By xyzygy 20 Comments
Before getting to the review, I want to commend the team at CDProjektRED. Their unfaltering loyalty to their fanbase has earned them a top spot in my own personal "favourite developers" list. Why? Because they listen, they implement, and they listen after the implementation. They never stop improving on their own work and that is a deciding factor in what I consider to be a dedicated and passionate developer. I back this up with their work on updating both The Witcher and The Witcher 2 - both games have recieved considerable amounts of polish after the fact, and both games have turned out even MORE rewarding as a result. The Enhanced Edition not only updates the original game, but brings it to a completely new platform and allows myself, along with many, many others, to actually play this game. Thank you, CDPR.
I want to talk about the more visceral aspects of the game first - the things you see immediately. The game is quite possibly one of the most beautiful looking games on the Xbox 360, if not the most impressive. The amount of detail in every inch of the world is astounding. You can tell that the team took every effort in creating a unique, handcrafted world. It felt more like I was traversing a beautiful sculpture than actually making my way through a digital world. I simply have not seen another game on the Xbox 360 achieve this level of beauty and smoothness. In fact, the only negative I can give to the game in this area would be a few and VERY far between bugs I experienced. In my third playthrough, the land simply disappeared and Geralt was simply walking over nothing, very ruggedly and awkwardly. The situation rectified itself after a reboot of the game. The other strange bug was that Geralt's face at one point disappeared, leaving only his hair model.
BUT THAT IS IT.
I have experienced only two technical glitches in my ~100 hours and 3 playthroughs with the game. For an adaptation of the most demanding PC game on the market, this is a huge technical feat. Of all the Xbox 360 game's I've played, this takes the cake as the most technically impressive - it is smooth, beautiful, and rarely disappoints. There is the odd awkward texture here and there, and 1% of the time textures do pop, but there was only one scene in the entire game that it was particularly noticeable (The Redanian King's Armor at the The Mages Summit). In all other regards, the game is a marvel to look at.
PLAYING THE GAME
When I first picked up the game, I was hit with some pretty strong decisions that needed to be made. Even the prologue had strong ramifications to the storyline. This really got me into the vibe of the important decision-making that I would have to be doing later on. I could kill a certain character or talk him out of fighting me, which would affect certain aspects of the story.
Forget about what you know about "choice" in video games - The Witcher 2 is not a means of moral compass. It is entirely grey. I would like to point to Bioware games in general to contrast this and to help clarify. In Bioware's games, when you make a "negative decision" the result is very predictable because it is the antithesis of what you would be doing for the good of all things. This makes choosing very easy and very black-and-white. The Witcher 2 shines in this area - every decision is not handled in a moral way. For instance, if you are given the choice to follow a certain leader, you need to weigh the pros and cons of said leaders - in most cases, these people are ALL evil, yet all have redeeming factors and positive qualities which you need to balance out. You need to learn about these characters and exactly WHY you should follow them - not simply because they represent "good" or "evil". This raises The Wticher 2 above all it's competitors by simply being real, mature and original.
Once this very hard fact sets in, you're left wandering the world and getting to the meat of the game - combat and skills.
Combat is quite different than what you have come to know. It seems to work best when you time your attacks rather than mashing buttons, and dodging and blocking play an important role. Combat begins as basic button presses between a fast, light, safe attack or a heavy, slower and more risky attack plus a basic block and dodge. All of these can be upgraded through various paths in skill development - you can dodge farther, learn to riposte while blocking, parry from all sides, increase sword damage, etc. And that is just for the swordplay - there are still two more important elements to combat, Signs and Alchemy. Signs are essentially a Witcher's terminology for their special, unique magic, and Alchemy is used for preparation to boost stats. Character skill building is based around these three "skill trees" so to speak, plus a more basic "training" path in which you must invest at least 6 points. You can specialize in one tree, balance between two, or multitask with all three, though the latter requires and adept player since you are only given so many skill points.
One thing that really stands out in The Witcher 2 is how careful you need to be while choosing skills. Even one skill point is precious and the size of the skill trees in comparison to how many skill points you can get really makes playing the game over again in a different class very worthwhile. Investing in the Signs tree, users tend to be pausing the game more to carefully think about how to use their next precious amount of Vigor (the universal energy resource - signs and blocking take up 1 bar of Vigor). Alchemy tree demands players take time to think before venturing out in the wild and use the many natural resources they have harvested to create oils, potions, bombs, and traps. The applicable power, duration, and amount of these items taken can all be increased from the Alchemy tree. The Swordplay tree yields a more traditional yet worthwhile build, favouring skills like increasing damage dealt, decreasing damage taken, increasing the amount of times you can block and the likelihood of other effects like bleeding, poisoning, incineration, freezing, etc.
The combat can be difficult, but it forces you to improve and learn the game's mechanics - something many games lack these days and which I commend The Wticher 2 fully.
The world. The story. The characters. This is where The Witcher 2 impressed me the most. I'm hard pressed to find a more character driven, politically corrupt, intriguing, and mature universe that The Witcher 2 possesses. How Geralt interacts with these characters and what motivates them is the driving force behind the games story. One decision in particular actually has you experiencing 2/3 of the game in a completely different manner than others, and even from there you can make very important story-altering decisions. Characters have a lot dialogue recorded, even if you decide to not associate with them in one playthrough, you'll find they are major players in another. This fact alone left me completely giddy, even while first playing the game. Immediately after beating the game the first time I dove back in to see who exactly could pull strings, who I would be working with, where I would be located, and which new characters I would get to meet. Minor characters from one playthrough could possibly have a far greater role in another.
The story is simply excellent. Original, daring, fresh, and challenging, it is easy to get lost in the narrative. It has a dark European Medieval feel filled with political and personal agendas. It's not as "in-your-face" as other games - a perfect way to describe it is the story feels comfortable with itself. It is a confident and bold story, masterfully folding out. One of the game's only negative's also comes from its pacing: the final act is somewhat short compared to the rest of the game. I realize that this could have been intentional, but perhaps I'm looking through my "I want more" goggles. The Enhanced Edition actually expands the final chapter by adding hours of new content (all of which cannot be completed in one playthrough), and this is where I commend CDPR yet again - fans were saying it was short and they set out to spoil us. While it is still a bit shorter than the rest of the game, the Enhanced Edition's new final-chapter content is very welcome.
As I have mentioned above, the characters in The Witcher 2 do not fall under "Paragon" or "Renegade". There is no good or bad. Every character has an obvious evil in them, even the protagonist, Geralt of Rivia. Everyone is in a grey area. Yet what I love about these characters is how the good in them shines through. I found my own predispositions of the characters being constantly challenged, as if these were real people you need to "get to know". That such a feat has been accomplished in a video game is, to me, unheard of - I cannot actually think of an example that even comes close. Going back to other morality- and choice-based RPGs will be hard now because the characters are so one dimensional in comparison to The Witcher 2.
The theme of choice carries on through the game's deepest offerings, and even ones I've already touched upon - your choice of skills will drastically alter your combat strategies, your choice of friends will alter the game itself, your choice of completing quests could open new quests or rewards. The Witcher 2 is the most successful RPG of it's type because of this.
I cannot recommend this game enough. I have spent a lot of time with it and I still have the urge to go and play through it again - something extraordinary in and of itself. Almost every aspect of the game is stellar. If I were to point out the game's most obvious flaws, it would be that the final chapter might be a little short in comparison to the rest and that there are some rare technical hitches. Yet these are completely forgiveable and trivial matters when you look at the big picture - the experience that The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings - Enhanced Edition offers. One of the finest gaming experiences I've had in a long time. Cannot wait for more, CDPR.