Every once in a while a game comes along from a small developer that rivals the best that the big boys have to offer. It’s even more rare for a small developer to release a fully fleshed out RPG that can truly be called a triple A title. CD Projekt Red was able to accomplish that feat with their Action RPG The Witcher. More impressively CD Projekt listened to the criticism that the first Witcher received and released a free content update to address many of the problems that the game had. This level of dedication to a game is something that we just don’t see from the big boy developers and publishers. Naturally the fine people at CD Projekt set to work on a sequel to their big hit. But were they able to take everything they learning from The Witcher 1 and make a better game? In a word, absolutely.
A Setting and Story to Rival the Classics
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is a direct sequel to The Witcher 1. The game world is set in Polish Author Andrze Sapkowski’s fictional world of the same name. The Witcher universe obviously draws its influence from JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, as there are elves, dwarves, trolls, magic and so on. But where it differentiates itself is by making the world much more adult and much darker in tone. There is also a heavy political subplot to the entire universe, comparable in many ways to The Game of Thrones series. All of these elements carry over to the video game, giving us North Americans our best chance to actually enjoy the Witcher Universe.
As I stated earlier, The Witcher 2 is a direct sequel to the first game, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying this one if you haven’t played the original. All you need to know is that the main hero’s name is Geralt of Rivia, he is a Witcher, which means that he uses both swords and magic to hunt and kill monsters. He is also an extreme badass and someone that other people don’t take lightly. Geralt’s one big problem is that he recently lost his memory, so the new player will actually be able to discover Geralt’s past along with him. The story starts out with Geralt protecting a local king as he lays siege to a treasonous Baroness’s castle; this naturally goes poorly for Geralt, throwing him into a multi-nation struggle. All the while, there is an Assassin going around killing Kings who Geralt must find and defeat. The story is a satisfying one and much more grounded and compelling than you will find in a typical end of the world RPG.
It’s a toss up to decide what the best part about The Witcher 2 is, but I will start with the game’s setting and atmosphere. Since this is a work of science fiction fantasy no real world date is given, but the game clearly takes place in a fantasy world modeled after medieval Eastern Europe. The feel of the setting actually reminds me a lot of the Gothic series. The game oozes at the pours with aging stone castles, dirty towns, rude townsfolk, thick forests, and all of the fillings that go along with that setting.
Adding to the atmosphere is the way that the NPCs treat Geralt. Many of them fear him and want nothing to do with him, others view him as an opportunity or someone to exploit. Many of these NPCs give side quests that offer various ways to accomplish them. As Geralt do you want to help a drug dealer find the right ingredients and recipes for his wares, or do you want to sell him fakes so he can’t sell the drugs at all? Heck, maybe you just want to kill him and be done with it. Choices like this are found all throughout the Witcher 2. Player choices don’t just pertain to side quests either. The decisions you make in the main storyline can have a profound effect on the rest of the game. So much so, that the way in which you finish chapter 1 really can create two distinct paths through the game. This means that fans who want the whole Witcher 2 experience will get to play it at least twice, with each play through being fresh.
Is This Really DX9?
Of course all of the atmosphere in the world can go to waste if you don’t have a solid graphics engine to back it up. Thankfully The Witcher 2 is easily one of the best looking RPGs on the market. Impressively the developers created their own game engine from the ground up for The Witcher 2 and their efforts have paid off. The game is simply gorgeous to look at, the main characters are all extremely detailed and Geralt in particular is outstanding looking. His armor and swords sway naturally as he moves about and they even change appearance when you equip a new piece of gear. The texture work in this game is amazing.
Even more amazing is the fact that The Witcher 2 runs on Direct X9, completely ditching 10 and 11. One would be hard pressed to complain about that though, as the textures, lighting, fog, shadows, and environmental detail all look spectacular. The game also comes with a whole host of graphical options, so if you don’t like the game’s use of blur effects you can turn them off. The large amount of graphical options, coupled with the DX9 only requirement, means that even people with lower end gaming machines can enjoy this game and not sacrifice everything in the looks department.
