Skyrim review

Some misty mountains, though not THE Misty Mountains, obviously, that's another 'entertainment brand'

George got up from his desk, grinning at his final accomplishment.  “There,” he muttered to no one as he closed the tome before him with a flourish.  “Finished!”.  He ran his slender elven finger over the inscription on the front of the book.  The backpacker’s guide to Skyrim, for Bosmer Wood Elves.  He wrapped it carefully in thick woven paper and tied it tight with strong string.  “Time to get you back to Valenwood,” he got up and strode towards the door of his office but froze in horror when he noticed the tall, broad, armour-clad shadow blocking the doorway.

“AH!” he sprang back reaching for his dwarven sword, scavenged from the depths of an ancient dwarven dungeon and improved by his own skilled hands over weeks of crafting.  He looked up to the face of his assailant, ready to strike.  “Oh, it’s you!” he immediately relaxed seeing the face of his housecarl Lydia.  “Can you step out the way please, you’re blocking the doorway.”

There was an awkward pause.  She didn’t move.

“Lydia, do you mind….”

“Hi, George!” she interrupted, “What you doing in there?”.

“Oh.  Well, I’ve just finished the travel guide I was writing.  It’s done!  I can get it home!” he grinned again.

“I didn’t know you were writing a travel guide,” Lydia peered at the parcel under his arm.

“It’s the reason I was in Skyrim in the first place.  Didn’t I tell you about that?”

“Nope, I thought you were sent here by the gods to defeat the dragon menace,” she frowned.

“Oh, well, I guess that too, but I didn’t know about that when I set off from Valenwood to write a travel guide for my fellow wood elves,”  he patted the well wrapped booked under his arm.

“So, what did you say about Skyrim?  Are you recommending it to your elven brethren?”

“God no!  It’s been absolute hell!  From the moment I crossed the border I’ve been abducted by Imperial troops, accused of spying for some Nord rebels, had my head placed on an executioners block only to be saved by the arrival of a fucking dragon.  I’ve been accosted by wolves, hunted by bears, chased by trolls, haunted by wispmothers, set upon by bandits, ordered about by rebels and Imperial soldiers alike, had to bow to countless Jarls, been turned into a werewolf, can’t sleep for nightmares of a terrible black phantom persuading me to join a murderous cult, toyed with by gangster godmothers, invited to a tea party with a mad daedric prince inside the mind of a long dead king…”

“What the…”

“…Don’t even ask!  I’ve had to crawl through fetid skeever tunnels, swim frozen rivers, climb frozen mountains, everything’s bloody frozen!  I’ve had to eat every bug, mushroom and monster anatomy I’ve found to see if it’s any use in potion making,” George paused to catch his breath.

“And don’t get me started on the dragons!  Everywhere I go everyone seems to think I’m some kind of god-born dragon slayer!  Oh look a dragon, they’ll say, don’t worry George will get rid of it we’ll just hide in our houses here until he’s done.  And then when I do finally kill the thing everyone carries on as if nothing has happened.  They leave corpses in the streets for….for forever as far as I can tell!  What is wrong with you people!?”

George wanders how to get his big moon shaped ball out of the tree

Lydia was shocked.  She racked her brain for something positive to mention, “Ok, ok, you are a bit of a special case George but what about the people?  Us Nords are a kind and welcoming sort aren’t we?”

“Oh sure you are.  Very friendly when you need me to go on another bloody quest for you!  Every where I go people are running up to me and asking me for help.  God, I can’t even have a quiet drink in a town Inn without the bartender bringing up endless tasks the town need completing.  The people I do befriend who want to go adventuring with me walk into traps, get in the way of my arrows, bark at enemies when I’m trying to be stealthy, hide when I’m trying to attack and are forever getting stuck in doorways!  Speaking of which could you just step aside Lydia, I need to…”

“Well, you’ve been here a long time and must have met many women in your travels, George.  You must have found… you know, a suitable companion out here in the wilds?” Lydia played with her hair as she asked.

