The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings
CD Projekt Redís The Witcher was an ambitious game. It was hindered somewhat by its fair share of glitches and performance issues - relating to both hardware and abysmal voice work and English translation Ė but more than anything it showcased the Polish developerís love for Andrzej Sapkowskiís source material, and their aptitude to not rest on their laurels. Almost a year after its original release in 2007, The Witcher received a re-release, fixing the problems that plagued it the first time around and adding additional, meaningful content to make a good game even better. This is a series loved nationwide, so much so that on President Obamaís recent visit, the Polish Prime Minister handed the most powerful man in the world a copy of its sequel, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. Developing a game for a property so revered that the Prime Minister is using it as a political gift must be a burden; but CD Projekt shares and understands this love. Their work on the first game, and dedication to reinvest and make it as good as can possibly be, shows theyíre more than up to the task of crafting a worthy sequel in the high-fantasy world Geralt of Rivia inhabits.
ďEach character, however minor, is written with a fantastic sense of endearmentĒThe battered, scarred and highly skilled monster slayer returns in The Witcher 2, still sporting his infamous white flock and bout of long-term amnesia. But more troubling circumstances have been bestowed upon this anti-hero. King Foltest has been assassinated, with Geralt the only suspect, so his own personal journey has been established to uncover the real assassin and clear his name. But The Witcher 2 goes much deeper than this basic premise, leading its protagonist on a wild journey filled to the brim with political intrigue, conspiracies, warring factions, supernatural forces and a whole host of superbly written characters, all with their own real, corrupt and existential motives. It can be hard to grasp everything happening in Geraltís world, particularly when characters regularly reference various names and locations, mixed in with The Witcherís own slang and fantasy dialect. Even if youíve played the first game it can be bewildering at times. However, the in-game journal features an encyclopaedic history of pretty much everything and anything in this sprawling world, and youíll eventually learn to appreciate its idiosyncrasies. Because once the story becomes clear it allows the cast of characters to really shine.
Many familiar faces return from the first game and many more are introduced throughout the length of The Witcher 2ís sprawling narrative. Each character, however minor, is written with a fantastic sense of endearment that you canít help but enjoy engaging with; even those you find detestable. Theyíre fully formed characters, with interesting back-stories and their own set of morals, problems and underlying motives that will either have you loving or loathing them. Thereís even time for some genuinely humorous dialogue, particularly from the dwarves, adding a hint of playfulness anyone whoís had drinks with friends can relate to. Even the voice work - criticised once before - matches the narrative and characters lofty heights. Some of it is still fairly stilted at times, with Triss Merigold being a prime example, but for the most part itís excellent, with many regional accents adding an air of authenticity and immersion to proceedings.
ďMoral ambiguity is steeped throughout the narrative, and itís a refreshing take on the traditional RPG formula.ĒAnd itís easy to get embroiled in this wonderfully realised universe. For this is a dark world, filled with coarse language and racial undertones between the humans and their non-human brethren. But there is no white and black/good and evil, to determine The Witcher 2ís characters or its world; everything is shrouded in grey. Geralt isnít one to step into the mantle of a knight in shining armour, nor is he inherently nefarious. There is no mechanical karma system attached to the decisions you make, and there isnít always a clear ethical choice either way. Moral ambiguity is steeped throughout the narrative, and itís a refreshing take on the traditional RPG formula.
Your choices are not governed by a morality meter; itís up to you to create the kind of protagonist you want, and these choices impact the game world in natural, yet unexpected ways. One such decision towards the end of the first chapter completely alters the course of the rest of the game. There are two distinct second acts, in separate locations, with different characters and quests. Itís a grand, meaningful impact, and yet there are many smaller decisions sprinkled throughout that affect things later on that you wonít even realise until hours later. Itís certainly an effective storytelling method; one that affects your very first journey and also encourages multiple playthroughs to witness everything in what is already a twenty-five hour game. If thereís one misstep itís that the final chapter feels rushed and itís over all too quickly. A lot of loose ends are wrapped up but there are still many unanswered questions, leaving the door open for a sequel or any number of expansion packs. Itís a brisk and anti-climatic end to what is a memorable story.
