An Hour With: The Witcher

By Kieron Gillen on November 3rd, 2007 at 4:46 pm.

Something new I thought I’d try. Kind of inspired by ever-lovin’ Kyle Orland’s A Game For Lunch, basically, it’s a first impressions based solely on the first hour of a game. One hour, no more. Clearly, this isn’t a real review or anything, just a collection of initial impressions. And clearly this serves the dual purpose of creating a thread for people who have played the game further to add their own impressions. That said, a motif that occurs again and again when talking to the most successful developers is the paramount importance of the first hour of play. It may be cruel, but if a developer working in the mainstream can’t get the first hour right, there’s a large question mark over whether they can’t get ANYTHING right. Bear that in mind.

Sexy Witcher

Anyway, The Witcher. For those who haven’t been paying attention, it’s a Polish RPG based around a cult-pulp fantasy books from out there. Essentially, its “thing” is that it takes all the standard fantasy tropes, and drags them through the gutter. Racism is a big theme – smartly, as racism is something built into the foundations of most modern fantasy (i.e. Some races are lesser than others. You can kill orcs and take all their stuff as – hey! – they’re orcs) – and you have things like the Elves being radical terrorists and so on. Sex, drugs, violence and an albino with a big sword (i.e. you). Adult, mature fantasy. Abstractly.

Here’s what I made of the Witcher in its designated hour..

First thing that hits you is its production values. The opening, lengthy cutscene is the sort of thing which only Blizzard only really do anymore, in terms of length and amount of money thrown at the screen. In fact, all the maps have an impressive level of detail. Castles are huge. Rivers are deep. Mountains are High. (If I lost you would I cry. Oh how I love you baby, baby, baby, baby – Phil Spector Ed). Following forum threads, there’s some rolling at the wooden acting in the animation department, but having come directly from Neverwinter Nights 2, it’s not bad at all. In fact, off the top of my head, I can’t think of any third-person RPG that’s as pretty as The Witcher overall. So well done them.

The second thing that hits you is the lengthy cut-scenes. As in the length of them. To their credit, they don’t resort to people just sitting and talking at each other endlessly, rather choosing to show don’t tell in a cinematic fashion – but they’re regular and if they continued, would probably get on my tits a little. The forums also had some people raising eyebrows with the loading pauses in cities, but since there were no cities in the opening, I have no problems to report.

The third thing is the writing, but we’ll get back to that, as I don’t want to be mean yet.

When you finally get to play, you’re lobbed straight into a battle. Which is good, as I wanted to blow some steam and/or people’s limbs off. You’re given a variety of third-person perspectives to try, from far-view strategy modes to more direct over-the-shoulder control. What surprised me is that I gravitated directly towards the direct control. Yes. you control a single character which may mean a more direct method worked mentally, but I think it’s much more to do with the combat mechanics.

Basically, you click on someone to attack. Then, if you attack again at the correct moment, you chain to form a combo, doing more damage, and allowing you to go for a third attack. Stun people and you can dispatch them in a bloody Mortal Kombat style. You can also switch between three sword stances (with another three stances later, for dealing with monsters). Oh, and spells and healing and all that usual stuff. But the relevant bit is that you’re chaining the attacks, having the person you’re fighting directly in front of you makes the clicking seem more relevant. From a distance, I found it immediately vague, unsure of whether I was clicking air near the guy or a different guy or the guy and… well, fuck it. Me, over the shoulder, sticking the sword in someone’s face with a nimble click. The way to go.

In short, in the first burst, I kinda liked the combat. For an action RPG – though, due to the amount of talking, it’s worth stressing this is not a Diablo-style action-RPG – this is actually a major plus.

I also got my first chance to play with some of the more RPG-esque mechanics. Leveling up allows you to unlock abilities on many development trees – though the trees aren’t exactly that wide. So, better powers or stats or combos (I upped my strong-sword style combo, and got a lovely jump attack). Witchers also have a heavy hand in alchemy – the initial plot centres around this – so collecting ingredients and turning them into handy potions seemed done in a natural way. As someone who tends to avoid crafting generally – Conan doesn’t make his sword, he takes it from the bloody corpses of his enemies, and their women too, etc – I fell into this fairly naturally. And by making a healing potion, I lead to another more-discussed element in the game. Yes, I got to shag someone.