George stared at the butch, masculine figure in front of him and suppressed a shudder, “To be honest Lydia I can’t say I did, what with the dragons and the war and everything.  Sometimes I think I’m happier just crafting a new piece of armour from some rare, dungeon plundered metal.  Plus I never did work out how you marry people in your custom.”

“Oh, I can show you!” Lydia burst with unusually girly excitement.

“NO!  I mean…no…. thank you Lydia.  I’ll, um, work it out if I ever need to.”

There was an awkward pause.

“Look, Lydia, can you just come in this room or go back into that room for just a moment, I can’t get past.”

“Huh?”

“Ok, let me try it this way.  Lydia [I NEED YOU TO DO SOMETHING FOR ME]”

“Oh sure, what is it?” Lydia was suddenly receptive.

“[WAIT THERE]” George ordered, pointing at the floor on the other side of the hall he was trying to enter.

“Sure, why didn’t you just say?” Lydia obediently did her Thane‘s bidding and walked to the other side of the room.

Finally,” George muttered under his breath and made to go through the doorway.

“RAWULLLLLLLLLFFFF!”

“AH!” George leapt back instinctively, “Melko!  Not you too!” he looked down at the shaggy dog whose tail he’d just trodden on.  She sat fully in the doorway staring up with puppy-ish eyes, panting.

George sighed, “At least I can just jump over you,” and with that he leapt over the dog with agile elegance finally arriving in the hallway to his hard-earned home.  Grabbing up his latest crafted armour he packed a sword, bow and arrows.  “You can never be too careful out there,” he said to Lydia.  He paused when he saw her just standing there where he’d ordered.  “I’ll, um….  I’ll see you soon….  By the way….. Thanks for everything Lydia, you’ve been a great…..” He searched deep within his brain for a compliment, “you’ve been great at carrying stuff when I was overloaded.”

“Oh, thanks,” Lydia blushed.

“You too Melko.  You look after each other.” And with that he set off out into Skyrim with his travel guide under his arm.

Home is where the dangerously open fire is

With George gone the two NPCs stayed motionless in the house, staring at one another.  Melko, ever needy, was just happy for Lydia’s company.  Lydia felt lost.  She looked at the warm fire and exceptional furnishings George’s ‘work’ in Riften had been able to afford for the house.  She looked at the kitchen and thought about grilling some salmon.  “Ah, I know,” she thought, “I’d better wash my armour actually.  When did I last do that?”

Suddenly the door burst open.  The daylight that flooded in partially blinded Lydia as she tried to make out the figure at the door.  It was….could it be?  George came marching out of the bloom and plonked his helmet down on the nearest chair.  “Hi Lyds.”

“You….you, came back!” Lydia was overwhelmed.

“Huh?  Of course I did!” George looked at her, puzzled, “I was only popping to the post office!  What?  You didn’t think I was leaving did you?  I don’t want to go home, I’m having the time of my life!  Hell, Skyrim is one of the best places I’ve ever been!”

“But…”

“So, who wants to go on an adventure?  Let’s have a look here,” George thumbed through a thick, tattered journal, “Ah, here’s a good one: Find a way to free Thorald from Northwatch Keep.”

“Who’s Thorald?”

“I forget, but that’s never important. It’s a quest.  Coming?”

THE END

10/10

Mammoth vs. Dragon.  It is hard choosing which to eat first

Gemini Rue review

Don’t worry, I know what you’re thinking: “What’s with all these Battlefield articles?!  The singleplayer story was terrible, I need something to wash the taste away but I’ve only got under a tenner to spend on a new game!  Plus I only class a game as being ‘new’ when it’s released on Steam even though it might have been out for months already.  And on an unrelated topic, why in the great Adventure game renaissance has nobody done something like the Blade Runner game?  That game was amazing!”

