CD Project takes its RPG to the next level.
Three years is a hellishly long time to be kept in suspense, but that's the problem with modern epic videogames: they take a bloody long time to make. Especially when the studio in question, CD Projekt RED, decides to get all ambitious on our asses and develops its own game engine. But big teases that they are, they get us up at 3.30 AM, fly us to freezing Warsaw during the middle of Europe's coldest snap in decades, sit us down and break everyone's hearts by telling us that they're going to keep us on tenterhooks just a little bit longer. The rascals.
"Unfortunately, one of the biggest twists takes place in the prologue," CD Projekt's story designer Jan Bartkowicz reveals. "It basically sets up the universe, and we can't tell you what this is. It's gonna be such a great twist - so we can't give it away." As the game's subtitle says, the game will focus on the mystery of the Assassins of Kings: "The scale of this plot turns out to be way broader than just one king and one kingdom," we're told.
On the plus side, this No Spoilers On Pain Of Death approach means that we get to make various senior members of the team squirm for four solid hours, while they gamely focus on all sorts of other matters that won't go and ruin it for you all but will still tweak your excitement glands sufficiently. In summary, Assassins of Kings is going to be "a bigger game," where "the scale of events is greater."
There's none more moody than the Witcher - and few more pretty either.
"Each chapter of The Witcher 2 takes place in a different location, where you can't go back... We wanted to have these little stories within chapters," he asserts. "Not only going from cliffhanger to cliffhanger, but for you to feel like you've achieved something and you've entered some little story within each chapter."
And to underline just how much it has fleshed-out the side quest aspect, we get whisked off into the heart of the studio for a brief hands-off demonstration of one of the less spoilerific side missions. Set around halfway through the game's three acts, lead protagonist Geralt of Rivia finds himself playing detective after the gruesome discovery of numerous lacerated corpses of young men in a nearby village ravine. One of the poor unfortunates is found clutching a book of love poetry, written by Geralt's best buddy Dandelion, the local minstrel and all-round wordsmith.
Figuring that a dreaded succubus is behind the murders, Geralt and Dandelion quickly dispatch a few enemy stragglers en route and head for the home of a nearby suspect. Upon arrival, Dandelion reluctantly volunteers to venture into her underground lair at the risk of being ridden to death by the "hoofed hag" while Geralt lurks outside her den of iniquity. The things you do for your mates. But just when it looks like they've nailed their suspect, it transpires that someone under the succubus' spell is actually going around killing her lovers in a fit of jealousy. And to avoid even spoiling this tiny portion of the game, the curtain falls and we're shown no more. Sad times.
Even from this brief showing, though, there was plenty to glean from the sneak peek. First of all, we can expect quality over quantity in terms of the missions this time around, with a more coherent, enjoyable structure to follow. "In The Witcher, it was a problem, because you'd look at your journal; there'd be a thousand things to do," Bartkowicz notes. "It was hard to know which one single thing was going to get you closer to achieving your goal. I think what's driving RPGs is that the pace of the game is yours to control. It's really unlike linear shooters; it's more like reading a book."
"So, we don't have as many side quests in The Witcher 2 as we did before," he admits, revealing that the team decided to axe most of the forgettable 'kill five of this monster' missions that routinely clog up an RPG's quest arteries. "We do still have some of those - just not as many. Instead, we have more quests like this one, and it makes it more fun and more interesting."One element that few people will argue about is how glorious the whole spectacle looks. Even a casual stroll around a small section of the game reveals that it's one of the most sumptuous-looking RPGs ever attempted - a point CD Projekt was happy to emphasise over the course of our visit. "Sometimes I think they're just creating this beautiful 3D postcard," he chimes, pausing for us to observe the beautiful, vibrant specular effects filtering through an intricately textured forest canopy.
Built with the team's shiny new proprietary engine (named RED, after the studio), the team decided that if it really wanted to hob-nob it at the top-table of RPGs, it could no longer rely on middleware solutions, as it did with the Aurora Engine-based original. "We wanted an engine that could handle a non-linear story, and the scale of locations that we were after. Of course, it was a little bit naive on our side [to design a new engine], but we said 'ach, let's do it.'"
Thankfully, the 18 months spent putting together its own tech appears to be well worth it, with not only a wonderful array of picturesque exteriors, but breathtaking fantasy architecture, with a hand-crafted attention to detail that shines through. Even from a quick glance, this is true fan service.
Expect renewed combat as well as renewed visuals.
