The first Witcher was something of a flawed gem. Developed by the small Polish studio CD Projeckt RED, it followed the exploits of one Geralt of Rivia, a famed Witcher who starts the game suffering from amnesia. While the translation was spotty, the character models were overused and certain sections of the game were hard to play through, there was something about it that grabbed the attention of almost everyone who played it. The developers continued to tweak the game, with massive overhauls that fixed most of the translation issues and made the game a much more accessible product.
CD Projekt's sequel shares the same ambitious ideas and fascinating story from its first title, with a much larger budget this time around. Most of the issues with the first game have been fixed, and stepping into the White Wolf's shoes is often an exhilarating experience. You'll fight your fair share of lake monsters, bandits, and cursed undead soldiers from a historic war. There's plenty of side-quests, pub games, and other sorts of activities to participate in, with more content promised in the form of free DLC and paid expansions.
The story is as strong as ever (at least for the majority of it; I'll come back to the story shortcomings later). Geralt, fresh from preventing the king's assassination at the end of the first game, follows the royal crown into battle. Things go rather well until an assassin manages to off the king, with Geralt as the only witness and suspect. After a brief stint in the dungeons, you work to clear your name, uncovering the killer and recovering your still-absent memories.
The actual meat of the game is rather satisfying, provided you spend the time to know what you're doing. Combat mixes strategy and reflex rather successfully, combining the best elements of RPG combat into an addictive formula. A well-designed action wheel helps you manage your signs (the game's version of spells), swords and meditation functions without entirely dropping out of the battle. Make no mistake; even in the easiest difficulty, you'll be easily overwhelmed if you don't fight light on your feet, throwing out signs furiously.
The interactions with other characters continue the legacy the first game built, with its deep impacting choices falling into extreme shades of grey. There's no clear-cut good or evil path; in the end, it's up to the player's prejudices and decision-making skills when it comes to making a choice. Entire subsequent acts will play out differently depending on a few choices you make early on. Unfortunately, many of the effects from some of the later decisions are only glanced upon.
This brings us to the two biggest problems of the game; the game starts out on a bad note and ends on a bad note. From the beginning, the game forces you to fight with a weakened Geralt, and places you into combat situations that are less than ideal for the first-time player. Even worse is the game's reluctance to inform you of the mechanics of the game. It took me a few hours before I even realized there was a "dodge" function. You'll die quickly and often during this beginning segment, which will be rather off-putting for anyone unfamiliar with the series.
While it eventually picks up steam in the first act and has an awesome second chapter, things really fall apart in the final act and prologue. Yes, you read that right; the game only has three acts, a prologue and an epilogue. The speed at which you'll reach the ending is rather surprising, and it almost feels like half of the game was cut out. For a $50 PC title, it hurt a little to see it end so soon.
And what a terrible ending it is. Important characters and plot lines from the prologue and first two chapters are unceremoniously abandoned, leaving the player scratching their head when the game forgets all about some of the big issues from before. The threads that aren't dropped are tied together sloppily, and the cliffhanger feels particularly unearned. Considering the strength of the story leading up to this disaster, it's an extremely unfortunate situation that will hopefully be addressed in future DLC and expansion releases.
Knowing CD Projekt RED's history of heavily tweaking the first Witcher, there's a good chance that both of those big issues will be dealt with in the future. However, future expectations can't be the judge of the product currently being sold. As it stands today, The Witcher 2 is an excellent but extremely flawed gem of a game, just like its predecessor. It's unfortunate to see that they're still stumbling around, but this sequel is such an improvement over the first game that it makes one look forward to their next release.
It's certainly worth playing, but don't go in expecting some sort of perfect title.