Witcher 2: First Impressions

Despite being very excited for it, and despite calling the first Witcher my game of 2009, thanks to a backlog of games I’ve only now started playing the Witcher 2. And what do I think?

Overall I like it. I’ve just completed the first chapter (which means there are spoilers related to the conclusion of the first chapter only). And I’m getting that feeling that comes when you start to really obsess on something. The game has its flaws, but it does some things so well that the flaws become easy to overlook. Such as?

Here are some specific thoughts and observations:

As with most RPGs, the first few hours are overwhelming. The Witcher 2 is no different when you’re trying to figure out combat, equipment, upgrades for your equipment, herbalism and alchemy, using your amulet, figuring out the map and quest system, etc. It really is borderline unforgiving. And that’s without referencing the combat difficulty when you’re facing off against groups, and trying to catch up on all the intricate story happenings.

Once you get past the learning curve, or at least the first wave of it (in the Witcher 1, it took one full playthrough before I was taking advantage of all my abilities), it’s pretty easy to settle into the game. But this game could have used a smaller, more guided tutorial level that let you practice with and learn the value of your character.

In the opening scene, with you in prison and speaking to Roche, you are presented with three options: three different sections of the story to tell. In retrospect, the game wants you to pick them in a linear order. Each subsequent choice is a little more difficult and builds progressively upon character control lessons you’re learning. But when faced with three options, players can pick in any order for any reason. It might have helped to have that play out more linearly.

While trying to get used to the game, I also tweaked the graphics settings constantly to find the best ratio of performance to aesthetics. Oddly (though maybe this is just me since I’m more of a console gamer), I found that I can play with the graphics set to ultra (minus uber-sampling) and get frames in the 40-60 ranges (and it’s usually right about 60) — at 800×480. That makes the smaller fonts jaggy and difficult to read, but if I raise the resolution to 720 or 1080 pixels wide, even at low graphic quality the frames aren’t nearly as good and drop to the 15-20 range. I’m sure this elicits little more than a “duh” response from most, but I found myself surprised at the contrast. Regardless, I can “settle” for a game that looks fantastic and runs smoothly.

The game’s combat want me to play it as an action game, with quick reflexes and precise responses. However, the engine itself is not up to the task. It is a little sluggish and lacks in precise control.

For example, in my battle with the kayran I died a few times when a tentacle hit where I had been a moment ago. As another example, when hitting block I occasionally (frequently?) hear the sound that accompanies attempting to cast a spell without the requisite energy. The work-around is hitting another button before trying to block again, but a game’s major systems should not need a work-around for basic actions. If they built the engine from the ground up for this game, then they need to put a little extra work into improving the controls.

Balance is poor. The fight against Letho and also the kayran fight both made me want to rage quit. Same thing with the endrega queen. The fights are so far beyond the rest of the game’s combat that it should be a side plot that you can choose if you want to overcome it — except the kayran and Letho are both on the critical path. When I look on-line to find other people’s strategies, they’re a mix of cheating/exploiting the system and its limitations, combined with frequent re-loads until you also get lucky.

The game’s world is alive. Merchants don’t stand in empty courtyards while it’s raining out. Instead, when it rains people run for cover. And when they’re not working, they spend time at the inn or go home or hang out in groups. Additionally, there are people, and signs of people, everywhere — including on the way out to adventure areas where guards are fighting to secure the region with trap-setting and monster slaying. I appreciate the latter note. Most RPGs make you feel like you’re trying to save the world without any assistance from the helpless citizenry. In the Witcher 2, there’s the sense they’ve created a stalemate position which needs your heroic push to topple things in their favor.

Choice is limited. There was the choice of whether or not to fire a ballista to make an ensuring fight easier. There was the choice of fighting a strong warrior one-on-one, or allowing his back-up to assist him. There was the choice of allowing Roche to help you escape, or to die. In other words, choice isn’t a major component of the game.

I was slightly disappointed with the level of choice in the first Witcher since I thought it was their primary goal, but I understand what they are trying to accomplish better now. I’m certain there are a few significant, story-shaping choices later in the game. But the way-you-proceed-through-a-quest choices, and further opportunities to impact the narrative, are more limited. And, not to defend the game against an issue of hype versus reality, wouldn’t choice have to be limited in a game that’s supposed to go as long as 40 hours? Also, there are so many side quests to explore and optionally accept that it satisfies a lot of the sense of linearity that might otherwise have pervaded the game. Coupled with the world’s level of detail and sense of life, I am less the hero changing things as I see fit, and more the traveler, journeying down the path of the story and loving every moment of it — at least, every moment that doesn’t feature an impossible fight that relies on me hitting the block button accurately.