Okay. Let’s talk Mature and Adult, because they’re not quite the same concept. Adult, basically, means violence or fucking – i.e. Adult Film Industry, for example. It basically means kids should stay away. But Adult content doesn’t necessarily mean Mature (i.e. Sophisticated, Grown Up, whatever). In fact, Adult content can (and usually is) profoundly juvenile.

Talking fantasy, Gormenghast is Mature. Moorcock’s best stuff is Mature. Jim wandering past says that Gene Wolfe is Mature, but I was gonna go for China Miéville. In games, the obvious one to reach for is Planescape. The Witcher, at least in its first hour, only manages Adult. The problem isn’t so much the sex scene – of which I’ve seen far worse (Cross-ref: Fahrenheit’s rhythm-action rhythm-method-action) but the display of a bawdy card of the woman in a soft-erotica pose afterwards is – obviously – i) Tacky as hell. ii) The girl doesn’t even look anything at all like the character I’ve just had sex with. Point being, the bigger problem isn’t the fact it’s a sexist-pokemon-mechanic (which it is) – it’s that it makes the game very hard to take as seriously as it wants you too.

The second issue is the writing. Now, it’s not bad, bad. It’s just sub-average and amateurishly converted. Characters use anachronisms unconvincingly – for example, the Sorceress being referred to as a “Babe” a lot by the boss Witcher . The problem isn’t of course him using a diminutive (though there’s a particularly funny bit where he tells another Witcher to treat her with a bit more respect, before going back to calling her babe) but… “Babe”. Avoiding cod epic fantasy is one thing. This is another.

Of course, that’s subjective as most things are about writing. If you want something which is pretty much a rule… well, let’s look to exclamation marks. They’re dangerous things anyway. Fitzgerald said that exclamation marks are like laughing at your own joke. One of my production editors managed it more pithily by a sign above his desk which read “Exclamation Marks are for wankers!”. However, there is literally only one use of multiple exclamation marks. Irony. If you use it, you’re using it to mock the idea of using multiple exclamation marks. Kitsch import games get away with them for that reason. The more serious the tone of your game, the more an appearance of a “NO!!!!” will begat a “NO!” from us. At least a couple of times in the first hour, a character Seemed Very Excited!!! which is just plain rubbish and makes you suspect they should have spent the money on the opening cutscene on a proper translator.

(It’s made worse by the actual voice-acting not being anywhere near as excited as the !!! may imply. And !!! implies people on MySpace who really like MCR.)

But it’s worth remembering there’s a difference between writing and story. Most posturing writers will have probably read Robert McKee’s STORY and remember a section where he describes working as a script reader, noting that he recommended rejecting many stories which were beautifully written but fundamentally dull but never, ever wrote a rejection review for a story which was emotionally brilliant but apparently written by a Neanderthal in his own faeces… because if he did, he’d have been sacked. The name on the door is story department.

And in the story department, The Witcher actually interested me. I liked the world. I wasn’t so sure about the characters, but I wanted to know what happened to them. I was even interested in what the agreeably sado-mascohistically clad magicians were up to (especially because one of the bad guys was called The Professor, which ties into an RPS running joke we’ll tell you about another time). I wanted to know what happened next. Which, for the first hour of an RPG, no matter what failings it has, has to be counted as something of a success.

So, would I play more of the Witcher? Abstractly I wouldn’t object to it, but I suspect not. There’s too many games lined up between now and Christmas. However, while I was slaughtered for noting it in a review recently, while it’s been a great year for PC games generally, those who are specifically single-player RPG genre fans have had a poor time of it (MoTB and… that’s it, unless you want to go for Hellgate or further into the MMO). In that climate, you make do. And the Witcher is definitely better than just making do, while falling short of the claims of certain forum members treating it like the second coming.

Or it could just improve massively. Any Witcher-veterans out there care to explain why they think it’s 9/10?

, .

75 Comments »

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  1. _Nocturnal says:

    Alec & Kieron: You mean that every time you play something, you do it solely to form an opinion on it? That professional games criticism thing appears to be quite sad, think I need a change of profession. For me, up until now at least, forming an opinion comes after the fun or lack thereof. Here I see indications of the opposite approach, so I try to challenge it.

    Thiefsie:

    “It is a hobby of mine to stay in touch with the scene and I can admit that I will try games purely because of some sensationalist hype that interests me, and not because I necessarily want to enjoy the gameplay on it’s own. If you think I am going to be harder on the game because I am going into it to form an opinion on what it is like then I am at a loss as to what alternative I can have. “

    That’s exactly what I mean. You’re looking for the wrong thing, therefore you’ll be… not necessarily harder on the game, just ill-equipped. The alternative? Play what you like and form opinions on those things?

