The Witcher 2 Hands-On and Interview with Producer Tomasz Gop

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Screenshot - 866783

Let me explain exactly why you should be excited for The Witcher 2. It all starts with the sidequest I got to play during a hands-on demonstration of the game at Atari's offices in New York. Tomasz Gop, Senior Producer at Witcher developer CD Projekt RED, was on hand to walk me through the game and answer some of my questions.

The demo opens with the protagonist, Geralt of Rivia, in the middle of a dwarven town, presumably on his way to a tavern – though, that's entirely up to the player. What transpires is completely optional, “Not all players will actually get to see it, because of the non-linearity that we have in the game,” says Gop. “The locations are just one of the aspects of [the non-linearity]. So depending on how you play, you go here or there, some things are only shown to you if you choose this or that.”

Optional content is nothing new – after all, Fallout 3 famously gave you the option to nuke an entire town and multiple quest lines - but when I explain the care and depth that went into this simple side-quest, you'll understand that Gop and his team are doing something very special.

Ahead of Geralt is a collection of dwarven buildings, huts, and shops divided by vast stone walls and set against an ominous mountainside. “It's actually been quite complex because Andrzej Sapkowski, the author of the books about the witcher - he has described dwarven interiors and buildings and...well, it wasn't that much of a reference. He gave us, 'Dwarven interiors are like a reflection of their souls, they're really harsh on the outside, and really warm on the inside.' What do you do with that?” asks Gop.

What they did was create a space that looks lived-in and teeming with life. I head down the stairwell before me and approach a tavern entrance. At the door to the tavern is a man, and the beginning of the side-quest that progresses the demo. The problem, it seems, is that some people have been found murdered, and Geralt has been called upon to help solve the crime. Thanks to his experience, Geralt is a sort of fantasy CSI detective, able to make conclusions about what kind of monster may have committed the killings based on the state of the bodies.

From there, Geralt is to head to a crypt outside of town to examine the bodies, but I wanted to do a bit of exploring first, so I headed into the tavern. Inside were dozens of villagers, Geralt's bard Dandelion, and a smattering of simple bar games. Each of the bar games is a simple mini-game. Arm wrestling, for example, has you using the mouse to keep a slider within a moving safe zone, while fights play out like a quick-time event.

I then spoke to Dandelion, who offered up a new song to which Geralt was not interested. The banter between the two friends shows the sharpness of the writing in The Witcher 2. It's the kind of clever, compelling, and even funny dialogue you usually only get in a more linear Bioware RPG, not huge, open-world fare.

On my way out I checked my journal to get back to the quest, and I got a peek at the way the quest log is handled. “We actually approached the quest log from a different angle. We described the log as if it was Dandelion who writes the story of what Geralt does,” Gop explains. “If you were to finish the game and print out it out it would resemble kind of a book.”

It goes even further – Gop details what he says is a minor feature, but puts even more emphasis on the openness of the game: “Because of the non-linearity level that we have, we believe that for most people, if they have finished the game and speak about it with their friends and colleagues, it will feel different for a lot of people. So we thought, we will integrate that with social media. You will have the option to synchronize your progress through the game with Facebook or Twitter for others to see.”

Heading out of town and through the forest to the crypt where the bodies are, I get my first taste of combat. The combat in The Witcher 2 is surprisingly action-oriented, though never so fast-paced you can't get a handle on it if you're more acclimated to an RPG pace. Geralt has melee weapons, magic signs, and back up weapons like the bomb the developers conveniently left in my inventory. My first move was to toss a bomb into the mob of soldiers attacking me, which stunned them and left them open to brutal finishers. From there things got a bit more complicated, as the group wasn't afraid to surround me and pound away mercilessly. Blocking and evading are an important aspect of the combat, with successful blocks staggering opponents and leaving them open to attack. Combined with magic like a force push, fireball, and shield, players must use their full repertoire to open enemies' defenses. The combat, above all else, has a good pace to it, with give and take between opponents and a visceral feel to the attacks.

With the mob dispatched, I headed across a river, through the woods, and into the crypt. The Witcher 2 is a beautiful game – if, like me, you're a sucker for fantasy worlds that let you run around in the woods, this game is a dream come true.

Inside the crypt, I found the bodies of the dead and made my way to the freshest corpse. From there I was given multiple options to example different parts of the body, and depending on what I found, the plot would play out differently. For example, one wound has something embedded in it, but Geralt can't get at it without the proper instruments. “You'd actually unlock another branch of the quest, which would give you a bunch of new conclusions,” says Gop. Underneath the corpse, I find Dandelion's poetry book. Geralt concludes that the murders have been committed by a Succubus. So off I go to question Dandelion and find the Succubus.

On the way back I'm attacked by a giant spider, and even with the demo's generous health boost, the thing does some hefty damage. “We do not auto-scale opponents. Normally, you'd probably want to run away and come back a few hours later. It's part of our philosophy – we don't believe auto-scaled opponents are fun, we believe they take fun out of the RPG.”

I returned to the tavern and spoke to Dandelion, who told me that his poetry book was recently stolen. Geralt hatched a scheme to have Dandelion read the poetry book and lure out the Succubus. I headed out of town to where the Succubus should be and the game put me in the shoes of Dandelion. From there I was tasked with reciting a decent poem from multiple dialogue options. “If you were to read the volume of poetry [beforehand] it would help you in this part,” Gop explains.

After figuring out the right combination of lines, the Succubus revealed its lair and invited Dandelion in. From there I could guide Dandelion back to Geralt or down into the lair. I went with sending Dandelion to his sexy doom, to which Geralt grunted, “Fucking idiot actually went in.”

Resuming control of Geralt, I headed in to save Dandelion and confront the Succubus. “You might fight with her, or you might speak to her,” Gop explained. “If you fight with her and kill her, the quest ends. If you speak to her you will see another way to develop this quest. You can reason with her and find out more about what happened. Depending on how you play, you may have not even been half way through this quest.”

Speaking further on the non-linear narrative, Gop told me the game has 16 different endings, some of which are locked out almost immediately based on early game choices. The game is even more non-linear than the original, which was a decision made based on fan feedback. “We knew from the first Witcher that people appreciate it, because most of the praise that we had was for doing a non-linear story.”

The Witcher 2 will allow players to import their save from the original, allowing for three different openings to the game. When I asked how this affects newcomers to the series, Gop reassured me, “Even though it's a franchise, we're not going to do a game that people are lost in.”

As someone who has an old PC and a new-found desperate need to get my hands on this game, I asked Gop about a console version. “We would like to do a console version of The Witcher 2, we never denied that.”

The original Witcher was intended to be released on consoles, but the outsourced port of the game didn't work out. “One of the main lessons that we learned from this [is that] whenever we want to do a console game, we also definitely should do it in-house. If we ever approach The Witcher 2 or once again The Witcher 1, we'd definitely do it in-house.”

If this short demo is anything to go by, The Witcher 2 is going to be a serious force this year. Even against the likes of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Dragon Age 2, CD Projekt's latest looks to offer the most depth, maturity, and non-linear storytelling of any upcoming RPG – I can't wait.

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Joe Donato Video games became an amazing, artful, interactive story-driven medium for me right around when I played Panzer Dragoon Saga on Sega Saturn. Ever since then, I've wanted to be a part of this industry. Somewhere along the line I, possibly foolishly, decided I'd rather write about them than actually make them. So here I am.
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