Four and a half years ago, Polish developer CDProjekt began work on what was essentially a Diablo clone. Around a year and a half into the project, it decided to scrap what it had built and begin again with a new direction and forge what we now know as third-person RPG The Witcher.
The Witcher, for the uninitiated, is based on the fantasy works of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, but features a unique storyline set a few years after Sapkowski's books. The star of the piece is Geralt, the Witcher of the title, a professional monster-slayer and reluctant hero who masters in the arts of sword combat, magic and alchemy.
CDProjekt believes the game's a true piece of innovation in the traditional RPG genre, citing the game's hero, its combat, its mature and unique setting and what it describes as a complex and branching storyline as elements that combine to make the whole something new.
Those who have been following The Witcher will know that in the past the developer's spoken of the game world's gritty nature, where there's no clear black and white division but rather presents players with a world of grey moral areas; a place, indeed, where the element of choice is emphasised and decisions made affect the outcome of the story and your adventuring playground.
Bold claims, but does it all work in practice? CDProjekt's chief designer Michal Madej recently dropped in to demo the game to us, revealing a sprawling medieval-like fantasy world of villages, cities and fields that, dare we say it, felt fresh and noticeably different to worlds we've adventured in before, the environments impressive along with non-player characters not afraid to use you to achieve their own nefarious goals.
CAUSE AND EFFECT
Here's a good example: one particular scene we were shown found Geralt protecting crates of goods from monsters on behalf on an NPC. Sounds boring, right? Well, monsters dispatched, the hero was suddenly approached by an elf demanding to trade for the goods. Instead, Geralt attacked and kills the elf - and the elf's cohorts. It turns out, originally unbeknownst to Geralt, that the death of the elf was actually the NPC's ultimate goal.
Madej then took us further into the game to explain how Geralt's actions have affected the storyline - they've resulted in the execution of a potential ally. And just to reveal how things would have been different had Geralt traded with the elf, we're then shown what's essentially a terrorist group attacking an inn and killing occupants with the goods - which were weapons, it turns out - from the crates.
Clever, yes, and the developer's constructed the game in such a way that the effect of choices made often aren't realised until several hours further down the line. The idea behind this is to stop players using saves to cheat the system and reload their game position to make the decision they believe the developer intended. We've been told there's three different endings to the game, but quite how eager you'll be to replay through 60 to 80 hours of adventure will depend on your experience the first time around.
CREATE A HERO
Speaking of experience, RPG traditions levelling up and character development are very much a part of The Witcher. Levelling up rewards you with points that can been spent on various skills like animal skinning and herb gathering and boost the likes of melee combat and magical powers. While combat in the game is essentially real-time, it sits somewhere between Dark Messiah and, say Dungeon Siege. You left-click on an enemy to attack and then, depending on your melee combat abilities, can chain together up to five attacks in a sequence when you're prompted to left-click again by the on-screen cursor. Or you can right-click to unleash a spell.