Archive for May, 2011

tl;dr: Most of the hype around this game was justified and it is indeed one of the best modern RPGs available.

Despite my earlier notes, there are still a couple of things I’d like to add. The game, to me, is great in all the points that matter the most. I’m a fan of the books, so I already like the character of Geralt and the world he exists in. The story of the game is thankfully more complex and interesting than the overdone “save the world”-theme (which, at this point, only makes me cringe) and it is complemented by several fleshed-out characters, not just a proper main protagonist. The quests are interesting and motivating and moved farther away from the standard Witcher contracts part 1 featured. Even those (supposed to be the routine jobs) are now a little more demanding than just slaying a fixed number of monsters. Finding all the Nekker nests (a Witcher contract in Chapter I) had me running around quite some time, since it’s not marked on the map and therefore is above blindly running in the direction an arrow points to. The game was enhanced in several aspects, that becomes apparent fast – from the 3 armors in Witcher 1 (although Raven’s armor came in 3 flavors), it’s now possible to find quite an amount of different armors, not counting that there are now slots for gauntlets, trousers and boots too. The same variety is true for weapons. Not only is the world full of numerous steel and silver swords, because of the new crafting option, a couple of those can only be built by collecting all the necessary ingredients. It’s good that it pays off, because managing the inventory (now limited by weight and not available slots) is a small challenge in itself. It’s not possible to carry everything around (I’m aware this is good, because what’s the point otherwise) and it’s usually hard to say which items are really unnecessary later and can therefore be thrown out safely.
Another huge change to the better is, how loading is handled by the game engine. There are few spots, where the game has to actually pause for a loading screen. Those are usually only visible when starting the game initially. And on top of it all even those vanish fast. So it’s safe to say, shortly after release, the game is in a much better state than its predecessor was.

I didn’t like all the talk leading up to the release, concerning the graphics of the game, I frequently thought it was very exaggerated. The screenshots did look good, but not that mind-blowing either, as many texts claimed. And then there’s the little fact, that graphics aren’t everything. With that in mind, I started to play the game myself and what makes the game very endearing to me, is how detailed everything is (e.g. picking up herbs removes them from the game world visually) and how it feels to simply walk through the woods. Few (just to avoid an absolute statement) games pull that off so well. I was really reminded of how it was to stroll into a dungeon in Ultima IX or Gothic 2 (something I had immense fun with), just with current technology backing it all up. It was also very refreshing, to strife through a new and diverse game world, that looks distinct in all places. Lots of effort must have been put in building all this by hand. There were no copied maps, let alone countless re-iterations of the same one. On that note, I’m very relieved to say that the game world is big (or at least big enough), there were some concerns it might only be a collection of smaller areas. Witcher 2 succeeds to deliver a very nice balance, between narrow pathways that suck and frustrate and a world so big, the player will get lost in and that’s, due to its size, just a wasteland except for some landmarks. The engine positively reinforces these impressions further, by enabling the player to just enter places, without noticeably loading new levels, so it actually feels like traversing through one world and not just loading from one level to the next or between different maps. Risen was the last game I played, that could do something like that.
Also, due to all this talk about graphics, other aspects are unjustly overlooked, like the sound. In W2, it’s normal to hear noise through doors and not just from the current area. This is very uncommon in games, AFAIK. If people talk very loud inside a house, their words are audible outside, just less noisy. I’m using a (still simple) 7.1 sound system and I always heard torches in dungeons behind me, after passing them (and the like). The battle noises in the beginning, which came from all sides, were a good demonstration of what was to come. I was always a little sad, when I had to switch to headphones, later at night (though the sound was still satisfying).

