Review: Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings
Platform: Xbox 360 (The game already exists on PC)
Reviewed on: Xbox 360
What is a Witcher? The first Witcher game was a PC-only affair and as such much of the gaming community missed out on (a) a fantastic game and (b) the explanation of what Witchers are and how they fit into the context of the kingdom of Temeria.
So, a Witcher is a freelance monster hunter trained from birth and altered with mutations and potions to be the most efficient killing machine possible. Geralt of Rivia is arguably the most famous of the Witchers, and tales of the 'White Wolf' are prodigious throughout the land.
Witchers are feared and revered throughout Temeria, which is as rich and entertaining as any offering by Tolkien and George R.R Martin. This is mainly due to the source material, the Witcher books by Andrzej Sapkowski, which follow the adventures of Geralt. Big in Poland, they never gained the same popularity elsewhere but the beautifully realised world allowed CD Projekt Red (the developers of both games) to take that groundwork and apply it to their particular brand of RPG making.
While I wouldn't dare to spoil the first game, the only knowledge required for the sequel is that Geralt foiled an assassination attempt at its climax and is now in the employ of King Foltest. Other regents are being bumped off by a mysterious and highly skilled assassin who has ties to Geralt's past (which he is, of course, having trouble remembering) and their paths clash in the midst of civil wars and magical disputes.
Players may find the beginning of the game, particularly the prologue, somewhat bewildering but CD Projekt obviously felt no need to dumb the material down. Stick with it, though, and your questions will be answered sooner or later.
The world that Geralt inhabits is not the free-roaming landscape of Skyrim but a more refined series of towns that act as hubs for the quests that surround them. The plot flows quickly and moves Geralt from hub to hub before the area becomes stale. The world is rich with potential for exploration and the game rewards inquisitive Witchers with secret areas and stunning vistas. These views are a testament to how well the exquisite PC graphics have translated over to the Xbox and many of the landscapes require a few moments of appreciation before getting back to the monster killing.
In contrast to Street Fighter x Tekken, CD Projekt Red know how to do downloadable content (DLC) right. The Xbox version comes with hours of new content but in a show of appreciation for their PC players they have released it free to those who already own the computer version. The new content will fit seamlessly into the Xbox version and offer more storyline and characters to improve the game's conclusion.
One of the most interesting aspects of the game is actually the combat. The fights could be compared to Dragon Age or Arkham City, in that thought and prioritisation are hugely important when dealing with large groups. Surprisingly difficult at first, the game rewards preparation and planning before a fight. As the Witcher can't drink potions or apply buffs during combat, these must be done before the scuffle. Knowledge is half the battle and applying the right salve or effect to the right sword can make all the difference.
Going along with this theme of preparation, reading books and discussing enemies with local townspeople gives you new information about how best to defeat certain monsters and adds another level of depth for those that seek it.
When Geralt isn't hilt-deep in a troll, the role-playing takes centre stage and becomes the more exciting aspect of the game. Nearly every situation in the game has two sides to it and often neither is black or white. The Witcher is constantly asked to make hard decisions that will almost certainly have some ramification later in the game. Save a group of peasants early in the game and later they may have some assistance or information for you. Certain characters will disappear from the first act only to return in the second or third unexpectedly and offer extra intriguing quests. Even the side missions are never quite what they seem. After being tasked with killing a troll in Flotsam (a fairly standard contract for a Witcher), you discover the troll, who normally keeps the local bridge repaired for a small amount of coin, is actually depressed because his mate had been killed and is now drinking his sorrows away. You can kill the troll right there, but finding those responsible for his mate's death is far more engrossing and rewarding. These morally ambiguous missions are rife throughout Witcher 2 and show a level of maturity and skilled writing that is often absent from the “go here and kill 500 of these” quests that dominates modern RPG games.
There are some mild complaints but the experience is, for the most part, so polished that any niggles are easily overlooked. The map is often frustrating to use. It feels appropriate for the medieval theme of the game but the hand-drawn style means looking for anything except the extremely local environment is an exercise in futility. The inventory system, while it makes sense after some practice, can also be a dauntingly complex panel to open up and occasional plot points are glossed over as if the player was as well-versed in the history of Temeria as Geralt. But these complaints are more to do with how the information is presented to the player, and are by no means game-breakers.
The Witcher games are a perfect example of fantasy role-playing made by adults for adults. The studio obviously respect their source material and this shows in a dark, mature and always gripping storyline. Problems with information presentation aside, this is a beautiful and dangerous world, with fascinating characters, that demands exploration.
The only thing left after finishing Witcher 2's lengthy campaign is to ask when the next game is coming out, and when will somebody apply this level of thought, talent and care to a Game of Thrones game.