My, you do jump around a bit, don’t you!?  Never fear, I understand completely and have the perfect answer to all of your thought questions: Gemini Rue.

Like squinting at Blade Runner

So what is it?  Gemini Rue is a point and click adventure set in a sci-fi, future noir universe.  The game starts you off in control of Azriel Odin, a trenchcoated cop trying to pick up the trail of his missing brother in a rundown city on a planet afflicted with perpetual rain.  The Blade Runner reference is apt with the film’s dystopian style having obvious influences on the look and atmosphere of the game, there are even direct references to the photo analysing Esper machines later in the game and the story covers similar existential themes of memory and identity.  What is so remarkable is how well the game captures that atmosphere using the modest resources of the AGS engine.  It’s clear the game’s creator, Joshua Neurnberger, is a master of this sort of pixel art, and the subtle movement of the rain, characters and background vehicles really add life to the still backgrounds.

The game doesn’t all take place in the rain, though.  Half of your time is spent controlling ‘Delta-Six’, the nameless inmate of an offworld medical facility.  Between completing daily tasks for the unseen ‘Director’, and dealing with his relationships with the other inmates, you help Delta-Six construct an escape plan to get off the sinister prison-like station.

The opening scene is clearly set in my dentist's

The gameplay will be familiar to anyone who has spent much time with a point and click adventure, with left-click moving your character to wherever you are pointing on the screen, and a right click bringing up a neat menu of interaction options (Eye, Hand, Mouth or Foot) and your inventory.  This is very much a point and click adventure game and not a puzzle game, though.  While there are ‘puzzles’ to solve these are usually pleasingly obvious to bypass after a moments head scratching, and are usually only served up one at a time so you know that pipe you just picked up is probably going to be the thing you need to use to get in that balcony window you’re about to try and enter.  Whilst important items are occasionally hard to distinguish from the pixellated background, the puzzles are generally simple and satisfying to complete without a lot of trudging about to carry out their solution (with one annoying exception).

All that means you can get on with playing through the superb story.  The plot moves at a satisfying pace, with action sequences (yes, action sequences in and adventure game!) breaking up the investigation/escape plan hatching, and genuine twists and turns keeping you guessing until the end.  Planetside there’s a real feeling of playing cat and mouse with the local Boryokudan crime syndicate, with your character flipping from cat to mouse and back again with each bit of plot exposition, and in the cold, bleached confines of the Centre 7 correctional facility the infinitely oppressed Delta-Six slowly takes control back from his oppressors both within and outside the prison population.   It is the best story I’ve played through in a long while, it really is the sort of thing you don’t expect to see in a video game, let alone an indie-title on a shoe-string budget.

Azriel's plot arc summarised perfectly

The only issues with the game are brought on by that small budget.  Locations are reused heavily, and there aren’t any of the branching narrative options that its inspiration so brilliantly included.  The mostly fine voice acting is also let down by awkward pauses between one person speaking and the other, and the characters are strictly limited in their interactions with the world with only plot-specific objects, people and doors rewarding adventurous clicking.  That said there is a raft of appropriate comments from Azriel and Delta-Six when you click on inappropriate items, my favourite being when you try to ‘use’ a top floor window Azriel objects “I’m not THAT desperate” in his deep, noirish drawl.

At roughly 5 hours in length you get enough for what you pay for, and I would urge you to at least try the demo and see if you can resist paying up to continue the story to its excellent, twisty conclusion.  It’s a pleasure to play a well-written, atmospheric and serious adventure game and I can only hope Gemini Rue’s introduction to the Steam library gets it the sales needed to spawn a sequel and more of this sort of thing.

8/10

Even blander than my work canteen

Frozen Synapse Review

En-titledGreen ran through the doorway, ducked on to one knee, swung his machinegun sights right, then left, aimed forward again before rising to sprint to the next door ahead.  BANG!  A sniper shot through a window to his right felled him.  Try Again.