The game is now completely experienced through 3rd person view (in Witcher 1 I sometimes switched to isometric views during fights for a better overview), something I thought I would have some problems with, but I quickly forgot all about it and got used to it. Slightly similar RPGs like Gothic or Risen don’t feature that either. Right now I’m thinking Witcher 1 only had it because it used the engine which was made for Neverwinter Nights (and that game was controlled this way).
Witcher 2 consists of 3 chapters (plus prologue and epilogue), but it feels more like 2,5 chapters – the last one is rather short and appears to be a little bit rushed at times, like something that had to be finished, so the game was finally done (a technique I always use to write texts like this one :P). Frankly, I missed a whole fourth act, that was as huge as the second. But that’s probably an impossibility, for everyone who has to work on a budget. Maybe another reason is, that the game splits in two quite different paths after Chapter I and there is still so much left to see after just one playthrough. After one important decision, the player will even get a different set of quests. I’ll try to wait for some patches and maybe even DLC and play it once more. That’s another great fact about the Witcher 2 – it actually is a game, that I want to play more than just once.

A common, and sadly all to often justified, fear is, that games like this one will be “dumbed down”, to appeal to people who usually wouldn’t play such a genre. The Witcher 2 is certainly accessible, but luckily this can’t be said about this title. On the contrary, it it very obvious, that they worked hard to make all the various parts of the Witcher’s skills important and worthwhile. In Witcher 1 it wasn’t really necessary to build bombs and exotic oils. It was a possibility, but the game could easily be finished without even trying it once. In the sequel the developers absolutely realized this and did what they could to change this. There are now many situations, where the Witcher signs, bombs and even traps are necessary to be successful – to the point that Geralt has to prepare for fights (that’s also underlined by the way potions are now implemented). For the same reason it matters how talents are spent. The game has a level cap at 35, which I reached somewhere in the middle of Chapter III, so by this point every skill important to the player has to be selected, or the player has to suffer the consequences (my impression was though, that the game got easier with time, I died a lot in the beginning, but rarely later).

I’m in general no fan of DLC and the Witcher couldn’t really change that either. In the same way I try to complete all quests in such a game and am annoyed when I overlooked something, DLC always gives me this feeling of not having a complete experience – something inevitable when DLCs are exclusive to certain vendors.
This time I had 2 DLCs in the game “Troll Trouble” (should be available in Chapter I/Flotsam at the notice board in front of the Inn) and “Ultimate Swordsman Suit”. I encountered neither. They both had the green checksign in the installer window and everything should be okay, but… I guess it’s just one more new quest I can look forward to, when I play it a second time.

An announced feature that held special interest to me, was the option to import a save game from the prequel. I think it’s rewarding, when all kinds of outcomes carry over to the sequel. When I started with my old save, I already had Raven’s armor and Aerondight in my inventory. My steel sword on the other hand (I had the rune shill and Harvall in my W1 inventory), wasn’t imported. I got the standard longsword instead. Apart from that, Foltest mentioned that Adda was still alive (though books found in the game don’t reflect that and claim she’s dead) and is now married to Radovid (although she isn’t with Radovid, when he later appears in the game, that would have been cool) and someone told Geralt was a poker legend in Vizima (which hints to having completed the poker dice quest). I failed to distinguish any other result, that could have originated from my import.

Most of the drawbacks I encountered were of a rather minor type and I described some of them, again, here. But there’s room for an enhanced edition anyway, I suppose, for example there are always these inconsistencies with names in books, crafting diagrams and formulas. I was supposed to use “beehive” for the Nekker nests in Chapter I, but there was no formula by that name. The correct bomb had the formula-name grapeshot. Or to stop harpys, a trap called “firefly” was suggested, but the proper crafting diagram was actually named “harpy trap”. At least this one was easy to recognize, right? There’s even a formula, where different names are used in the same place, although the same object is meant both times.

So what’s left? I thought the game was too short (good games always are) and I “missed” the old gang from Kaer Morhen (Vesemir, Eskel, Lambert), I wondered what became of them. Are they still wandering around in search of Salamandra? Someone told them, right? :D And I didn’t really get the last scene after the ending credits. If there was any other significance to it, than him walking away, I missed it.

//Update 2011/07/21

In the meantime, patch 1.3 is out and brought (once more) huge improvements (50!) to this game. I already addressed this a little bit over here. Since my texts are mostly based on 1.0, some of the negative comments don’t really apply anymore and I wanted that mentioned specifically.

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As usual, I’ve forgotten lots of things, everything not written down immediately, is gone. That’s what’s left then. [I updated most of the things that are fixed/changed now!]