E3 – 2009 – Day Three

Little bits of exciting news out of E3 here and there. As with the past couple of days, here are the items I find most compelling:

  • A Heavy Rain trailer! Damn, I want to play this game. This is the absolute first moment I’ve regretted not having a PS3. The video showcases the game’s opening mixed up with some game play. If the interviews are accurate, it’s going to be a “grounded” Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy. Awesome.
  • Speaking of PS3, and my current loyalty to the Xbox 360, I remember, once upon a time, a lot of people citing the PS3 as the huge performer. Games, we were told, would eventually look far better on the PS3. Here’s a quote from Crysis’ CEO: “Between Consoles and PC I see a difference,” he told Develop. “The PC version will outscale and outperform the consoles. Between each console I believe the experience will be finally both next-generation, but similar experience.”
  • Ubisoft did a presentation for Assassin’s Creed II, showing off a good chunk of gameplay by highlighting some of the new features. This game looks really good. I love it when a sequel tweaks the original and then adds a swak of new content.
  • While BioWare did not do a public presentation for The Old Republic, Kotaku got a hands-on playthrough and wrote about the experience.
  • CD Projekt is still supporting the Witcher. Crazy! Their latest patch, referenced as the Director’s Cut of the game, removes all DRM and tosses in five fan-made modules. I don’t know anything about the modules, so I can’t say whether their inclusion is enough to get me to re-install the Witcher. I guess we’ll see!
  • I recently learned that the new Super Mario Brothers title for the Wii is co-op. That makes it somwhat more interesting to me. I played through LittleBIGPlanet with my girlfriend and her sister and we had a great time. “Competitive co-op” on the Wii could be a lot of fun.
  • Here’s an article by Tom Chick where he discusses the various motion-sensor controllers that are on stage at E3. I’ve read a few articles today that mention how the new controllers will add years to the lifespan of the current generation of consoles. Nothing wrong with that. And I love the innovation. But until the console ships with the peripheral, you can guess that the peripheral, and the games that use it, will never be mainstream.

The Witcher (Enhanced Edition) – Final Thoughts

(today’s post: 990 words)

Tonight I finished The Witcher. The game apparently clocks in around 80 hours, and I’m sure I must have hit at least that because I did everything in the game that I could (too bad there’s no clock to tell you exactly).

I enjoyed the game. I don’t think I could have played for that long had I not. I’m going to post a couple thoughts on the game – as well as responses to my first impression post.

(Spoilers be here, there, and everywhere. You are warned.)

I love that the Witcher re-uses so much of their areas and people. And what I mean is that in most RPGs, for example, you start off in “Tutorial Town” – which promptly burns down 5 minutes after you start. The entire game continues on a disposable trend. But in the Witcher, people you meet and areas you visit early on are still there at the end. When things happen to them, you care because of those 80 hours. The ending was especially good because of these built-up relationships with people and places. I wish more RPGs would do that.

The lone exception is the “end boss” Jacques de Aldersberg – who kind of popped in from out of nowhere. “You killed Azar Javed, the boss you chased around all game long, but he was my puppet!” Or something like that. It makes sense in the story, I just don’t like being introduced to a new villain as I’m getting ready to wrap a game.

I liked that the game used quick-n-dirty cutscenes to get across some of the more dramatic moments – just a piece of concept art and some narration. I think BioWare always got too caught up in high-polish, expensive (in terms of time and manpower) movies. But when you’re going low-cost, you can do it all over the place and it really adds to the story. The Witcher used it sometimes just to get across some thought that was wandering through Geralt’s head, like fantasizing about giving up adventuring to settle down. It’s great for a story-based game.

I noticed there were a lot of loose ends with the story. It’s funny to think that a game so long could set itself up for a sequel, but I’m pretty sure that’s what happened. Even the final “game over” video suggested that there’s a lot more to come with Garalt getting attacked by another witcher. Hey, whatever. I’ll play the Witcher 2 whenever it comes out.

A comment from the first impressions note mentioned that I liked not “grinding” for gear. Happily, that stayed true throughout the game. I gained two suits of armor throughout (I bought one, and had a second set assembled as part of a quest), and maybe a few swords. At one point in chapter 4 the Lady of the Lake gifted me with a new sword; most games have to balance gifted-weapons toward too powerful because the player goes through equipment so rapidly, but here I was just excited to have a weapon from the Lady of the Lake – though it did have some bonuses; I kept her blade through to the last fight.

