The massive influx of Polish imports (especially plumbers) into Britain has become a bit of a political hot potato during recent times. You can barely walk into any supermarket these days without seeing specialist sections filled with Polish produce. Personally, I'm grateful for all the wonderful Polish beer, but now I have another Polish import to cheer: The Witcher - a single-player RPG based on a series of fantasy stories by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. I have to confess that I wasn't familiar with the original stories, but after having played the game, I can't think of a higher compliment than to say that now I want to be.
The game's protagonist, Geralt of Rivia, is the Witcher of the game's title - a professional monster hunter. What makes Witchers special is that during the process of their training, they are given mutagenic potions that completely re-write their genetic code, making them stronger and faster than normal humans, with the added benefit that they are completely immune to disease. Naturally, there is a price to be paid for this genetic modification: the process renders them sterile, so they cannot have children, plus Witchers are treated by the population at large with an almost equal mix of revulsion and admiration; calling you a freak as you walk by, yet being first to call on your help should they be menaced by monsters. The game world itself is a pleasing palette of shades of grey - there is no universal definition of morality - the only real definition of good versus evil is that the Witchers are opposed to the Salamandra faction (essentially a collective of high-powered bandits), but both these groups act in ways that are seen as both good and bad in the context of the wider community. This ambiguity extends to the races of the world, too. Humans, for example, are not portrayed as having Tolkienesque honour and virtue - in fact, most of them are intolerant, obnoxious and racist. This all stems from the original fiction, where there is an uneasy balance of power between humans and non-humans. Humans are the largest racial group and notionally rule the world, but the Elves and Dwarves have formed an anti-human resistance movement, called the Scoia'tel (which is Elven for Squirrels) and the politics of the world are present throughout the game. It's a very refreshing change from the all too familiar setting of the Forgotten Realms, and it's good to see challenging themes like racism and intolerance addressed so openly in a game.
The game starts, predictably enough for an RPG, with Geralt suffering from amnesia and being taken back to the Witchers' fortress for retraining and recuperation. The amnesia trick may be one of the most clichéd RPG starting points, but on this occasion I can make an allowance for it. Since the majority of players will not be familiar with the original fiction, this mechanism allows for the player to discover things about the character they are playing, as Geralt re-discovers things about himself in the game. There's time for a little character exposition before the Salamandra attack the Witchers' fortress, intent on stealing the secrets of the Witchers' potion-making ability. This attack forms the basis of the tutorial, allowing you to get familiar with combat styles, spell-casting and potion-making. It also provides the big narrative hook that then propels you across the game world, hunting down the Salamandra to reclaim what they have stolen.
Combat is direct and on the arcade side of traditional RPG combat mechanics. Geralt has two principle weapons, a steel sword for dealing with humans and a silver sword for battling monsters. These weapons can be used with so-called "Witcher styles" - Strong for slow or well-armoured opponents, Fast for fighting more nimble or weaker enemies and the Group style for when Geralt has to tackle multiple foes. Attacks can be chained together, providing damage bonuses when timed correctly, and the variety in enemies and styles gives combat a surprising amount of depth. It's also beautifully animated, and very satisfying to watch. As Geralt starts to rack up the levels, fighting style abilities can be unlocked, allowing you to knockdown enemies when surrounded using the Group style, for example. Magical "Signs" are also very useful, giving you the ability to stun opponents, allowing Geralt to dispatch enemies with a single finishing blow (up to and including decapitations). You can also use Signs to strike foes from a distance, giving Geralt the chance to close up to melee range, if he is under attack from enemies with ranged weapons, such as bows.
The real trick up Geralt's sleeve, however, are the Witcher potions. As you play through the game, you will discover potion recipes that give Geralt bonuses in combat. These range from potions that allow Geralt to see in total darkness (essential for cave or crypt crawling), potions that regenerate Health or Endurance (allowing Geralt to heal and use Signs more quickly), a potion that gives Geralt heightened speed of thought and reflexes, making him much harder to hit in combat, to even potions that can be used to unlock extra skills. Potion ingredients can be harvested from plants and monsters, and are made using strong liquor as a base, giving you a good excuse to visit the local tavern. The use of alchemy and potions is very important (verging on essential) at the highest difficulty level, but less so at Easy or Medium, where only a few encounters really require the use of potions to survive.
The story is interesting while not exactly inspired, but characterisation (not least of Geralt himself) is strong and the relationships between the major characters feel natural and realistic. Voiceover work is fairly decent, but there are a few problems with the script, betraying the fact that it has been translated into English from the developer's native language. At its best, the script flows nicely, but occasionally there are moments where you can see where dialogue has been trimmed and toned down during the translation. Fortunately, the script issues never descend to MetalHeart: Replicants Rampage or Gorasul: Legacy of the Dragon levels of farce: it clunks along in places, but never has you scratching your head in perplexity. Despite the occasional translation issues, one thing I liked especially was the fact that script is refreshingly foul-mouthed: in places it would make a paratrooper blush. This is all part of The Witcher's billing as a "mature RPG". The PEGI 18+ rating is well-earned, thanks to not only the violence and bad language but the inclusion of sexual content, as well.
The thought of the very presence of sex in a videogame may conjure up visions of the puerile Lula games and the equally lamentable Playboy games. Thankfully, The Witcher deals with sex in a more mature way - though not by a very large margin. The Witcher is not the first RPG to feature the ability to sleep with other characters - all of Bioware's RPGs since Baldur's Gate II have touched on the subject, for example - but The Witcher is perhaps unique in that it is a whole lot more upfront about the subject, to the point of even providing mementos of each sexual encounter Geralt has, in the form of portrait cards, with your conquests in various states of undress. Naturally, this has caused a lot of consternation and debate, especially among UK and US audiences. I should say at this point that I didn't have a problem with their inclusion and certainly found nothing to be offended by. Each liaison is entirely optional and since Geralt's status as a Witcher renders him sterile, it's entirely in character for him to have the sexual proclivity of a Dickensian cad - after all, he's not capable of leaving a trail of illegitimate sprogs behind him, so such a casual attitude to sex is perhaps to be expected. The cards themselves are cheesier than a Babybel packing factory, but any objections to them can mainly be put down to a lack of perspective: saying that graphically depicting violence and death in a game is fine, but that the odd sex scene or bared nipple is the end of civilisation as we know it strikes me as a rather ludicrous moral position to adopt...
In conclusion then, with solid marks in terms of combat, characterisation and plot, coupled with a first rate graphics engine (a version of Bioware's Aurora engine that's completely unrecognisable from its original incarnation in Neverwinter Nights), a fine orchestral score, high production values and a willingness to tackle adult themes, The Witcher's strengths outweigh its few flaws (long loading times and the aforementioned translation issues) by a considerable margin. Technically, the game is far sounder than the recently released Neverwinter Nights 2 expansion, Eye of the Betrayer - once I installed the 1.1a patch, I had no performance problems at all - and the original campaign setting makes a pleasant change from traditional Dungeons and Dragons fare. If I had to sum up the game in one line, I'd say that The Witcher is probably my favourite single-player RPG since Oblivion - and it's hard to think of a better recommendation than that.