What I don’t like that much:

– The sliders in menus don’t have arrows and trying to browse through them with the cursor keys is hopeless, because all to often several entries are skipped. [Fixed!]
– Meditation until a certain daytime occurs isn’t as comfortable anymore, because there’s no real clock available outside the meditation screen. I never knew what time it was, until I opened that screen.
– Alchemy – pretty much the same thing – offers less usability, because it doesn’t display how many potions of a certain type are already in the inventory.
– The highlighting made things so much easier in Witcher 1, the medallion isn’t the same, although I got used to it quite fast.
– There are skills that are enhanced through frequent usage (?) or things that the player discovers, but it’s very intransparent, I never know what I have to do to reach the next level, or how far I am from it… Another technique to motivate the player to explore the game world more carefully (something I’m not against)?
– Books – I liked that feature a lot the way it was in Witcher 1. There are still books in Witcher 2, but the interface doesn’t tell anymore, if the user has already read them. That makes it harder to keep track. Somehow it’s always the interface, that isn’t that perfect. Because everything else seems really close.
– Sometimes alchemical ingredients/crafting items can be quest items. Some cannot be “protected”, so if not careful while brewing potions, it’s possible to use up quest items for minor things…
– Once items (daggers/bombs/traps) are put in the pockets, it doesn’t show the amount anymore, to learn that, it has to be put back into the regular inventory… Horrible usability! It’s really always the interface… [Fixed since 1.3.]
– When bombs/daggers/traps in the pockets are used up, their icon stays visible in the bottom left section of the screen. It’s misleading, because you’d expect there’s still more ammo of it. The empty status should be reflected by this icon. [Fixed! Icon now displays the amount of ammo.]
– When quests are completed and Geralt receives his rewards, the game doesn’t say how much gold is granted. The only way to find that out, is to memorize the amount of orens before completing the quest. Witcher 1 displayed all of that info. [Actually it’s still displayed, it’s just that sometimes some messages seem to get “swallowed”.]

More General:

– I never encountered the 2 DLCs I downloaded and installed, “Troll Trouble” (should be triggered through the Flotsam notice board in Chapter I) and “Ultimate Swordsman Suit”. Although the suit… Maybe I just didn’t recognize it as the DLC. [All fixed now, actually CDP distributed all available DLC along the patches for free!]
– Very often, the map still shows red dots of enemies, even after they were killed.

– In Flotsam’s Inn, there’s a monk standing in the cellar, besides the fistfighters. I played dice against him and it was said I won something (I don’t remember exactly) for having such a good hand and a gog.com logo was shown. I should go to the main menu under extras for a reward. I did so, but there was nothing new under extras, just the common credits. It was weird to me right away, since I didn’t buy the game on gog.com (I like gog.com but I wanted the box). [1.1 or 1.2 – don’t remember – listed this as fixed, but nothing changed for me.]
– Grapeshot bombs are referred to as “beehive” in the journal (english language version of the game). That makes it confusing (at first) to find the right bomb, when there is none by that name. This is just one example, there are several things that are referred to by more than one name… [Now it says grapeshot everywhere, I think. At least the Journal etc. does.]
– The quest “Suspect Thorak” failed, after I had already successfully completed it. That can’t be right.
– In Chapter III I played dice poker against “The Incredible Lockhart” (the last opponent) and he didn’t bet at some point, through which he automatically lost the game, although I didn’t have a good hand. Then he went on to say that I stopped his incredible winning streak. No I didn’t! You did it to yourself!
– When playing the Roche-path, several conversations in Henselt’s camp end with Geralt standing inside a campfire and thus running around as a human torch for a few seconds. People often sit around said campfires, but even when starting a dialog from another angle, Geralt is still automatically placed in front of (=in the fire) the selected character at the end of the chat.

