Platform: Xbox 360
Developer: CD Projekt Red
Publisher: Bandai Namco
The vast majority of today’s gaming is done on web browsers and smart phones which offer free-to-play options and $1 downloads. This tipping point was reached two years ago where seemingly overnight, companies like Zynga were suddenly worth billions of dollars, rivalling established video game companies like Nintendo. The shift in the casual audience play-space has significantly changed the landscape for traditional home consoles.
Normally, when a generation of game consoles reaches maturity, which is usually around 5-6 years into its lifespan, there is a large market that can support second tier games. Niche genres like horror games, stealth games and adventure games. Games that had modest budgets but could still find a big enough fanbase to make their money back.
In today’s climate, that segment has all but disappeared, and it might be taking down established publishers like THQ, SEGAand Capcom with it. We’re in a day and age where a game like L.A Noire can sell 5 million copies and yet the developer Team Bondi still goes into administration. Where a South Park RPG developed by Obsidian needs to sell 2 million copies to break even. Where THQ offloads its UFC license to EA because its not worth investing in a license for a game that ‘only sells 1.5 million copies.’ With high production costs and a tough market that is heavily entrenched around a select few games (Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed etc.), once popular game genres such as the traditional role playing game have suffered and these smaller games have begun to disappear.
Which is why Polish developer CD Projeckt’s The Witcher II is a breath of fresh air. This Western action RPG is based on a book series of the same name by a Polish author. It is unashamedly ‘gamey’ and expects a certain level of familiarity with RPGs of the player. It doesn’t have an online access key or a multiplayer mode but it comes with a thick, detailed colour manual, a fold out map and a bonus soundtrack CD. It is clearly targeting a very particular type of gamer.
The Witcher II is set in a medieval fantasy world called Temeria where the player controls a character named Geralt, an assassin for hire. Geralt is a ‘Witcher’ which is comparable to a Ranger in Lord of the Rings. Witchers are genetically superior humans that possess gifted traits – greater strength, speed, intelligence and so on.
In the game’s prologue, Geralt is wrongfully accused of regicide and he sets out to clear his name. The story quickly becomes much more expansive than that however and becomes an enjoyable yarn than spins together politics, sex, sorcery and war-mongering. After playing through Square’s gorgeous but crushingly shallow Final Fantasy XIII series, this was a welcome, grungier alternative.
The Witcher II may be a B-tier game in terms of budget and distribution but it still holds its own graphically. CD Projeckt’s engine runs smoothly enough on the old Xbox 360 hardware and despite the occasional spot of texture pop-in, there is a large expansive world to be explored here that looks crisp and detailed.
The game’s branching storylines were a welcome surprise. There are some pretty significant decisions that the player can make in the game including who they choose to form a relationship with, who they form an alliance with and when they choose to fight or use diplomacy. It’s this final option that I really appreciated the most. Many games like Deus Ex and Mass Effect offer branching dialogue trees and token love interests but insist on combat when it comes to interactions with the major antagonists. Not so in The Witcher II. You really are given a range of options when Geralt crosses pathes with Letho the kingslayer, Roche the captain of the guard and Iorveth the elvish rebel.
The Witcher II has a challenging but fair combat system. There is an easy to follow skill-tree for levelling up Geralt as either a swordsman, mage or alchemist. Or if you’re indecisive like me, a weak jack-of-all-trades that isn’t particularly good at anything. In addition to hand to hand combat, you can set traps, cast spells and throw daggers. And if all else fails or you run out of stuff to throw at your enemies, you can contiously barrel-roll like Donkey Kong until you flank your opponent, then get in a quick stab to the lower back.
I liked the world of Temeria that CD Projeckt have crafted. It’s a thoroughly R-rated environment that takes influence from George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. The world is populated with thieves, wenches, crooks and politicians who all desperately try to serve their own interests. as best they can You are given plenty to do if you want to stray from the main storyline. There are games of dice to be played, pub brawls to be had and monster hunting sidequests galore.
The main storyline in The Witcher II can probably be completed in around 15-20 hours. I probably took twice as long as that because I enjoyed exploring the world to its fullest. I like that the story seems purposefully low-key. It feels like just one chapter in a series of events. Some plotlines are resolved, others left open-ended. Its not like a traditional Japanese RPG where the final boss is always God in an apocalyptic showdown.
The Witcher II is an excellent game but I appreciate it all the more because it belongs to a category of game that is becoming increasingly rare. It is a modestly produced RPG that doesn’t come from a megabucks publisher or well known developer. It contains mature content, satisfying gameplay and interesting, thoughtfully developed characters. Whatever happens to the game industry next is anyone’s guess. But I hope that affordable middleware and cheaper distribution models will help sustain an ecosystem in which games like this can continue to thrive.