Blog 459: Combat and The Witcher

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.

Say what you want about the game, its simulation of drunkenness is spot on -- right down to moving faster going sideways.

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.

I don't know if it's just my eyesight, but the inventory and all its icons seem to be much smaller and more finicky than is strictly necessary.

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.

Is that the worst you can say?

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…

Or you can ditch the lot and play dice poker... But only because you need to complete the quest. Not because you're addicted to gambling. Not in the slightest.

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.

6 thoughts on “Blog 459: Combat and The Witcher”

  1. Exactly. You’re not going to know why i dont agree with you. Nah, the original post was just a joke 🙂 No need to get defensive. Plus, it was midnight here when i read your entry. I do disagree on several things though.

    My points. I dont think the “fight right after the cinematics with your sword sheathed” thing is bad. In life (yes, video game-to-real life comparison incoming) you cant just walk into every building (when expecting a fight) with a sword in your hand and after having drank two potions. And before a talk, you’re not always supposed to know you’re going to fight. I find nothing wrong with the cinematic ending with your sword still sheathed.

    As for the combat (and combo) system, i agree that it may be a little weird, many have complained about it. Personally, i liked that i have to really pay attention to timing instead of mindlessly pressing the mouse button and ocassionally a number on the numpad. I guess its a matter of taste, so im not going to argue about that.
    I dont find the interruption weird either. I couldnt go on fighting with a foe while a 6 feet tall fat man is bashing my head with his mace behind my back.

    Potions. Myself, i barely drank any potions at all, so i cannot tell much about that. But i think having to stand in place while drinking is okay. Imagine yourself running around drinking potions (i’d throw up, but Geralt’s stomach might be better suited for this) while having tailed by half a dozen foes. Realistic, no. Weird, yes. It doesnt break the flow. The Call of Duty series has a flow. Games Planescape, BG2, Deus ex and The Witcher dont really have a flow in my opinion (like, i was horrified when Eidos announced that they are going to use regenerating health system in DX: HR in order not to break the “flow”).

    Anyway, thats not why i fell in love with the game. Its the story, music and the enviroment. It was awesome, and maybe a little innovative four years ago.

    Now, you might feel that my review of your review too serious. It’s not meant to be. Im not a serious person. At all. No, really. And as i said, you might be forgiven for your blasphemy because you made This Wreckage, and you like Deus Ex and Unreal. No need to be afraid of packages that have a weird ticking noise. If you DO encounter one, that wasnt sent by me. Honest.

    Anyway, my Deus Ex: HR just installed, so im off to try it and decide whether it is a worthy successor or a crime like Invisible War was.



    1. Oh, I get the realism of not always being able to prepare. But some of the boss fights are difficult enough that you can’t win without that preparation. At best, it still means you have to run around for ten seconds while you get yourself in gear, which kind of chops up the action. I think The Beast in the outskirts was the most prime example of needing preparation time the game wouldn’t give me… Then again, when I finally got it right I killed the thing in two hits.

      I don’t mean that the need for timing in combat is bad. My problem is that, because of the way the combat goes, getting a feel for that timing is difficult. It’s not always obvious when an attack run is over; I tended to click after Geralt finished doing a backflip (for example) rather than waiting for the cursor to change. I wasn’t mindlessly mashing and hoping to win, it’s that my expectations of “good timing” weren’t aligned with those of the game. If that makes any more sense?

      Again, I think my problems with interruptions were perhaps ones of feedback. The game sets up the expectation that, once I click, Geralt performs a series of actions for a short period of time where I need to wait. When you get interrupted, that series of actions is callously whipped away, and suddenly you’re just standing there taking hits. But you’re right, even a genetically modified super-human can’t keep going after a giant club to the face. I suppose I’m too used to WC3 with the giant shoulderpads and over-egged motions to deal with subtlety anymore.

      Yeah, I stopped really needing potions but for some of the spikes after the beginning too so it became less of a problem. But game flow — it does have it, just not necessarily in the same way as these new fangled corridor-shooters. The game is set up as an action RPG, so it seems counter-intuitive to introduce an element that takes away the action like potion-drinking does. Whereas, in Baldur’s Gate the flow IS to stop and think.

      Take you seriously? Psh! Don’t worry, as long as we’re having a proper discussion and not a “you’re all wrong”-fest, everything is fine! I’m just paranoid about haters.


      1. It seems to me that these are really matters of perspective, as the game brings some elements which were rarely seen before. Things like these are often hard to embrace. Actually, these weren’t the things to drive me either, like i said, it was the enviroment and story. It surely has a more interesting setting than the default “OMG giant black dragon came with an army of dark evil orcs to conquer the world” game (i swear Dragon Age didnt come to my mind until i finished that sentence).

        And… you’re all wrong!


      2. It’s quite sad that, having played The Witcher, I can just how badly Dragon Age was “inspired” by it. Human racism against non-humans, grimdark undead types everywhere… BioWare are pretty creatively bankrupt these days, it would seem.

        And… That’s what I said to your mother last night!


  2. All your comments on the flaws of the game are invalid. You have no excuse for not (really) liking The Witcher. You are a bad, bad person. But the heavens may forgive you because you made This Wreckage.


    1. So, everything I said is invalid but you’re not going to explain why? That’s an interesting approach. I am not the only person around here that thinks The Witcher‘s combat is wierd, so I’m definitely not havering. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad game at all. I just don’t think the combat really works.


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