|"I wanna be a durrrrgon..."|
The Witcher 2 certainly seemed promising enough: it was developed by CD Projekt RED, an independent Polish developer who wouldn't have to bend knee to some clueless publisher like Electronic Arts. Furthermore, it would be developed for the PC first, laying to rest any fears of the game suffering from consolitis. We were promised a game that, unlike Dragon Age 2, would actually show the consequences of the choices our character made.
What I got, however, was a strikingly mediocre Action-RPG that committed many of the same sins that modern RPGs commit: the sacrifice of RPG mechanics for twitch-based action elements, an over-reliance on story and cutscenes as a crutch to prop up weak gameplay, a horrendously clumsy interface, and an exceedingly juvenile attempt at being "mature" by drenching the game in gore, violence, sex, profanity, and general nastiness. That last point is something I want to bring up later, because the world of The Witcher is so vile, so thoroughly miserable, that any emotional investment I had in the story evaporated by the time I reached the first town in the game.
The Witcher was originally a series of fantasy novels by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski that revolve around Geralt of Rivia, the titular Witcher. Witchers are genetically-engineered mutants (as far as anything can be "genetically engineered" in a fantasy setting) bred for the sole purpose of slaying monsters. On account of their mutations, however, Witchers are seen by the people as being something other than human, and are viewed with disgust and revulsion in spite of the valuable role they play. The Witcher games, naturally, place the player in the shoes of Geralt, whose entire personality can be predicted on account of his eternally constipated, po-faced expression.
|"I think the stick up my ass has a stick up its ass."|
To be fair to the game, there's some good things here. The developers made a clear effort to show the consequences of choices of your actions, and sometimes those consequences can be totally unexpected. And unlike a typical BioWare or Bethesda game, the choices offered to the player do not fall squarely into "good" versus "evil;" instead they tends towards choosing whatever the player feels is the lesser of two evils. There is no asinine "morality meter" in The Witcher 2 - judgement of your decisions comes with the consequences, not with a number on a Good VS. Evil scale.
But when the introductory cutscenes come to an end and the rubber meets the road, The Witcher 2 stumbles badly. The gameplay, to be brutally honest, is awful. If anyone is considering purchasing the game thinking it's going to be a CRPG in the vein of classics of the genre, such as Fallout, Baldur's Gate, or Planescape: Torment, then you're going to be disappointed. This isn't a PC game, this a console game with PC graphics. The combat reminds me of Mass Effect 2 in that I can instantly tell what game the developers are ripping off. While Mass Effect 2 brazenly ripped off Gears of War, The Witcher 2 is clearly aiming for combat reminiscent of Batman: Arkham Asylum.
The problem is, Arkham Asylum masterfully captured the feeling of being the Dark Knight, who could smoothly flow from one attack to the next and strike multiple opponents at once. Geralt, on the other hand, has all the dexterity, responsiveness, and agility of an inebriated elephant. Simple actions such as blocking an incoming attack, or sheathing and unsheathing a sword, often fail inexplicably, attacks frequently fail to register, and sometimes the auto-targeting system decides that you really don't want to attack the bloke standing in your face and about to disembowel you and instead locks on to an enemy far away. The whole control scheme feels like it was designed for gamepads, not a mouse and keyboard, but I can't think that the controls would be any less clunky or unresponsive with that method of input. The abysmal controls in combat, combined with Geralt starting out as a Level 1 character, mean that many players are going to spend the game's prologue dying over and over.
|Get used to seeing this.|
Of course, The Witcher 2 tries to present its combat as being "tactical" and requiring forethought. Geralt has access to things like traps, bombs, potions, and oils that can turn the tide of battle. The problem is, this is every bit as cumbersome as the combat itself. For instance, Geralt cannot drink potions in the middle of battle, oh no. He first has to enter "Meditation" which can only be done outside of combat! So, you might wonder, how do you determine which potions you ought to drink before battle? Well the answer is, you don't. You just rush in battle, get killed and reload, or you somehow possess clairvoyance and know exactly what the game is going to throw at you. Like so much else in the game, use of potions comes down to "guess what the developers were thinking."
Geralt also has access to "Signs," which are essentially spells. But since the game enjoys being obtuse, the Signs have non-indicative names like "Aard" or "Quen," and the menu system provides no hints as to what the signs actually do. Better hope you've read the manual and memorised what each one does! You might say that this is a quibbling point (and it is), but it's just one example of how the game seems to want to work against the player, rather than with him.
