Before we start, let me mention my Witcher credentials: I have read all Witcher books, the entire saga seven times, and completed the first game in every possible way. Obviously the first thing you will say is that there is no way this review could be unbiased. That may be, however I am trying my best to be objective here.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings in the sequel to the 2007 groundbreaking release, The Witcher. The games are both based on a world created by Polish fantasy author, Andrzej Sapkowski. The world is pretty much your regular fantasy realm, the events in it however - very irregular. In a wide sense, the Witcher saga is about many things: politics, racism, love, hate, and everything in between. The unique feature of this story is that it doesn't shy away for the grey areas of life. There is no right or wrong in this world, there is only the bigger of two evils. I feel this must be said in order to carry on with this review.
In the Witcher 2 gamers will once again become Geralt of Rivia, the witcher - a genetically altered, professional monster hunter. The story picks up right where the original game ends: the attempted assassination of King Foltest. There are two important things to know about the story:
1. It is much more gripping, powerful and complex than in the original Witcher.
2. It fits the tone of the books in a way nowhere else to be seen, when dealing with games based on books, or fiction in general. Do not be fooled - the Witcher saga is mainly about social issues and politics, more than anything else, even though it's not the most obvious thing as you read. In this respect The Witcher 2 compliments the books perfectly. It is a game in which an understanding of politics and human psyche is needed to fully enjoy it. I must say it is probably the most impressive RPG in this matter in a very very long time. Personally I have never encountered a game with so much depth and actual brilliance. This is not an overstatement. TW2's story is probably among the most thought-out in video game history. Above all, even if you don't find the story chilling and thought-provoking, you will see that without noticing it becomes a very personal experience. You have to decide what will happen next, and the game lets you do that through the refined decision making mechanic. Story-wise, The Witcher 2 is definitely a milestone for video games. A trendsetter. The question is, will other studios be able to deliver? Time will show. What matters right now is that there is a lot of old friends to meet, new enemies to defeat, and a storyline that will make you feel like the border between reality and virtual is fading fast.
The Witcher 2 is not exactly an evolution of the first game, at least not gameplay-wise. The combat system has been redesigned and it feels more modern, more like a console game would. One of the reason for that is that gamers can play the game using an Xbox 360 controller. Whether this change was a good choice is a matter of debate: fans of the original game say the first system was better, while console gamers defend the one present in TW2. Combat has been simplified, and instead of using sword stances gamers now control Geralt in combat with just two attack buttons, light and heavy, which make it feel more like an action game than an RPG. The combat feels very fluid and is challenging more then the average gamer is used to. The system is not perfect and will need some attention soon: the lack of things like a specific combo system or the inability to move while blocking seem like things CD Projekt RED's top men should look into in the weeks to come. Overall the combat is a positive experience, however it does take a while to get used to.
The Witcher 's gameplay suffers from some problems that look like somewhere during development things slipped the designers' mind. Probably the most annoying thing that hurts the game is the map, and the minimap. It is hard to navigate in TW2, as only the main quests give you information on where to go exactly. This is not a rule when it comes to side quest, especially the ones that require you to kill specific monsters. Wasting time looking for a monster nest can be frustrating, even more so when you have no idea where to look. Inventory management can also prove difficult, as the loot is categorized, which seems like a good idea, but is surprisingly chaotic. Another things that has to be mention is the lack of proportion between various difficulty settings. There is a world of difference between easy and normal, making normal feel like hard, and easy almost too easy to even play the game.
In almost every other aspect, TW2 improves over its predecessor in an outstanding way. Notable improvements include the decision making system, which is now timed: you have limited time to choose what you want to do in a given situation, which makes everything even more intense, and more importantly, it feels like you're really making the choice yourself, like it's something you would actually do. The magic system is also better than in the first game: it's more powerful, and when mixed with combat and strategy - allows you to create your own play style. You don't have to use magic at all, if you don't want to, however chaining magic attacks with explosives and environment is a delight.
It would be a crime to talk about The Witcher 2 and not mention the simply breathtaking visuals. It is without a doubt one of, if not the best looking game out there right now. Both on technical and artistic levels the game doesn't fail to impress. Smooth textures and outstanding lighting effects go hand in hand with vistas of truly epic scale. The most wonderful thing about the game's visuals is how surreal the backgrounds look, with glorious lighting and incredible depth. On a large cinematic display the game looks flat out amazing. The visuals and the story are TW2's strongest points.
The game's engine makes some really great things possible, and it has to be admitted, that the art direction of the sequel is a step in the right direction for this franchise. It's darker, and more realistic than in the original, which is an improvement.
There are many reports of technical issues, which I cannot support, because on my machine the game plays flawlessly. However, keeping these reports in mind, buyers must be aware of framerate problems on slower machines, and some glitches in gameplay. Again, I have not experienced any problems whatsoever, so I recommend gamers unsure if they can run the game to consult message boards. To be fair, keep in mind that RED Engine, CD Projekt's engine solution for TW2 is debuting with this game, so it's bound to be imperfect, at least now at the beginning.
So how to deliver the bottomline for The Witcher 2? It would be easy to say that it's the best RPG out there. It certainly has was it takes to claim the title and the throne. But that doesn't cover the whole phenomenon. What we see here is not an evolution of just The Witcher. I daresay it's the evolution of the genre. As of now The Witcher 2 has no real competition. Remembering how most of the first game's issues were fixed in the Extended Edition, it's safe to say that the issues that bother some people will be patched up in the nearest future. This being said, I don't think the few glitches are serious enough to overshadow the overall quality of this outstanding product. The Witcher 2 is a top quality RPG, which have the potential to change how we see the genre. The Witcher 2 is proof that we have the right to demand more from RPG makers. It's empowering, really.