It's been almost a year now since The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings was released on PC. Built upon an engine with multiplatform support in mind, a console version was inevitable. Outsourcing a port for the first The Witcher didn't work out very well, so this time CD Projekt RED decided to take full control of developing the Xbox 360 version of their second Witcher baby mutant. In the meantime, various updates to the PC version have added cross-chapter inventory storage, an arena mode, and an extra "Dark" difficulty setting.
All of the existing changes, as well as new changes, new content, and graphical tweaks, are part of the package in The Witcher 2: Enhanced Edition for Xbox 360 and as a whopping 11 GB update for PC owners of The Witcher 2. Can such a PC favorite fare well on the controller-focused and aging console hardware, and what is so enhanced about this new version?
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Enhancing the White Wolf
A few changes and content additions aside, at face value the Enhanced Edition is largely identical to the original version, provided you include a year's worth of the kind of updates you would expect from a well-supported Western PC role-playing title. While some of these changes are more obvious than others, they all serve to make The Witcher 2 a better game.
The main draw of the Enhanced Edition for existing fans is the new content; extra quest lines in the third, and final chapter. Depending on your decisions earlier in the game, you gain access to two different and unique sidequests. One of these quest lines focuses on characters and events that had previously only been slightly touched upon, and while it's not the most amazing or original series of quests, it offers a fun and varied bunch of small adventures that easily can last you up to two hours. Without getting into spoiler territory, the best thing about this specific quest line is that it expands the story and background of aspects that could really use expanding.
The other quest line focuses on a dungeon crawl of sorts. Since the big decision that defines which of these new quests you can start has to be made around 10 hours prior to when you can embark on them, I did not play through this alternate quest. Gauging from the way the handy game guide -- included in the retail edition -- describes regular quests, this alternate quest will probably give you an extra hour or so of dungeon crawling, puzzling, and fighting.
Another new addition to the Enhanced Edition is the revamped tutorial and hint system, intended to make The Witcher 2 somewhat easier to get into for new players. A new and separate tutorial level, set in the Arena environment that was added to the core game late last year, explains most of what you need to know in order to equip Geralt with gear and make him slay his enemies. It's not the greatest tutorial ever made and it doesn't explain some of the more advanced features, but it is a serviceable addition to get you started with the basics, without completely having to redesign the existing Prologue chapter in order to steadily guide players through all combat features.
Combat and general controls
After playing The Witcher 2 with a mouse and keyboard on PC, playing it with an Xbox 360 controller feels surprisingly adequate. In fact, combat is perhaps even better when playing it with a controller. The button layout gives you access to any combat and inventory options you require, with a few obvious downsides for those who are used to using a mouse to simply point and click at menus and objects.
Targeting an enemy is now somewhat easier than it used to be on PC. Holding down the left trigger lets you lock onto an enemy, leaving the right stick as a way to move between targets. This new targeting system is heralded as a way to make it easier for casual players to get into what is undeniably a challenging game at times, and even though it works as advertised and allows you to leave direct camera control out of the equation, there is little reason to use it in many cases.
A problem that can arise is that while locking on is that you can lose battlefield awareness. Since it's pretty easy for Geralt to die in group fights if you are not careful, meaning you have to dodge-roll out of the way and block incoming blows if necessary, a preferable mode of play is to simply aim in the direction of the target you want to hit with the left analog stick, and use the other analog stick for full camera control. Having said that, one of the three main skill trees allows you to purchase a skill which lets you counter incoming attacks with a riposte, and to perform this counter move effectively you really need to use the lock-on system. When playing on Dark difficulty, you'll also want to use the new lock-on system to dodge around some of the more powerful enemies more efficiently.
Whichever method of camera control you prefer, having the option to choose what works best for you at any time is only a good thing.