I also commented on the economy balancing – saying I’d been spending every last dime I had on books and was always broke. That held through close to the end but eventually broke down. I hit a point where there weren’t enough new books to buy and my money started accumulating. I think I finished with over 9,000 orens.

If you follow me on Facebook, you know I bitched a bit about one particular fight – the hellhound of chapter one. I went on-line to look for help and spotted one post that said something like, “If you can’t get past this fight, you’re in for a tough time. The game only gets harder.” Fortunately (and unfortunately), that wasn’t true. I never had a fight as tough as that again. I did die a few times here and there, but a single re-load got me past everything. If I were to play again, I would play on the hard difficulty setting – not normal. The fight against the Koshchey was said by some to be the toughest in the game but I blew through it without buffs on my first try. The final fight ended similarly.

Final comment, most RPGs feature a good path and an evil path. A few of the better games put a bit more effort into it to make both paths appealing. The Witcher is more the latter. The two sides are the humans and the non-humans. As a Witcher, you’re duty is to protect humans; that means sometimes killing non-humans (elves & dwarves). But the non-humans are poverty-stricken minorities and they’re being persecuted, often unfairly – so I’d think many gamers would be on the side of the non-humans. But the final twist is that the non-humans act like terrorists and generally hate humans. They’re willing to get dirty to fight for their rights and their freedoms.

So do you want to fight for the low-lifes or the scum bag racists – or try to be neutral and get through on your own side? Or do you want to develop relationships with these people and try to get them to change their ways? It’s pretty cool stuff. In most games you know which side you’re going to play but in the Witcher I kept bouncing back and forth as I learned more about each side. The game gives you plenty of time to make your final decision. At BioWare, that was always our goal – to get people to re-think each decision. I think the Witcher pulled it off well.

Like any of the Grand Theft: Auto titles, it’s too long a game for me to want to re-play it but I stand by my “best of 2008 award” and I am looking forward to an eventual sequel (as well as trying out the two short modules that came with the Enhanced Edition).

Designing a Better RPG – Choice & Consequence

(today’s post: 482 words.)

(Time for another entry into the Designing a Better RPG series!)

I’m starting to think that my definition of “choice & consequence” is different from everyone else’s. Are my standards too high? When I see “C&C” (not the music factory) touted as a bullet point on a video game, I think it means that there will be “consequences” to my “choices”.

Not to pick on the Witcher, a good game I am definitely enjoying, but what I often find is that while there is choice – a lot of good, morally ambiguous choice (another rarity in gaming) – there is, unfortunately, little consequence. And the consequence we get is of little significance.

If I’ve made peace with Team A, I know that when I get to the next plot obstacle I’ll find Team B guarding it. But if I make peace with Team B? You guessed it. Team A plays the bad guys. That’s not really “C&C” in my mind. If the outcome is essentially the same, regardless of the decision I make, then you may as well not even give me a decision. Right?

Granted, I am not done with the Witcher. Not even close. Decisions I have already made could have drastic repercussions down the road. But this is how it seems so far. And I’m not expecting anything different in this respect down the road. (Though I am hopeful. I’ll update this if anything changes.)

“OK, Mr. Nitpicker,” I hear you saying. You’re telling me “it’s oh-so-easy to criticize,” so you “want to hear something constructive.” You “want some ideas.” You “want to know where C&C has worked.” First and foremost, Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy)! But that’s a game *built* around C&C. Haven’t played it? Want an example of C&C from the game? Don’t mind massive spoilers? Well, I’ll give you one major spoiler.

*major spoiler!* The opening scene of the game features you waking up at a crime scene and it’s pretty obvious you are the prime suspect. You have a few minutes to decide what to do. Do you clean up the blood? Hide the body? Wash up? Run out the back door? Return to your seat, casually pay your bill, and leave? There are so many ways to get through that scene. And then, later in the game, you play a detective who has to work with the evidence that *you the criminal* left behind. If you are one of those perfectionists who has to get everything just right, and you re-load one hundred times to make sure you had the perfectly-clean crime scene, you’re going to be cursing yourself later on. Brilliant! That’s C&C, at its best. *end major spoiler*

I’d love to see this kind of stuff more often in role-playing games. And I’d love to see it more thoughtfully implemented when it is used. But what do you think? Can it work? Have there been games to use it well? Other related thoughts? Fire ’em at me!

