Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Review

The Witcher 2: Geralt Conquers the West

The Witcher 2 is the sequel to 2007s surprise PC RPG hit The Witcher from Polish developer CD Projekt Red.  It continues the story of professional monster slayer and amnesiac, Geralt of Rivia, a character licensed from a very popular series of Polish fantasy novels.  In the first game, Geralt stopped an uprising in the land of Temeria, saved King Foltest from assassination, and now must deal with the ever corrupt world of politics.  As far as Geralt is concerned, It was probably much simpler to stick to monster slaying.  The Witcher 2 is a darker take on the western RPG genre and, due to its technical prowess and storytelling abilities, far outshines it’s current genre counterparts.

The Witcher 2’s story is both engaging and interesting.  It begins directly after the events of the first game. After saving King Foltest from assassination Geralt is kept on as a personal bodyguard which, for anyone who knows Geralt, isn’t really his style.  Geralt is on “one last mission” with the king and then plans to move along and try to reclaim his memory.  Of course things never go according to plan and Geralt finds himself accused of treason.  Geralt is then faced with the prospect of tracking down the real culprit, clearing his name, and deciding the fate of all Temeria in the process.

The Witcher 2 is filled with moral choices and, unlike some other games, these choices have far-reaching effects.  Rather than seeing the same questline, and only making a choice to decide its outcome, The Witcher 2 presents choices early on that lead to bigger and harder choices down the line.  One of the biggest choices of the game comes in the first chapter and effects every event that occurs in Chapter 2.  Because of this, there are essentially two completely different versions of the second chapter, so a single playthrough of The Witcher 2 will always miss approximately 20% of the full games content.  This is something games with moral choice systems have avoided in the past, but those more shallow systems ultimately make moral choices feel forced or arbitrary. The Witcher 2’s moral choices were so well implemented, I actually had to think about the decisions I was making and at times even felt regret after doing so.  Suffice it to say this is not a black and white world, the moral ambiguity you will face in The Witcher 2 is a refreshing change of pace from other RPGs on the market and help to make this game stand apart from its peers.

Though The Witcher 2’s story takes a while to get going it certainly ends strongly.  Things you thought you knew for certain are not what they appear to be and the story is wrapped up nicely with just enough left for the next entry in the series.  Many reviews have made note that the story ends abruptly and on a cliffhanger, which I do not understand at all.  The epilogue of the game does contain a VERY long dialogue sequence which not only explains everything that occurred in Witcher 2, but even closes up plot points from the first game and the book series.  I can only assume that reviewers complaining about the ending not being wrapped up skipped this section or merely perused through it and got bored and moved along.  By the end of the game, if you pay attention to what people are doing and saying, you will know the who, what and why of the tale and understand what is to come in the next adventure.

Technically, The Witcher 2 is amazing to behold.  The world that Geralt inhabits is created in vivid detail with some of the best graphical technology behind it.  I built a new computer specifically to run this game and at the highest settings can say it is simply beautiful.  However, even on lower settings the game still impresses.  The NPC character models are all varied and interesting looking, a nice change of pace from the reused characters in the first game and the drab reused NPC models of other western fantasy RPG’s.  Environments are filled with interesting ambient effects such as the light of the sun peeking over distant mountains or filtering through the leaves of trees in the forest.  Weather effects add a nice touch to make the environments feel real and alive and help to create some breathtaking vistas in later chapters of the game.

The characters in the game are also a vast improvement over the first installment.  The writing is much smoother, and presumably with a bigger budget and some experience already under their belts CD Projekt Red was able to avoid the poor translation and voice-over work that marred the original release of The Witcher. Make no mistake, despite the fact that the game is based on Polish intellectual property, and was made by a Polish developer, it feels just like a game that was made in America. Characters are well acted, and well written.  They all have clear goals and intentions and interact in realistic ways with each other during ambient dialogue. While Geralt is still his gravelly voiced self he comes off as a character who cares for his friends much more in this game than he did in the last.  Cutscenes and dialogues aren’t as stilted and boring as they were in the first game as CD Projekt Red has taken a more visual approach in its storytelling.  There are some very impressive action set pieces in the game, from start to finish there is always something going on to keep your interest.

Combat in The Witcher 2 is much more graceful and streamlined than the timed button clicking of the first game.  Geralt still carries his two swords, one steel for killing men and one silver for killing monsters.  The animations on attacks are very well done, giving Geralt a grace and flow in his combat movements, and as he shifts and spins about the battlefield you get the sense that he is a very accomplished warrior, rather than a character just swinging a sword blindly around himself.  In addition to the melee abilities Geralt also has a host of magical abilities which, unlike the first game where they had to be collected first, are all unlocked from the start of the game, though they can be upgraded significantly when leveling up.