The Feel of Combat
Combat in The Witcher 2 is similar to the previous title, but with a little bit less hand holding. This is still a real time action RPG, so Geralt will often times be surrounded by enemies and it’s up to the players skill to make sure he survives. Geralt still uses heavy and light attacks, as well as a silver sword for monsters, and a steal sword for battling humans. This time around though switching back and forth from light to heavy attacks is much more fluid since the light attack is bound to the left mouse button, and the heavy attack is bound to the right mouse button, eliminated the need to switch stances. The combat will take some getting used to, especially if you were used to the combo system in part 1 that actively displayed when to hit the attack buttons. This time around there is no icon to tell you when to swing, the combos are still there but you have to rely on feel and timing. It takes some practice but once you get it down you will be plowing through enemies like butter.
It also helps that Geralt’s magic system is back and upgradeable along the way. Performing magic during a fight is as simple as hitting the E button on the keyboard. Geralt is customizable too, as he levels you can choose to sink experience into three separate ability pools. They consist of sword play, magic, and alchemy. The sword and magic routes are what you would expect, but the alchemy route is pretty interesting. This route allows Geralt to perfect buff potions, traps, and bombs to be used during battle. It’s the thinking man’s route and will make you analyze each fight prior to going into it in order to properly prepare.
Whichever route you take with Geralt’s abilities there is no doubt that certain parts of The Witcher 2 are difficult. The early parts of the game can be challenging and you can expect to hit the reload button several times. But there are two things that save the game from becoming frustrating. The first is that you can easily go back and forth from medium to easy. Heck, I would even suggest new players start the game on easy and then move to medium later on. The second saving grace is that Geralt does level up and become more powerful, enabling him to easily dispatch foes that would have taken some time earlier on. So the game is forgiving if you find yourself stuck.
An Artistic M Rating
A word of warning for the parents out there, The Witcher 2 is rated M and it definitely deserves that rating. Early on in the game there is a full on sex scene between two of the main characters. The game doesn’t skirt the issue either; it shows the full scene, nudity, various positions and all. It reminds me of a racier sex scene in an R rated movie. Combine that with bar room fighting, the use of alcohol, drugs, and prostitution and you have game that is aimed at the 18 and over crowd. Here’s the thing about it though, it’s all done in a somewhat tasteful way and the mature subject isn’t a gimmick or novelty like it is in the GTA or God of War series. In the end it actually helps with the game’s darker tone.
The sound in the game is above average. The in game music is there, but it’s nothing that is going to stick with you. Almost all of the characters are fully voiced by competent actors. Some are better than others, but for the most part the main characters all sound great. The developers also put a lot of attention into the background sounds. Things like birds chirping, the sound of insects, moving water, and the chatter of soldiers and open markets all help entrench the player further into the world of the Witcher.
What Isn’t So Great?
If I have one big complaint to level at the game it’s that the looting system absolutely sucks. Having just played through Dragon Age 2 I am used to being able to easily click on a loot pile, hit R and take everything as easy as that. In The Witcher 2 it is not uncommon to have to wait several seconds after killing something to be able to loot it, and then you literally have to be standing right on top of it to actually be able to loot it. Most of the time it is hard to line Geralt up with the loot pile. It’s a frustrating game mechanic, but with everything else being so good it’s easy to overlook this one blemish. Plus, there’s always the hope that the developers can fix this with a patch.
The Best Action RPG of 2011?
When it’s all said and done The Witcher 2 is a superior sequel in what is shaping up to be a great franchise. The storyline is top notch and mature. The graphics engine is impressive and the sense of atmosphere it can portray coupled with the developer’s crafting of the environment truly makes the game stand out. Clocking in at about 30 to 40 hours for a first play through is just the tip of the iceberg with this one, as many gamers will want to replay through the game several times in order to make different decisions to see how they impact the story. The Witcher 2 easily stands amongst the big boys in the CRPG crowd and is also the best Action RPG to come out since Mass Effect 2.