The Witcher: Enhanced Edition is a great role-playing game. Developer CD Projekt has corrected almost all of the problems that made the original something of a flawed gem. Butchered English dialogue has been rewritten and expanded upon, removing the nonsensical lines that made the plot something of a guessing game last year. Engine performance has been dramatically improved across the board, so the game runs smoother on moderate systems, and you no longer have time to read a magazine while waiting for levels to load. Character models have been dramatically enhanced, removing a fair number of the unrealistic features that made the original game come off as somewhat cartoonish in spots. A pair of new stand-alone adventures has been added to bulk up gameplay outside of the main storyline. Just about everything seems more solid and stable, from the smooth-as-glass combat mechanics to the speedier interface. And, best of all, these gameplay enhancements are freely available to download for those who purchased the original game last year.
Battles are now smoother and more dramatic, due to slicker combat animations and vivid colours that spark up spell effects. (Credit: GameSpot)
Core gameplay is more polished than revamped, so in some cases, you have to look pretty closely to tell the difference between old and new. You still play the lank-haired Geralt of Rivia, a monster-killing mercenary known as a witcher who travels a medieval fantasy kingdom in search of jobs. Basically, you're a battlemage who can freely switch between using a pair of great big swords to slay fantasy-game beasties and firing off spells with elemental magic signs. Basic melee attacks are handled through the left mouse button, with you timing your clicks to string sword strokes together into big-damage combos. If you run four such attacks together, Geralt becomes a whirling dervish capable of slicing his foes to ribbons. Each sword can also be wielded in strong, quick and group styles, allowing you to tailor attacks depending on what sort of opponents you happen to be facing. Spells are cast by mapping elemental signs to the right mouse button. Much of this magic is generic to fantasy RPG gaming. For instance, you'll launch fireballs, you'll throw up a protective shield, and you can charm enemies into doing your bidding. None of the spells are all that involved or time-intensive, so you can readily hack and slash with one button and launch fireballs with the other.
Character development is equally clear-cut and carried over unchanged from the original Witcher. Skills are purchased and buffed with bronze, silver or gold talent coins earned every time you level up. These abilities allow you to increase Geralt's basic chance to hit, along with adding special effects, such as stunning opponents or causing them crippling pain. Nobody's reinvented the wheel here, although there is a broad range of abilities to choose from that let you specialise in various areas. You can roll all of your coins into spells and turn into kind of a wannabe sorcerer. You can go for strong sword skills and become a melee brawler. Or you can do the jack-of-all-trades thing and spread your abilities across the spectrum of choices. Geralt remains a sword-twirling fighter first and foremost no matter what you do, although you can at least tweak his talents to favour preferred combat methods.
Where this enhanced Witcher takes a welcome turn is with its story and presentation. Although the plot of the first game was a remarkably mature tale that ditched traditional black-and-white RPG morality for a grey universe, the story was sloppily adapted from its original Polish. In it, you took the lesser-of-two-evils approach and found a common cause with rapists and murderers. A bizarre decision to cut back the English dialogue preserved only chopped-up portions of the full script, leaving plot points hard to understand and cut-off conversations in midstream. All those issues have been corrected here. Thousands of lines of English dialogue have been rerecorded, fully fleshing out the storyline and removing the awkwardness of the original game. The English translation has been gone over with a fine-toothed comb to get rid of some jarring word choices from last year. The game is still a lot more modern sounding than some would probably like, throwing around F-bombs and curse words in ways that just don't seem to fit with swords and sorcery. But at least the script has been smoothed out and given a unified voice. Any way you look at it, this is a huge improvement over the first Witcher, which veered wildly between formal D&D-speak and New Jack City.
This enhanced Witcher may feature more visual detail and pack more punch in its colour palette, but Geralt's world is just as grim and gloomy as ever. (Credit: GameSpot)
Visuals have also been renovated, albeit not as dramatically as the script. The original Witcher looked pretty good in the first place, so there wasn't as much room for improvement here. The big changes come with the colour palette, which has been made more vibrant while keeping the game's overall grim and grey atmosphere. Spell effects — particularly the fire-based Igni sign ones — practically flow right off the screen now. Basic background colours for such things as foliage and clothing have also been given more pop. Character art has been given an overhaul, while facial and body features that didn't pass muster last year have been given a once-over with additional details. Although some non-player character faces still appear almost mannequin-like, particularly common village peasants and streetwalkers, major characters now have a more realistic range of expressions. There are also more facial types, so you're not running into the same people over and over again. Geralt was pretty nimble last year, but now he twirls his swords and jumps around like an acrobat. Best of all, these improvements have no effect on game performance. This new Witcher actually runs a lot faster than the old one. Loading times have been slashed, and there are no more combat slowdowns, frame-rate hitches or pauses to bring up the interface.
That said, the new visuals are not perfect. Clipping is still a minor issue at times. Background scenery, such as shrubs and trees, still acts too much like walls. The game still pauses for a couple of seconds after enemies are killed, making you wait a moment before being able to loot a corpse. The camera now also tends to cut characters out of the frame during conversations, an unintended side effect of having characters move around more while talking to liven up dialogue scenes that were awfully static last year. So you're treated to gabfests where the speaker's head is cut off, completely out of the picture off to the left, blocked by a door, or constantly moving in and out of sight. Thankfully, these camera quirks aren't too common and are limited to talking scenes where you don't need to see everyone's faces.
A painted storyboard conclusion is about the most interesting aspect of The Price of Neutrality, one of two new short adventures included here. (Credit: GameSpot)
Much of the brand new content also leaves a bit to be desired. The two new stand-alone Geralt adventures purport to give a better look into the witcher's earlier career, but they're too inconsequential to be all that engrossing and too reliant on familiar locations from the main storyline. Even rooms are reused here. The Price of Neutrality gets off to a great start with a story about a princess who may or may not be cursed, but then, it peters out and ends abruptly after about two hours. Side Effects is merely a collection of mundane quests where Geralt has to run all over Vizima doing odd jobs to raise 2,000 orens to pay off a debt owed to his bard pal Dandelion. There are enough choices in the latter adventure to give it some moderate replay value, although you do little aside from play errand boy. Other extra goodies are more worthwhile. The box includes a number of collectible items, such as a game guide; a CD soundtrack of the game's fantastically atmospheric background tunes, plus some "inspired by" tracks; a behind-the-scenes DVD; and a paper map, along with the Djinni game editor for modders. Many of these extras are also available to download from the game's official Website if you choose to get the Enhanced Edition digitally.
Barring the initial installation bugs, this is what The Witcher should have been last year. While the original game was an undeniably very good RPG epic with one of the most authentically adult storylines to ever grace the genre, this overhauled edition has turned that near-classic into a near-masterpiece.