Much has been made about the difficulty of The Witcher 2’s combat.  Don’t get me wrong, it can be brutally difficult at times.  However I believe that many of the issues players are having stem from either not utilizing ALL of Geralts abilities or not properly utilizing the abilities at their disposal.  The high difficulty of the game is only really apparent in the first chapter of the game.  By the time you reach the second chapter Geralt should be powered up enough that he has more than enough abilities to handle groups of enemies and the difficulty is no longer an issue.  Prior to gaining these abilities though, combat in groups requires much more than simply jumping in and slashing away with quick strikes.  A solid understanding of the magical signs and their use will be much more handy than a powerful sword.  For instance, in the first Witcher I relied only on Aard and Igni, so when I started Witcher 2 I reverted back to these tactics.  However the signs have all been completely rebalanced to the point where those two are no longer the combat crutch they once were.  It wasn’t until I started utilizing Yrden, the magical trap sign, that combat began to flow naturally for me.  I was able to control groups rather than let them surround me and could hold off enemies as I needed to.  Combined with the knowledge of how to apply magical signs and Geralts new abilities as I leveled up I became increasingly more adept at fighting large groups of opponents, and this is exactly how combat difficult should be done.  Also, according to the patch 1.2 notes, the combat difficulty from the prologue will be rebalanced to hopefully encourage new players to stick with the game and not leave in frustration.

One aspect of The Witcher that I feel has changed for the worse is alchemy.  Alchemy is a defining trait of the witchers.  They brew and use potions to augment their abilities and increase their combat prowess.  The way it is implemented in Witcher 2 is similar to the first in that you still have to collect alchemical ingredients from monsters and various shrubs and bushes around the world.  You still need to purchase the alchemical recipes from vendors or find them off enemies.  The one place where it differs is in the execution of the potions.  In the first Witcher, potions could be drunk at any time, in or out of combat, and lasted for in game hours.  In Witcher 2 potions can only be drunk outside of combat and last about 10 minutes.  While you can use abilities to increase the time the potions last the fact that you can’t drink them in combat makes those skills less than desirable.  You will have to guess when big fights where you will need potions are coming up so you drink them beforehand, but since they only last 5 to 10 minutes if you are wrong or too slow in getting to the fight you’ll have wasted the potion.  I ran into occasions where I knew a fight was coming and drank my potions only to find that due to story elements the effects would not even count for the upcoming combat.  The only saving grace is that, unlike the first Witcher, the potions aren’t as necessary for coming out on top in combat and I was able to finish the game largely ignoring them by the second chapter.

Throughout my playthrough of Witcher 2 I didn’t run into many technical issues, which is impressive for a game like this.  However there were some small design decisions which did annoy me over the course of the game.  Item management is once again a problem in The Witcher.  You get so many baubles and useless knick knacks that it’s hard to keep track of them.  Thankfully the inventory is separated into groups already, but most of the items you find will be useless trash anyway so it becomes difficult to find specific important items you may want.

Vendors also pose a poor design issue, as certain vendors sell and craft items, but these are on two separate screens.  A typical interaction with these people will be asking them to craft an item, seeing you are missing an ingredient for crafting, backing out, asking to trade, buying the item, backing out, asking to craft again and then finally crafting the item.  This seems like a system that could have been implemented much more gracefully with a tabbed window or something along those lines.

The game also allows you to augment your abilities by adding mutagens to them, so for instance you can get a +10 Vitality mutagen which you can add to an ability for that effect.  However the game doesn’t show you which abilities can have mutagens slotted on them until AFTER you spend skill points on them.  Mutagens also cannot be removed and cannot be replaced, so there is literally no reason to ever use anything less than a “Greater” mutagen which leads to every other type of mutagen just becoming more inventory trash.

Final Thoughts:
I was a big fan of The Witcher and its sequel was easily one of my most anticipated games of the year.  I am happy to say it does not disappoint.  The Witcher 2 is a vast improvement on its predecessor.  Combat is faster paced and more involving to the player.  Geralt has many more abilities he can learn and grow than he did last time.  The story is much grander and deeper than the first game and is told in a much more interesting and professional way.  After reading the books and playing through the first game I’m glad to see Geralt of Rivia finally has a game that will appeal not to just fans of the character but to a wider audience as well.  The Witcher 2 has everything to make it the best RPG of the year, and while we have yet to see some stiff competition later this year, it certainly is standing head and shoulders above the competition now.

Mike’s Thoughts:
Gotta say, I really do agree with Jeff on this one. Unlike Jeff, I was never really able to get engaged by the first Witcher game. I must have played through the first segment of that game about six or seven times. Even so, The Witcher 2 immediately hooked me, and has not let me go since. It is a long game, but it is packed with variety and challenge.

One quick note on challenge, since I just wrote an article haranguing another game for its difficulty, The Witcher 2 does difficult right. The game is difficult for a reason: it wants you to learn how to use the game’s many (not very complicated) combat systems, and it then wants you to actually use them. Unlike Dragon Age 2, where I was able to simply wade into combat mashing the A button more times than not, The Witcher 2 demands strategic thinking and application of the tools at your disposal.

This is a great game. A fantastic game. Game of the year quality. The fact it has come from a Polish developer is just great, and because of The Witcher 2, CD Projekt Red has become a serious contender to Bioware and Bethesda. With the game’s upcoming Xbox 360 release at the end of the year, I fully expect the gaming public to take full notice of this phenomenal title.

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