The perfect sequel.
The Witcher was one of the biggest surprises of recent years. A small polish developer struggled for almost 5 years and finally released a precious, hidden gem, one that does not come around very often. The incredible intrigue, set in the world created by novelist Andrzej Sapkowski in the Witcher Saga, was one of the most amazing experiences I've ever had with an RPG. And although plagued by a few technical issues and horrendously frequent and lengthy loading times, the game had heart. You could feel the passion of a small, indie studio struggling to create an epic with a limited budget.
Four years have passed, and CD Projekt RED is at it again. This time, they had a much bigger budget to work with, since their success with Good Old Games, a DRM free digital distribution service for classic games. The time, experience, and money gathered during that time was used to create a new engine, which solved the technical imperfections of the original, which was based on a heavily modified version of BioWare's Aurora engine which debuted in Neverwinter Nights. Remember that NWN was released back in 2002, and you'll get a good idea of what technical gap CDP breached. So, what exactly does the new engine mean?
The very first thing you’ll notice are the amazing graphics. The proprietary RED Engine is capable of DirectX 9.0c only, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the most impressive technical achievements of recent years. Consider this: Killzone 3 and Crysis 2 were released a few months back, and the Witcher 2 looks equally, if not even better than the titles considered as the technical benchmarks of the industry. The foliage, sharp textures and crisp lighting effects will get your attention, even on lower settings. The system requirements might be one of the most demanding in recent months, but overall, the engine is well optimized. I played through the game on a 3.5 year old computer and was able to get a stable framerate at normal settings, and the game looked stunning.
Let’s move on from technicalities and talk about possibly the most important element of an RPG- the story. Obviously I had huge expectations after what I’ve experienced in the previous game, and a lot of hype typically leads to a lot of disappointment. Well, what can I say- I still deem the first story as by far superior, but that doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy the story of Assassin’s of Kings. If you’ve played the original and kept a save file, you can import it into the sequel and get you’re armor, swords and a bit of money right off the bat, as well as continuing your story.
The sequel briefly follows the events of the original. I won’t go into details because of spoilers, but I can say that there have been kings murdered and you’re going to be primarily dealing with what repercussions a king’s unexpected death may bring. It’s a clever, complex intrigue, with tons of lore and underlining subtleties behind it. However, my big problem is the length of the game- it might have been me just literally eating the game up as fast as possible- but it just didn’t feel like the 40 hours the developers promised. Compare the sequel to the original, the latter has 2 more acts, and overall felt like a lengthier, more complete tale, although that might have been partially due to the load times. A lot of people complain about the ending- it’s definitely one that will leave you hungry for more, but it’s not a huge cliffhanger either, making it hard to classify. Also, the game will split off fairly early on. Depending on which side you choose, the entire second and third acts will play out differently, resulting in a different experience. It’s definitely worth replaying at least once, and I still need to do that. All things considered, in a nutshell- the story is a bit inferior.
If you’ve played the original or read any of the books, you’ll be delighted to hear that the cast of characters is standard- you’ll be travelling with Geralts best friend, the bard Dandelion, the sorceress Triss Merigold (also, Geralts love interest), and Zoltan Chivay, a dwarf and old buddy of Geralts, and others. Voice work seems pretty solid across the board, although I have to admit that I’m Polish and I played the entire game in the franchises original language. I must say the Polish voice acting seems considerably better than the English version, that’s to be expected, though. I did enjoy some of the characters in English more, if that convinces you.
The gameplay is a natural evolution of the ideas started in the previous game. You’ve still got the same signs and 2 different (steel and silver) swords, but this time, instead of the timed-clicking, you actually do some combat yourself. The combat system might just be one of the greatest out there, and is a combination of God of War’s light-heavy hit, with 5 distinct magic spells to support swordfighting. You now also have throwable items and traps to support you, as well as potions from the original. There’s a crafting system that allows you to make these potions yourself, but you’ll have to bring materials to specific crafters to make traps, swords, or even armor for you to use. When you level up, you’ll get 1 talent point to spend in one of four distinct trees- swords, magic, alchemy, and a training tree to get you up to speed when you begin the game. Every tree is a web that eventually will lead you to most abilities, anyway you go. That makes is flexible and fun to experiment with.
The soundtrack is excellent. That was easy to predict after listening to the originals score. You’ve got the same, familiar tunes, spiced up a little bit to match the scale of an epic sequel. It’s good enough to be put onto your iPod and listen to while on the move. Plus, it comes with every copy of the game for free, so it’s right up your alley.
Speaking of which, The Witcher 2 comes in many different shapes and sizes, and all versions are incredibly rich. I know this might sound like a marketing bulletpoint (because it does) but every version of the game comes with stuff you would normally consider as Collector’s Edition goodies. The standard edition (called “premium”) comes with the soundtrack, making of DVD, 2 papercraft models, a map, and a pamphlet related to the games plot with a small collectible coin. Obviously, you won’t get the coin with the digital versions of the game, but you will get the rest as a free download (yes, the papercrafts do come in PDF files). The actual CE is even bigger, and it comes with another, bigger coin, playing cards, 5 playing dice, a sculpture of Geralts head (I’m serious), an awesome, big format, hardcover, glossy paper artbook (around 200 pages), and an exclusive, bigger papercraft model and stickers. This game may truly be the richest published game ever.
The Witcher 2 is one of the most exciting games of this year. It shows that a small indie developer can turn their passion and heart for making games into an exquisite experience, one that will not be forgotten soon after completing it. I’m confident this game will be a solid game of the year contender, and will probably score high. This is a must have for any RPG fan out there.