The White Wolf returns
CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher was an ambitious game. It was hindered somewhat by its fair share of glitches and performance issues - relating to both hardware and abysmal voice work and English translation – but more than anything it showcased the Polish developer’s love for Andrzej Sapkowski’s source material, and their aptitude to not rest on their laurels. Almost a year after its original release in 2007, The Witcher received a re-release, fixing the problems that plagued it the first time around and adding additional, meaningful content to make a good game even better. This is a series loved nationwide, so much so that on President Obama’s recent visit, the Polish Prime Minister handed the most powerful man in the world a copy of its sequel, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. Developing a game for a property so revered that the Prime Minister is using it as a political gift must be a burden; but CD Projekt shares and understands this love. Their work on the first game, and dedication to reinvest and make it as good as can possibly be, shows they’re more than up to the task of crafting a worthy sequel in the high-fantasy world Geralt of Rivia inhabits.
The battered, scarred and highly skilled monster slayer returns in The Witcher 2, still sporting his infamous white flock and bout of long-term amnesia. But more troubling circumstances have been bestowed upon this anti-hero. King Foltest has been assassinated, with Geralt the only suspect, so his own personal journey has been established to uncover the real assassin and clear his name. But The Witcher 2 goes much deeper than this basic premise, leading its protagonist on a wild journey filled to the brim with political intrigue, conspiracies, warring factions, supernatural forces and a whole host of superbly written characters, all with their own real, corrupt and existential motives. It can be hard to grasp everything happening in Geralt’s world, particularly when characters regularly reference various names and locations, mixed in with The Witcher’s own slang and fantasy dialect. Even if you’ve played the first game it can be bewildering at times. However, the in-game journal features an encyclopaedic history of pretty much everything and anything in this sprawling world, and you’ll eventually learn to appreciate its idiosyncrasies. Because once the story becomes clear it allows the cast of characters to really shine.
Many familiar faces return from the first game and many more are introduced throughout the length of The Witcher 2’s sprawling narrative. Each character, however minor, is written with a fantastic sense of endearment that you can’t help but enjoy engaging with; even those you find detestable. They’re fully formed characters, with interesting back-stories and their own set of morals, problems and underlying motives that will either have you loving or loathing them. There’s even time for some genuinely humorous dialogue, particularly from the dwarves, adding a hint of playfulness anyone who’s had drinks with friends can relate to. Even the voice work - criticised once before - matches the narrative and characters lofty heights. Some of it is still fairly stilted at times, with Triss Merigold being a prime example, but for the most part it’s excellent, with many regional accents adding an air of authenticity and immersion to proceedings.
And it’s easy to get embroiled in this wonderfully realised universe. For this is a dark world, filled with coarse language and racial undertones between the humans and their non-human brethren. But there is no white and black/good and evil, to determine The Witcher 2’s characters or its world; everything is shrouded in grey. Geralt isn’t one to step into the mantle of a knight in shining armour, nor is he inherently nefarious. There is no mechanical karma system attached to the decisions you make, and there isn’t always a clear ethical choice either way. Moral ambiguity is steeped throughout the narrative, and it’s a refreshing take on the traditional RPG formula.
Your choices are not governed by a morality meter; it’s up to you to create the kind of protagonist you want, and these choices impact the game world in natural, yet unexpected ways. One such decision towards the end of the first chapter completely alters the course of the rest of the game. There are two distinct second acts, in separate locations, with different characters and quests. It’s a grand, meaningful impact, and yet there are many smaller decisions sprinkled throughout that affect things later on that you won’t even realise until hours later. It’s certainly an effective storytelling method; one that affects your very first journey and also encourages multiple playthroughs to witness everything in what is already a twenty-five hour game. If there’s one misstep it’s that the final chapter feels rushed and it’s over all too quickly. A lot of loose ends are wrapped up but there are still many unanswered questions, leaving the door open for a sequel or any number of expansion packs. It’s a brisk and anti-climatic end to what is a memorable story.
