To the average console player, The Witcher 2 will feel markedly different. Though immediately familiar with it’s leveling, quests, crafting and so son, this mature RPG approaches design in a way quite distinct from it’s console peers.
This refined, sophisticated design philosophy has it’s basis in the games origin as a previously PC only franchise. Rather than pandering to the lowest common denominator, The Witcher 2 strives to be different, to take a more measured approach to morality, combat and storytelling. But is it any good?
Well, just as the game takes it’s own spin on things, so will I. Rather than employing the usual review structure, favoured by journalists and code named ‘The shiitake sandwich’ (i.e. nestling criticism in the middle of the article, whilst bookending either side it with praise), this review will start with something of a ‘shiitake dollop’. That’s merely to say that the following few paragraphs will crudely lay out everything that is wrong with The Witcher 2. Why? Well firstly I don’t want to speak too directly about the nitty gritty of the this great package and give anything away; but also because the rest of the article will outline what the game does so very, very right.
Okay then: Animation. The Witcher 2 is a sweeping tale of political intrigue. Characters are motivated, interesting and complex. Unfortunate then that so often their faces are stiff and inanimate. Prerendered cutscenes and sync kills see Geralt the protagonist and others dart about with grace. Such a shame then that for hours of the games dialogue you’re staring at wooden, dead eyed marionettes.
Repetition. So much of the game is fantastic, whether it’s the unpredictable consequences of your actions, the challenging combat, or the ever spiralling story itself. The parts of the game that aren’t so inspired then, stick out like a sore thumb. Whether it’s the one or two fetch quests amongst the plethora of unique belters, or the fights against weaker enemies which later on can become a chore, at times it can be a bit of a grind. You see The Witcher 2’s bread and butter is subverting your genre expectations, making you think, feel and react. When it asks you scour a battlefield then, in search of corpses to burn, the magic fizzles out and it’s nothing short of tedious.
Presentation. The game is beautiful, both technically and artistically. There are no tiled dungeons here as everything is lovingly crafted from scratch. As a result the game has an incredible encompassing atmosphere, it emerges you in it’s world without apology. When standards drop however, things really jar. Texture pop in, voice recording that’s sometimes too loud and that clips, a cluttered UI or even just some long loading times can really upset an otherwise truly immersive experience.
But now that’s out of the way then, let’s talk about what really matters. If you’re even remotely interested in The Witcher 2, you should play it. It really is that simple. It’s few flaws really aren’t enough to spoil a game this good and this unique. It’s a winding yarn that feels so fresh and so different, that at times, it feels like it might be sent from some distant future when games have grown up.
But what is all about? Well, this is a story propelled role player in which you take the reigns of Geralt of Rivia, the witcher of the title. Witcher’s are superhuman monster hunters for hire, and Geralt specifically, is one of the best. He’s world renowned and a big player (albeit reluctantly) in world affairs. It’s important to note here that Geralt is a fully formed three dimensional character, he has a rich history, a code of conduct which he abides to, a personality and a purpose. Why this is remarkable then is because, unlike Commander Shepard, Geralt isn’t a hollow vehicle for the player, he’s a will unto himself. You steer Geralt along a narrow path of choices yes, but the slightest choices you do make have the furthest reaching consequences.
What you’re left with then, is less of a choose-your-own-adventure, and more of a make-the-tough-choices simulator. And those choices are for a particularly distinct character, embroiled in a deep mire of overwhelming shiitake.
You may be surprised to learn then that the choices the player is given are more interesting and more reactive than anything in the Mass Effect series. Take for example the decision of whether or not to save the council in ME1, the choice is ultimately hollow because there will always be a council in ME3 that you need to interact with for story purposes. The only things you change in that instance are dialogue and faces. In The Witcher 2 your decisions will affect which sides of a war you fight on, who your companions are, the fate of whole communities and more. Indeed, the whole second act of the game is completely different depending on one of your earlier choices.
The Witcher 2 isn’t so much concerned with letting you play out good cop or bad cop fantasies, but asking you to directly interact with a world and a narrative that splinter off into different realities all together.
The other half of the shiny witcher coin is gameplay. There’s no fast travel, no potions you can drink during combat, no overpowered kill all weapons or skill. The Witcher 2 is hard, old school, not interested in your whining or your bull-shiitake kinda hard. But not for the sake of it, or not in an unfair way. The game just doesn’t want you to sleep walk through it. This is a complete-able game yes, but only if you take it seriously.
In order to succeed you must prepare through crafting the best gear, concocting potions (which can only be taken before combat starts), coating your weapons with oils that buff damage and thinking about your tactics. You even have two weapons, a silver sword for monsters and a steel one for humans, if you don’t manage which spell or which sword to use when, the game will punish you.
It’s a game then that forces you to be everything you can be. You can’t just ignore mechanics like alchemy or button mash your way through. If you’re about to face a poisonous foe you need to concoct some antidote and remember to chug before you dive in. The ending result is a hugely rewarding and memorable experience. Here, like in Dark Souls, you find yourself loving the challenge because it forces you to stretch yourself and to think. If you want a game that gives you tools, trains you in them and then asks you to really use them all, this is it.
Without really saying anything about the content of the game itself then, I hope I’ve said enough. Enough to infer that you need to see it for yourself, that surprise is sacred and that The Witcher 2 is a game about experience. It’s dark, it’s dense, it won’t hold your hand or ask you if you can remember what’s going on every five minutes. It’s an adult game that will treat you like it and force you to play like one.
The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings Enhanced Edition is available to buy now on XBox 360.