Whatever you do, don't approach The Witcher assuming you've played anything quite like it before. It's not so much a game, as a theatrical production. From the very beginning you're immersed in an epic storyline that is both believable and profoundly compelling - little wonder as it is lifted from the world of The Witcher created by bestselling Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski. The lead character, Geralt, has lost his memory when the story unfolds, however slowly begins to realise his ability as a supernatural demon-slayer, all whilst overcoming varied side-quests in a foreboding and often downright creepy landscape. The storyline twists and turns, guided by your own decisions, the effects of which are not always immediately obvious. This game tackles some fairly weighty subjects and complex themes without skipping a beat, and as you move deeper into the back-story you begin to really claim an affinity with the main characters. There's a solid forty to fifty hours in completing the game, and at least three possible endings, so if you're of the addictive type you have been warned.

Polish developers CDProjekt have taken BioWare's Aurora game engine first seen in Neverwinter Nights and subjected it to a sound thrashing, the result of which is a credit to all involved. Instead of opting to follow the current trend and integrate some of the new DirectX 10 features available, they’ve simply tweaked and polished the DirectX 9 code so well that you sometimes think you’re playing a game due to be released a year from now. Indeed, the graphical effects and chilling soundtrack are so convincing it's probably best not to play after dark, and the bloom and blur effects coupled with an interface that is nothing short of fantastic will bring a smile to the most cynical critic of the genre.

It's clear they've tried to simplify things to perhaps focus more on the storyline than the act of slaughtering creatures, but inadvertently they've created one of the most intuitive combat methods we've seen. First, you must identify what kind of enemy you are facing (large, small, group mêlée etc) then simply target the creature with a mouse-click and wait for a flame to appear over your cursor which indicates you're ready to deliver a special attack. It's simple and effective, and allows you to concentrate on crowd control and mastering your footwork. Initially you do tend to find yourself unsure as to what type of sword action you've taken, and what level of killing efficiency you're capable of, but the tutorial tips and extremely easy to follow plot will have you indiscriminately slaughtering dozens of minions in no time. Nice!

CDProjekt have taken pains to afford you several camera angles with which to guide Geralt around the game. They recommend the isometric near/far style to newcomers, but using this you’re compromised by a lack of pan/tilt/rotate buttons and instead must rely on moving the mouse cursor to the edge of your screen, at which point you can change direction. Not the best solution, particularly for widescreen users, but happily you can switch to an “over the shoulder” view. This requires a bit of practise to master, but ultimately provides the best experience, with the added benefit of allowing more minute examination of the world which the developers have so painstakingly created for you.

Faults? Well, some of the dialogue could be considered inappropriate. There's a fair bit of strong language, which in itself is not objectionable (where would Grand Theft Auto be without it?) but in this game it seems unnecessary and detracts from the fantasy aspect they've tried so hard to achieve. Whatever your opinion of cut-scenes, you'd best get used to seeing a lot. You can skip them, but it's a bit like buying a Big Mac and removing the lettuce, onions, ketchup & gherkins. And the bun. In fact, it's safe to say that without the cut-scenes you really don't have much of a game. True, most of the valuable information regarding quests is faithfully recorded in your journal, but you’re not really entering into the spirit of the game by relying on that. There's also a fair few sex scenes as well, not a fault as such however when considering this as a gift you'd do well to realise it’s rated R16 for a reason.

This is such a dramatic shift away from conventional RPG games it's more akin to watching a feature film, and it's easy to see how powerful conventional media merged with interactive video games can be. If you can work your way past the rather slow introduction and associated cinematic that plays for what seems like hours, you’ll be rewarded with the impression that you’re playing what can only be described as an epic game, a real example of what can be achieved when developers have the courage to think outside the square and the determination to honour the creative vision of a talented fantasy writer.

If you're the sort of person who prefers a bit of culture with your hack'n'slash then this is definitely one to see, and we may well be looking back at this one in a couple of years and referencing it as the beginning of a more interactive form of visual media rather than just a game. Grab a copy and give it a go - just make sure you have some popcorn at the ready when you do.