I should like The Witcher. I really should. It’s a giant single-player action-RPG, full of sex (very little romance, though) and bad language. On paper, the only turn-off is the grimdark, and there’s enough banter to offset that.
In reality… I’m not so sure. The most prominently off-putting part of the game is its combat system, which seems to be trying to simultaneously pull itself in two entirely different directions — resulting in an unhappy mishmash.
On the one hand, there is the Neverwinter Nights top-down click-and-let-them-go attitude natural to the Aurora engine, the more strategic attitude passed down to it from the Infinity Engine and who knows where before. It’s a good paradigm for dealing with a party, when there’s a lot going on; perhaps slightly less suited to a single-hero game but still by no means bad for it.
Hauling in completely the opposite direction, however, is the hack ‘n’ slash action-RPG attitude — more like Morrowind or Venetica. Worlds with mouselook and keyboard controls. Worlds where clicking makes you take a wild swing regardless of who’s in your crosshair, where button mashing might not be the most optimal solution but is still possible. It’s an exciting paradigm, up close and personal, where reflex and timing take the place of strategy and dispassionate consideration.
Both paradigms have their merits and their place — they are different ends of the spectrum for different situations. The Witcher, however, has tried to meld the two. Or maybe it tried to do something else and ended up with this unholy union. Regardless, this is how it is.
For a start, clicking to attack in The Witcher only works if there is actually an opponent under the crosshair. But having to click on an opponent to attack isn’t the strange thing — it’s more that Geralt performs a number of sword swings with each individual click. It might not sound like much, but the number of swings varies wildly, and the run of slashes can be interrupted by taking hits from your enemies, moving, or pretty much doing anything but stare at the cursor.
If the run finishes or is interrupted, you stand there like a lemon. It is not always obvious when this has occurred, and it’s not always obvious when the game is ready to accept another click to start again. Although there is scope for dynamism — some combination of keys I have yet to fathom can cause Geralt to flip over people (What do you mean, I could read the manual?) — it doesn’t seem to be particularly encouraged by the setup.
Another action-RPG element is the combo: by timing your attacks, you build up into more powerful ones. This is fair enough, but again the fact that a single click results in an unpredictable number of attacks (or at least a number of attacks that is impractical to track) means that when the cursor does finally change to “click now for moar” mode, it never feels natural. And if you’re interrupted and lose the combo, you probably end up standing around like a lemon again.
Compare that to Venetica‘s combo system. The combo is set up not by any interface cue, but rather by the “physical” cue of Scarlett finishing a swing — a huge visual flourish that’s hard to miss. The combo is reinforced visually by the combo attack continuing as the backswing from the previous attack, so racking up the combo looks and feels natural. Venetica may be a pure hack ‘n’ slash game, but the combat mechanics wouldn’t cease to function if all The Witcher‘s full-on RPG additions were added to its pile.
As if the raw fighting wasn’t a bit squiffy, there are sadly plenty of other issues with combat. Fights that occur after cinematics, for example, tend to drop you right in it — with your sword sheathed. Trying to get Geralt to pull his sword out, while he’s being pummelled by everyone, is apparently rather difficult. Actually, Geralt seems to have trouble doing anything while he’s taking hits. Which is fair enough, but he’s a seasoned super-human warrior — you’d expect him to have a little bit more battlefield tolerance.
And then there are potions. The game simultaneously requires you to drink them (except on easy mode, which I foolishly eschewed in favour of “normal”, feeling myself at least a passable player of games) and completely gimps you for drinking them. As you ingest potions, you get their effects and an increase to your toxicity level — too much toxicity, and that nice healing potion turns into a lose-half-your-health potion.
Drinking a potion also requires Geralt to stand like a lemon and take a swig. It seems that most potions should actually be drunk before fights — but for fights that occur after cinematics, you are once again gimped right in the balls. It’s a nice touch and realism is all fine and dandy, but when it breaks game flow so badly you have to wonder if it’s really worth it. Somewhere in the vicinity of Chapter II you end up with a shield spell that is designed to make you invulnerable enough to drink potions, but by now I appear to have ground enough side quests to gain an edge on the difficulty curve that means I don’t really need potions anymore…
In a large open-world action-RPG, combat tends to be a pretty big factor. It’s not like Baldur’s Gate where for the easy fights you can just cast Haste and go for a cup of tea — you must be paying attention all the time and clicking all the time. While this is delightfully entertaining in pleasant circumstances, awkwardness in the clicking quickly turns fun and exciting combat into tiresome and frustrating drudge-work.
But “Perseverance” is my middle name, so I will finish The Witcher. Not sure how much I’ll enjoy it, but it certainly isn’t as masochistic as Icewind Dale.
And there is, as always, the very large caveat that I may just be doing it wrong. In which case you, dear reader, will comment this blog and set me right.