"Almost no-one at the team had done a project in their lives before The Witcher," he confesses, "but there was a huge amount of passion. They really lived inside the game, and I think what we tried to learn from it was how to plan and produce a product like that. We wanted the sequel to be more story-driven than The Witcher. Sure, the original won awards, but we wanted to do much more with it."
One element the team is especially proud of is the new MotionBuilder cutscene-building system that allows the team to preview the camera work live, and therefore tweak character animation and gestures on the fly to make them more fluid and natural. "There are no boundaries around our cinematic creativity," he insists.
Allied to this grander approach, the game has evolved the conversation system so that players can, for example, interrupt (or even skip) dialogue exchanges when they feel like it, without the need to politely listen and then wave 'goodbye' at the end of it. And then, of course, there's the game's more 'mature' approach to morality, and the steadfast refusal to simply pare down player decision-making to a binary choice between good and evil; because, after all, life is full of shades of grey (and plenty of other games do the black and white thing, they repeatedly grumble).
"I would love people to feel that they're shaping the story their own way, [but] the motivations are often complex. We really get into these characters." he maintains. "Putting aside all the violence, I think The Witcher 2 is a mature game because of the conscious choices you make. I don't think it will be easy for a 13 or 14 year-old to understand why they have chosen something. It's not like I hate every moral system [other games use], but in our world, it's not light and dark; it's shady.
"We don't feel game should make player think 'should I be good or bad?' We'd rather make him think 'what would I really do'? And our choices make players aware that things are not obvious. In most games stealing means someone will not like you. In The Witcher 2, it means someone might not like you, yeah, but that someone's enemies will definitely like you a lot!" It also might take a while for your decisions to impact you in the game; something that makes you more likely to think before you screw someone over for short-term gain.As you would expect, overhauling and improving the combat system has also been a key focus for the team. Although we weren't allowed to try it for ourselves, this time around, the team is promising a "more dynamic" system that it reckons will make it a far more engaging and rewarding experience. "You'll be able to combine magic and sword attacks in the way that wasn't even possible in The Witcher," we're told. And thanks to the flexibility of the new RED engine, it has been possible for the team to script the combat encounters in a less conventional way, so that, for example, optional endings can be added to epic monster battles, or non-linear encounters where the outcome depends on more than your raw skill.
During one of the scuffles that we were shown, we're told that the game's collision detection will be able to take into account environmental obstacles - including anyone unfortunate to be standing in its line-of-fire. "When an enemy is shooting an arrow at you, it's not predefined that it's going to hit you," he says. "It will hit anything on the way between the arrow and you, so if you're cunning enough to position yourself correctly, it can probably hit one of your opponents, and it's the same with things like fireballs."
Witcher 2 is up and running on consoles, although there's no date set.
During battles, players won't be afforded the luxury of pausing the game whenever they want to cast a Sign. Instead, the game slows down, giving you a brief period of respite, but also a system that ensures that you have to make your choice quickly. Talking of Signs, a new, sixth magical sign has been added to the combat mix, although the team wasn't ready to go into detail about it at this stage. On top of that, we can expect "tons of gameplay-oriented skills" to be added, which we'll be able to report in-depth on when CD Projekt is ready to let us get our grubby mitts on its new baby.
'But what about a console version' I hear you cry. Well, the news is definitely good, despite the depressing failure of the original version to make it to the 360 or PS3. "It's the first console project we would like to do," Bartkowicz confirms. "We need to do it in house. In the end we decided not to do it outsourced. We've been running some tests, and putting a small part of the game just to make sure we're not cheating anyone. We can show it to you, it is possible." Sadly, we ran out of time to see it for our own eyes, but the fact that CD Projekt is happy to go on the record and say that it's happening is good news. In fact, the game's eventual transition to console has been planned from day one. "You can play The Witcher 2 with joypad - it's implemented. The whole interface is designed with console in mind, in fact."
For those of you concerned that they didn't play The Witcher, CD Projekt will ensure that you're not left overawed by not having a clue what happened. "We don't want people to say 'Argh, I should have played the first one!'" so, expect to be fully clued up with what you missed early on in the game. And special bonus points for those of you fully immersed in the fiction "We want anyone who played the first game to - gasp - I remember!"
With so much promise laid out for RPG fans, 2011 promises to be a big year for fans of The Witcher, and RPG lovers in general. Promising exciting combat, richer narrative and the kind of visuals you'd willingly sell your ageing relatives for, The Witcher 2: Assassins Of Kings looks like it will be well worth the wait.
The Witcher 2 is due for release on PC on May 17th 2011. Console versions will follow at a later date.