The Witcher: Enhanced Edition Review
Developer: CD Projekt
Reviewed on PC
Windows System Requirements: Pentium 4 2.4 GHz, 1 GB RAM, nVidia GeForce 6600 or ATI Radeon 9800 (or better), 8.5 GB HD space, Windows XP or more recent operating system
Geralt is a medieval mutant – one of a handful of warriors who quaffs foul alchemical brews to gain the power and reflexes necessary to kill the foul beasts and monsters that plague his world. White haired, suffering from an ill temper and a recent case of death, Geralt finds his amnesiac self returning to life just in time to see a stronghold of his fellow mutants robbed and his brethren slain. Fortunately, Geralt (known as the "White Wolf" thanks to his flowing white hair) has the swordsmanship and magical skills necessary to survive an horrific series of events and play a pivotal role in the battle between humanity, non-humans and raw evil.
When The Witcher was originally released last year, it was widely viewed as one of the top (if not the very best) role-playing game to hit the PC that year. It was also flawed. While the game delivered the kind of deep, role-playing adventure that PC gamers have longed for since the days of Baldur's Gate and Planescape: Torment, it suffered from some unfortunate bugs, lengthy load times and imperfect graphical polish. Most of that has been fixed with The Witcher: Enhanced Edition. The "Enhanced Edition" is surely more of a polish than a makeover, but it looks better than the original, plays more smoothly and adds new content to extend play. If you haven't played The Witcher, this version is absolutely worth your while, providing more than a week's waking hours worth of play for around $40. If you have played the original, particularly if you didn't finish the game (and most people haven't), download the various patches and check things out now.
Just in case you aren't familiar with The Witcher (since if you live outside of Poland, you probably don't know the writing of Andrzej Sapkowski, the author upon whose work the game is based), the game is usually described as a dark, violent and sexy world in which a lone mutant faces a series of challenging moral choices. In truth, it's a great game with an engaging story that is absolutely worth playing, but it's not that dark or sexy (at least in the United States). But it sure is violent.
The game is dark, full of drab medieval towns and villages filled with rich characters, but drab, since its ramshackle huts, filth and swamp present a world full of peasants as they should be, not as brightly colored elves befitting a Las Vegas casino. When I first started the game and talked to a local girl, she told me, "My dog spits blood." This is a world where elves and dwarves struggle against pervasive racism, plague prevails, thugs and power brokers are happy to exploit their power, and even the seeming do-gooders have a hidden agenda.
In conversation, Geralt tends to be a bit of bastard, but as much as The Witcher is billed as exploring moral shades of grey, many of the choices are very stark. Save a woman being raped? Hardly a moral choice with many shades when Geralt can outfight every assailant without ending up short of breath. Many other choices are really just whether to perform optional side-quests in a huge world. What makes the game interesting aren't the moral choices, but the reality of consequences. The Witcher will always allow the player to follow the main story arc, but which factions and characters become allies or enemies can hinge upon a casual word. Actions in one quest can easily change your available options, sometimes 60 hours of play later.
It's wonderful to play a game with consequences. A game in which the developers are willing to allow you to make decisions that will prevent you from seeing some of the content they so lovingly created. There is no perfect path, only the path that most appeals to you. Geralt's gruff amnesiac identity and the legacy of Andrzej Sapkowski may appeal to a few fans, but meaningful choices should appeal to everyone. The main story stays similar, but the available side plots merit at least a repeat play of the game.
Geralt is called a "Witcher," meaning that he strives to protect humanity by slaying monsters. But he doesn't kill witches. In fact, he seems driven to sleep with them. The Witcher has received a lot of attention due to the fact that it is filled with women with colossal, heaving bosoms... that Geralt can sleep with. But (aside from a few lascivious lines) the sex isn't explicit, with the content not nearly as racy as that of prime-time television, and the art far less provocative than that found on plenty of game and book covers.
Essentially, Geralt can chat up a few of the main characters and lots of the supporting cast, ranging from dryads and elves to average townsfolk. If Geralt picks the right dialog options (and sometimes, the right gift), the lady will bed him, and the player unlocks a collectible card in Geralt's journal with a vaguely racy picture. It really is the kind of fantasy art you see everywhere. The European version is vastly different, but in the United States, gamers get a version prudes everywhere would be proud to call, "mildly provocative."
