The Witcher 2 sees us returning to the world of Geralt of Rivia, an amnesiac albino monster hunter, who seems to have a habit of getting caught up in world-shaping events he wishes he could avoid. One of the key strengths of the first Witcher game was how it handled important choices, with consequences often coming back to haunt you, hours after you made the initial decision. It was almost unique in an RPG (or any game for that matter) that you weren’t immediately made privy to how your actions affect the world. It would then, have been disappointing if the sequel subtitled Assassin’s of Kings had bypassed that in favour of a more linear route, but, if anything, developers CD Projekt RED have gone the opposite way.
Essentially the Witcher 2 is two different games, with a key decision made at the end of Chapter 1 determining which of those games you will play. Without going into spoiler territory, the decision you make will see you on one or the other side of a major conflict, with different characters, side-quests and locations open to you depending on which side you take. It’s frankly astounding in this day and age that a studio would take that route. Major studios are usually loathe to create assets that half the players won’t see unless they decide to play a game through twice. CD Projekt should be commended for the bravery and dedication it takes to create such an ambitious title, where decision making doesn’t boil down to “Shall I be a knight in shining armour, or a massive twat.” The choices made here often have a real weight to them, nothing is cut and dried and even actions that seem righteous can have dire consequences.
The Witcher 2 has an interesting take on the separation of plot and story. The plot of the game follows the Assassin of Kings thread, which is something of a personal crusade for Geralt, but the story – the larger events of the world – often clash with his goals and you find yourself caught up in political machinations and conflicts that show the depth of the world created by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. This is perhaps where the greatest problem with the Witcher 2 lies, while the main plot is tied up nicely at the end of the game, there’s a strong feeling of unfinished business and loose ends at the conclusion with regards to some of the larger events. The presentation too of the story has some problems, there is no narration over a big map to handily explain things to you, instead names and places of kings, queens, sorcerers and kingdoms are thrown around in conversation without much contextualization. Players of the original Witcher game, will likely recognise some of those names and places, but it can still be overwhelming at times. People new to to the series are probably going to find it a bit of a struggle and it will be interesting to see how the game will be received on the Xbox 360, where the original game was never released.
To recap, the plot of the Witcher – the things we see, get to take part in and make decisions about – are brilliant, a real cut above what we’ve come to expect from a CRPG. But the larger story – all the waffling on about kingdoms and Empires and history and people with interchangeable fantasy names are presented to us in a way that seems to expect too much, even for those of us who finished the original game. Having said that, if you decide to play the game through a second time (and you really should), the depth starts to pay off, you’ll understand things better and the references that may have seemed obscure the first time around will make perfect sense.
Let’s get down to the basics then. The Witcher 2 is a gorgeous game, with delectable environments and some lovely graphical effects. Whether we’re staring off into the distance, or examining the pores on the face of the downtrodden peasant stood in front of us, there’s great detail and high resolution textures all around. It has a real lived in atmosphere, the characters are as dirty and dishevelled as the places they inhabit. I also found myself becoming rather fond of the intricacies of the character design, there’s a character we meet at one point of the game who has a delightful belt in the design of a castle with little turrets going all the way around his midriff, lovely.
In terms of combat, we’ve moved on from the timed clicks of the original Witcher, here it’s more about real-time dodging, parrying and stabbing, while making crafty use of poisons, bombs, potions, oils, traps, magical signs and thrown weapons. At the start of the game, things are brutally unforgiving and one false move can see Geralt keeling over for the umpteenth time in the most unheroic of fashions. But once you’ve levelled up a few times and perhaps more importantly, become practised at the timing of dodging, parrying and stabbing, things get easier. The combat never feels quite as engaging as it could though, it’s challenging and can force you to try out different combinations of spells and attacks. But when you die, it’s often because Geralt gets stuck between a bunch of enemies, or you failed to avoid a single attack and get caught in a group of enemies who bat you around like a ragdoll. That’s not to say there’s no fun to be had from beating people or monsters up with one of your two swords and for me personally it didn’t become a chore, even after two playthroughs, yet it’s unlikely to be remembered as one of the games strongest suits.
The Witcher 2 gives the player the rarest of things, a role-playing game where playing a role is more about making difficult choices than just choosing to be a good guy or an arsehole, or about pumping your stats as high as they will go. CD Projekt have created a game that should go down in history as a hugely ambitious title, that hits the highest highs we’ve seen in modern role-playing games. For that, we can forgive the flaws easily.
Verdict – Headshot
Platforms Available: PC, Xbox 360 (announced)
Version Reviewed: PC