We touted The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings as a possible Skyrim successor in issue 83, but in truth, the similarities run no deeper than a taste for posh swords, bottomless inventories and some artful, wistfully-lit nuggets of medieval masonry. This is very much an RPG in the Mass Effect vein: exploration is your side salad, story is your meat.
Finding the balance between flexibility and direction is an evergreen role-playing dilemma. Give players too little room, and you choke all the significance out of Big Decisions, but the larger your field of action, the harder it is to portray the consequences convincingly. To discuss The Witcher 2's contribution, here's level artist Mark Ziemak.
What's the future of RPGs? What needs to change, and what should stay the same?
I think what we can observe right now is a big comeback of RPG games. They were very popular once, back in the time when Fallout 1 and Fallout 2 were around the corner, Baldur's Gate, things like that. But then I guess people forgot about RPGs a little bit, because they weren't in the mainstream anymore. And now I think they're coming back. From my point of view I think they're splitting into two main kinds.
There's this open world kind - Skyrim's the perfect example. It offers the player total freedom with this huge world where you can explore and do whatever you want to. But on the other hand it's very, very hard to create a story-driven game with such an open world, one that actually keeps you focussed on what's happening in the main story line all the time. It's more about the world, less about the story. Though there is a great story in the background, it's hard to keep the player on track.
The other branch is the Witcher kind of RPG. Sure, it's an open world but you don't have as much freedom as in Skyrim. You have a really well defined character that you cannot change and you have all the things that are happening around you. It's a really story-intense, immersive game that sucks you in, but there's a price for that. You can't do whatever you like, you're playing a role.
That's how I see the RPG genre at the moment. I'm not sure what's going to happen in the future. Obviously you'd love to find a way of connecting the two but I'm not sure it's even possible. Can you imagine this huge open world that constantly manages to remind you why you're in it, and gives sense to everything you do even when you explore and run around? That's a big challenge.
I think there's a tendency to overlook the amount of choice you get in story-driven role-playing games. People think "choice" has to mean "am I a rogue" or "do I have a maxed out one-armed weaponry skill", as opposed to the complex narrative choices you're offered by a game like Mass Effect.
I think it's only because of the consequences of your choices. If you choose to be a rogue or a warrior, then you have a consequence right away. You're deciding something and you're changing the whole way you play the game. A lot of RPG games introduce story choices that didn't really affect a lot, or just change your approach a little. I think some players feel that it's kind of a fake choice, not as deep as it should be.
In the Witcher 2 we aren't giving the choice of who you play. You have to play as Geralt because he's our main protagonist, and that's how the story is created - it's all focussed on the Witchers. But on the other hand we do give some serious choices in the story. Sure you can choose how you want to develop your character - you can choose if you want to go into alchemy, magical Signs and stuff like that - so those are choices you can actually make.