Friday, December 7, 2012

The Great Game Of Witchers

In 2007 a small Eastern European game developer (CD PROJEKT RED)...shows BIOWARE how to use their own Aurora engine. The original Witcher was the game that Neverwinter Nights had promised (but never managed) to be. Two years later BIOWARE picks up the glove and comes back with a strong response, the masterpiece Dragon Age: Origins. Unfortunately, its sequel, Dragon Age 2, does not live up to expectations. And this is all the opening the perfect sequel needed to come in and, once more, steal the show.

There was to be an Xbox version of this game (and, probably a PS3 one later on). Nevertheless, The Witcher 2 is a game designed from start to finish for the PC. In an age when 7-8 years old consoles set the standard this is very important. From the brand new engine to the very last script line, everything that could be recreated from scratch was and everything that could be improved shows improvement.  
The story is now even deeper; the graphics are several notches higher (even better than most modern First-Person Shooters); character development has been both streamlined and more balanced; equipping Geralt is now more detailed whereas loot is abundant.
It is possible (although not necessary) to import your character from the first Witcher. If, like me, you liked the original game, you will simply love the sequel.

The graphics are simply A-MA-ZING! I like the way the rock formations catch the moving shadows and how the wind stirs up dust. I like the subtle movement of the grass and the exploding colors of the wild flowers. I like the textures of the clothes, the shine of the armor and the glint of the swords. I like the way the sun gets in your eyes and the way rays of light play with the tree foliage.
What is also important, these graphics and dynamic lighting are achieved even on medium-built systems. Even more impressively, the game is set in a day/night cycle, and this is reflected not only on the levels of ambient light but also on the activities of the surrounding world.

Remember how in most RolePlaying games approaching a Non-Playing Character (NPC) usually means he or she would utter any one of a small number of preset phrases? After a while, you have heard them all and it got very predictable. Well, prepare to be surprised. Again and again.
This is a world you will truly be immersed into. A world that wakes up, goes to work, gossips, bickers and barters, and unwinds in the tavern. Walk the same streets at night and they are eerily empty. And that is without taking into account the ever changing weather!
The immersion is so total for yet two other reasons: not only is the world fully open from the very beginning (no blocked areas or closed bridges!) but there are no loading delays between areas (only between chapters).

Geralt is a real warlock, combining a mix of sword fighting with potions and spells. These are the three main character developing trees, Swordmaster, Alchemist or Mage. Sword moves, potion ingredients and spells can be combined - and all choices are meticulously balanced.
With the original Witcher it took me a while to master the timed sword-strokes - but it was really satisfying after that. In the sequel, sword-fighting has been simplified to the classic mod - and that is one of the gripes I have with this game (yes, us gamers are sure fickle!). The other is the short dialogue options. I like my cRPGs wordy.
Now, the story is far from being linear. Choices matter and choosing a path will bifurcate the story, most of the times irrevocably. And the story in The Witcher 2 is as important as the fighting.
What I also appreciated was the return of consequences. Those of you who have played Baldur's Gate Saga know that bashing or picking the lock of a chest was a punishable offense if anyone saw you. In contrast, in Dragon Age: Origins you could rob the town blind and (quite unrealistically) the NPCs could not care less. Well, in this game, your character better behave or face the ever vigilant guards.

The first retail versions of this game came with a simple disc-check, implemented by SecuROM. If you own Fallout 3, for example, you have experienced the same thing. Compared to the customer-abusing schemes out there (UBISOFT's and 2K-GAMES' ears should be burning at this point) I find this solution not ideal but palatable. And yet it gets better: the game is now DRM-FREE!  
Even from launch, acknowledging the fact that most gamers would rather not have to deal even with this mild version of DRM, the developers made sure to also release a (digital) GOG version of the game which was DRM-free. Then, the very first patch (and all patches can be applied by simply using the game's launcher), removed all traces of the DRM. The Enhanced edition that came later was DRM-free from the very beginning.
Just for thinking like a gamer and truly respecting their customers, CD PROJEKT RED gets full marks in my books!

I have only praises for this magnificent sequel to a great game. It was one of the rare cases when I pre-ordered a game before I knew anything about it and was rewarded with a game that exceeded my highest expectations.  I do have some advice for the game developers though.
First, keep showing the same respect to your customers and you will see that gamers know how to repay this with equal respect and loyalty. And finally, when the mega-publishers show up at your door with their mesmerizing bags of money, try to remember what happened to so many great game developing groups in the past that did not resist to temptation.

With my Highest Recommendations!
(and not only because, as promised, all of their past and future DLCs are free!)

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