Fresh off the back of the announcement of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, we take a look back at the history of the fantasy series, from its humble literary origins to its rise to prominence in the modern video gaming landscape.
It's unlikely that Polish born writer Andrzej Sapkowski ever anticipated the audience his work would reach when his first short story, simply entitled ‘The Witcher', was published in 1986. Twenty-six years later and the games based on that short story are household names amongst RPG players.
Set in a medieval fantasy world, affectionately known as 'Witcherland' by fans, The Witcher introduced readers to Geralt, a stoic and cynical monster hunter for hire.
Growing up wasn't easy for Geralt. Abandoned to The Witcher's stronghold as a baby, he was subjected to lethal potions and martial training from a very early age. As a star pupil Geralt was rewarded with even more dangerous experimental procedures. The results meant he suffered several mutations, not least complete infertility and most notably his white hair and pale skin.
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Geralt's training left him as far more than an infertile albino though. It also gifted him many unnatural powers perfect for monster hunting. He boasts superhuman stamina and durability, is able to cast hexes, brew potions, build traps, contract his pupils at will and is immune to most poisons.
Earning himself the nickname 'White Wolf', not only is Geralt unnaturally capable, he is also a dab hand at dual-wielding. Typical of Witchers Geralt carries two swords. A steel blade used for taking chunks out of humans and elves, and a shiny silver number perfect for laying waste to magical creatures when steel just won't cut it.
The written works feature plenty of monsters for Geralt to swing his swords at, including vampires, djin and cursed humans, but it's the human interactions that garner the most intrigue. Geralt has many enemies - and few friends - but amongst them he can count Dandelion, an energetic and enthusiastic bard who is loyal to Geralt in even the most dire situations, and Triss Merigold, a devilish, flame haired sorceress, and the mysterious love of his life Yennifer.
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Despite his lack of popularity Geralt's doesn't let it hold him back. Friends are rarely necessary for a capable Witcher. Geralt's calm and collected character means he is rarely bested in battle.
Often he uses his wits as much as his might in conflict. When forced into one duel where he would face a slow and torturous death should his blade so much as touch his noble-born aggressor, he uses his opponent's momentum against him, causing the reckless adolescent to slash his own face and winning the bout by default.
Largely because of his ironic sense of humour and the emphasis of grey areas in moral conundrums, Sapkowski's work received plenty of praise in his native Poland. It was earmarked for international success, but early attempts to reach a larger audience through a TV series and ill-conceived movie fell like a brick through custard.
The Hexer, as the 2001 adaptations were known, made that most fateful mistake of any adaptation: it was too different from the written stories to please fans and too insular to attract a new audience. The film was essentially the then-unreleased TV series chopped down to about 2 hours. A confusing and jumbled mess, it was deservedly panned by both fans and critics alike.
The TV series was marginally better received but still a real disappointment. Though it was less confusing and jarring than the film, it was still a hollow adaptation. The world and characters were dull without Sapkowski's wit. It lacked the magic of the source material or the budget to portray a convincing fantasy world.
Just when success for The Witcher in other media was looking fruitless an interesting proposal fell Sapkowski's way. A Polish game studio with little under their belts other than some slight fame for successfully translating established games into Polish had created a new studio. The new studio was to focus on original content and for their first foray into the competitive video game market they wanted The Witcher.
By no means a sure shot, the proposal presented something of a gamble. Sapkowski considers video games outside his areas of interest and to this day has never played one. Thankfully for RPG fans everywhere, it was a gamble he decided to take.
With permission secured, CD Projekt RED had its debut title in development. Their goal was to use Sapkowski's world and characters to make an RPG where choices weren't clearly good or evil; the young studio wanted an RPG game distinct from any that had come before.
Utilising Geralt's skillset from the book, players could employ magic, swordplay and alchemy to complete quests and slay enemies. Aware of the enormity of continuing an established storyline and no consent to anything they created being canon, CDPR chose to make Geralt a confused amnesia sufferer trying to figure out his identity. He meets many people from his past, as well as new acquaintances. A lot of intrigue came from deciding who was worthy of Geralt's assistance and who had his best interests at heart.
Witcher's are said not to feel emotion. Although this is a myth, the often bland Geralt does little to dispel it. His character, coupled with murky grey storylines could have been a pretty dire affair, but they are neatly countered by a colourful supporting cast, including Dandelion, Triss and well-crafted details.
