders, you deal with a lot of lowlifes. Woman-hating religious fanatics; merchants who deal in abducted children; slatternly bar wenches who'll bed down with you for a bottle of wine; witches who sell poison and play with voodoo dolls; racists who openly hate nonhumans and threaten to kill elves and dwarves. Make no mistake: Although there are a lot of traditional, Gygaxian monsters on the prowl here--barghests, wargs, ghouls, drowned undead, vampires, wraiths, wyverns, and loads of different demons--the biggest enemy that Geralt faces is always his fellow humans. You're not much of a hero, either. Requests for assistance can be turned down. Money is always a factor, even when you decide to be a good guy and lend a helping hand. And you have no problem taking advantage of just about every woman you encounter, having pre-marital relations with a handful of babes in every act of the game despite apparently being in love with one of your fellow witchers.
It shouldn't be much of a surprise that the line between good and evil here isn't a very thick one. Everything is a murky gray. The first act is simply astonishing in how it plays out. You start off trying to track down the bad guys who raided your witcher fortress and killed one of your pals, but soon get involved in a feud that pits the religious leader and nobles of a hamlet against a witch. However, nobody's hands are clean. One merchant you deal with is in cahoots with the evil cult you're hunting. A guard you help with a ghoul problem turns out to be a rapist. The village priest you're helping cleanse the region of a demonic dog called "the Beast" is actually a misogynistic lunatic. And the witch isn't much better, given that she's sold poison used in a suicide and employed a voodoo doll to make one of the local bigwigs kill his brother. By the end of the act, in a showdown complete with burning torches and pitchforks, you're forced to choose between the woman-hating, rape-loving, cult-affiliated mob and the murdering witch. It makes the most sense to side with the witch because the villagers are an awfully sleazy lot, but doing so forces you to slaughter virtually all of them and leave their town burned to the ground.
So no, The Witcher sure isn't all sunshine and lollipops. But even though you might need a few Prozac pills to handle the game's bleak tone, the story becomes incredibly compelling when you have so much riding on your actions. Characters seem like real people, not the good-evil-neutral triad of stereotypes that populate most fantasy games. Only a few aspects of the story and setting remind you that you're just playing a game.
A lot of this is probably due to poor translation from the original Polish. Dialogue seems truncated in many spots, which leaves you in the dark as to character motivations. You know something important has just taken place, and the interface clearly points out what you're supposed to be doing, but the big picture doesn't completely come together.
Swearing and bizarre word choices are another issue. One moment you're cruising along listening to fairly standard RPG conversations, and then you're hit with out-of-the-blue modern slang and "F" bombs. It's pretty jarring to hear the leader of your witcher band calling a female team member "babe," let alone to hear Geralt disgustingly grunt "Abso-f***ing-lutely!" Voice acting often lacks authority as well, which highlights these strange lines. Fellow adventurers look like grizzled warriors but sound more like high schoolers. The actor who voices Geralt tries too hard, like a kid attempting a deep, gravelly voice so he can fool the counter jockey at the corner store into selling him a six-pack. Likewise, the youngest member of your group has all the gravitas of Potsie Weber (for a reason, it soon turns out).
Interactions between the sexes are also risqué in a corny way that would rev up only Beavis and Butthead. It's ridiculous enough that the side quests in every act let Geralt get horizontal with virtually every woman he meets, but it's just pathetic that each conquest is rewarded with a playing card that depicts the lovely lass in a come-hither pose. There isn't even any real payoff with these pics, either, given that the nudity that appeared in the European version of the game has been censored due to prudish Stateside sensibilities. (Thank you, Hot Coffee controversy.) At any rate, the sex is ludicrous and out of place, and is apparently there only to give game geeks hope that a fellow guy with lanky, unwashed hair and corpse-pale skin can score with hot babes.
The game's mechanics are a little more reserved, although CD Projekt has tried to slightly jazz up everything that fantasy gamers take for granted. Combat mechanics are the biggest change. Instead of the traditional left-click attacks employed by virtually every other real-time RPG this side of the cult-hit Gothic series, melee fighting here is based on give-and-take combos. You click once on an enemy to begin an attack sequence, then click again precisely when the sword-swinging ends to begin a second flourish, and then again and again to string together combos. Miss your moment at any point and it's back to square one.
