The Witcher: Enhanced Edition – Staff Review

Game companies usually don’t get do-overs. If there’s a bug or design flaw in a game, it stays there until the end of time. PC games often have the benefit of patches and mod communities, but these are after the fact and don’t always address the most glaring problems. Enter CD Projekt Red, developers of last year’s action RPG The Witcher; a promising but uneven title that, like many PC RPGs, felt like it needed a few more months in the oven. Determined not to let such potential fade into obscurity, CDPR rounded up the cast and crew, cleared their schedules, and took another stab at it with The Witcher: Enhanced Edition. The resulting package – free for download to those who already have the original – could show even crowd-pleasing stalwarts like Atlus a thing or two about keeping fans happy, and should be studied for years as an example of how real game fixes are done.

For those just tuning in, The Witcher centers on a guild of professional, genetically enhanced monster hunters – witchers – set against the backdrop of simmering racial animosity in a not-so-typical fantasy world. Renowned witcher Geralt of Rivia, last seen being fitted for a coffin a while ago, turns up mysteriously and is rescued by his comrades from a witchers’ guild. Stricken with amnesia, Geralt has little time to recover before the guild is sacked by bandits, led by a professional assassin and an ambitious mage. The witchers’ gene manipulation formulas are stolen, and thus begins the pursuit of the bandits by Geralt and company, right into the thick of a brewing political firestorm.

Obviously, the game mechanics haven’t changed. The adventure is still controlled from an over-the-shoulder or isometric camera, with WASD keys and point-and-click covering movement, interaction and combat. Fights are still based on timing, with a single click launching an attack, and successive, properly-timed clicks adding progressively more elaborate chains and combos to each strike. The tutorial patiently explains the finer points of the interface, controls, alchemy system, and so on, while a journal helpfully keeps track of your quests, major characters, monster lists and background information.

Man, we gotta call each other in the morning or something.  We all look like a bunch of disposable henchm... oh, right.  Dammit.
Man, we gotta call each other in the morning or something. We all look like a bunch of disposable henchm– oh, right. Dammit.

The visual changes are minor, consisting of palette swaps and some animation fixes. In particular, NPCs would sometimes make odd, jerky, or out-of-character gestures and actions in conversation, and this has been addressed to better fit the character and context; hardened warriors no longer hop in place, for instance. These are small changes, but they do help, and the visuals were good enough in the original to warrant little extra attention. Battles look suitably flashy and visceral, towns and cities are big, detailed, and full of life, and the engine does a very good job of making ordinary settings look picturesque.

Sound gets the most noticeable upgrade, with thousands of lines of dialogue rewritten and recorded, generally for the better. Geralt himself has improved dramatically; he still sounds like JC Denton from Deus Ex, but his lines sound less canned and awkward. Another noteworthy change has Leo, a novice witcher in the prologue, sounding more like a seasoned warrior and less like an overexcited teenager-slash-JRPG hero. There are exceptions, however. The actress for Triss, Geralt’s sorceress friend-with-benefits and a powerful political figure, also got a second cut for her lines but still seems to have trouble fitting the role. Conversely, the bard Dandelion didn’t really need another recording but got one anyway. On the whole, however, the audio package is the most strongly improved aspect of The Witcher. CDPR even went the extra mile and recorded voices for the two bonus chapters made with the Djinni adventure editor: The Price of Neutrality and Side Effects, both free for download and available with the retail release.  The inclusion of the well-scored soundtrack, and bonus music, with the package is just icing on the cake, albeit very impressive icing.

Right behind the audio, in terms of improvements, are the scripting and writing, both of which have been tightened up substantially. A between-chapter prelude now properly links the prologue with the first chapter, whereas before, the game jumped from the guild at Kaer Morhen to the outskirts of the Temerian capital with no explanation. Many quest triggers have been fixed or tweaked, and some primary quests now make a lot more sense. For instance, a criminal investigation in chapter two is far more clear on what to do next, and it’s easier to understand how Geralt knows to question a suspect or move to another lead.

Yes, people, I know I look weird and out of place in your little fishing village, let's just try to be mature about thi- hey, HEY!  I saw that, kid!  I know what that finger means!
Yes, people, I know I look weird and out of place in your little fishing village, let’s just try to be mature about thi- hey, HEY! I saw that, kid! I know what that finger means!

The fundamentals of the game haven’t changed much, so some irritants do remain. Combat animation can still be delayed as Geralt moves into position to strike, and this can fool the player into clicking again, interrupting the attack before it begins. Hit detection is lacking, and should you stall an enemy’s attack animation, you may still take damage even if they don’t visibly take a swing at you. Some spells are impractical to use apart from very specific situations, and even then it’s generally easier to just hack your opponents to bits. Weaker enemies have annoyingly high spawn rates and will pester you regularly in dangerous zones. Difficulty can spike and plummet from one battle to the next, and it can be difficult to keep some friendlies alive. Some of the dialogue still jars, as many characters talk straight out of Tolkien, while other, inexplicably British, speakers drop f-bombs on cue.

