The Witcher 2: An RPG, Not a Story-Driven Action Game
I did it, I asked the number one most obnoxious question you can possibly ask someone associated with the Witcher titles. I did it shamelessly, with reckless abandon, with reference to their website's job listings and interviews where they've mentioned it as an in-house project, I did it with the sort of desperation born of true longing: I asked about The Witcher 2 on consoles. With Tom Ohle stubbornly mute on the topic and no timeline for a console release, we'll have to content ourselves with the much more finite - and very beautiful - PC version.
What Ohle, who moved GDC mountains to meet with me, *is* talking about are the game's (new) engine, areas, quest structures, and sexy time with a succubus. Visiting an area of the game, one that Ohle describes as "a town that, depending on the choices you made before this, you might actually not see at all", we pick up a quest to follow up on some missing young men. Definitely suspicious, and as the Witcher we mostly suspect monsters. While traveling to the destination, we come across guards fighting demons and have the option to sort of skirt the battle and let them continue to fight it out, or dive in. Since the games enemies do not scale there will be times to embrace the flight response, instead of fight.
The combat system of the first game has received a total overhaul. It's all real time with full control over combat moves allowing you to parry, dodge and mix in fast attacks with heavier ones for combos. Intriguingly scaleable, the easiest setting makes combat more of an afterthought. The idea is that the combat will be easy to learn for story-focused players. Those inclined to war achieve greater combat depth as they get better with moves and spells. "You can get into fights that last a long time", Ohle says, and on higher difficulties the combat is more rewarding. Equipped with two swords, one steel and the other silver, the intention is to use the former against humans, who are weak to steel, while reserving the silver sword for spirits or similar beasties. Supplementing this is your arsenal of magic including a fireball, an electric shield and a push move. When you first acquire the shield it deflects attacks, the second level damages enemies and at the level shown in the demo it creates a chain reaction among enemies (I was reminded of the Tesla Barrier from Ratchet and Clank!).
Upon arriving at a some catacombs chock full of angry spirits in the walls, I discover that striking a wall with magic is a good way to make angry spirits angrier. After defeating the spirits we discover a young man, already dead, and are able to use Witcher-CSI skills to examine the body and conclude that a succubus is at fault. Geralt sees that the boy is clutching some love poems, which sends him straight back to pal Dandelion, bard, poet and licentious in his own right. A little persuasion gets Dandelion to go along with your scheme to catch the succubus, and lands him in her lair while Geralt waits outside - I guess to give Dandelion a little privacy? For anyone spoiling to nail a succubus - er, for crimes committed or more intimately - bad news: turns out one of her bespelled gents is in a jealous snit and killing all her lovers. Of course, you could kill first, ask no questions later, bringing the search to rather abrupt halt in one of the many choices the game affords. Then, no matter what you choose, the curtain falls on the demo lest we learn too much!
I appreciate their guardedness with the story, I don't want any spoilers, and I don't like any of you enough to beg for them! Importing your save from the first game does affect the story in Assassins of Kings, but if you didn't play you won't be lost, just perhaps a little less likely to pick up lore nuance. Major decisions will carry over, and the sequel's story picks up where the first left off, with Geralt going to investigate assassinations. Very early on in the story there is a significant twist, and where the first game was in one kingdom the events of Witcher 2 are a bit more broad: there are whole nations to visit - or not - based on the choices made. Progressing in chapters you travel to different locations that, once the chapter is complete, you can't return. This is an interesting story-telling technique that will have the player feeling like they are moving through a tale woven with smaller stories within each chapter. Lending emphasis and structure is Dandelion, Geralt's BFF who, having a way with words, has written the journal in the game.
Absent from Witcher 2 are volumes of tiny side quests, opting instead for a smattering of those among meatier questing options. "In the first game there were a lot of quests where you ended up having to run back and forth between areas and you spent a lot of time like that, and then you say 'Oh, yeah it was 80 hours of gameplay'. Well, a lot of that was spent kind of running around the same areas", Ohle comments. "There's a lot more focus on trying to get to the point and spend more time exploring the world or actually being in gameplay." Behaving in a way that is more real, more human, is evidenced in little touches like the ability to interrupt dialogue if you prefer - rather than nodding along and giving an abrupt, albeit polite, "Goodbye" at obligatory conversation end.
Also on show during the demo was a Dwarven pub, where you can pick up info and both make and spend money on games like arm wrestling and poker dice - games that actually require a bit of skill, as Ohle pointed out by promptly losing at a round of poker dice. The arm wrestling has you keeping mouse and cursor within a slider on the screen, and was a close match as the difficulty does increase as you progress. The fighting game, a QTE, was a fun bout of mini game melee, very different from the more visceral combat outside the pub.
As the succubus quest might indicate, the sexiness of the series is still in play, just a little more tastefully done than collectible cards. As Ohle says, "the sexuality is really more a part of the story and it's presented a lot more cinematically." The morality is more than good or evil, instead creating choices that aren't purely binary, quests that will mold the story for the player around the decisions they make. The desire to use a more realistic, shades-of-grey choice system is part of what pushed the team to abandon Bioware's Aurora engine and create their own. Called the RED Engine and built from the ground up for RPGs, citing problems of the Aurora game engine like binary choice options and load screens, Ohle comments that "It's very rare that you find loading screens" in the Witcher 2. And when asked if the engine would work for console development? "Yeah, basically it has been built so that it'll utilize, it'll work with consoles."
Choices, those decisions made between evil and the lesser of, these are what I increasingly crave from my RPG experience. "Non-linearity, and being able to define how you play the game I think is probably one of the biggest things in Western RPGs. With a lot of Japanese RPGs, they really tend to be kind of 'here's your path', it's very linear, and you're kind of, I wouldn't even call it role-playing within that you're just kind of, I mean they're story driven action games for the large part, right?," Ohle explained, "[…]in Final Fantasy, you're not really role-playing per se. I dunno, I used to call them RPGs, too, I played them, it's just…I think it's quite a bit different now where in this case you're actually really deciding how you want to play the game, and being able to develop your character a certain way." With sixteen different end states for the game, that's not just boasting. In Witcher 2 it seems that choices will matter for more than just a hollow second playthrough as the counter to your first character.
Witcher 2 looks beautiful, it just does. It's identifiably The Witcher, compellingly so - after all, smack in the middle of my demo and interview with Ohle, a guy interrupts to ask how we got the game! From that point forward he lurks in the periphery, staring hungrily at the screen, because once you see it you can't deny its draw. "One of the things the team wanted to do with the environments was really make sure that each place that you go to really had a distinct feel to it", Ohle commented, an effort with success evidenced in the architecture and the forest canopy, the colors and detail. It's more than appreciation for the mountain they've tackled in creating their own engine coloring my thoughts, The Witcher 2 is hand-crafted, made with love.
For RPG fans, 2007's The Witcher seems an achingly long age ago, and May 17th's Witcher 2 release can't come soon enough.
iPhone voice memo, my favorite friend. Here we are battling through the catacombs.
In town, picking up a quest.
Surveying an area.