The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Review
The world of Temeria is in turmoil. There’s a revolt brewing against King Foltest, and he’s brought along his favorite witcher, Geralt of Rivia, to help put it down. This is The Witcher 2, the latest RPG from CD Projekt. It’s the biggest effort the Polish studio has ever made, and the game shows it.
If you haven’t played the first Witcher game, you should know a bit about Geralt. Witchers are wandering monster slayers; mutants of a dying breed. They’re known for prowess in battle, skill with alchemy, and a wealth of knowledge about magic and monsters. They are also generally looked down on by the populace. However, prior to the start of this game, Geralt managed to save from the King from assassination, and as such, has a little royal protection.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (PC [Reviewed], XBox360)
Developer: CD Projekt
Release Date: May 17, 2011
The world of The Witcher 2 is gorgeous. Forests teem with life, cities vary from being run-down villages and trading posts to royal capitals, and even a war camp feels like a place that begs you to explore every nook and cranny. Armor is minutely detailed, swords glow as they’re upgraded with runes, and trophies taken from monsters swing from Geralt’s belt. The lighting is some of the best I’ve ever seen in a game, from the glow of torches to the sunlight filtering through a canopy of trees. All in all, it’s as beautiful and believable a world as I’ve seen in a role playing game to date.
The price of all this graphical fidelity is a little time spent tweaking settings to get something that runs smoothly, but even somewhat dated hardware can run the game fairly well. You won’t be able to completely do away with textures popping in when you load into new areas, but this honestly didn’t detract from the game for me. It quickly becomes almost irrelevant.
Against the backdrop of this gorgeous world, you’ll fill the boots of Geralt as he sets out by the King’s side, only to find himself accused of the regicide of the very man he was trying to protect. Once you’ve worked your way through the tutorial (and witnessed said regicide), you’ll find yourself embroiled in a tug-of-war between multiple factions, opportunists, and even traitors. All of this takes place against a background of a world that looks askance at non-humans. You’ll be surprised when you discover who’s in control of this world: You.
Narrative choices abound in The Witcher 2. Some are major, some are minor, but nearly all of them reverberate more than you would expect. For example, early in the game you’ll be tasked with scaling a tower and dealing with a traitor named Aryan La Valette. The simple solution is to climb up and dispatch him, at which point his soldiers surrender to the King’s forces. However, if you play your dialogue properly, you can convince him to surrender. If you do, you’ll meet him later in a dungeon, join forces, and work together for a bit. Either way, the story continues, but your experience in it changes markedly.
This isn’t the only example of choices. They range from helping decide the fate of some of the previously mentioned non-humans to rescuing damsels and even choosing how the first chapter of the game will end, and how the second chapter will play out. There are major choices and minor ones, and you’ll get to see the consequences of each play out as you progress through the game. It’s a whole new level of choice affecting the game world, and The Witcher 2 is a far better title for it. It also means that multiple playthroughs taking different paths are well rewarded.
Unfortunately, this strength also serves as a weakness. Players who aren’t lore hounds and those who don’t read the books and scrolls Geralt comes across may find themselves wondering about the attitudes of the people in the world and why they are held. Some dialogue choices won’t make sense without the proper background knowledge, and things will be even worse in that regard if you’ve yet to play the first Witcher. It’s not a surprising problem considering the sheer number of factions, classes and conflicting elements at work here, but it’s still a disappointment to those who aren’t looking for some light reading to occupy their time.
The voice acting has improved from the first title as well, but the quality of it remains quite varied. Some voices fit characters perfectly, such as King Henselt. The bear-like voice is almost exactly what you’d expect from such a man, while other voices aren’t as well matched, or as well performed. Geralt himself always seems to be trying to decide if he’s amused or if he just doesn’t care. It’s not bad, so much as it just doesn’t feel right in places.
Combat has taken a large step forward since the first game, but it’s still not where CD Projekt hoped yet. The target selection mechanic of the first game is gone, replaced with a system where Geralt targets whatever you point the mouse at. You’ll start off the game weak as a kitten, and you’ll likely struggle until you get a handle on the system of rolling dodges, blocks, and attacks. Thankfully, CDProjekt included an easy mode that pushes combat into the backseat, and places the story front and center. You can switch difficulty on the fly, so if you find yourself stuck, trying out ‘Easy’ might be the way to move forward.
I played much of the game on Normal, and it provided a nice challenge for the first half to two-thirds of the game. You start out almost kitten weak, with very little stamina, and the ability to only block a small number of attacks. Once Geralt gains a few levels and begins to unlock new abilities, the combat becomes less challenging, especially if you use smart tactics and buff yourself with the potions you can create. Judicious use of the magical Signs, as well as smart potion imbibing, will allow you to tackle nearly any challenge the game puts forth. For those of you intent on the greatest challenge, there’s also an ‘Insane’ difficulty mode that allows saving, but disables loading those saves if you die. That’s right, it’s the permadeath option we discussed a while back.
While the combat is better than in the first Witcher title, you will find yourself getting frustrated at times. Geralt’s attacks have fluid animations, but while you’re in an animation, you can’t take another action until it ends. It’s also entirely possible to get stuck in a corner or against an object the game refuses to let you roll over, which can lead to you being battered to a bloody pulp in fairly short order, especially early on. Still, it’s fun, and it gives you a remarkable sense of accomplishment when you successfully dispatch some of the more difficult enemies. In short, combat is improved, but it’s still only there to support the story.
Therein lies the rub. I found myself standing at the end of The Witcher 2 saying, “Is that it?” Chapter 3 of the narrative felt like it was completed on a deadline, with the directive to roll up all the plot lines before the bell rang. Before I knew it, I was in the Epilogue, and the game was over. They say that getting there is half the fun, but in this case it’s much more than that. The disappointment I felt at how the game ends is made all the more palpable by the joy I had experienced in reaching that point.
All in all, The Witcher 2 is a huge step forward for CD Projekt. They’ve taken the series from the first chapter, which was the nearest thing to an indie game, to the second, which is a AAA title that still stays true to its indie roots. It’s the best RPG I’ve played in a long time. Its 25-30 hours may not make it the longest game around, but I haven’t seen anything that comes close to it in terms of giving the player control of what’s happening in the world around him. It’s loaded with great moments, and the passion CD Projekt has for the subject matter is plain to see. In short, it’s a game that no self-respecting RPG fan can afford to miss. I will be very surprised if there’s a better RPG in 2011.
- Beautiful, believable game world
- Outstanding story that puts the player firmly in control
- Vastly improved combat system from the first game
- Ending is a bit of a letdown
- Lingering issues with invisible walls and graphical glitches
- Much of the game’s lore is unexplained and confusing to players new to the series