Character development is also unchanged, with talent points awarded upon leveling up. These points are distributed at the player’s discretion amongst physical attributes, sword styles, and magical signs; some just boost hit points or damage dealt, while others inflict or resist negative statuses (blindness, bleeding, poison, etc.), or provide special abilities, such as deflecting arrows or using charged magical strikes. Since there aren’t many opportunities to grind, it’s unlikely a player will get enough talents for every ability, though enough are given to specialize in certain fighting styles without completely neglecting other tactics. Alchemy allows the creation of potions, most of which provide temporary bonuses; faster reflexes, regeneration, more powerful spells, night vision, and so on. The catch is potions are toxic, and Geralt will die if he doesn’t periodically sleep out or neutralize the toxin. The only significant change to alchemy is that now ingredients have their own inventory space, effectively doubling the number of things Geralt can carry.

Other various distractions offer breaks from killing your way to justice, and are mostly untouched. Drinking games provide opportunities to get information or even prizes from people. Each inn holds a small boxing tournament, which offers a quick and dirty way to scrounge up money and the occasional rare item. Many people can be challenged to a fun dice-based poker minigame, and, in another improvement over the original game, most opponents are now smart enough to not throw away a three-of-a-kind if you only have two pairs. The option to sleep with various women throughout the game is still pointless cheesecake, with some situations bordering on the absurd. And yet, they’re often attached to quests, so the diligent player will probably go through with them anyway; “Yeah, barmaid, sorceress, Lady of the Lake (yes, that Lady of the Lake), whatever. Five hundred XP? Now we’re talking.” Cue Barry White, level up, end scene.

All that for three hit points?  Is this sword f-ing hollow or something?  I call shenanigans!  SHENANIGANS!
All that for three hit points? Is this sword f-ing hollow or something? I call shenanigans! SHENANIGANS!

The plot and the world remain the centerpieces of The Witcher, and with the benefit of better writing they’re a lot easier to enjoy. As Geralt hunts down the bandit organization, Salamandra, he begins to discover more sinister plots afoot. A plague outbreak has forced a quarantine, sealing off certain segments of Vizima, the capital city. Temeria’s King is absent, with several of Vizima’s elite making a play for power. Nonhumans are forced into ghettos and plot revolution from inside the city walls. The Order of the Flaming Rose, a fanatical cloister of human knights, works to supplant the Temerian army. All the while, someone powerful and wealthy is backing Salamandra, someone with a vested interest in the witchers’ mutation secrets. The cast is diverse, intriguing, and generally well acted, especially now that not every third thug sounds like the guy you were just buying weapons from.

Geralt is thrust into the thick of this mess, and while the plot proceeds in a linear fashion, he is routinely called upon to choose between opposing sides. The consequences aren’t always immediate, and there isn’t always a ‘right’ side, which can make the choices a lot more meaningful. It may be a no-brainer to side with a useful informant over a nobleman who’s done nothing but belittle and insult you, but the choice between protecting a food shipment and letting a nonhuman commando unit “steal” it is not nearly so cut-and-dry. The story itself is presented very well, and the player has some leeway in deciding what kind of man Geralt is; whether he ascribes to a particular philosophy, whether he’s a simple-minded ‘kill mans and monsters for shinies’ mercenary, and who he’s willing to help or hurt along the way.

With three endings and several branching plot points along the way, The Witcher offers a fair amount of replay value in the core campaign. The new adventures are effectively stand-alone chapters, each offering a few extra hours of play, and both with their own multiple endings and secrets. A versatile editor paired with a productive mod community and a friendly developer almost ensures that fans will see more content down the road. The Enhanced Edition has improved significantly on the gameplay and the story, and while it’s still not an ideal game, The Witcher is bound to appeal to those gamers hungering for classic role-playing with modern technology. The improvements make the game easier to swallow for newcomers, appease fans who stuck through it to the end, and don’t cost a dime for people who bought the original version.

Perhaps the best thing that can be said about The Witcher, however, is that CD Projekt Red has forever raised the bar for post-release patching and fan-friendliness. Long after the Elder Scrolls V has been modded to hell and back, people will rightly point back to The Witcher: Enhanced Edition and say, “Now that’s how you fix a game.”

One Comment

  1. roxya:

    Awesome review, thanks. Good to hear Geralt’s lines and VA are better – he is a great character but his dialogue was so flat.

    I never managed to finish the original release (crash bugs drove me to the brink of insanity), but it sounds like it’s worth starting over with EE.

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