The idea is mature, but the in-game content in this version isn't really. It's more the sort of mature content you'd expect from a couple of 13-year-olds playing a pencil & paper game of Dungeons & Dragons:
Dungeon Master: You enter a tavern. The smoky room is filled with burly mercenaries swilling mead and a few local townsfolk sipping beer. A pig is roasting on a spit behind the innkeeper. What do you do?In other words, it's brilliant that players have the freedom to do much of what might occur to them. Geralt can pick up women, gamble, get drunk and even kill stray dogs. But none of it is as racy as dozens of the spam e-mails most modern netizens receive every day.
Pimply Player #1: I sleep with the barmaid!
Dungeon Master: Uh... OK. You do. It's sexy. She looks a little like the woman on page 43 of the Player's Handbook. What else?
Pimply Player #1: Cool!
Pimply Player #2: I challenge a mercenary to a drinking contest!
Dungeon Master: You drink him under the table. He tells a little about a useful healing herb, but now you can't stand up or see straight...
Once you get past the gruff and grumpy Geralt, the world he lives in, and the sex, what you have in The Witcher is a gargantuan RPG with plenty of meaningful choice in both plot and character creation, with enough story to choke half a dozen internet trolls. And then set them on fire so that they don't regenerate to flame me. Geralt plays a critical role in his world, and while the amnesiac thing always irritates me, his pivotal role can be approached in several ways. The game has deep character customizability, allowing players to decide how to develop Geralt. Geralt can be a potent mage, or a warrior skilled in any (or several) of six combat styles. He can even pursue skills like alchemy that allow him to make bombs, potions and oils that are critical to his success in battle.
Another huge victory for The Witcher's development team is the vast catalog of information the game tracks for you. Once you figure out the game's many information tabs and map toggles (which can take a moment), the game tracks quests, progress and all the information you've read or learned during the game in a convenient interface. That is brilliant, and a godsend in a game this large. It's easy to review everything you've learned about someone, and when told to talk to Bizarrely Named NPC #17, you can check up on that person and refresh your memory concerning their history, particularly if you haven't played in a few days. The game will even track the location of quest goals on the mini-map for you, making it easy to follow the game's convoluted story.
There are still flaws that carry over from the original game, but these are easily forgivable in a game that would keep a casual RPG fan occupied for weeks. The attempt to introduce more active combat transforms into a need to hit the left mouse button in response to a cursor change. It's not interesting, but it required enough attention that it prevented me from enjoying the combat animations. Many of the characters are clones of one another, so it's upsetting that a deep-cover spy, cannibal and gardener all share the same face and garb. Houses, too, whether they are metropolitan townhomes or swamp cottages, tend to have the same interior. And I found the inventory system, particularly with respect to the limited weapon slots, made it difficult manage Geralt's possessions. It would have been nice if I could have compared weapons without dropping things on the ground in turn.
Those problems remain, but The Witcher: Enhanced Edition fixes and improves so much. Load times can still linger on the long side, but are no longer interminable. The game did crash occasionally, but is much less buggy than the original release, benefiting from a year of patches (and frequent autosaves help mitigate the problem). The dialog and voice acting are remarkably better (although there's still plenty of dreadful moments, and the minstrel Dandelion still can't sing).
The most noticeable change in The Witcher: Enhanced Edition is the graphical makeover. Everything looks better, and plenty of characters are more detailed. That polish extends beyond the polygons, as there are new animations, as well. The game already had one of the strongest fantasy soundtracks around, and the graphics are now approaching the same level. The game's visual assets still get repeated a lot, but with such a large game, that's a little easier to forgive.
The Witcher: Enhanced Edition also adds a lot of bonus content. The manual and guide to most of the game's quests is particularly useful (and thick enough to evoke the "Good ol' days" of RPGs. The game's soundtrack is included (as is a disc of music inspired by The Witcher – that ranges from folksy to Norwegian metal in style), as is a large map of the game world (that is actually a useful aid), and a "making of" DVD.
The real draw to The Witcher: Enhanced Edition is the new content. The game provides two new adventures (one of which is more of a collection of side quests) that add a little more content (a day or two of play). When I say "a little," that's still more than may retail games, and gives those who've played through the entire game a little more to chew on. The D'jinni editor for the game is also now available, meaning that players can create their own adventures (and there should be more to download as time passes). This is a great boon, but it's not an entirely newbie-friendly tool, so be prepared to put in a lot of hard work if you want to make a meaningful contribution to Geralt's world.
Overall, The Witcher: Enhanced Edition demonstrates CD Projekt has supported the original game superbly. I wish all games and fans received this level of support and continued updates. The retail package also includes enough bonus materials and new content to make it mandatory that anyone who doesn't already own The Witcher purchase this game. There's just so much value and solid RPG experience in this package that only a few bugs prevent The Witcher: Enhanced Edition from achieving a perfect score.