Pushing Bioware's Aurora Engine as far as possible CD Projekt RED created a dynamic and ever changing weather mechanic that could see the player start a quest in glorious sunshine and complete it in torrential rain. It was outside of gameplay however that the visuals really stood apart. At times the cinematography is spellbinding, and the character renders awe inspiring, leading The Witcher to multiple award nominations for best pre-rendered cut scenes.
Gameplay was not as warmly received. A different experience from most RPGs; the combat system divided opinion. Players had the choice of three fighting styles and alternated between them during battles. Some trial and error in figuring which worked best could cause occasional obscenities to be hurled at the screen. However, with careful timing exquisite combo attacks could devastate even the most arduous of opponent. For some it was frustrating and broke from the engagement, but for others the satisfaction of getting it right was more than enough reward.
True to the books, alchemy is a significant aspect of gameplay. A variety of potions can be crafted that have a range of effects, such as increasing health or allowing Geralt to see in the dark. Crafting doesn't just stop at alchemy though, the ability to create oils that increase weapon damage or bombs to give an edge in combat were all welcome inclusions to the mechanics.
The first Witcher game drew a loyal fan base. Fans were so eager to promote the title that it was soon apparent that CD Projekt RED had a debut hit on their hands. Keen to capitalise on the success the developer announced an Enhanced Edition in 2008. The new edition required a significant $1,000,000 outlay from the company, but the investment proved well worth it as the new edition went on to sell 2 million copies and pave the way for a console version.
CD Projekt RED officially confirmed that The Witcher would be ported to PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 and released as The Witcher: Rise of the White Wolf. Development of the console version was passed to Widescreen Games and numerous changes and revisions were promised. Unfortunately for console gamers, Rise of the White Wolf never saw release. Following disputes over missed payments and Widescreen not meeting development deadlines, CD Projekt announced the console version was cancelled, though that hasn't stopped sporadic rumours surfacing regarding a possible reboot for the project.
A sequel, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings launched on PC in May 2011. The sequel featured a new engine created specifically for the game. The new engine allowed more fluid movement and faster paced action than its predecessor. The ability to lay traps and use ranged weapons were the standout additions of an improved arsenal and the revamped upgrade system gave players more options in how their Geralt developed.
The story starts from where its prequel left off, with Geralt trying to figure out the source of an assassination attempt against the king and piece his memory back together. The journey leads Geralt to many different places and he crosses paths with a variety of different characters. Triss and Dandelion make welcome returns, adding appreciated colour to an otherwise grim world. More personal this time, story decisions were harder to make; a rushed choice in an intense moment having consequences that can change how the entire game progresses.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings was warmly received. The Gamereactor review highlighted the visuals, heralding The Witcher 2 as ‘one of the best looking roleplaying games ever made' and also praised the decision making scenarios, ‘more often than not it's hard to know what the outcome of those choices will be. That's a good thing.'
For a modern title, The Witcher 2 is a challenging game. Even on the easiest setting players can expect to meet brutal and bloody ends pretty regularly. The merciless difficulty may have prevented the title reaching a wider audience, but garnered much praise for allowing players to learn from their mistakes and constantly challenge their skill. Whether intentional or not it is similar to the source material in this way. Geralt has to rely on his smarts as well as his strength.
Following a successful launch, CD Projekt again ventured towards the console market. This time rather than outsourcing the responsibilities they developed their own Enhanced Edition for the Xbox 360, allowing many gamers their first taste of the franchise.
The Enhanced Edition offered up barrel loads of new content, new cinematic scenes and gameplay tweaks. In a gesture becoming rarer in the world of large powerhouse publishers, owners of the original Witcher 2 could upgrade to the Enhanced Edition for free.
Having won fifty awards in total, CDPR's trophy cabinet is bulging. A testament to the impressive progress they have made. In all mediums Witcher 2 has sold more than four million copies and firmly established itself as one of the best RPG experiences of its generation.
With the recently confirmed news of a third chapter, fans of The Witcher have reason to be excited. Featuring the brand new purpose built CDRED Engine 3, the third instalment of CD Projekt's series should be landing in 2014. Needless to say, we can't wait to get our hands on this one.