on Aug 1, 2008
When Oblivion came out, my poor little computer couldn’t handle it. With the help of Oldblivion I eventually managed to stagger through to the end of the game. I later upgraded, and went through the game again with acceptable framerates, although only if I had the visuals turned down to “eye-gouging ugly”. Now here I am with a brand new graphics card that can handle Oblivion with a nice framerate and all the fancy visuals turned up. But of course I’m done with Oblivion. Time to find another RPG.
Brace yourself, because I’m about to be very mean to the game everyone seems to love so much. Mellow out, listen to some new age music. Do whatever you have to do to keep from freaking out. If you just can’t bear seeing The Witcher take a few roundhouse kicks to its pasty wrinkled face then you’d best look away. Maybe go read my comic instead. It’s about World of Warcraft, and nobody cares when I abuse that thing.
So I fire up The Witcher and it’s the same damn nightmare from Oblivion all over again. This game does not look appreciably better than Oblivion. Okay, the character models look better, but the Oblivion models were notoriously ugly. You didn’t need technology to improve on those. You just needed decent art direction.
But The Witcher runs like an inebriated John Madden trying to run in the Boston marathon while pulling a busload of other John Maddens. The game is unplayable at the default settings. If I turn everything down I can get the game to look very terrible and still stutter quite a bit. Let me make this clear: At these settings the game looks far worse than Oblivion and yet still somehow runs slower. Considering that Oblivion was an appalling glutton when it came to GPU cycles, that’s really saying something. What is the game doing with my processor? Building fractals? Trying to find the last digit of Pi?
I know I just had a huge rant on this the other day, but this is such a perfect illustration of the problem that I can’t resist. I’m within the system requirements (on the low side, but I’m still in) and I have to make the game look horrible just to make it quasi-playable, and even then it chokes and pukes all over itself when I get into a fight. (You know, when frame rate is most crucial.) The phrase “Minimum System Requirements” has morphed from its original meaning and has come to denote the minimum system on which you can install the game without it killing anybody or starting a fire. But even if I had the hardware to run the game, it doesn’t look that much better than the last generation of games. Which means we’re now spending hundreds of dollars to upgrade our machines so just to run in place, visually.
(An even more appropriate comparison is against Jade Empire. The areas are about the same size, except Jade Empire looks far better, runs silky smooth, and its loading screens are brief and rare.)
This is on top of other inexplicable slowdowns, like that fact that the entire game locks up for two seconds when you hit the map button. It takes so long you might be forgiven for impatiently hitting the button again while you’re waiting. In which case when the map does finally get around to making an appearance it will instantly turn off again. And no matter how often you bring the sucker up, the game never gets the idea that maybe it would be a good idea to keep the thing in memory. No, the game slams into a brick wall every time you want a glimpse. A simple static map. A 2D map. It doesn’t even fill the screen. I know it’s my job to find funny ways to point out things are stupid, but they’ve really bested me this time. I’ve got nothing that can do this justice.
But even without these performance shortcomings, the game is plagued by presentation issues. Every door knocks you in the face with a tedious loading screen. No matter how small the interior space, the game needs ten seconds or so to get it ready for you. This is really annoying when you’ve got a quest to talk to a couple of different people in different houses, which happens all the time. Interacting with NPCs becomes a sort of punishment in a setup like this.
Which brings me to the sometimes off-kilter rhythm of the dialog, which I’m assuming is an unfortunate artifact of the translation from Polish. You click on someone. Then the screen fades out as it enters “dialog” mode. Then it fades in on the person you’re talking to. Then there’s this pause of a half second while they stare at you blankly. Then they speak, “Hi there.” Then there’s another pause. Then they wave. Then the view cuts to Geralt. Pause. “Hello to you as well.” Pause. Change view back to the NPC. Pause. “What can I do for you?” Pause. Back to Geralt. Then the dialog menu appears. It’s like seeing a power point presentation of the conversation. Lots of people complain about the voice acting in the game, but I think the voice acting is probably fine, it’s just that the delivery is sometimes borked. You could have Ian McKellen and Judy Dench doing the vocals and they would still sound like a couple of retarded androids with their voices coming out of these blank-faced people and with little pauses added in to make it sound like they forgot their lines. It doesn’t always do this, but it happens often enough to hurt the storytelling.
And finally we have the interface. I’ll admit: I picked up this game specifically because Yahtzee lambasted the thing for being too complicated. As someone who has railed against the stupification of RPGs to make them playable on a gamepad I was instantly sold. Finally! A game with some depth!
But complexity is not depth and The Witcher has too much of the former and not enough of the latter. I really feel bad for picking on the game for this, since they’re obviously going for depth, and I want to encourage game developers when they do good things like this. But the interface is just too cluttered. It’s far denser than (say) World of Warcraft, but all that complexity doesn’t really translate into more gameplay activities. The Hero screen has fifteen sub-panels. The Journal screen has eight. There are some screens that only appear when you’re resting at a fire. (As opposed to them simply being disabled, they just don’t appear, which is really confusing at first.) The alchemy is kind of cool, but it’s also more obtuse than it needs to be. Alchemy and milkmaid-screwing seem to be the only two non-questing activities in the game, which is pretty shallow given the fact that the interface is about as complicated as piloting the space shuttle.
Yet despite the complexity I never felt like I had access to the information I needed. What the heck is Toxicity? There is a bar for it right under the health meter. The tooltip explains that “Excessive Toxicity adversely affects Geralt”, which I managed to deduce all by myself. But how does it affect him? What makes Toxicity go up and how do I decrease it? Rest? A potion? A tryst with a bored housewife? More questions come to mind: Do I earn XP for killing monsters? How much damage am I doing? How can I tell if I’m using the right fighting style for the given monster? Despite all the screens and tutorial messages in the game I never felt like I knew how things worked.
People keep telling me to keep playing, that the game gets better. Apparently if I can suffer through enough of the dreary busywork at the start I’ll reach the part that’s all rainbows and chocolate bars. But the game is racking up some serious “not fun” deficit in the meantime, and at this point the game needs to come up with something really spectacular to counterbalance the slow start. After this much drudgery, the game would have to let me relive the alleyway scene from Spider-Man, where Toby Mcguire beats up the thugs and then hangs upside down with his mask halfway off so I can kiss him.
I’ve seen some flashes of inspiration along the way, and I’ll probably cover those in an upcoming post, but right now they seem too few and far between. Occasionally the game presents you with an interesting bit of dialog or a thought-provoking situation, but then the moment ends and I’m back to being a greaseball adventuring philanderer on an epic quest to catch some dude who stole our little box of witching knickknacks. Or something.
Luckily for The Witcher, RPGs are nearly extinct on the PC. This game can suck as much as it wants, because there aren’t really any alternatives out there right now.
Especially with that map business. What the hell. That’s just shameful.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.