//Update 2011/07/21

Patch 1.3 was released, its impressive 50 improvements (since 1.2!) render many negative points I encountered moot. But there’s not necessarily nothing left to do but party, because it even introduces some minor bugs. One huge highlight of 1.3 is, that Geralt can finally store items again in inns (yes, similar to Witcher 1). Trying just that with the innkeeper in Flotsam, during conversation, only starts the shop too, NOT the storage screen. So the 2 dialog choices “let’s trade” and “show me the storage” do the exact same thing. The storage can still be used, because the chest is accessible directly. Close one!
Another glitch I saw for the first time (don’t know if it’s new!), happens every time I try to scroll with the mouse wheel in the quest log, when there’s no scroll bar and the full text is already visible (yeah I know, why would someone even try that…). The text then just vanishes, leaving an empty space behind.
Also, that floating text bug is still there, that sometimes appears over a person’s head. The last one I saw said [PL] and then the name.
And yes, I do get it, it’s now in the stages, where only minor cosmetic things are still left to fix (or so it seems). I’m curious if they’ll continue to do even that.

Oh and I finally got that Assassin’s Creed joke right at the beginning!

//Update 2011/07/23

What’s weird is, that I now ran into more glitches than I did during my first playthrough with patch 1.1. In Lobinden I walked out of a house, in those situations the screen often turns black, but it’s okay – the game continues just fine. This time the screen stayed black. :D Was “kinda hard” to get out of it too, because Witcher 2 doesn’t allow simple tab out.
In chapter I there’s this scene, were Geralt has to bring Iorveth to the statue to meet Letho for the first time. After the dialog goes on for some time, Roche jumps in like Jack Bauer would and starts killing everyone. This time, Roche was there right away and tried to beat the shit out of Geralt and Iorveth all the way towards Letho. :D

Later, when I was in Vergen, I noticed my steel sword was gone from my inventory. That was ultra-weird for several reasons. I didn’t remove it, I didn’t sell it, Geralt was still wearing a steel sword on his back… When I pressed CTRL, it was named “cutscene sword”.

Therefore my theory is, that my steel sword was deleted/replaced during a cutscene and not restored after. I guess I was really lucky, that it was still early in the game and I didn’t have a good steel sword yet, otherwise this might have really sucked.

Then there are always still all these text bugs, where I’m especially annoyed by these various terms for the always same object:

Solid/Robust Cloth… Which one is it? Decide! It’s an unnecessary complication of crafting, when not only all the missing ingredients have to be remembered for gathering, but also all the multiple names for the same objects. I know, it’s not that big of a deal.

There’s another type of those, where there’s a [PL] in front of the name. This is nothing though. Doesn’t disturb me.

I wonder what’s the story behind Iorveth’s face, normally it looks like this:

But in some short scenes in Vergen, his headscarf-thing is removed from his wounded eye:

I mean it’s cool and all that they don’t just have static models for all characters, but was there a story here, or is this just a remnant of an alternative design for Iorveth?

//Update 2011/07/24

After one cutscene, that ended in Philippa’s house in Vergen, the door couldn’t be activated. “Escape” became only possible, by reloading a previous save. Worked the second time.

Exactly after finishing the quest “The eternal battle”, the two quests “The walls have ears” and “Suspect: Thorak” fail… Why is that? They were both successfully finished up until that point. Done and over… I got the XP for completing them and everything. The text in the quest log doesn’t change either. They keep their success messages. The quest “Baltimore’s Nightmare”, that’s also tied to Thorak, isn’t affected.

When the fight against Henselt’s troups started, Geralt suddenly had no weapons equipped. He went into a fist-fighting stance instead. Even after equipping swords again in the inventory, he wouldn’t snap out of it.

After leaving the mines with Saskia, Geralt’s steel sword… Just look at the pictures above. :D

It’s so abysmal to me, that the Witcher 2 is gonna get some negative form of “criticism” for a level of “nudity”, that is an accepted standard in movies since the eighties (think Mel Gibson pretending to have intercourse with Patsy Kensit in Lethal Weapon). THE EIGHTIES. It’s really a major example for my theory, that computer games are at least 20 years behind movies in being granted the same rights/acceptance (with the age of the medium being the sole reason). So a heart-felt hell yeah to everything that fights this ridiculous stupidity. If I wouldn’t buy this game already for other reasons, that one would win me over immediately.