A bit more annoying is the way Geralt tends to run instead of walk when you slightly nudge him forward. Some areas are littered with traps you can spot with keen eyes, or by using a magical medallion to highlight important objects, and nothing is more frustrating than trying to slowly inch close enough to disarm and collect such a trap and ending up running right into it. As an added bonus, the button for re-arming these traps is the same as the button for disarming them, leading to the fun act of accidentally triggering a trap, then accidentally re-arming it as you were already pressing the disarm button in anticipation. Since you need to disarm a trap before you can collect it for future use, you can end up fighting the controls until you just stop caring about collecting traps altogether. On the upside, these traps are relatively worthless and often only deal a small amount of damage, so you can easily just run straight through them.
Just like in last year's PC version, some objects can still be hard or even impossible to target. These problems range from running into a door and having to take a few steps back, just to receive the prompt that allows you to open that door, to the inability to target out-of-reach crates that are highlighted as loot containers if you use your Witcher medallion, yet which cannot be looted no matter how hard you try.
However, the ability to swing the camera over a general direction and mash the A button to loot all nearby items within seconds is incredibly useful. The downside is that you cannot loot individual items, which can lead to some micro-managing headaches when you are nearing the weight capacity for your inventory, and end up grabbing three extra items you never wanted to pick up. Geralt cannot run or roll when he is overburdened, but he can still walk, making it an option to carry loot well over your weight capacity and simply stroll over to a nearby vendor. When you are miles away from the nearest vendor, though, this is only optional for profoundly patient players. Thankfully, Geralt's personal stash from update 1.3 lets you store all crafting items which would ordinarily take up the majority of your weight limit.
Console menus all around
The different pages for the inventory, character sheet, quest journal, and map have been grouped together in an easily accessible menu to fit a controller. Of these four menus, the inventory -- the one you will access the most -- can be a bit awkward to navigate at times. You can't simply click on one of the seventeen categories your inventory contains, leading to a lot of bumper presses to navigate between them, but the inability to hover the mouse over an item to see its specifics is more jarring.
The extra button presses required to Inspect or Compare an item in your inventory quickly become second nature, but enhancing a piece of equipment with various runes, oils, and armor enhancements is implemented in a rather odd way. There are two ways to upgrade a piece of equipment: select the enhancement and apply it to a weapon or piece of armor, or select the weapon or armor and then select an enhancement to upgrade it with. In the latter case, the inventory menu gives you no option to see the specifics of the enhancements; it will only display the percentage of increased damage output it provides, alongside the enhancement's weight and sell value. Because many of these enhancements carry very specific bonuses to stats and damage output to certain types of enemies, and some enhancements cannot be "unsocketed" after applying them, it renders this specific method of enhancing equipment rather useless.
For some obscure reason, there is also a split-second but very noticeable black screen between menu pages. This makes going from your inventory to your quest journal a bit of a pain in the ass, since it's all just simple text and static images which one wouldn't expect to require much loading. Over time, you start to notice it less and less, and then occasionally you'll start noticing it again. Compare it to the PC version, however, and you'll notice that the inventory page doesn't exactly pop up instantly in that version either.
The skill tree menu, which features skill nodes in four separate areas of expertise -- basic training, swordsmanship, magic, and alchemy -- could have benefited from a slight redesign to make it easier to navigate to nodes that need to be accessed by moving diagonally. There are two of these nodes in the swordsmanship tree that are very hard to reach, as only a very specific diagonal movement will let you highlight them. If you don't choose this skill tree, though, you'll never run into any selection problems.
The big question for the visual fetishists might be: "How does it look compared to amazing-looking PC version?" With the Xbox 360's hardware in mind, it looks fantastic. The engine runs smoothly, even during intense and spell-heavy combat encounters involving many characters, and the lands of Temeria and Aedirn look beautiful and atmospheric with striking effectiveness.