CD Projekt keep up appearances
It’s worth noting that the version of the game reviewed was after patch 1.1. Since then 1.2 has been released which has fixed many of the issues I had with the game, such as the balancing problems during the prologue and Geralt being unable to attack more than one target at a time, and so on. The full patch notes can be found here: http://www.en.thewitcher.com/patch1-2/
Fortunately the gameplay also features a plethora of notable and exciting moments. The combat has been overhauled from the stance-based, rhythmic timing system present in the first game. Instead, itís much more fluid and action packed, focusing on groups of enemies and your ability to combine multiple attributes to dodge, deflect and eventually defeat your foes. Itís tough to get a hang of at first, predominately because of some balancing issues that result in the gameís prologue and first chapter being decidedly more difficult than any other part of the game. Geraltís abilities are at such a low level here that attacking multiple enemies Ė of which there are many - is overly difficult. Your sword swings are unable to hit more than one enemy at a time until later in the game, and any attacks suffered from behind remove virtually all of your health. Itís a tough introduction, and the opening tutorials are so poorly implemented - flashing small text boxes in the corner of the screen whilst youíre in the middle of a fight - the gameís opening can be a chore.
However, it does teach you a harsh lesson in how to fully utilise Geraltís arsenal of abilities. The Witcher 2 isnít a game where you can charge in, sword swinging through the air with abandon, and have any hope of winning. Each fight must have a thought process behind it, weighing up the kind of enemies youíre fighting and continuously looking to manoeuvre into the best position possible; not just to attack, but to defend as well. Youíll need to block, roll and use each of Geraltís sign spells and bomb and trap placements to survive. Each sign can be easily accessed on a radial menu and vary from fireball attacks to a telekinetic push and a deflective shield. Youíll soon learn that repeated use of these spells is paramount to survival, and when you combine it with both light and heavy sword attacks and combos you have a good amount of depth to the combat, particularly once you begin to upgrade Geraltís current abilities and learn new skills.
ďThe dynamics of the combat system evolves along with your newfound powersĒThere are four skill trees that you can sink XP into and soon enough youíll be unleashing devastating finishers and deflecting any and all attacks for a prolonged period of time. The dynamics of the combat system evolves along with your newfound powers. Itís still tactical but you feel much more powerful, able to take down multiple enemies at once and go toe-to-toe with giant ogres and thrilling dragons. It proves to be a fun and engaging combat system whether youíre battling against the odds or decimating your foes with relative ease, intuitively advancing with the narrative. It does have its problems with a bothersome and clunky targeting system, but considering the groups of enemies youíre facing, its usage is never a necessity.
Besides from basic looting and visiting merchants to upgrade Geraltís equipment and help him in battle, you can also use alchemy to create potions and buff multiple attributes before going into battle; making your sword strikes stronger, or providing immunity from poisonous attacks and so on. These can be assembled and produced at anytime providing you have the requisite ingredients, which can be found throughout the world, made up of the various fauna populating the landscape. Their retrieval encourages exploration, and The Witcher 2 is a superlative world to traverse.
Take the trading post village of Flotsam, with its bustling dockland, filled to the brim with assiduous workers and docking ships, plying their trade and transporting goods across the land. To its town centre, made up of merchants sporting their wares, and an archetypal tavern, bulging with drunkards. It comes complete with a startlingly up-market brothel on the top floor and a restless fight club in the basement; a fantasy breeding ground for colourful characters and a bloody good time. And then you venture away from the relative safety of the town gates, into the lush greenery of a magnificently realised forest. Its murky swamps inhabited by grotesque monsters, with giant insect-like creatures that swarm from the gargantuan trees and a mourning troll guarding a decaying bridge.
ďItís a smart, refreshingly dark take on RPGsĒThereís infinite detail on every facet of its world, all of it crafted within a phenomenal engine that produces constant moments of beauty. Itís definitely a hog on your PC, but if youíre able to run it then the results speak for themselves; all of the elements coming together, from the dynamic lighting and shadow effects, to the highly impressive textures, smooth frame rate and superb animation. The Witcher 2ís visual fidelity is second to none.
And that persistent quality exerts itself throughout The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. Its story isnít afraid to delve into an often bewildering world of complex politics, but at its core itís a character tale. Backed by superb fantasy writing and a fantastic sense of moral ambiguity seeped into the choices you make and the ramifications they have on the world and the narrative. Itís a smart, refreshingly dark take on RPGs, complemented by action-oriented and tactical combat with a surprising amount of depth. It has its flaws but theyíre only minor in what is a landmark title and a series we can only hope will long continue.
Nine out of ten