Game Review: Witcher 2: Assassins Of Kings
Genre: Action RPG
Developer: CD Projekt Red
Available Platforms: PC (Xbox 360 version slated for Q4, 2011)
ESRB Rating: M
I want you to imagine, if you will, a game: A game in which the hero can be as righteous or ambivalent as you’d like. A game where issues like racism, sex and politics are all encountered, decided upon, and sometimes messily resolved by you. A game that doesn’t apologize for throwing you into the fire, and letting you figure things out on your own. A game that earns its M rating in every sense of the word by providing a rich, mature storyline that pulls no punches, and censors nothing (including gratuitous sex scenes with full frontal nudity). A game that has deep character development options, upgradable weapons and armor, and a slew of attack options (both magical and physical). Finally, imagine this game with gorgeous detail, engaging characters, a slew of quests (with multiple ways to complete them) and fantastic audio ambiance (both in music and sound effects). Think a game like this could never happen? Then allow me to present to you, Witcher 2.
I will avoid spoilers in this review, but can tell you that the game picks up where its predecessor left off, and quite literally thrusts you into the action (in every sense and entendre of the phrase). You play the role once again of the witcher Geralt, a seemingly human being with augmented abilities that are tailored to monster hunting. In the game, reactions to your character will vary based on who you’re talking to, and range from adoration and respect, all the way to outright disgust. You will be given the freedom in the game to make choices for everything, from conflict resolution (playing the part of either a diplomat or brute) to quest completion (do you bother to clear the name of an accused murderer, or seek out evidence to damn them further?). The choices are rarely as cut and dry as they seem, and you will often be faced with making a decision in which you can see both sides of the argument. In these cases, the game forces you to act on the impulse and feeling you have towards the situation, rather than picking option A for being a good guy, and option B for being a bad guy. Moments like these are frequent enough to really immerse you into the game.
You can’t have an action RPG without action, however, and Witcher 2 doesn’t hold back in this regard either. Combat is live action, and will require you leverage both your swordsmanship (using one key for quick attacks, and one key for strong attacks, with the ability to create combos) and your magical abilities called Signs (which vary from fireballs to charm spells to shields, among others). You can also quaff potions before battles to augment your character’s abilities, as well as set traps for, or throw bombs at, your opponents. Combat will often involve fighting more than one creature, so your use of area effect items such as bombs, or crowd control signs such as charm become very important. Your enemies will vary attacks based on their specialty: archers will stand well out of range and pelt you with arrows, some melee enemies will charge in hard and force you to be defensive, while others will cautiously approach, which will make you have to wait for an opening to strike. Character development is handled via a leveling and skill tree system that will allow you to customize your character as you see fit (favoring magic, swordsmanship, alchemy, or a combination of them all). You can create potions at any time provided you have the ingredients and recipe (herbs are scattered throughout the world), and weapons and armor can be crafted by smiths to help you fashion some of the more powerful items.
Your interaction with the world will be through clicking on interactive objects predetermined by the game; otherwise non-interactive objects are generally static and cannot be manipulated. Dialog is handled through clicking approximate responses (think Mass Effect, where what you select isn’t necessarily what is said verbatim), and some portions of the conversation can be handled based on your character’s traits (such as intimidating a response through force, bribing for the answers you seek, or using magic to manipulate the person’s mind). An important note: the game makes you stand by most of your decisions, so you will need to consider your options before selecting, as sometimes you are locking yourself into a decision. Otherwise, when you’re not directly interacting with the world, the world will interact with itself; villagers move about doing tasks, talk to each other, or sometimes get into fights. You are left with the impression that if you were to just sit back and relax, the world would continue to run fine without you. Villagers are active and about during the day, and tend to shuffle on home as night falls, adding to the immersion factor. This attention to detail is a theme you’ll notice throughout, whether it’s a billboard on a wall, the journals you can access to give you information on the characters and places you meet, or the slight facial movements in conversation that convey emotion and insight into what a person is saying non-verbally.
Witcher 2 is an RPG on a scale I haven’t experienced since Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, and while the world is laid out more like Mass Effect (massive sections rather than open world), you will never feel confined while exploring. Yet with all this space, the attention to detail in the game is what amazed me the most. Everything just feels right: the clothing people wear, the bumps and bruises on their skin, the grime in towns, the way the torchlight illuminates nearby objects. It’s also the little details that could very well go unnoticed by many players as well: the journal entries in particular are exceptional (and absolutely critical for those players who did not play the first Witcher), with information being provided via a third person (a bard), complete with his interpretation of events. Items you find, upon unprompted examination in the inventory, can lead to additional quest tasks (for example: reading a captain’s journal from one ship can clue you in to looking for another ship full of treasure). The controls are also geared for a gamepad (I started this review before it was announced that it was coming to Xbox 360, and intended to comment that the layout made me think it would be console bound), which means if you have one, I’d recommend it for use here. Most important for this game, is that the story is told, and your progression is made, without you getting too bogged down obsessing over stats or skills. There are a ton of items and skills, but it never feels that unwieldly thanks to good inventory management screens, and a crisp menu interface on the whole. I could go on with a hundred other reasons to enjoy this game, but I want to save some of the nice touches for you to discover on your own (and there are plenty more).
So what’s not to like? Combat is a hit or miss affair (literally). The way this game presents itself, I almost think the difficulty in combat is intentional: the target lock mechanic does not work very well, and when not locked, your target will hop around quite a bit, as creatures tend to group together when they’re close to you. Don’t get me wrong, the animations and combos that can be performed are great when the hits connect, but too often you’ll leap through the air to perform a balanced strike, and hit nothing but air. The interface is generally excellent, but one area in which it’s awful is the meditation menu. It is here that you will create and drink potions, or rest to pass time. The animations cannot be skipped, and it takes almost 45 seconds to do something as simple as drink a single potion in preparation for battle (which is absolutely necessary throughout the game). I appreciate what they were trying to do (the world continues to move at real time while you’re doing this, so it’s a bit of realism), but it makes what should be a unique gameplay element into a chore. I didn’t come across any game breaking bugs, but annoyances like people saying the same lines repetitively, or NPCs blocking you into corners exist. These issues probably stand out more because they break up what is an otherwise impressive level of immersion in the game. People have complained about the prologue being too difficult, but I personally had no issues. I will say the game doesn’t hold your hand, which by itself I don’t consider a negative, but it also does not do anything to introduce new concepts to you either (such as how to apply mutagens). I’m all for figuring things out on my own, but when I’m battling the interface, that’s not a fair fight. Finally, the sneak mechanic feels a little tacked on, and while I appreciate the thought, I should be fighting monters, not fighting to stay up against a wall to look around the corner.
vttym’s take: I won’t be wordy here: buy this game. If you are an RPG fan, this is a no brainer. Fans of other genres may have difficulty with the barrier of entry on this game (both from a gameplay perspective, as well as from a storyline perspective: be prepared to do a lot of reading in the early stages to keep up on who’s who, and what’s what), but I can promise that once you push through the first few hours of the game, you will be happy with the result. It is not a perfect game, but it is certainly in my top 3 as one of the best roleplaying games I have ever played. Its major faults seem to be intentional design decisions that, while I may not agree with completely, I can live with.
+ Stunningly beautiful game
+ Handles the mature content appropriately
+ Great attention to detail
– Clunky and cumbersome interface to drink potions (and no quaffing in battle!)
– Combat is not as polished as the rest of the game
Final Score: 10 / 10