Fortunately the gameplay also features a plethora of notable and exciting moments. The combat has been overhauled from the stance-based, rhythmic timing system present in the first game. Instead, it’s much more fluid and action packed, focusing on groups of enemies and your ability to combine multiple attributes to dodge, deflect and eventually defeat your foes. It’s tough to get a hang of at first, predominately because of some balancing issues that result in the game’s prologue and first chapter being decidedly more difficult than any other part of the game. Geralt’s abilities are at such a low level here that attacking multiple enemies – of which there are many - is overly difficult. Your sword swings are unable to hit more than one enemy at a time until later in the game, and any attacks suffered from behind remove virtually all of your health. It’s a tough introduction, and the opening tutorials are so poorly implemented - flashing small text boxes in the corner of the screen whilst you’re in the middle of a fight - the game’s opening can be a chore.
However, it does teach you a harsh lesson in how to fully utilise Geralt’s arsenal of abilities. The Witcher 2 isn’t a game where you can charge in, sword swinging through the air with abandon, and have any hope of winning. Each fight must have a thought process behind it, weighing up the kind of enemies you’re fighting and continuously looking to manoeuvre into the best position possible; not just to attack, but to defend as well. You’ll need to block, roll and use each of Geralt’s sign spells and bomb and trap placements to survive. Each sign can be easily accessed on a radial menu and vary from fireball attacks to a telekinetic push and a deflective shield. You’ll soon learn that repeated use of these spells is paramount to survival, and when you combine it with both light and heavy sword attacks and combos you have a good amount of depth to the combat, particularly once you begin to upgrade Geralt’s current abilities and learn new skills.
There are four skill trees that you can sink XP into and soon enough you’ll be unleashing devastating finishers and deflecting any and all attacks for a prolonged period of time. The dynamics of the combat system evolves along with your newfound powers. It’s still tactical but you feel much more powerful, able to take down multiple enemies at once and go toe-to-toe with giant ogres and thrilling dragons. It proves to be a fun and engaging combat system whether you’re battling against the odds or decimating your foes with relative ease, intuitively advancing with the narrative. It does have its problems with a bothersome and clunky targeting system, but considering the groups of enemies you’re facing, its usage is never a necessity.
Besides from basic looting and visiting merchants to upgrade Geralt’s equipment and help him in battle, you can also use alchemy to create potions and buff multiple attributes before going into battle; making your sword strikes stronger, or providing immunity from poisonous attacks and so on. These can be assembled and produced at anytime providing you have the requisite ingredients, which can be found throughout the world, made up of the various fauna populating the landscape. Their retrieval encourages exploration, and The Witcher 2 is a superlative world to traverse.
Take the trading post village of Flotsam, with its bustling dockland, filled to the brim with assiduous workers and docking ships, plying their trade and transporting goods across the land. To its town centre, made up of merchants sporting their wares, and an archetypal tavern, bulging with drunkards. It comes complete with a startlingly up-market brothel on the top floor and a restless fight club in the basement; a fantasy breeding ground for colourful characters and a bloody good time. And then you venture away from the relative safety of the town gates, into the lush greenery of a magnificently realised forest. Its murky swamps inhabited by grotesque monsters, with giant insect-like creatures that swarm from the gargantuan trees and a mourning troll guarding a decaying bridge.
There’s infinite detail on every facet of its world, all of it crafted within a phenomenal engine that produces constant moments of beauty. It’s definitely a hog on your PC, but if you’re able to run it then the results speak for themselves; all of the elements coming together, from the dynamic lighting and shadow effects, to the highly impressive textures, smooth frame rate and superb animation. The Witcher 2’s visual fidelity is second to none.
And that persistent quality exerts itself throughout The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. Its story isn’t afraid to delve into an often bewildering world of complex politics, but at its core it’s a character tale. Backed by superb fantasy writing and a fantastic sense of moral ambiguity seeped into the choices you make and the ramifications they have on the world and the narrative. It’s a smart, refreshingly dark take on RPGs, complemented by action-oriented and tactical combat with a surprising amount of depth. It has its flaws but they’re only minor in what is a landmark title and a series we can only hope will long continue.