The Witcher (Enhanced Edition) – First Impressions

(today’s post: 961 words)

I’m nearing the end of the second chapter (of five?) of the Witcher (by CD Projekt) so I think now is a good time to dump down some thoughts on the game (no real spoilers, but you may want to ignore this post if you’re looking to play it… just in case).

Overall, I love it. Lots of fun. Very addicting. I think its best elements are an interesting story, fun combat, a ton of quests (there’s always something to do), and interesting characters. I’m also enjoying the much-touted “moral ambiguity” in the game.

Here’re some additional bulleted thoughts to elaborate:

  • It’s very scaled back from the typical RPG (role-playing game). At least so far, it’s more of an I-need-to-recover-some-lost-memories and less of a my-village-burned-down-so-I-need-to-save-the-world. Lots of the game so far has been an investigation – complete with an autopsy scene. It’s a welcome change. Saving the world is fun, but too few RPGs are focused on self discovery.
  • Another welcome change, there’s no “grinding” for better equipment. You can upgrade your gear, but generally speaking what you have is about as good as it gets. Through the second chapter, I’ve found one new sword that was better than something I already had, and I’ve been unable to afford the one better suit of armor I’ve found.
  • You won’t be spending money on items, either. If you invest in the skills, you’ll spend a lot of time picking flowers and digging out organs from felled beasts. You’ll then use those items to create the potions and oils which provide small-but-very-helpful benefits (i.e. faster natural healing rather than the typical instant heal). Making your own stuff is more interesting than just buying magic potions from the vendor at the magic store – which somehow stays in business even though you’re the only customer. And the smaller benefits fit the low magic world and add to the risk/thrill.
  • But you will use all of your money, and then some, getting through various plots (everyone wants a bribe or donation) and buying books (more on this at the next bullet point). At this point in any other RPG, I’d have broken the economy by now; I’d be a billionaire dropping 1000s of gold on peasants. Not in the Witcher, where I may as well be one of the peasants (which is good… you want to have some struggle and challenge). I finally bought the last available book for chapter two – which cost me about one month’s salary. Spare some change?
  • Books! When you come up against monster, you have no clue what it is or how to fight it. You can figure it out by trial-and-error or you can talk to someone/buy a book on the topic. This gives you information about strengths and weaknesses, likely locations, useful parts, and so on. I’ve rarely seen a book matter, let alone every book, as much as they do in the Witcher. I love it. Again, it immerses me more into the world.
  • You play a “witcher”, which is kinda/sorta like a cop (only in this world, your job is to protect humans by destroying monsters). Everyone hates the witchers (people find them alien and creepy and violent, etc.) but everyone needs them. I think that’s the perfect way to handle the role of the adventurer in an RPG.
  • Speaking of, there are tons of quests. You’re literally inundated. I love it. Many of the quests are mundane (a gravedigger needs grease to make his coffins), but those are fluff and filler for while you’re doing the more important stuff.
  • The world is alive. People move about throughout the day. People have jobs. People have their own interests. There’re no polar opposites of good and evil; it’s just real people getting by. And a lot of the time, you’re just the rude nuisance from their point of view.
  • Combat is fun. In most RPGs, combat is more strategic. You tell your avatar which opponent to attack, and with which weapon. Then you watch and make changes here and there to adjust. In the Witcher, it’s more action-oriented. You click on an opponent and your character plays an animation. At the conclusion of the animation you have a brief moment to click the enemy again. Time it right and you turn your attack into a double-move combo (mess up, and you start over). You can do this again to get three- and four-round combinations. I think it goes as high as five, but you need to unlock some skills to achieve that many attacks. Not necessarily better or worse than anything else out there, but it is fun.
  • You also have different sets of skills based on tougher foes, faster foes, or groups of foes – with foes defined as either monsters or humans. Six sets of skills provides for lots of areas to focus. And they block you from getting too good at anything too quickly by separating skills into tiers, so there’s always something on the horizon.
  • You can also fire off spells. There aren’t a lot of spells (I think there are five – but you have to discover them first, and they progress like your other skills) and they’re not world-affecting (again, it’s a low magic world – which makes magic feel much more impressive) – but they can make a big difference. I cast one spell at an assassin and it knocked him to the ground. Before he could get up, my character flipped his sword around and swung it through the head of the fallen foe. Quick-and-easy kill.

At this point, I don’t have a lot of complaints. The Witcher is definitely one of the best RPGs I’ve played in a good long while. It’s not without some flaws – but I’ll get to them in another post.