For example, the game's inventory system is atrocious. Why is it that no RPG developer uses the grid inventory any more? Consider the inventory screen of Baldur's Gate:
Notice how the entire inventory is presented as a 2x8 grid. There's no scrolling through lists required, the entire thing is visible at once. Items are represented by easily-recognisable images, so there's no hunting through a long list of items to find whatever it is you're looking for. The player is also capable of reorganising the inventory as he sees fit. I have to emphasise this: the inventory is a solved problem! So why are developers regressing to an incredibly clumsy list system that forces the player to scroll through a long list of items just to find whatever it is he wants? Skyrim is probably the biggest offender in this regard, but The Witcher 2 isn't far behind:
Using a list system necessitates breaking up the lists into separate pages, which goes against the maxim of good UI design, which is keeping to a minimum the number of mouse-clicks required to perform an action. And notice how the number of items displayed is pitifully small (just seven), requiring yet more scrolling. Oh, and did I mention that the menu system features a copious amount of mouse lag?
The map system is even worse, especially for cities, where it provides only a base approximation of how a city is actually laid out. Consider the map of Vergen:
The map fails to take into account the large degrees of elevation changes in the city, and completely fails to make any mention of obstacles or barriers that might be in your way. Should you try to zoom out and get a wider view of things, the map inexplicably transitions that of a world map view, which is completely useless. Just watch this angry YouTube video to see how bad the map system really is. I'm sure fans of the game will point out that The Witcher 2 "doesn't hold your hand" but there's a difference between letting the player find things out on his own and deliberately being obtuse. Getting lost in a city and having to transition between half a dozen loading screens is not something I would consider enjoyable any day of the week. And if the developers are so insistent on avoiding hand-holding, then why did they include that most damnable of mechanics, the quest marker? (Which is completely broken, anyway.)
Ah, you say, but I'm missing the point! The Witcher 2 isn't about such petty things like "gameplay," no, it's about its brilliantly-written story. Unfortunately, the method the game uses to tell its story is a heap of cutscenes, cutscenes, and yet more cutscenes. As much as Witcher fans would hate to admit it, the game is very similar to Dragon Age 2 in this regard in that the gameplay seems to serve no purpose but to act as filler between one cutscene in the next. As they might say over at RPGCodex, this is a storyfag game to the core.
And while I don't play games for the story, the world the The Witcher 2 is such an awful place that it saps any interest or emotional investment I might have had. It's not even all that terribly original - it's your generic "Dark and Gritty Fantasy" setting, set in wretched, crapsack world where the people are ignorant, filthy, and display of bigotry that would shame a Klansman, where the nobility send the common folk to die in pointless wars fought for hollow-sounding ideals, where life is nasty, brutish, and short, where rape, bloodshed, genocide, racism, and prejudice are the order of the day...oh fucking please! At one point this sort of world might have been a clever inversion of the cliched Tolkien-esque fantasy, but by now it's every bit as hackneyed and overdone as your typical Lord of the Rings clone. Geralt himself is one of the most generic protagonists I've encountered in a long while: the cynical, world-weary, gravelly-voiced anti-hero who does the right thing in spite of himself. How many times have we seen that before? He feels like something out a mid-nineties comic book.
But what really bothers me about the world The Witcher is how it does not celebrate the world it creates. Warhammer 40,000 might be the originator of Grimdark, but it revels in its absurdity. It's ridiculous and it knows it. The Witcher, on the other hand, doesn't revel in its world, it wallows in it. Consider Geralt's two swords; as a monster hunter, he carries one made of steel for use against men, and one made of silver for use against monsters. Ah, but as Geralt says, "both are for monsters." Do you get it? Humans are monsters. If you didn't catch that, the game will ram it down your throat against and again with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Poor Geralt can't swing a sword without hitting someone prattling on about "Hey, remember that time we raped/murdered/slaughtered that entire village? Good times, mate!" or spewing a stream of profanity that would make a sailor blush.
I'm constantly being told how "mature" The Witcher 2 is. Really? This game is the equivalent of a moody, foul-mouthed teenager who won't shut up about how much the world sucks, society sucks, people suck, so "Hey, fuck people, man! I'm so fucking DARK, man! Shitcock bastards fucknugget shitfucking pricks fuck fuck fuck..." The game tries so hard to be dark and edgy that I ended up rolling my eyes so often that they were in danger of falling out. Compare this to a game like Thief: The Dark Project or its sequels, which managed to be both dark and gritty without resorting to copious amounts of violence, sex, and vulgarity. The Witcher 2, on the other hand, is a like a child dressing in adult clothing, swearing at people left and right just to get some attention.
In the end, I found myself struggling to finish the game. Many times I would begin, get to the end of the prologue, and then stop in favour of playing something else. The best thing that I can say about it is that it is superior to Dragon Age 2, and that is damning with faint praise indeed.