The Assassins of Kings...
Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is the sequel to CD Projeckt Red's first Witcher game, set in the universe created by Polish author: Andreas Sapskowsi, following the adventures of one Geralt of Rivia, a monster-hunter by trade known as a Witcher. This is a fantastic game that could well be described as one of the most engrossing PC fantasy RPG's of the modern age and it's certainly one of the most mature.
Without giving too much away here, Witcher 2 takes place after the key ending events of the Witcher, with Geralt now at the side of King Foltest of Temeria and involved with the king's beautiful advisor and sorceress, Triss Merigold. Triss and Geralt have been good friends for quite a while, but now they're definitely more than that. Events are unfolding behind the scenes though that will shape the face of the world and change things for good. Geralt is unable to avoid these and his life will be vastly altered.
Big warning: There are key moments in Witcher 2 that will take the game down vastly different paths, so you need to play the game several times to see all the content and we're not talking just a few changes in dialogue here, we're talking vastly different locations, new NPCs, new quests and a whole new feel to the storyline as events change for the better or worse.
Witcher 2 has come a long way from the Aurora Engine powered first game; it's now got its own engine: the RED Engine. The game is a third person action RPG with a mature storyline and a specific morality system that changes the way the game plays out, as well as various tweaks to the ending. Designed primarily for the PC, the game does allow you to use a gamepad, being mapped to the 360 pad interestingly enough. Rumours of the game coming to the 360 were rife when I first started playing this, but I wanted to give the Witcher 2 a good play on both sides of the main story choices before I rendered my verdict, so that's why it's taken so long and the 360 is getting a version of the game.
Exploration in Witcher 2 takes you though some fantastically designed environments, from towns and cities to a large expansive open forest and other areas. You can pick up various loot and craft items but you don't need everything, if you try and hoard in this game you'll run out of weight allocation and you'll find that you need to be careful with your inventory management. You can talk to various NPCs, get side quests and follow up on your Witcher monster hunting contracts (though there are not as many of these as there were in the first game).
The game has a nested dialogue system that is similar to the first game, though there are a few changes. In many of the dialogues you can attempt to use persuasion, brute force and even the Witcher Sign (magic) Axii to change the outcome of the conversation, persuading in a very Jedi-like way certain enemies to back off and leave before a fight breaks out. There are also some timed conversations that give you a choice and a limited window in which to make it.
Then there are the mini-games, Dice Poker, Arm Wrestling and Fist Fighting are some of the diversions that Geralt can engage in and their mechanics are fairly well explained in the game's journal. Dice Poker remains similar to the first game, Arm Wrestling requires careful movements of the mouse to keep your cursor in the right sweet spot and win. Fist Fighting is a QTE event that is fairly easy to win as long as you keep an eye on the keys that pop up on the screen and hit them at the right time.
There are also QTE's for many of the game's more important events; you can turn a lot of these off in the menu if you're not fond of Quick Time Events in general, though some of them are still active for certain boss battles and scenes.
There is a plethora of stuff to find in Witcher 2, from unique NPCs to hidden weapons and items (armour especially) that will alter the stats and in some cases survivability of Geralt in combat. There are numerous hidden locations to explore and the game isn't a linear affair by far. Yes the story has a progression of how you get from A to B at any given chapter, but there are lots of twists and turns that drive the narrative onwards and you feel far more of a key player in this epic sprawling fantasy than most other games.
Geralt can also take advantage of the crafting and upgrade system in the game, gaining access to traps, lures (for monster hunting) and bombs to make tactical use of the new combat system. He can also have new weapons crafted for battle and gain new armours this way as well, since many of the key monsters defeated offer parts that can be used in alchemy and crafting.
A Witcher is also an alchemist and this is where the broad list of ingredients and formulae come in, you can find them or earn them from quests. You can buy them from shops or win them in mini-games. Then once armed with the knowledge you can meditate and mix potions, drinking them prior to combat to induce a wide variety of effects. Many of these potions are highly toxic to humans and will kill them instantly, but you are not human. Witchers are mutated humans and they can metabolise things that would kill a mere man or woman.