Pay too close attention, though, and the differences with the graphical prowess displayed on the higher settings of the PC version are certainly noticeable. This should come as no surprise since the 360's hardware specs would never allow the game to run in a 1920x1200 resolution with all the bells and whistles turned on (save for the Ubersampling setting), and the fact that it requires scrutiny at close range to spot the differences is worthy of praise. Of course, you can forget about motion blur and in-game depth-of-field wizardry, but play either version at a normal range from your display and only some slightly lower resolution textures will betray the hardware it's running on.
Trained eyes may also spot the subtle differences in lighting and shadowing, especially if they have spent 25 hours with the PC version before, but even these will have a hard time distinguishing the graphics between the two platforms when Geralt is running around in daytime under a clear and sunny sky. During in-game cutscenes and dialogue, the RED Engine truly shines and outperforms engines like Unreal Engine 3 and CryEngine 3. It's clear that CD Projekt RED has tried to make The Witcher 2 look as good as they could on a console, and they have done so admirably without letting the framerate suffer.
Installing the two discs (there is only one disc swap throughout the entire playthrough) is highly recommended, and one could even go as far as to say it's absolutely necessary. Not only does it decrease load times -- which are very manageable even when playing it from the disc -- but the amount of in-game texture loading is shockingly awful when not installing The Witcher 2. After installing, there is still the occasional and noticeable texture loading for character models, but playing it from the discs is like having a déjà vu of the first Mass Effect's approach to texture pop-in. Not installing it to your hard drive even impacts how fast you can skip through a conversation, so if you are the type that prefers to read the subtitles rather than listen to dialogue, you'll be forced to wait seconds at a time for each sequence of dialogue as the textures for character models slowly load.
For those among you who like to look at videogame tits, rest assured; the breast and nipple textures are of a quality resolution on Xbox 360. And that's really all I have to say about that.
Glitches and bugs
Like the original The Witcher 2, a glitch or bug will pop up here and there, but nothing encountered in the Xbox 360 edition broke the game or completely obstructed progression. At worst, these instances are mildly annoying or plain mind-boggling.
For instance, one quest in Chapter 1 can make you deliver some mail to a Royal Mail box twice, but if you had already used that mail box before, it's no longer something you can interact with. There is another mail box in a nearby location, which might only become accessible one more time depending on your choices and progression through the chapter. This demands a lot from the player when it involves a quest spanning all three chapters of the game, finally resulting in access to one of the best pieces of armor you can craft. A few times throughout the game, a quest marker just gives you the plain wrong location to start the next segment of a quest, but persistence and revisiting a location after completing a few other quests should allow you to progress regardless.
Sometimes an enemy will no longer receive damage when you push and corner it into a wall. At other times an enemy will just stand in place, motionless and invincible. One time I died trying to save a peasant from monsters, and because the peasant NPC killed off the last enemy to progress the quest to the next phase, I ended up with a close-up of the peasant's foot going right through Geralt's dead body. This also made the game glitch and unable to register button presses to continue after death, leading to a forced move back to the dashboard.
These issues are few and far between in a game that can easily take you over 25 hours to complete once, and often offer comedic value to counter any grumbling. If you keep CD Projekt RED's history of PC Witcher titles in mind, it's nothing short of a miracle that the Enhanced Edition is as bug-free as it is.
My kingdom for a dedicated quick save button!
Alas, there is none. The Witcher 2 only autosaves at certain key events and quest progression triggers, often in a way that makes it very hard to anticipate when it will do so, and it features many open areas to traverse in search of quest completion. Suffice it to say that something PC players had already learned the hard way has become more of a hassle on the console. Inevitably, you'll forget to save after becoming engrossed in a quest, find yourself fulfilling a few quest requirements on your way to a bigger story revelation, and die at an unfortunate encounter. Then you find out the last save was 30 minutes ago.
To CD Projekt RED's credit, most locations outside of towns and fortresses are seamlessly and progressively loaded on Xbox 360 like they were on PC, meaning autosaves at location changes would not have been a very good solution to the problem. Still, a few more checkpoints along the main routes of the open environments, or inside some of the more linear and constricted sidequest areas, would have been very welcome.