    Thiefsie again:

    “Why are you defensive about that… my opinion of (or requirements to play a game) bear zero consequence to you.”

    I’m not defensive as in “it bears consequence to me”, I’m defensive as in “it bears consequence to you”. You may not be able to appreciate the game fully with your current mindset, so I’m trying to save you the time and disappointment. And it’s a good game, of course, so it deserves to be fully appreciated.

    Also, since I was late to the previous thread, I’m reposting my comment from there:

    “The cards thing?
    I actually think it’s brilliant!

    They give you beautiful and detailed depictions of the women (or woman, or nobody – that part is left for the player to decide) you chose to sleep with, more so than any ingame sex-scene could ever strive to. Then you get to keep that intimate insight as a memory and review it whenever you want. If there ever was an adequate reward for having sex in games, this is it. And as to wether or not there should be any reward – as far as I know, sex is pretty rewarding experience, so it would be weird to skip the rewarding part.”

  2. Thelps says:

    About the dwarf cock quotation, I take your point that as a non-standard take on the fantasy setting it’s original (the term ‘dwarf’ could, in the real world, be substituted for any number of ethnic groups to form a very racist insult) but I was more interested in the fact the word ‘cock’ and a ‘your mum’ insult were included. To my eyes that’s basically what you define as ‘adult’. Something needlessly gratuitous mainly for shock value.

    I seem to have undermined my own point as I typed it though, so I’ll happily drop this little sub-discussion.

  3. Jim Rossignol says:

    Alec & Kieron: You mean that every time you play something, you do it solely to form an opinion on it?

    What they are saying is: straightforward enjoyment of something and forming an opinion on it are not mutually exclusive, as many posts on this site evidence. Nor is there any reason why playing something in order to have an opinion should preclude enjoyment.

  4. fluffy bunny says:

    “Fluffy Bunny: The first hour of Oblivion was actually a pretty great tutorial. It introduced a mass of concepts to the player elegantly. I mean, yes, shitty to replay but in the context it worked because people needed that tutorial.”

    But the fact that it worked well as a tutorial didn’t make it any more fun to play. It wasn’t until I got out of the dungeon that the beauty of Oblivion truly became apparent.

    Same with other RPGs. Planescape: Torment didn’t become great before you had been in Sigil a while. The first dungeon in Baldur’s Gate 2 wasn’t all that great either (I recently played that for the first time, and was tempted to give up very early).

    A couple of other examples would be Space Rangers 2 and Star Wolves. Both turned out to be excellent RPG-ish games, but both felt very disappointing after the first hour.

  5. Kieron Gillen says:

    I just disagree, Fluffy. The “RPGs are shit in the first hour” motif is just over-used. When I was playing the Oblivion thing for the first time, it felt like moving into a dungeon in a way which I simply hadn’t felt like since – oooh – Thief?

    KG

  6. drunkymonkey says:

    While admittedly I hated Oblivion’s opening half an hour (the next half, coming out into the wilderness, was MUCH better), I can definitely envision an enjoyable first hour of an RPG.

  7. Nick says:

    The difference with Oblivion was it got worse the more you played it.

  8. Kieron Gillen says:

    I’ve been thinking about this some more – I think it’s less about the first hour being not much fun, but the first hour being intriguing. You don’t have to be enjoying yourself. You just have to be able to see The Point.

    (Cross-ref: Dwarf Fortress, I guess)

    KG

  9. drunkymonkey says:

    Really Kieron? But wouldn’t that go against World of Warcraft, which is constantly praised for its first hour? In the first hour of that you can play it without knowing a thing about battlegrounds, dungeons, raids, and even I suppose professions…

    In fact, some classes don’t introduce key concepts in the first hour neither. Look at Hunters.

  10. Kieron Gillen says:

    When I say “The Point” I mean “The point in continuing to play” not “The Point of the game”.

    If that makes sense.

    KG

  11. drunkymonkey says:

    Oh right, gotcha.

