Witcher 2 review

The Witcher games, based on Andrzej Sapkowski‘s Polish novels, tell the story of Geralt of Rivia, an amnesiac, white-haired monster-slayer who channels a combination of Aragorn, James Bond and Obi-Wan Kenobi into a modern day, uber-cool, action hero dressed in medieval fantasy clothing.  The world he inhabits is typical fantasy fair, but there’s a pleasing depth to the fiction’s politics, people and prejudices.  The first game was applauded for it’s slightly different take on the age-old RPG formula, eschewing standard turn-based boardgame combat for a more hands-on, almost rhythm game, action style.  The plot and choices the player could make were also praised for never towing an obvious good or evil line, but instead forcing difficult moral decisions without easy or comfortable outcomes.  All that said, though, I personally found the first game too much of a chore.  The good points were soon lost within endless grinding objectives and a less than satisfying combat system that soon grew tiresome.  Will the second game be any better?  Will CD Projekt improve on the first game’s faults without losing it’s unique positives?  Well, read on and we’ll see.
Geralt's girlfriend is kidnapped when he's distracted by the game's particle lighting effectsFirst things first we’ll get the obvious box ticked: the graphics.  The graphics are stunning.  The Witcher 2 is a PC only game and it shows.  With the console system requirements out of the picture CD Projekt have been able to take advantage of every advance in computing power PCs have seen in the last few years.  Equally as important the developer’s artists have taken the chance to make full use of all these techniques.  The forests look lush, forget being able to see every blade of grass you can see every stitch on the tent cloth and clothing.  It’ll all seem old and unspectacular in a few years time as graphics always do but the memorable monsters, and large, open, living areas (with few loading pauses) will remain impressive for a lot longer.

The only downside is that this is a game designed for high-end PCs.  It’s the first game my newest (2 year old) PC has had to run on the ‘low’ graphics setting to run smoothly.  ‘Medium’ worked but too many busy fights and important cutscenes reduced to jumpy slideshows.  The settings can all be individually tweaked and tuned to squeeze the most out of it if you’re that way inclined, but compared to Crysis 2, which I played on maximum settings on the same PC, you can’t help think the game isn’t very well optimised.  Future patches are already being advertised as improving this, so the less hardware fortunate may see improvements soon.

How about that combat then?  You’ll spend a lot of your time fighting so it’s an important point.  Thankfully the QTE timing aspect of the last game is gone, for a more open, responsive combat style.  There are 4 essential buttons: left-click for a sharp sword swipe, right-click for a heavier more damaging blow, press space to dodge, and press q to cast a spell.  That’s it!  Pleasingly simple and responsive to a player after my own, FPS weaned, heart but this might horrify the more traditionalist RPG crowd, but I’d urge them to give it a try:

Simple as it sounds combat is incredibly difficult to start with (unless you play on easy).  This is a bit of a gripe, to be honest.  Nothing is explained to you so you’re left to work out a lot for yourself which would be fine if the learning curve eased you in with simple fights against one or two enemies at a time, but that doesn’t happen.  Expect to face 6 or more sword wielding soldiers at a time within the first 15 minutes of the game.   Even the six spells you have access to from the start have no explanation attached on the selection screen, just their weird names, so you have to use trial and error to work out which are any use (beginners: Use Quen.  Quen is your friend.  It keeps you safe-ish when attacked from all sides.  Don’t worry about the other’s until you meet your first boss fights.)

What this does force you to do, though, is explore all the tactical possibilities your magic and gear provide.  Even with defensive spells activated a few good sword blows is enough to kill Geralt, and your enemies are almost equally as strong and vastly outnumber you.  So hacking and slashing will quickly see you surrounded and killed, meaning combat becomes a ballet of circling and dodging, only attacking when an unshielded back reveals itself and then diving away before they retaliate.  Utilising your limited magic (Only 2 spells can be cast at a time, with a long cooldown timer leaving you waiting before you can cast more) is a case of picking the right magic for the right opponent.  Stun bolts and traps for lumbering monsters, shielding and health buffs against hordes of nimbler soldiers.

Potions also allow you to tweak and improve your stats for lengths of time aswell (often improving one skill to the detriment of another), but again this is all about planning, as they can only be consumed when Geralt is in a meditative state, something that cannot be achieved during combat.  Again, you’ll want to take the right potion before the right fight.  This might sound like another unfair disadvantage to first time players but the game does generally sign post when anything out of the ordinary might be coming up, with some pre-boss fight quests completely revolving around the collection of necessary ingredients for a particularly useful potion for the fight.

This guy swears a lotThe best part of the Witcher 2 though is far and away the grown-up storytelling and choice making.  I think it’s best explained with a slightly spoilery anecdote.  Consider yourself warned.

I’ve just ridden out of a town I was staying in for a few days.  It was a nice enough stay, the residents were largely friendly and hospitable, from the fancy noblemen running the town from garrisoned mansions, to the humble peasants living in huts outside the town walls, they were happy to help me, serve me and build me shiny swords.  But now that’s not going to happen anymore.  That’s not going to happen because the town is burning to the ground.  Leaderless the peasants riot in the streets, minorities are being abused and murdered in their homes and the only reason I went there in the first place has legged it hundreds of miles away.  IT WASN’T MEANT TO BE THIS WAY!  I THOUGHT I DID EVERYTHING RIGHT!

