There’s a lot to be said about “The Witcher 2”, from a deep and involved story set in an intricately detailed fantasy world to the polished gameplay and hefty combat. It’s not a perfect game, but the criticism that can be levelled at it does little to drive it from the spot at as one of my favorites. In this review I’ll point out the things that the game does really well, and which I’ve really enjoyed, as well as the things that stand out to me as small blemishes on an otherwise great experience. I’ve read plenty of game reviews where determining if the game is recommended requires reading all the way to the end. I wouldn’t be able to do that here even if I wanted to. This game gets an easy recommendation. As the Xbox 360 version of the game and the upgrade to the “Enhanced Edition” for PC came out on April 17 2012 I suppose I could call this a 2012 game of the year candidate. Though I didn’t play the original PC version in 2011, I think it’s fair to say it was up there with Skyrim and Deus Ex: Human Revolution as one of the best of last year as well.
“The Witcher 2” is an RPG, and as such, I feel that the elements of the game in order of decreasing importance are: gameplay, story, graphics. I’ll address these aspects of the game in that order.
I’ve started “The Witcher” a couple of times, but I was never able to stay with it all the way to the end. I wouldn’t call the gameplay bad in the first game in this series, but it’s pretty complex, and it can be easy do something wrong, quickly resulting in death and a trip back to your last save. The combat consists of not only your two swords (every Witcher uses a steel sword for dealing with people and a silver one for cutting down monsters) but also three combat stances. If I remember correctly, the stances are fast, strong, and group. The idea is that each enemy is best dispatched with a particular sword in a particular stance, and any time more than one foe was near group stance is used to deal with all of them. On top of that, the first game employs a timed click combo system. So once you’ve chosen your weapon and stance, you click an enemy and Geralt begins his attack. At some point your mouse cursor lights up, and if you click before it goes dark again then Geralt continues his attack combo dealing bonus damage. It’s more involved than some RPGs which use the “Click here and your character will fight until it dies” method, but it made me feel like I was focused more on waiting for my mouse cursor to light up than I was on watching Geralts sword dispatching foes. The action is abstracted away into what almost feels like a timed click mini-game. Slash Slash Revolution, if you will.
In terms of gameplay, the combat in The Witcher 2 may be the biggest departure from the first game, and also possibly the greatest improvement. Fighting in the sequel is much more action oriented. Instead of three fighting stances there is a fast attack and a strong attack, combined with unlockable parry and riposte moves. Ranged combat has also been added in the form of throwing knives and bombs. Add in traps and signs (a witchers form of magic) and the result is a complex and dynamic array of moves and abilities that makes it fun to cut through groups of foes. The combat is a large part of the gameplay of The Witcher 2, and it’s done remarkably well. Moving from three stances to two attacks, and basing those attacks 1-to-1 on input means that the combat is more action oriented, but with the array of options available to Geralt, “action oriented” hardly implies “dumbed down”. For the most part the difficulty balance seemed appropriate throughout the game, though there were just a few encounters that seemed to skyrocket in difficulty, particularly one near the end of the game that required fighting 10 - 12 humans, followed by a cutscene, followed by another 8 man team (the second part has Geralt appearing with two opponents approaching and two unseen at his back - the only viable option appears to be to roll as soon as control is given to the player - and it felt a bit “cheap”). The combat gets tough when surrounded by human characters, at least when using my particular Geralt build.
While the combat makes up most the most notable portion of the game, it’s not without other elements such as exploration and puzzle solving. The game does the exploration parts well enough, but to be fair, the puzzle solving was a little odd. It seemed that most of the puzzles were in the 3rd chapter, and they were tough. It’s quite possible that I missed some vital clues that would have helped me solve the puzzles I encountered, but the clues I did manage to find had me wondering if there was something lost in translation. There’s a side quest that leads to some deceased wizard’s hideout, which requires picking three out of nine symbols correctly, and there are three rooms guarded by a sort of rune trap, requiring that the runes be deactivated in a certain order. I wasn’t able to solve either of these puzzles on my own, despite trying many times before giving in and Googling the solution. Additionally there was a room with some crystals mounted in the walls that I was never able to conquer. I either just couldn’t find any clues to help with these areas, or the clues I found didn’t help me establish the mental bridge needed to progress. There was another side quest that was impossible to complete in chapter 3 because I didn’t keep an ingredient on me that can only be found in chapter 1 or 2, which feels like arbitrary punishment. The only other criticism to be levelled at the gameplay is that this is not one of the “everything is always an option” games (such as “Skyrim”). One example is stealth. There is stealth in this game, but it’s not something you can do when you want to. It’s something that happens during a very specific predetermined handful of moments, and isn’t even an option outside of those times. For the vast majority of the game stealth is not even an option, but for those heavily scripted moments where stealth is the only option, being detected results in failure. It’s like the game doesn’t want you to play stealth, then wants to force you to play stealth. Another oddity is quick time events (or QTEs) during any fistfight and a couple of the boss fights. I’m not a fan of QTEs in an RPG. With that said, at least “The Witcher 2” doesn’t use them excessively, and so they don’t hinder the experience too much.