Green ran through the doorway, ducked on to one knee, swung his machinegun sights right, then left, aimed forward again and edged to the doorway ahead in a crouched position.  He leaned round the doorway to…KER-BLAM!  A shotgun blast threw him back into the room.  Try again.

Green ran through the doorway, ducked on to one knee, swung his machinegun sights right, then left, aimed forward again and waited, crouched with his sights trained on the door.  Brrapt!  He shot the shotgun wielding enemy as they passed the doorway.  Green edged to the doorway, leaned round the corner and dashed for his goal.  No deaths.  No nasty gunshots.  Perfect. 

Tactical shooteryFrozen Synapse is a tactical, turn based combat game in a style that will be fairly familiar to anyone who’s played X-COM or Laser Squad Nemesis.  The game plays out in singleplayer and multiplayer missions in which you direct a small squad by giving out intricate instructions to each member in a planning phase, that then plays out in a 5 second burst of action, before returning to the planning phase to plot out the next 5 seconds, and repeat until the match is complete.  Matches can take 15-20 minutes of plotting and planning, but when replayed in realtime last for all of 30 seconds.

What stands Frozen Synapse apart from it’s 1990s forebears is the ease with which instructions are issued (with a right click menu, or knowledge of a few hotkeys, offering everything you need) and a ‘play’ button that gives you the ability to view how events in the next 5 second chunk should pan out based on your current plan.

So, for instance, I can give my machinegunner instructions as per the beginning of this article and click play to see what will happen.  Ah, he gets sniped!  Let’s try something different then, what if he ducks?  That works, but then he meets that shotgunner.  What if he waits for him to round the corner first?…etc

The ability to plot actions for your enemies is what’s essential to the planning phases.  You can assume a sniper will stay still aiming in the window, but in actuality he may turn and move to a better position instead.  That shotgunner may run round the corner, but he may stay where he was and wait for you instead.  Which eventuality do you plan for?  There’s enough possibilities in the seemingly simple instructions available to mean you never actually know what will happen when you finally click ‘commit’.  Every planning phase centres around the ever present commit button, beckoning you to find out what is actually going to happen to your men.  Clicking it is one of the tensest moments in recent gaming as a short loading bar fills to reveal the outcome….

Green ran through the doorway, ducked on to one knee, swung his machinegun sights right, then left, aimed forward again and waited.  No one rounds the corner.  No shots from the window, and then out of the corner of his eye Green spots a rocket propelled grenade fizzing across the courtyard straight for his position.  Shit!  The rocket flies towards him and….it freezes in mid air, 2 feet from his face.  PLANNING PHASE

Presentation is key for an indie game such as this, requiring style over polygons to win you over, and mode7 have obviously taken great inspiration from some of the master indie developers.  Frozen Synapse is so reminiscent of Uplink that you’d be forgiven for assuming it was a new Introversion title.  In fact their upcoming game Subversion bears even more resemblance.  This is no bad thing though, and the crisp, functional style adds to the ease with which you command your troops.

The music, too, is excellent, and could be swapped for Deus Ex’s without anyone noticing.  In case you aren’t sure what that means, it means its very good!

The story's told through this mission hubThe singleplayer shares a similar cyber-punk edge, too, telling the story of sci-fi mega-corporations using the matrix-esque ‘shape’ to do virtual battles for territory across a future metropolis.  The 55 mission story is told through conversations and news stories told every few missions, which is often enough to break up the combat nicely without getting too in the way of the addictive need for more strategising.  The story doesn’t take itself too seriously and contains a few memorable characters, especially an AI with an amusing lack of concern for the wellbeing of your squad members, and some absolutely ridiculous names for people and places.  Case in point: your character is called Tactics, because “that’s what you’re good at”.