But there in lies the fallacy: There is no right or wrong way to tackle the situations Witcher 2’s story turns up, you will forever be choosing between one grey and another until a segment of story concludes and all those little choices tumble together to form some hideous reality you spent the whole time trying to avoid.  This violent end to the first chapter is avoidable, I can see that now it’s concluded, I can see what I could have done to change this outcome.  The thing is I don’t want to change it.  I don’t want to reload from an earlier save, I don’t want to check an online walkthrough for the perfect path, I want to see where these mistakes will lead me, I want to try to put them right further down the line.

The story, and it’s malleability, is what elevates the Witcher 2 above its RPG peers.  Choice is meaningless without consequence and it’s in the sweeping consequences of your, sometimes seemingly small, choices that drives you on through the game’s world.

Ian Hislop cameos as a guardAt it’s core the Witcher 2 is a traditional RPG in mechanics and setting.  Your character, the incredi-cool Geralt, levels up in the traditional fashion of completing quests and killing monsters, and levelling up unlocks new abilities and improvements.  His kit is modifiable with the traditional litany of stupidly named swords, armours and potions that all provide ‘plus 10’ strength and ‘times 10% dodge chance’ etc.  The fantasy setting is as clichéd as it gets, from elven forests, medieval castles, fairytale monsters that almost always live in caves, quests for kings, everyone being called Somebody the Something of Somewhere, and even the slightly unusual protagonist, Geralt the Witcher, is essentially a Jedi in medieval clothing.

It would all add up to the worst kind of deja-vu induced vomiting if it weren’t for the fact that when you finally meet, say, Dungle the Woodmole from Mirwood he calls you a cunt and challenges you to a winner takes all arm-wrestle so he can spend the winnings in the local brothel (fully functioning, err, so I’m told.  Ahem).  I’m not saying it’s nice because it’s violent, or that it’s funny because he said a rude word, it’s great because Dungle speaks exactly how a medieval peasant should speak and that draws you right in.  The incidental details throughout the game, in the visual finishes, sound effects and bantering dialogue really make the world feel real.  It almost feels like showing off that CD Projekt achieved this in such a clichéd fantasy setting.  The town of Flotsam alone could comfortably sit alongside the Liberty Citys and Hong Kongs (a la Deus Ex) of this world as living, breathing gaming locations.  It feels so grubby in a way shiny modern graphics rarely let a location feel.

This is one of the first games in a long time that I actually enjoyed having incidental conversations with NPCs.  Usually anything outside of necessary plot exposition is to be avoided for fear of boredom and bad acting, but here the dialogue gives real depth to the characters you meet.  Every line is spoken as well, no text here, with some superb voice acting, especially from the peripheral characters like the peasants of Flotsam, let down by a very few stilted deliveries.  Ironically Dandelion the Bard springs to mind as one of the worst offenders.  Even passing strangers in the street have a couple of lines of, occasionally amusing, dialogue for you and it’s clear a lot of love and attention has gone into the translation from Polish.

Elven terrorists add some light hearted comedy to proceedings, oh no, wait, they don'tIt can’t all be perfect though, can it?  There are certainly some places where the style and finish falls down.  In keeping with the adult language the game takes a pretty liberal view to nudity, well, female nudity at least.  That’s not a complaint in itself, but in its delivery you can’t help feeling a 13 year-old boy directed the sex scenes, the number of boob and bum shots that fill your screen.  And despite every single sex scene involving Geralt I dont think I’ve ever seen him from the waist down.  It’s not a complaint (might be for some I guess?) but it just stands out as odd compared to the number of lady bits the game quite frequently displays.  It all feels a bit ‘late-night preview’ rather than the cinematic feel that is otherwise achieved.

The game direction shows some over eagerness on the cutscene front too.  The game is littered with them, taking Geralt out of your control just at the crucial moments.  Equally frustrating is the number of quick-time events they chose to stick in them too, meaning some of what should be your most memorable encounters are reduced to mindless button tapping, with the inevitable failure and reload happening an annoying number of times.  It’s a shame because the game proves there are better ways of doing things: some parts of the story that you would expect to be shown through cutscene are brilliantly handled by letting you play as alternate characters to see something happening that Geralt would have missed.  Playing a king strolling to a meeting with advisors babbling away at either side with gossip and news being a particularly excellent piece of plot exposition.  When the king arrives and I got to choose his responses to huge, country affecting questions I almost dropped my pipe.

Another note of caution: The saving system is infuriating.  It is neither checkpoint based or quick-save based, but a mixture of the two, in that it teases you with the ability to quicksave to your heart’s content in non-combat situations but as soon as any of the, sometimes lengthy, combat sequences (or, god forbid, boss battles) kicks in you cannot quicksave, just when you might want to save!  It’s a debate for another time, quicksaving, but for anyone like myself who trusts themselves to save only when they need and want to (lets say during a lull in the fighting 5 minutes into a 10 minute boss fight) then this aspect is going to frustrate you.

All told the challenging combat, complex choices, believable characters and absorbing world the Witcher 2 provide make this a must play game.  At 20-odd hours of gameplay it’s a lot shorter than the original or many of its RPG peers, but for every hour CD Projekt shaved off it’s length they added in content.  CD Projekt’s the Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings is a punk song of an RPG compared to something like Bioware’s more traditional, meandering prog-rock Dragon Age series.  With it’s 4-letter dialogue, 3-chord combat, nudity, drugs and debauchery it’s not going to be to everyone’s taste, but to dismiss it on that basis would be to miss out on some of the finest fantasy role-playing the genre has ever offered.

In stripping away much of what grates with more traditional RPGs the Witcher 2 has been able to bring the storytelling and choice making to the fore in a succinct, brilliantly presented, grown up style.  Like the best punk songs it’s short, explosive and sweet, and when it’s finished you’ll want to play it again.

9/10

Review's over, which way to the tavern?
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