  12. Thiefsie says:

    Yeh it’s that ever intangible hook to keep you playing… Oblivion had it for me as soon as you stepped outside. The contrast from dingy dungeon to veritable vista of delight was great. Similar effect is in the sunrise in the Crysis demo. Valve excels at constructing this kind of ‘5-minute’ hook gameplay. The Zelda’s are a prime example… Bungie try and do it but not as elegantly imo, probably because Halo only is involved with combat, and everything else is a tad generic.

    You just need the slightest intrigue to keep you playing until the next bit of content grabs you, however far away in game time it is.

    This is the difference between a mind numbing generic game that borders on the boring (say…. FEAR for a slightly controversial choice – although the combat is phenomenal – same could be said of Halo) to a game that keeps giving you new things to play with and new, different goals/accomplishments as you go on, a la Episode 2, or Portal.

  13. Iain says:

    The first hour of The Witcher wasn’t so fantastic. But it did make me want to play the game a whole lot more, so job done. With Planescape: Torment, however, I had to bludgeon my way through the first five hours until I found the “amazing RPG” that everyone was raving about. I did find it in the end, but it took a whole lot longer for me to get into it than it did with The Witcher.

    I’m not saying that Witcher is the better game overall – but it is more immediate, and the combat is a whole lot better.

    As for the whole “sex” thing… and the poke-a-mum cards (those whores have got to have a few illegitimate sprogs stashed away somewhere, surely), I think this is really more of an audience problem than a game problem. And by “audience” I mean “sexually-repressed Brits and Yanks”. The attitude to sex on mainland Europe has always been more enlightened (or at least easier-going and less prone to bouts of uncontrolled giggling every time a nipple is shown) than it has in the stiff-upper-lip UK or the puritan US.

    Whether it’s a game mechanic is arguable or not (personally, I veer on the side of not), and it’s certainly more “adult” than “mature”, but it should be noted that it is entirely optional, and it does have consequences later on in dialogue (if you sleep with the witch, Abigail, for example, you’ll be talked about as “a sorceroress’s dog”).

    Personally, I don’t see the problem with having it in the game. Because otherwise you’re saying “graphically decapitating people is fine, but no nipples, please” – and that’s just a ridiculous position to take.

  14. Oldgamer says:

    I can agree with you on most of your valid points. Well done!
    I took the liberty and posted an short article about your review on my weblog Normalverkehr.com

    greetz from Europe, Oldgamer

  15. Kieron Gillen says:

    “poke-a-mum”

    Good work, Iain.

    KG

  16. Evan says:

    Prologue = Weaksauce
    Rest of Game = Amazingsauce

    If you can overlook the technical problems – long loads, sometimes awkward dialogue – and you have the uber-machine that is required to play it properly, The Witcher may be the best game of the year.

    If you’re going to get hung up on little things, like dialogue hitches, or the minigames (sex, poker, brawling), then you’re going to miss a terrific game.

  17. Pete says:

    Oh Christ. All this polarised disagreement means I might actually have to buy the game just to see for myself. It temps on the “uniqueness” front too, being as it’s seemingly not typical orcs and elves for once. Come on chaps, is a consensus really that hard to reach? :)

  18. BODO says:

    Poland is beautiful country!!!

  19. fluffy bunny says:

    Having now played the first hour of The Witcher, I agree with Iain. It’s not a bad first hour compared to other RPGs, even the classics.

    And I still hold that very few RPGs are as interesting or fun in the first hour than they are further on. Of my favourite RPGs, Morrowind is the only real exception that I can think of, maybe because I just fell in love with the world at first sight (and it actually offered you a very early sight of it, unlike Oblivion, Planescape and BG 2).

  20. Turdis says:

    About the odd writing in the game, it seems that there was a superior translation done, but for some reason (likely voice over costs) it was cut down to roughly half its original size. You can get comparisons and fixes here: http://www.thewitcher.com/forum/index.php?topic=6925.0

  21. The Dragon says:

    i dont know if anybody allredy worte this,course i got tired of reading all the post and stoped halfway, but i wanna say: The card gathering is fantastic, i just love it. Got nothing to do with the game but i think it makes things more realistic =) Plus i like the cards.

    With that said i just wanna say that the Witcher is a fantastic game, love that u can change ur sword style depending on ur oponent. and i simply LOVED the first act, at the fourth now.

    The bad thing is, that the way they talk, and the movements they make when they talk, are not realistic at all. It looks stupid. It dosnt fit together and that anoys me, this being such a good game and all… but then again, thats the only complaint i have, exept the stupidly long loading and saving time.