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Review: The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

The Witcher games are dark fantasy games set in a world heavily influenced by European myths and culture and based upon the works of Andrzej Sapkowski who twists classic fairytales into grim, adult stories. Kings rule the land while nobles get fat off the sweat of peasants. To add colour to the world, there are monsters, mages, elves and dwarves. There are also witchers. Witchers are the professional monster hunters of the world. Taken away at a young age, they’re subjected to intense training while their bodies are mutated to give them the abilities they need to succeed at their profession. Geralt, our protagonist, is a Witcher and the world he lives in is a harsh place. Elves and Dwarves are the victims of open racism while monsters roam the land. Dirty schemes are always at hand and the inhabitants of the world are just as likely to be killed by a corrupt official as they are to be eaten by a monster. There aren’t many happy endings in the world of The Witcher, and that’s a good thing too.

Where The Witcher 2 really excels is where the first game also shone the brightest: the story. Continuing on where the first game left off, The Witcher 2 puts us back in the boots of Geralt, the famous White Wolf of Rivia. Tasked with guarding the king of Temaria, Geralt finds himself on the frontlines of battle. Unfortunately, things don’t go as planned and before he knows it, our hero is on the hunt for the titled “Assassins of Kings”
While the underlying story is rather simple and straightforward, it’s filled with unforeseeable twists and turns that keep the player wondering what’s going to happen next. To add even more spice to the mix, the player plays a key role in determining how the story plays out. Faced with difficult choices and little, if any, indication of the consequences, The Witcher 2’s moral dilemmas are an improvement over those of the first game and easily surpass the many good versus evil dilemmas presented in other games. For example, a choice made in the first third of the game significantly changes how the rest of the game plays out. Without giving too much away, you’ll definitely want to replay the game at least once, especially since a single playthrough comes out a little on the short side. Also worth noting here is that saves don’t get overwritten so you can always go back to various points in the story and continue on from there.

Beneath the surface, the quests aren’t too different to those found in other RPGs but I never felt as if I was doing the same quest over again under a different name. The main quests are full of well-written dialogue and engaging conversations, and while there’s plenty of combat to be had in them, you’ll find that you do more talking during the main quests. Thankfully, unlike some other RPGs, I never got bored of them as they’re lively and well voiced. Conversations are also never drawn out ad nauseum. The rest of the audio is just as good as the voice acting. A great soundtrack plays throughout the game while ambient sounds like the clash of a hammer against steel and the chattering of townsfolk help to bring the world to life.

With all the twists and turns and the kind of moral dilemmas rarely seen in gaming, the story of The Witcher 2 is as engrossing as a good book. The story and the world are mature in a way that’s rarely seen in gaming. Not all quests end with a happy ending or justice being delivered. Sometimes you’ll have to do what you may think is wrong in order to complete your greater aims. For example, the quests involving the Scoia’tael, a group of non-humans fighting against discrimination, can be very contrasting. In the end, it’s hard to come out the other side feeling like you’ve created a better place for the people of this fictional world to live in. When we look back, we may say that CD Projekt tried too hard but, in comparison to the other “mature” titles on offer, trying too hard seems to have worked out, and I haven’t even mentioned the sex yet.

Sex: it’s something that gaming has yet to really get right and the games that feature it rarely do so in any sort of manner that could be called mature. GTA had the prostitutes, strippers and Hot Coffee mini-game; childish distractions in comparison to other noteworthy attempts. Mass Effect came along and caused more controversy with it’s sexual relationships and alien butt-cheeks but even that, in it’s implementation at least, was no more mature. It was treated not as a normal part of adult life but rather as something to quest after; a reward for horny players. Then there’s the original Witcher where sex was ultimately reduced to a “Gotta Catch ’em All” quest. Heavy Rain, perhaps, treats it the most maturely of recent attempts.

While not quite there yet, The Witcher 2 does a better job of handling this slippery subject than most. Sex is there and plentiful, but it’s never reduced to a mini-game, nor is it something that the player has to try hard to unlock. It’s just there. Like adult life, sex permeates through the game but is never treated with the kind of reverence teenage boys bestow upon it. There’s nudity and there’s sex scenes, but they’re teasingly and tastefully shot and for the most part, completely avoidable. As an example of how sex is handled, I feel the game’s prostitutes do a good job. Paying them for sex will get you a short sex scene; however, with money quick to be spent and many of the best weapons and armour in the game coming at a hefty price, it’s not long before you regret paying for it.

But those sex scenes do look good, and that’s thanks to the graphics behind the game. CD Projekt have moved on from the outdated Bioware Aurora engine powering the first game to their own in-house engine: Red Engine. And it looks gorgeous. CD Projekt Red have done a truly spectacular job of making The Witcher 2 a joy to look at for hours on end. Character models are detailed, and the textures are rich and varied. Then there’s the shadows and lighting…Oh man! The shadows and lighting! They’re truly the icing on the cake. The bloom, unfortunately and unsurprisingly, is a bit too strong – at least for my liking – but thankfully it can be disabled.

Not content with good graphics, CD Projekt Red have brought their world to life through their character, monster and environment designs. Flotsam, the first town you have free reign to wander around in, is a run-down old port full of old buildings, dirt paths and overgrown grass, but even still, it’s beautiful to behold. The forest that neighbours it is just as lovely to look at, albeit even more overgrown and unfriendly-looking than Flotsam. Armour looks great too: intricately detailed and realistic with good variation in appearance from piece to piece.
Armour and Weapon variety is something that The Witcher 2 improves greatly upon from the first game. You can now equip more than just chest armour with slots added for gloves, trousers and boots. Also, while the first game had just three different types of armour and around a handful of different steel and silver swords, The Witcher 2 has enough different types of armour and weapons that you’ll find yourself getting rid of many of them soon after acquiring them. In fact, you’ll find yourself regularly getting rid of lots of different items from your inventory as you’re limited by weight, and just about everything has some weight to it. That said, the inventory system is a big improvement over that of the first game, even if the inn storage is slightly missed.