“The Witcher 2” delivered a great story. It’s full of imperfect and memorable characters (mostly well voiced), and It not only kept my attention, but kept me wanting to see it resolved. If it’s any indication, I’m more of a science fiction fan than a fantasy fan, and while I was playing this game I was also part way through playing “Skyrim” as well as reading the “A Song of Ice and Fire” book series. All three are compelling, but the reason I’m mentioning this is that if any one of these weren’t compelling, it would easily have been forgotten amidst the over-indulgence in fantasy stories. I enjoyed “The Witcher 2”, as I enjoyed “The Witcher” (the parts that I completed, anyhow). There are enough twists and hooks to keep the story interesting and the setting and atmosphere compliment the story. This feels like an almost real world - it’s not only beautiful, but dirty; not only sweet, but raunchy. Storybook fantasy standards are turned on their head when the characters that fill the world air the dirty parts of their lives. There’s not much that’s taboo for random NPC discussion in the game and it makes the characters (even ones who mainly exist to fill in space) feel like they belong in the environment. This game offers choice, without leaving you wondering how your “karma/good deeds meter” will be affected. Basically there isn’t a choice between good and evil on offer, rather, there are choices that affect Geralt’s path through the world and the game, and which the game reacts to without judging the player as a good or bad person. I find this kind of choice system a refreshing alternative to others such as the “karma” score in Fallout 3, or the ability to grow horns or wear a halo in response to extreme evil or goodness in the Fable series. This game understands “gray area”, and is better off for it
It’s worth mentioning that this is a VERY mature story. I do not recommend allowing kids to play this game, or even watch it played (my son likes to watch me play games sometimes). Aside from nearly excessive use of adult language there are sex scenes in the game, complete with polygonal nudity. As much as the third act of the game feels a little Combat-light and puzzle-heavy, the story at least does enough to wrap itself up, while still leaving enough open tell another Witcher tale. The ending is satisfying, and there are a fair number of ending cinematics to give you a sense that your choices have meant something important to the game world.
When I found out that the developer CDProjekt Red were going to be kind enough to send me a copy of the XBox 360 version of the game to review, I decided to avoid playing the game on PC until after finishing it on the console. My thinking was that My opinion of the graphics of the console game shouldn’t be affected by the visuals on the PC. As this is an RPG I usually wouldn’t concern myself with graphics. “The Witcher” has nice visuals though, and I had already heard that this sequel is an exceptionally good looking game. The XBox 360 game, unsurprisingly, will not hold up to what the PC game looks like with maxed out settings on a beastly gaming PC. With that said, It does look *really* good on the console. This game is one of the better arguments for how far console optimization can take graphics, as it looks as good on the console as somewhere between medium and high settings on the PC (the PC graphics setting goes up to “ultra”). Along with the high praise for graphical fidelity and art direction must come a small criticism - there is texture pop-in. It doesn’t happen an excessive amount, but In some scenes in later chapters it can be more frequent. I might be way off, but to me it seems like the more important characters that were in a scene, the more texture pop-in I noticed. While a valid criticism, I feel that I can also kind of shrug it off, as at this point I can’t remember an XBox 360 game I’ve played recently that didn’t have texture pop-in to some degree. The frame rate seemed fine. I never noticed any drops, and even if it wasn’t perfect this isn’t necessarily a game whose playability relies on a solid frame rate. Without spending too much time going on about graphics, this game looks good on the XBox 360. With that said, if graphics are paramount to your enjoyment of a game, and you have a PC with decent specs, then the PC version of the game may suit you better.
In conclusion, “The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings” is a very enjoyable game, and easily warrants a recommendation. While it has a few quirks and a few slightly disappointing aspects, those are things that are easily overlooked in favor of the things this game does right. If you enjoyed the first game (and aren’t a purist regarding “old-school” abstracted RPG combat) then the world, characters and story should draw you in, though the game is well executed enough to be enjoyed without the first game as a requirement. I recommend the game, and say “Kudos” to the developers.
categories: game, story, xbox 360, reviews, port, assassination, conspiracy, quick time events, the witcher 2, sequel, assassins, kings, enhanced edition, customization, action, rpg, mature, sex, nudity, stealth, choice, gray area