For a game that seems built for one-on-one tactical battles best played against other humans, the singleplayer makes a really good effort at striking off on its own, forcing you to take different tactical approaches to the usually careful, defence-led multiplayer skirmishes.  The missions comprise a healthy mix of objectives, from wiping out much larger teams than your own, frantic escort missions and mad dashes for strategic bonuses (like reinforcements, or just a big explosion).  My favourites being when you have to take out a huge team of snipers, say, using only 2 shotgun wielding grunts.

Ultimately, though, the singleplayer is going to be a warm-up to the main event: the skirmish and multiplayer battles.  Frozen Synapse is so crisp in its presentation, simple in its execution and satisfying in it’s 5 second outcomes that it is incredibly absorbing and difficult to drag yourself away from.  The seeming ease and simplicity of delivering your instructions, testing out a few scenarios and then clicking commit means games share that ‘just one more click’ addictiveness of the Civilizations and Football Managers of this world.  The tense pace of each game and satisfying impact of the firefights that break out share more in common with the Counterstrikes and Call of Dutys, than any fellow strategy games.

After clicking commit you notice yourself pull closer to the screen.  Each loss unleashes a muttered curse.  Each kill, a fist punch into the air.  And then 10 minutes later, win or lose, you’ll find yourself breathing a sigh of released tension, before clicking ‘find a game’ again.  Just one more before bedtime, you’ll say.  Just 1…maybe 2, more.

For a game so tense, and so fraught with hidden danger, you never find yourself frustrated when inevitable loss and failure arrive.  5 seconds is a long time when you’ve made the wrong move.  It’s plenty of time for a sniper to get off a shot.  Time for a rocket to launch and impact by your feet.  Plenty of time for a nimble shotgunner to run through two rooms, pop up by that window and blow the head off your prized machinegunner.  But every time that happens and you lose a squad member you never have anyone to blame or curse but yourself.  The tools are there in the planning phase to see what would happen if that sniper aimed that way, or that shotgunner ran through those rooms ignoring all hostiles, so you never feel cheated or fooled when it unfolds against your expectations.

It can’t all be perfect though, can it?  Well, no game is without its faults.  The main issue that will only start to show as you play a number of games, is the game is intrinsically designed to benefit a defensive strategy.  A still machinegunner will always shoot a moving machinegunner before the moving one returns fire.  A machinegunner behind cover will always beat a machinegunner out of cover.  And so the best players, and you may find yourself doing this, will always plump to have as many of their squad as possible standing or crouching motionless behind cover.  This can lead to some incredibly boring games, this following one being a classic example:

There’s more satisfaction to be had from playing more offensively, but there’s no satisfaction to be found losing game after game because you keep wandering into a corridor of fire.  The singleplayer, too, is initially a great antidote to this by forcing you to play more offensively to achieve objectives within a given number of turns, but as the game progresses more and more defensive tactics are required to win.  Equally a number of multiplayer modes are on offer to promote different styles of play, but if anything these mostly promote even more defensive play from the likes of ‘secure’ and ‘hostage rescue’.  Some may enjoy this but I just think it’s a shame the game rewards boring tactics the most when I find the greatest moments are when you’re hunting down a target, gambling on when to lower your gun and run across a room, or when to carefully aim and tip-toe.

This is just a small creeping concern though, one that hasn’t stopped me remaining thoroughly addicted to a game I’ve clocked up more hours on in the few weeks I’ve had it than any other game this year (aside from EVE online, but that’s more a lifestyle choice than a game).  Spending an evening in tactical duels, using the turn-based nature of the game to chain a few games at a time, is likely to be a regular feature throughout the rest of this year.  Even if they do become less frequent as the novelty wears thinner this is going to be one of those games, like Desktop Dungeons, that’s there waiting for me when I have a quiet half hour.  A 20 minute gap before bed that needs filling.  Just one quick game, I’ll think.  Just one quick game, and then another.  And then…just one more.  That’s all…

9/10

P.S.  I just had to post this, my greatest Frozen Synapse victory.  Note at the end of turn 1 I have 1 squadmember left, compared to the computer’s 4:

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?