Every potion has a toxicity level and you can drink several together, just don't overdo it.
You gain experience points in Witcher 2 through quests, combat and other activities. Once you have enough experience you can visit the character upgrade screen and take one of several paths. There is the Witcher path which is a set of generic Witcher abilities, the path of magic to improve Witcher Signs, the Alchemist path to improve and increase the effectiveness of potions and the Swordsmanship path, which gives you greater ability in combat. You can take one path or a smattering, it's up to you. Each circle of the path costs a talent point and you can upgrade a circle twice.
All of these upgraded systems work well, the new journal is fairly easy to follow and the inventory system is simple enough to use. There is a minor gripe in terms of the save and load system, in that you can press the delete key to remove a save but there's no actual confirmation of this. It would have been better to just have a delete option and a mass delete option at that, since Witcher 2 saves can add up to a lot of gig, between quick, auto and hard saves.
Finally the Witcher 2 has several levels of difficulty and even on the easiest you'll find that it's quite a tricky customer at first. Insane mode is for those of you with fond memories of Steel Battalion where you lose your save game and need to restart if you die. The same happens here in Witcher 2, you have been warned.
The mini-map and map in Witcher 2 are serviceable and whilst some quests don't have a general marker to tell you where to go, the clue often resides in the quest log in the journal. If I had one gripe to say about Witcher 2 overall though in that regard, not enough of a tutorial is given for first time players and new gamers. A little more hand-holding from the get-go might have been nice, not as though I needed it being used to this kind of thing.
Ah...how you have changed Witcher 2 from the Witcher. For the better I feel. I warn you now; this is an uncompromising combat system that will destroy you on the harder difficulty levels until you master it. Sometimes as well, as of patch 1.2, blocking is very twitchy and the block key doesn't quite work well enough. I tend to roll a lot though, and that was fairly responsive for me. Geralt's combat arsenal of moves expands as you level him up, putting points into the Swordsmanship path is a great way of giving the Witcher a serious edge in combat, with flourishes, counters and even group finishers unlocked near the end of the path. Geralt becomes a true master of the blade.
It's a satisfying system, there are some nice moves and you can mix things up with Witcher Signs, such as Aard (telekinetic force push) and Igni (fire based magic) as you fight. An Aard might stun your victim and then leave them open for a cinematic finishing move as Geralt finishes them off. You can also combine certain signs with pools of water and in the rain some of Geralt's electrical based magic becomes even more potent.
There are groups of enemies that will attack you, and they won't politely wait their turn, they'll gang up and use all of their own dirty tricks to attempt to spill Geralt's blood. Being combat aware is very important and moving constantly in a fight can mean the difference between life and death. Using alchemy and bombs, or traps is a great way to even the odds and in some fights you need to rely on a wide variety of tactics. It's the uncompromising nature of the game that draws me to the battles; once you win...you feel a sense of having actually achieved something.
Combat is fast, fun, smooth and most of all tactical. If you're not familiar with the concept of the Witcher as a character, remember that in battle you need to use your steel sword against humans and the silver one against monsters. Fortunately you can swap as you fight and select powers and weapons with hot-keys. So it's not as much of a headache to keep track of, unlike weapons and stances in the Witcher.
One last point, the Witcher 2 is one of the most mature games to handle violence, racism and dark narrative points mirroring the Sapkowski books perfectly. It also handles sex in a straight-forwards and mature manner that doesn't turn it into porn or titillation. You can go through the whole game without engaging in sex at all, or you can visit every prostitute and seduce numerous female characters if you so desire. There are no sex cards to collect and this just goes to show that CDPR has matured in that direction as well.