Male hero defends female “attachment” in bar against “redneck” assholes

I’ve seen this one in so many installments I now have to firmly believe, that this is some kind of standard text block in every writers word processor. Good lord how horrible. I’m not surprised to see this in an eighties movie – there it is to be expected (although still annoying), but it’s worse in fresh fiction. Last I saw it in an episode of XIII (made 2011!), which is about some sort of former elite secret agent/assassin/spy/operative who’s kinda running from all sorts of powers that want to control or kill him. Now, wouldn’t it be the much smarter thing in such a situation, to avoid exposing those “top secret fighting skills” to the whole world? Especially in that scenario? If they just want a certain amount of fighting scenes per episode, no matter what, there must be better ways to trigger them…

This one is a bit different from the usual shooter experience. True, it has this auto-heal feature (that replaced the health bar at some point in many shooters) and level areas are usually rather short, but the way the story campaign is told, how weapons are handled and even how fights work, it brings its own designs. Fighting often is a hectic running around between multiple monsters, while hoping to stay alive long enough for the damn gun to finally finish reloading. This cycle then continues, until no more monsters are spawned. Sometimes monsters are spawned indefinitely and the situation can only be resolved by leaving the area; in those situations, I always ran as fast as possible through the entire area, because there was nothing to gain by fighting at all, on the contrary – munition was sometimes already scarce. Between those (action-) pieces, the game consists of running through tight, dark tunnels until the next automatic story element or action sequence unfolds. In 3 or 4 places in the game it’s possible to buy weapons and/or ammunition (and the game only moves forward, it’s not possible to return to a shop), but I never did that, because I rarely had any of the currency (certain bullets) necessary, so I completely relied on the stuff I found during the adventure.
Apparently there’s a book this game is based on, so as someone who hasn’t read it, I only had the game to get the story (assuming it’s at least somewhat identical). Maybe it’s my fault, but I didn’t even understand, why the main character had these visions. Some things I tried to guess, but there were little definitives and sometimes I tend to have some issues with too much ambiguity. Overall I often didn’t know why I had to do something and I lost track of the story after the initial quest was to reach a ranger named Miller – a task I could still get behind, while later assignments often left me wondering and clueless. Therefore I all too often just focused on running towards the exit…
The strongest trait of this game is, IMHO, its dense atmosphere. I say this all the time, but for Metro 2033 it’s especially noteworthy. The abandoned and broken tunnels, the people living in these undercities (and their behavior/conversations), an almost constant sense of threat outside of the few safe zones… Not that many games try to pull that off, let alone manage.
A sequel, Metro – Last Light, has already been confirmed. It’s again backed up by a book (Metro 2034) and if it might shine some light on events in the first game, I would definitely be interested. Or maybe I should just get the books (though people tell me the second one is a lot worse than the first).

PS: Metro 2033 is supposed to be one of these games, which have graphics that are so much better than everything else, because it has some DX10/11 support. I, again, don’t get it at all. Though I believe the graphics to be really good, I never once liked them half as much as… say Batman: Arkham Asylum – a game whose graphics are supposed to be bad, because it’s using UE 3.x and DX9. That doesn’t even cover how much more frames UE delivers (something I deem positive).

According to my blog, it’s the third time I thought of it. Today!

There is no way to make a text short enough. For some. Because it’ll still be a text.

Hating “anonymity” on the net is hating free speech is hating freedom is hating… democracy.

XIII

I’ve recently played XIII (first time) and was surprised, how good it looks. Usually 3D graphics this old (2003) look horrible today (just doesn’t age as well as e.g. drawn adventures), but in the case of XIII, the style really makes all the difference (being creative payed off). It’s a shame, no one makes such cel-shaded games anymore. That would make a nice counterpart to the wide-spread UE games (not that I would dislike those). I assume this cel-shading technique would look especially compelling on current hardware.
The only thing I would hold against this game (it even has a grappling hook!), is the very cruel ending. Sadly, the developer never made a sequel, so it would be necessary to get the comics it’s based on, to have some closure.

PS: The story of the new TV show of the same name, seems to follow a different path.