This sounds pretty simple, but it doesn't work so well at the beginning. The game starts with few unhelpful tips on how to fight on all three difficulty settings, and on hard there is no obvious visual feedback indicating when to click again to link a second attack to your first. You're supposed to take click cues from a twirling sound and visual indicators like a flaming sword slash, but this information is buried more than 20 pages into the manual. In order to figure things out from a hands-on perspective, you need to play on easy or medium difficulty, which removes all doubt about when to click by turning the combat icon into a flaming sword. Then you pretty quickly pick up on the visual and audio cues provided during Geralt's actual fighting. When you do get used to things and want to try a more challenging difficulty setting, however, as both easy and medium are a little elementary at times (aside from some of the boss battles), you have to restart the game. Still, even with the poor introduction, it's hard not to love the combat system. Battles are only a little more involved than the standard clickfest stuff, yet the mechanics always make you think about what you're doing and provide real satisfaction when you take out tough foes. Attacks also simply look cool, especially when you're jumping around slinging your sword in all directions in the middle of a pack of monsters.
Three different fighting styles as well as a skill system with more listings than the Manhattan yellow pages add to the cerebral workout. You can change your battle stance between fast, strong, and group, each of which makes you better able to handle speedy, muscular, and gangs of enemies, respectively (the last of which lets you make sweeping swings that hit multiple bad guys at once). The one catch is that these styles can be employed only while wielding witcher steel or silver swords, which makes a lot of the other weapons that you find during the course of the game pretty much useless. Each style can also be tweaked with the talent points earned every time that you level up (which happens early and often; expect to cruise beyond level 30 before wrapping Geralt's adventures). All of your other characteristics can also be upgraded, from your attributes to your abilities with both types of witcher sword, as well as your aptitude for the signs that make up the game's spellcasting component.
Every category has five levels, and each sports four different related skills. For example, you get started in strength by taking the basic level-one ability to buff attacks and then move on to specific proficiencies such as Cut at the Jugular, which increases enemy bleeding damage after successful attacks, or Bloody Rage, which boosts damage done by 40 percent whenever your vitality dips below 15 percent. CD Projekt even shows a bit of a sense of humor with some skills. For instance, buzz means that your attacks are improved when drunk. The only negative with the skill system is that it seems to force you into a jack-of-all-trades configuration where you're talented as both a warrior and a spellcaster. Consequently, players who like to hardcore specialize in a class are out of luck here.
At any rate, magic isn't actually as big a deal here as it is in most other fantasy RPGs. The five signs featured are fairly generic takes on the elements and the basic D&D schools of magic that let you blast off fireballs, charm enemies, set up protective globes, and that sort of thing. Basically, the signs just give you alternate attacks with the right mouse button. More mystical depth is provided by alchemy. Witchers are notoriously good with magical concoctions, and as such Geralt can acquire various recipes that let him brew up potions and oils that heal, enhance weapons, and so forth. It actually seems as if you're really cooking something up, too, because you have to meditate before an open fire (you level up and assign talent points in the same fashion). However, as with most of these brew-your-own systems in RPGs, you don't have to get too involved with the creation of your own noxious chemicals, aside from the odd quest that makes doing so a key part of fulfilling an objective.
As you might expect from the grim moments catalogued above, The Witcher is pretty dour when it comes to look and sound. The Aurora Engine has never looked better, and it's hard to believe that this thing dates back to Neverwinter Nights in 2002. Landscapes are generally gorgeous, and the characters are all distinctive (if a bit cartoonish), but the graphics deal in awfully bleak scenery. Many stone buildings in the game are either run-down or falling down. Villages consist of ramshackle huts constructed with wattle and daub and topped with straw roofs. Skies always seem to be a dim steel gray, and rain pours down pretty much every other day. NPCs are filthy, and often come with various scars and minor disfigurements. There are two main camera angles, over-the-shoulder and isometric, although the former is the best choice because it provides the best perspective on everything. The controls are smooth even close-up.
Audio effects and music are perfect counterparts to the look of this shattered world. Little kids skip around while talking about death and playing crude pranks like pissing in the dwarf's bellows. Women can be overheard setting up assignations with their lovers. And all of this is surrounded with subtle, creepy tunes loaded with offbeat tones and sparse organ notes. The superb soundtrack is particularly effective at night; the gothic organ plinking under the moonlight makes you shiver like someone just walked over your grave.
Memorable story, immersive combat, fascinating characters--what's not to like? A few fit-and-finish issues mean that The Witcher isn't quite an all-time classic RPG. Regardless, it's awfully, awfully close, warts and all, and it provides a new benchmark for future developers that are looking to lift their games out of the done-to-death elf-and-orc ghetto.
Editor's Note: The original review text stated that the tutorial did not display visual cues for combat on the normal difficulty level, which is incorrect. GameSpot regrets the error.