No matter your gaming rig, the Witcher 2 will look great. On a truly high end rig with a seriously powerful CPU and GFX card the Witcher 2 is basically jaw-dropping and pulls out all the stops with some incredible graphics. You have numerous options to configure in the custom part of the launcher and there are several good sites now with optimisation settings for high-end and low-end rigs. The textures with Ubersampling enabled are nothing short of stunning and the graphics are something else. With every setting on maximum your eyes are probably going to melt at some of these environments, all of the modern graphical tricks are used and the lighting is nothing short of excellent.
The Witcher 2 features some excellent animation and some very finely animated characters. The combat in the game is fluid and the various cinematic death moments are extremely well put together. The rest of the animations are executed with the same attention to detail and each frame has been hand-keyed from the motion-capture to make sure it's tweaked to near-perfection. The facial animation looks a little off at times, but it's only a minor thing that you notice if you look way too closely at things like this, most people won't even spot it. The feel of life to the characters though, that's something that really works as they stand and talk to you, they move their arms and gesture as they speak.
The world of the Witcher 2 lives and breathes around you, so when the weather turns inclement many of the people will seek shelter. They will react to each other, to a drawn sword and so on. In combat the enemies use various tactics to make each battle fun and in some cases for the big bosses, which can frustrating until you work out their AI tactics or the old-school pattern to their attacks.
No real hiccups with the AI, the NPC path-finding is rather good.
RED Engine's physics is decent enough; it can turn debris into a weapon or simulate heavy knockdowns in combat or by Geralt's use of the Aard sign. It' does a good job of making the world feel as though it has weight, mass and form.
CDPR have done a remarkable job on the various audio aspects of the game, the sounds that are all around you as you explore the world (inside, outside, day, night and spot-effects) are excellently done. The environments all have a great aural feel to them and exploring under a full moon in a forest is truly creepy at night. The clash of blades and the sounds of battle are fantastic, especially at the start of the game and they truly bring to mind the chaos of open conflict when armies come together in a fantasy world and start hacking the hell out of each other.
Witcher 2 has some fantastic dark fantasy music and the score is one of the best, even better than the Witcher which was no slouch when it came to delivering a superb musical accompaniment to the gameplay. The Premium Edition comes with the CD of the OST and it's what I'm using right now to write this review to. The mix of various themes works perfectly in the game and there's a wonderful sense of Geralt's world evoked through them.
The voice acting is great for a lot of the game, some of it is not the best I've ever heard but it works in the context of the actual game world. I would expect the Witcher's various kingdoms to be full of regional accents and the like; it makes it far more realistic and so on. There are a few missteps with vocal delivery from some of the non-key characters, on the whole though Geralt's voice actor, Triss' and especially Dandelion do a bang-up job of conveying their characters this time around.
A mature game with a lot of cussing, so be aware of this. The story dialogue is well crafted and the characters don't actually feel wooden. The pacing is pretty solid throughout and the spoken dialogue is well written if a little clichéd at times. Its again, one of those realistic dialogues that you might hear if that kind of world were real. So I can forgive that kind of thing.
None...which is a good thing for this kind of game.
I'd say this is the best PC fantasy RPG of 2011 so far, I can't see much in the way of third person action RPGs beating the Witcher 2. It's certainly far more expansive than others and only Skyrim has a chance to compete but that's in a sandbox fantasy game-space and the Witcher 2 is a linear story, with non-linear events and several vastly different pathways through certain chapters. You need to play this one more than once to get the best out of it.
So far there are only a few bits of DLC and the side-quest, Troll Trouble, is definitely worth the trouble to play.
If you have a fairly decent rig you'll see some amazing things, if you have a low end rig, you'll get a damn fine looking game regardless. Witcher 2 is a game you can't afford to miss out on...
Since patch 1.2 there have been some bugs introduced, but they weren't there for the first playthrough of this game and therefore did not affect the score. Witcher 2 never gave me a single CTD for my first play and I hear that quite a few of you have had CTD's since 1.2 and so on, CDPR assured us they are working to resolve these issues and a few more...their first patch was released with a quick turn-around and this is the kind of support we like to see from developers.
A grand job all round and well deserving of the score that it's been given.