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An Hour With: The Witcher

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.

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?

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