Andrzej Sapkowski. Chances are this name doesn't ring any bells; at least, not as many as, say, J.R.R. Tolkien. Renowned or not, though, Mr. Sapkowski is a fairly seasoned author, being responsible for Poland's best-selling fantasy novels. It is Mr. Sapkowski's dark, medieval world that CD Projekt's upcoming and fairly ambitious action RPG, The Witcher, is based off of.
In The Witcher, players assume the role of Geralt, a white-haired Witcher. Witchers are, in essence, mercenaries specializing in the destruction of magical creatures, e.g. vampires, zombies, werewolves, etc. Trained as a fighter since birth, and subjected to numerous gruesome mutations and grueling trials, a Witcher is a veritable super-soldier. Although belonging to an ancient brotherhood, Witchers are shunned by the majority of society and spend their lives as outcasts.
|"[A] sense of ethical insecurity will play a major role throughout the entire story."
It is from these morally ambiguous, 3rd-person perspective shoes that players will explore their world. And what an ambitious world CD Projekt has planned. While the overall mile count may not be initially impressive, CD Projekt has a reason for that; as one employee said in a recent interview, "In general we don't want to lie to the player by giving him square miles of empty, boring terrain - in our game we make use of every metre in order to show or say something interesting." The game's universe is divided into three main areas, all of which are separate. To travel between these locations, players need to simply hop aboard their trusty steed or take a form of local transportation, e.g. a raft or boat. Each area is comprised of a series of individual maps, which provide smooth and logical transitions between locations. The player can explore anywhere without limitation and can discover new areas simply through aimless wandering. CD Projekt has also attempted to do away with unnatural boundaries and, as such, the only borders in the game are natural. "The way Sapkowski himself positions these locations has also really helped with this," says a member of CD Projekt. "Vyzime is located between two lakes and a marsh, and Kaer Morhen, for example, is hidden among inaccessible mountains."
Character-wise, CD Projekt has rigged the game so NPCs will behave realistically, going about whatever business the denizens of medieval Europe would have gone about, reacting to the hour of the game. Example: a street-peddler selling his wares by day and locking himself in his home, away from the bandits of the land, by night. While this greatly increases the immersion and realism of the game's world, it also has a direct impact on the course the player will follow. For instance, after completing a quest and acquiring a valuable item, Geralt can return to the city of Vyzime after dark, where bandits will promptly assail him. If Geralt waits several hours until dawn, no such incident will occur. In their quest to create a non-linear title, the team at CD Projekt has wrought a number of scenarios similar to the one previously mentioned, some of which involve simply inconvenience vs. convenience, many of which involve much more. An encounter of the latter sort would be when Geralt has to locate a story-centric NPC inside a building whilst assassins launched an unanticipated raid on the structure. If the player takes one path through the building, they come across a character that provides a bit of assistance before they locate the necessary NPC. If the player takes another path, however, they will reach the NPC with more celerity, but the other character will be slain by the assassins. Neither of these paths are "right" or "wrong;" they are simply "different." Needless to say, this sense of ethical insecurity will play a major role throughout the entire story, just as it does in Sapkowski's novels. Adding to this morally misgiving nature is the fact that all NPCs can be attacked, even ones central to the plot.
The Witcher is action RPG and, accordingly, the title's combat engine will play a large roll in its success or failure. With this game, CD Projekt is aiming to create an active, engaging experience for players via timed combos. The point-and-click combat will, unlike the mouse-mashing experience that was Diablo, reward players who wait for the optimal time to chain together attacks, which will be indicated when the enemy selector turns green. The further a player has progressed their character, the more combos they will have at their disposal.
Strategy will play a small element in The Witcher's combat as well, with three different attack styles being available to the player: fast, strong, and group. The first style is, obviously, for weak or fast-moving foes, as it delivers weak blows with a high frequency. The second style deals stronger but slower blows, and is thusly better suited for the larger and slower moving abominations one will encounter. The final style is used for fighting multiple enemies at once, such as a group of bandits or a swarm of zombies. On another note, combat without weapons is entirely non-lethal. To this end, one could instigate a bar-fight to coax some much-needed information out of an NPC.
Beyond melee combat, The Witcher sports an interesting Alchemy system. Through this system, players will be able to produce a number of different elixirs from materials gathered from fallen monsters. Several hints dropped by CD Projekt have referenced a vast array of recipes and optional side quests that enable the player to procure several extremely obscure formulas and ingredients. However, elixirs are a double-edged sword, as each draft has a toxic side-effect. Every consumption adds to the total level of poison in Geralt's body, and if the player downs one too many elixirs, it's curtains for Geralt. The toxin isn't permanent, though; a simple bout of meditation in the tavern or a safe area will cleanse the malignancy.
Since The Witcher is based on the works of Mr. Sapkowski, and since the Witchers in his tales are all sword-wielding, low-magic fighters, CD Projekt has come up against an interesting barrier in the realm of character customization. To compensate for the rather limiting class that is a Witcher, an array of 200 different special abilities, in a total of 15 different groups, have been made available to the player, giving him a high degree of freedom to decide which style of fighting Geralt will excel in and how his magical abilities will develop. Additionally, since the team didn't want to implement any illogical restrictions, players will not be limited to equipping only a sword. True, swords will still be the predominant weapon in the game, and will oftentimes be more powerful than a substitute, but a number of alternative weapons in the game will possess unique characteristics, such as being viciously powerful or being handy in specific situations. An example of the latter would be the butcher's knife, which leaves the internal organs of monster intact, thusly enabling the player to retrieve the ingredients necessary for several elixirs.
CD Projekt has built The Witcher on BioWare's Aurora engine, the same code used for Neverwinter Nights, but seasoned gamers would be hard-pressed to notice. After two years of intensive renovations by a large team of programmers, the engine The Witcher runs on sports a startling number of technical deviations -- including an updated renderer -- from its original state, which is rather obvious considering the differences between this title and Neverwinter Nights. Furthermore, character damage modeling has been included, the licensed Karma engine has been implemented for realistic ragdoll physics, and all animations have been motion-captured. For a smidge of enhanced realism, the combat sequences were performed by trained sword-masters.
CD Projekt estimates the main story arc to have a total playing time of 30 hours, with the side quests taking up another 50. Development is currently around the 20 month mark, and CD Projekt aims to have the code completed by the end of 2005, with a few months of balancing and polishing following. If CD Projekt can pull everything together and deliver all the elements promised, The Witcher could prove to be a uniquely gritty and powerfully engaging title.