28th Nov 2007 | 15:17
Make a wishlist of everything you'd hope to see in an RPG. Dark, twisty plot? Check. Moral dilemmas? Check. Sex scenes with pictures of boobies and everything? Check. Non-linear world? Check. Albino Viggo Mortensen? Check.
This action-RPG certainly tries to give the people what they want. But then, so does a pop band formed by the votes of a reality TV show audience.
The plot? Oh, must I? Evil-hunting, potion-swilling, mutant magic dude Albino Viggo Mortensen becomes Some Fantasy World's greatest hero, disappears mysteriously, returns several years later with, oh yes, amnesia (another mandatory entry on the 'Is This An RPG?' Checklist), sets about saving Some Fantasy World and sleeps with lots of red-haired ladies.
In other words, charmless, cutscene-bloated nonsense, throwing out the occasional nice idea (eg, dwarves and elves are societal outcasts because more or less every human is a thumping great racist). But it's never enough to compensate for the charisma-free lead character.
This is a reasonable time-passer but never a memorable one. Stats and levelling are boiled down to big, friendly icons, most problems can be resolved by hitting things with a sword, and there's an occasionally convincing illusion of freedom. Fun can be had.
The production values are fairly high: towns and cities impressively bustle with AI life going about its AI business and the quality of voice acting is vastly superior to Oblivion's droning am-drams. It's certainly a big game too, with plenty of tasks major and minor to occupy your swordhand. Unfortunately, most of these involving running a very long way to get there, and then a very long way back again afterwards. Running is boring, especially when there's not even a jump button to help you shortcut over the omnipresent tiny fences.
Travel aside, many of the quests are more compelling than the plot they're furthering, often challenging your conscience as much as your blade. Every notable NPC has some agenda, and it's up to you to decide whose is nobler. Your progress isn't hugely hampered by your choices, but there are enough consequences - sometimes hours later - to convince you your decision mattered.
Less impressively, these choices are usually presented in such a manner that you have to make a snap judgement, based either on whose voice you like most or on evidence that the game shoves in your face.
You're able, for instance, to decry someone as a rapist based only on someone else telling you he is mere moments earlier. I had to pick an answer in this case because it was necessary to progress, not because I'd had the chance to make an informed decision. I'm not in the habit of telling men I barely know that they're rapists based on hearsay, so I don't see why Albino Viggo should get away with doing so.
I rather suspect, regardless of generic-o-plot, that The Witcher would be a fun old time if it wasn't for its combat. I admire it for attempting something other than either the Diablo/Oblivion school of click-click-kill or the Neverwinter Nights/World of Warcraft push-number-key-and-wait. I don't admire it for coming up with something from a '90s golf game.
It goes something like this: wave the little sword icon over an enemy, click and hold the button down. Realise it's not worked, try again. Eventually a circle appears around the icon and Albino Viggo will start swording. Keep holding until the icon turns orange. Click nownownow to activate a stronger attack, unless the enemy has moved slightly. Repeat.
It's infuriatingly vague, and worse, it feels entirely disconnected from all the heroic chopping, stabbing and pirouetting Albino Viggo is busy doing on-screen. There's a further level of cheerless complexity in that you need to alter your stance and/or switch to a different kind of weapon depending on the type of enemy you're fighting.
You can pour your upgrade points into improving specific stances or weapon abilities, but the efficacy of this is entirely at the whim of what foe the game throws at you, and so ends up feeling like a pointless pursuit.
I'm sure The Witcher will find a faithful audience, but it's not the best place to go if you're hungry for more Oblivioning. Yes, it's impressive that it wears so many hats at once. Trouble is, none of them quite fit properly, even on Albino Viggo Mortensen.