On the topic of changes, I think it’s about time we discussed the gameplay. In comparing both Witcher games on a fundamental level, they differ very little. You have your main quests, and then you have your side-quests, acquired from noticeboards, local NPC’s and items you may find on your travels. There are fist-fights to be had where QTE’s are the name of the game and an arm-wrestling mini-game which relies on the mouse (or analog stick). Disappointingly, both of these miss the mark as far as fun factor is concerned and ultimately serve as nothing more than a way to make some extra coin, but they do provide a break away from all the fighting and talking. Then there’s the Dice Poker. Intact and relatively unchanged from the first game, it does a better job as a mini-game, but you probably won’t get addicted to playing it either.

The interface and control scheme have both been revamped, and the changes are for the better. The control scheme is tight and easy to get familiar with, and the interface is much more manageable with signs (a witcher’s spells), bombs and traps being confined to a radial menu that puts gameplay into slow-mo mode. It’s also from this menu where you go to meditate out of battle during which you can acquire new skills after levelling up and access the alchemy menu where you can create items to give yourself an edge in combat.
How you consume potions has also changed. While the toxicity mechanic from the original game remains, ensuring that the player still has to think tactically about what potions to drink, you can no longer neck down a potion to help you in the midst of battle. Instead, you have to drink potions outside of battle through the meditation menu. While this adds an extra layer of tactics to the combat, you may find yourself faced with a difficult fight you never saw coming with no potions taken to buff yourself up.
The combat mechanics aren’t too dissimilar to the first game, but CD Projekt Red have changed a few things here and there to streamline the experience. The biggest change is that the need to time your hits to make combos is gone, with combos now carried out regardless of when you press the attack buttons, more like a traditional action title. Timing still plays an important role in combat however but this time, it’s in a more straightforward way with the enemy AI demanding you choose carefully when to attack, block and dodge, especially on the higher difficulties. The different sword styles of the first game are also gone with the fast and strong styles now acting as your two basic attacks, while the group style is now resigned to an unlockable skill.

Unfortunately, the combat turns out to be a bit of a mixed bag. It’s not terrible, but it can at times be incredibly frustrating. With the tight control scheme and new interface it works well, so fundamentally, it’s fine. The frustration comes from your opponents who, especially in the earlier portion of the game, will punish you until you drop dead should you happen to end up in the wrong place after a dodge or allow yourself to get surrounded. Even when you feel you’ve mastered the mechanics, you’ll find yourself frustrated and dying on occasion. For the most part, combat flows smoothly, and you feel like you’re in total control, but when it does go bad, it goes bad quickly. On more than one occasion, I found myself turning down the difficulty just so I could avoid some frustration. There’s also no visible reticle of any kind so targeting can at times be messy.

Not helping matters is the lack on any real tutorial with the player thrown into the deep end right from the start while a few pop-ups explain the fundamentals and quickly disappear; often before the player has had a chance to read them. Luckily, these tips are saved in the journal if you missed them, a bit of information I could have used back at the start of the game. Strangely, things get a whole lot easier as you progress. Skills, weapons and armour provide such an advantage over your opponents later in the game that they’re often completely outmatched. These issues don’t appear to be problems that can’t be solved however, and ultimately, it’s just a matter of balancing the opponents better against Geralt at the various stages of the game.

 Although the performance isn’t quite what it could be, The Witcher 2 still runs reasonably well for most of the game; only beginning to chug in the more intense scenes that arrive later in the game. There are a few minor bugs to be found throughout the game, but they’re never so bad that they completely ruin your experience. The game also crashed on rare occasions throughout my time playing it, but the game saves often enough that I never had to rethread too much ground. Luckily, nothing appears so broken that it can’t be fixed with some patches down the line – As I wrote this review, patch 1.1 saw a release that the developers say improves performance by up to 30% as well as improving stability and removing the DRM from all versions of the game: The Witcher 2 Becomes DRM-Free: Patch 1.1 Released

CD Projekt Red have improved on the first Witcher game in basically every aspect, and while it isn’t perfect by any stretch, it’s a vastly more solid package than the first game was upon release. The Witcher 2 is a game that doesn’t ever hold the player’s hand, and this may be one of the biggest problems it has to contend with as far as gaining fans goes; I imagine more casual or less patient gamers may be turned off by this approach.
Those of you wondering whether you need to have finished the first game to really enjoy The Witcher 2 will be glad to hear that you don’t; though it will certainly give you a better knowledge of some of the events brought up throughout the game. Also, with the ability to import end-game saves from the first game, there’s even more reason to do so.

All in all, The Witcher 2 is a great RPG experience that any RPG fan and indeed, any self-respecting PC gamer, should consider buying, if even just to support a PC developer that’s treating their customers right. With a premium package at a standard price, at a time when quality exclusive PC games are rare, and after the disappointing affair that Dragon Age 2 turned out to be, The Witcher 2 is a fantastic offer.

 

Developer: CD Projekt Red

Genre: Action-RPG

Time: Around 25 hours for a single playthrough but it’s a game you’ll want to playthrough more than once.

Gripes: frustrating combat at times, not a lot of side-quests and an upside-down difficulty curve.

Get it for the: Mature story and moral dilemmas and the goodie-filled retail version.

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