Very few games have you looking forward to a second playthrough while you’re still in the middle of your first. The first thing I did after finishing The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings was start a new game on a harder difficulty. This is a title that begs to be played more than once, not simply because it’s very good, but because the choices you make could potentially alter how the rest of the game plays out for you. Most RPGs claim that choices you make impact the game, but very rarely do they deliver on that promise. The Witcher 2, however, does not disappoint in this regard. It’s admittedly more compact than the first, with a single exhaustive playthrough clocking in at around 35 hours, but it’s brimming with high quality role-playing topped by slick production. Add to that the tremendous amount of replay value and you have an RPG that will have you coming back to it time and again.
The Witcher, released in 2007, was mostly a cult hit, which eventually found a bigger audience with the release of its much improved Enhanced Edition in 2008. While most RPG franchises were being streamlined and targetted towards casual gamers, The Witcher retained its old-school sensibilities while offering a mature dark fantasy storyline based on Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski’s works chronicling the witcher Geralt, a professional monster slayer for hire. The Witcher 2, in comparison, feels like a more confident effort from developer CD Projekt Red, challenging and accessible at the same time and with a broader scope than the original. It’s quite obvious that CD Projekt Red aims to take on the big boys this time, and for the most part, they succeed. The Witcher 2 improves upon the original in many key areas, but sadly, it also tries to fix things that didn’t need fixing, resulting in a game that falls just a few steps short of being perfect.
The Witcher 2 is undoubtedly one of the best looking PC games of all time. Running on CD Projekt Red’s own proprietary engine, the game features some of the prettiest visuals since the original Crysis. The technology coupled with fantastic art direction and great attention to detail makes The Witcher 2 a visual powerhouse, which stands head and shoulders above most of its competitors. Almost every location is varied and rarely gives you a sense of déjà vu like most RPGs do. The towns and villages feel lively and bustling with activity, with people going about their routine activities while, dense forests and haunted ruins feel appropriately threatening. As expected, the visual goodness comes at a price. The Witcher 2 needs a hefty rig to be experienced at its maximum potential. There are at least a couple of settings that even the best configurations will have trouble with. Let’s just say that if Crysis 2 didn’t bring your PC down to its knees, The Witcher 2 most certainly will.
Apart from the visuals, there are a few other things which make The Witcher 2 feel like a completely different game compared to the first. One such change is the brand new combat mechanic. The rhythm-based click-heavy combat of the original is now replaced by a more action-oriented system, which almost resembles hack-n-slash games, complete with light and heavy attacks, blocking, dodging and countering. You also have access to a handful of magic spells (or signs as they’re known in The Witcher’s universe) and other equipment such as bombs, traps and throwing knives. Sword attacks feel meaty and pretty much all of the magical signs are useful, and in some cases, downright essential for survival. The combat system relies heavily on timing and avoiding damage rather than grinding and out-leveling your enemies. RPG fans who aren’t used to skill-based combat might find the changes a little difficult to accept and it doesn’t help that the lengthy prologue puts you into pretty challenging combat scenarios with some rather inadequate tutorial hints.
Players might get frustrated by the difficulty at first, but like most action games, you eventually learn the ropes and battles start becoming easier as you progress even to the point of becoming a complete joke towards the end. Leveling up Geralt grants you talent points, which can be used to buy skills in three broad categories – magic, swordsmanship and alchemy. The magic tree feels somewhat overpowered compared to the rest, while alchemy is rather underwhelming this time around and only makes the game more tedious than it should be. Unlike the first game, Geralt cannot chug potions while in combat, so you’ll need to rely on your intuition. This is not always easy as the potion effects are typically brief and the game sometimes doesn’t give you enough downtime between battles to meditate and use potions. Dabbling in alchemy and preparing before combat is still an option, although you’ll be better off investing in the magic and swordsmanship skills rather than relying on potions and bombs even on the game’s hard difficulty setting.
Combat is but one aspect of The Witcher 2 and the game is more than likely to win you over with its expertly paced story. Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say that the story always remains the driving force behind your actions and motivations. This isn’t an RPG that lets you dawdle while all hell is breaking loose around you. Although you can take up side quests and a handful of monster-slaying contracts, they’re limited, and for the most part, the main story makes up the bulk of the quests. There are many choices that Geralt will have to make during the course of the game, including one which has a major impact on how events play out. The choices and moral decisions are often difficult and it’s not simply a matter of choosing the lesser evil. Almost every character in the game is flawed in some way, even the ones who are supposed to be the “good guys” while some are downright disgusting. There are times when the primal nature of the creatures Geralt is supposed to hunt pales in comparison to some of the unspeakable acts carried out by certain human characters. It’s ironic how you feel safer in the company of a troll, who is cooking an “elf and onion stew”, than some of the people in the game.
The Witcher 2 is a massive step forward in terms of the overall presentation. The first game (before it got the Enhanced Edition) featured cringe-worthy English translation and largely mediocre voice acting. The Witcher 2, however, is a completely different story. The voice work, barring a few characters, is consistently good throughout the game and the writing itself is a couple of notches above most fantasy-themed RPGs. It’s a great mix of darker themes and lighter moments. Fantasy settings are a dime a dozen in RPGs, but The Witcher’s universe manages to stand out with its realistic take on usual fantasy stereotypes like elves and dragons. There’s a fair amount of politics involved and new characters are introduced at an alarming pace. As a result, the plot may get a little confusing if you aren’t paying attention to the dialogue. The word “mature” usually gets thrown around a lot these days, but The Witcher 2 is one of the few games where it is justified and not only because of the copious amount of female nudity or the colourful language, but also because of the grimy and morally ambiguous nature of The Witcher’s world. There are no good or bad guys here; your choice of friends and enemies is all a matter of perception and this is what the entire plot is built around.
Unfortunately, the game’s narrative peaks too early and the final chapter feels somewhat underwhelming and even rushed, leaving you with a rather ho-hum final impression. The cliffhanger ending, which teases the next game in the series, doesn’t help either. A running time of around 35 hours, even if you chose to complete each and every side quest, is rather brief for an RPG and could disappoint those looking for a more open-ended experience, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s pretty obvious that the game is designed with multiple playthroughs in mind and certain plot threads are resolved only if you play through the game twice. That said, I personally could have used a few more witcher-style quests and I certainly miss the optional trophy bosses from the first game.
It’s worth pointing out that the game is designed with the upcoming console version in mind. As a result, it doesn’t exactly feel like a PC game. The secondary screens involve a lot of scrolling and feature large bold text, which takes up more space than it should. The alchemy and crafting interface isn’t the best, and basic things like lack of item comparison during trading or the absence of an item storage mechanism feels like a step back from the previous game. The combat itself feels better with an Xbox 360 controller, especially since the game features quick-time button events, including the rather entertaining fistfight mini-game, which is now entirely a QTE-based affair. However, those worried about the game being dumbed down can breathe easy. It may act like a console game at times, but it’s still a PC RPG at heart.
Simply put, The Witcher 2 is the best RPG I’ve played since, well… the original The Witcher. CD Projekt Red certainly understands the genre and has created a quality series that could possibly be the torchbearer for RPGs in the years to come. Even with its minor quirks and a somewhat shaky final act, it remains one of the best games of recent times and a worthy game of the year candidate.