The Witcher 2 Hands-On Preview

The city of Vergen spreads out before Geralt of Rivia, looking a little like someone dug half a quarry out of the side of a mountain, then got bored and dropped a town in it. Some buildings are hewn right into the rock — some are crafted from shacks in the middle of open areas. The whole thing gleams in the afternoon sun, casting long shadows as rocks and spires rise into the air around it.

It’s a dwarf city, and you know dwarves — they like rocks, digging, gold, beards, drinking, fighting, Scottish accents and generally being tough-as-nails. They’re represented in The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings in all their gruff glory, and Vergen is full of them.

“You can head down to the tavern and get a quest,” CD Projekt Red Senior Producer Tomasz Gop tells me, and I nod — but I guide Geralt in another direction altogether. I want to wander through Vergen before committing to the odd job that’s the focus of the hands-on demo.

Witcher 2 is still in pre-alpha development, but that doesn’t stop the game from being visually impressive. Lighting is obviously something that has gotten a lot of attention, with the interplay between sunlight and shadow creating a wealth of high and lowlights spread across Vergen. After wandering the town and seeing a mix of characters manning merchant stands and going about their lives, I head back to the tavern set in the mountain, lest I get lost — it’s a big, pretty place, and the scenic vistas have a tendency to steal your attention.

It’s a pity many characters will never see Vergen.

The town isn’t part of Witcher 2′s main quest. In fact, it’s only accessible through a series of choices, and so many players will never step foot here; nor will they enter into Vergen’s side quests.

“We did a lot to encourage people to try different approaches,” Gop said in an email to Game Front. He had a plane to catch back to Poland toward the end of the demo and had to answer questions later. “Depending on how you play through the game, you meet different characters, see different locations and develop with totally different character skills. It really feels different (from The Witcher). We event went as far as to allow people integrate their progress through the game with social media. So whenever someone plays certain part of the game he can easily check if that’s what his friends did. I promise that results may vary.”

Much like in its predecessor, the game is centered on choices and morality — often presenting the player with lose-lose and lesser-of-two-evils choices. Those choices compound to lead to one of 16(!) different endings, in addition to the more immediate consequences of never finding the dwarf city and the quests within it, one of which, found at the tavern, is my goal. Gop tells me it’s a decent indication of what story is like in Witcher 2, without actually telling me any of the story.

Into the tavern we go, which is bustling with people getting up to all manner of activity. The tavern’s owner waits in the corner near the front, and there are several characters sitting at tables, drinking and playing games scattered throughout. In one corner, a fight is going on — but it’s more of a bar brawl fight club than a real battle between two characters.

The tavern is a wealth of things to do. Geralt can engage most everyone in some form of conversation, and several of the characters will engage him in minigames. In fact, the tavern has a tournament structure for several different games — dice, beating people up and arm wrestling. They all are dynamic and engaging, rather than just requiring you to click buttons and see what happens. For example, with the dice game, your rolls are executed by clicking the mouse button down and swiping the cursor across the screen to simulate actually throwing them. If you throw the dice too hard, they’ll fly up out of the game area and you’ll lose, more or less.

After teaching a few dwarven arm wrestlers the meaning of humiliation, I venture out of Vergen on my quest. Gop actually has to direct out of Vergen, so large and twisting is the town (also the mini-map doesn’t really work in this preview build). After a while, I make it out into a forest, cut by a river. Working through it, I’m engaged by enemies both human and monster. Fighting the different strains of fiends can require different equipment, but the combat is pretty substantially different from that of The Witcher.

Stances are gone altogether, as are the timed mouse-clicks necessary to pull off repeated combos. Fighting is now much more active, since CD Projekt Red has moved off the Aurora Engine the last game used (the same engine behind games such as Neverwinter Nights), so you’re actually able to dodge out of the way of attacks and slash at enemies in real time.

“In the first one, the combat was actually basically turn-based, because of the Aurora legacy,” Gop said. “It looked like it was active, but it was really turn-based.”

The Witcher 2′s engine is actually totally new technology — called the RED Engine, it was created by CD Projekt Red specifically for this game, and it makes a lot of things, from active combat to the dynamic conversation system to the lighting and day and night effects, possible.

“We wanted to change the combat into more fluid and real-time. That’s why we designed new tools and new mechanics. It was obviously one of the changes with RED Engine, but probably the most visible one,” Gop said. “There’s also a lot about the story, but that’s to be seen, or maybe felt, by players who will try the game themselves.”

Combat sees Geralt quickly switching between weapons and casting spells or throwing items, which get added to specific equipment slots to basically hotkey them. In order to avoid getting absolutely destroyed by casters and ranged enemies, I have to adjust strategy, making sure to hurt some enemies with magic attacks to give myself a break to take on the melee fighters.

Further on, Geralt delves into a tomb — the dwarves burial grounds, a place I was warned not to disturb, but am disturbing anyway because dammit, there’s a monster on the loose and I’m going to kill it, and the information I need is on those bodies. That’s a witcher’s job, after all — monster hunter for hire.

Inside the tomb are more spectral enemies. The spirits can’t be damaged by Geralt’s steel sword, the one used to cut through humans and animals, but he packs a silver blade specifically for killing enemies that aren’t damaged by standard metals.

The tomb requires some creative thinking. Geralt can knock down walls with one of his early spells, and eventually, this leads him throughout the tomb to the recently buried body he’s searching for. Here you get the chance to actually let Gregalt examine the body, CSI-style, to gather information about the creature he’s hunting. It plays kind of like a conversation with an NPC, and doesn’t qualify really as a mini-game because you can’t fail it. But like a lot of other little things in the game, it’s a nice touch that adds immersion to the character of Geralt.

I wasn’t able to finish off the side quest, despite leaving the crypt, engaging a spider and throwing a powerful explosive item at it that kicked off a bug that was new to the developers in the room. After an hour, I’d barely penetrated below the very surface of The Witcher 2. Series fans will likely find a lot to like in this RPG, and CD Projekt Red has some very cool ideas about making the game social and replayable — like that Twitter and Facebook integration Gop mentioned. That’s real, and it’s a means of comparing your experience with that of others.

It’s pretty clear that The Witcher 2 has a lot of love going into it. Certainly, it’s an ambitious game, and seems to be leaps and bounds ahead of its predecessor while still maintaining the generalized feel of the original. The Witcher 2 is CD Projekt Red’s baby, demanding even its own engine, and it seems the developers are putting a lot of effort into getting everything just so — down to arm-wrestling dwarves in a city you might not even play through come May 17.

Ready to Witch things ’til they’re good and dead? Peruse our full Witcher 2 Walkthrough!

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