Alternatively, mapping the quick save feature to the Back button -- which provides access to your inventory, map, character sheet and journal -- would have been an even better solution. You never use the Start button for anything but saving and loading, and you only do that because there is no quick save feature. Every menu option under both the Back and Start buttons could've easily been sorted inside one menu system under one button, similar to the way other console RPGs like Mass Effect 2 and 3 approached their menus, making the omission that much more glaring anno 2012.
Of course, you could also try not to be a fool and simply remember to save regularly. Just keep in mind that there are only 12 save slots, barely enough to save before every big decision which could impact how the story progresses later on.
The true enhancements of the Enhanced Edition
The fact of the matter is that while there are some minor issues that unmistakably exist, and you deserve to know about them, they do not make The Witcher 2 on Xbox 360 any less fun to play.
The Enhanced Edition's real strength lies not in the content additions, but in the subtle changes to make Geralt feel less underpowered early in the game. Originally, enemy encounters were severely punishing to the point where it felt like you were only getting to a "regular Witcher" version of Geralt after 10 hours or more. Enemies can still punish you if you aren't careful, particularly in group encounters, but instances of unfair deaths on Normal difficulty are far less common than before, and character progression feels better paced.
At the core of the combat mechanics, not that much has changed. The shield spell Quen which protects you from a hit is still invaluable, and during tough encounters you'll still run circles around enemies to slowly recover health and Vigor -- units of mana -- followed by casting Quen again. When meditating to skip hours in a day, brew potions, or drink potions, Geralt no longer goes through an animation to sit down, and neither does he go through an animation when he drinks potions. It speeds up things and encourages less patient players to use this option more often, although it always looked kind of cool to see him sit down and gulp down toxic potions like a trooper.
The addition of new pre-rendered cutscenes also helps to give you a general idea of just what the hell is going on in the world of The Witcher 2. Narrated by Geralt's old friend Dandelion in a rather unfittingly cheery and comedic fashion, these added scenes between chapters help you connect to the world you are supposed to care about. This was always a bit hard to do before, since Geralt's neutral role as a Witcher is dissimilar to your typical RPG protagonist, and the focus was always on Geralt's personal story rather than the intricate schemes and politics of the world he inhabits.
The White Wolf revisited
Playing through it a second time and choosing a different path leads to a completely new setting and a full day worth of questing in the second chapter. Doing exactly that also showed me how much I had missed in my first playthrough a year ago. If you only play through it once, you are simply doing yourself a disservice. Not only is it easy to miss out on a lot of story exposition regardless of the path you choose halfway through the game, but the two paths complement each other to tell one focused and complete story. In the process, it leads to a much higher level of engagement to the world of The Witcher 2, and important characters that normally appear out of the blue in one playthrough can reveal layers of depth in another playthrough.
The Witcher 2 was one of the more engrossing RPGs of recent years, one that had that distinct quality that keeps you playing for hours without breaks, and it remains a quality title on Xbox 360. Let's face it: if you have a beast of a PC and you like Western RPGs, odds are you've already played it. If you are PC-handicapped, this long-awaited console version will give you an updated and slightly expanded edition which is similar enough to its PC brother to be an almost identical twin. Connoisseurs may spot the 360 version to be the slightly more clumsy and less good-looking of the twins, but in the end they share a similar aptitude for badassery and that's what matters.
It's still not a perfect version of The Witcher 2 and sometimes it requires a bit of patience. Yet whenever any small issue is encountered, you can't help but look at it like a parent whose child has just been caught with its hand in the cookie jar; at the same time unapologetically naughty and impossible to get mad at. Whenever it does something wrong, it's minor in nature and easily forgiven in the face of overwhelming quality.
The biggest crime CD Projekt RED commits by releasing the Enhanced Edition for Xbox 360 is that it means we have that much longer to wait for the next multiplatform chapter of Geralt's story -- one that cannot come fast enough for PC and console owners alike.