Western fantasy role-playing games have moved in different directions over the years. You have the European type of games like Two Worlds II, the Gothic series, and the original The Witcher. Games that tend to expect a lot of patience from the player while giving you a huge amount of things to do in an open, yet usually (or initially) buggy world.
Then you have games like Dragon Age II that streamline the more hardcore elements to provide a more polished experience, but at the same time restrict your freedom in terms of customizability and things like crafting.
Now it looks like we finally have a game that tries to do it all, and in doing so might blow anything away that we've grown to kind of accept in recent years. If you were one of those people that complained about Game X and said "I'll wait for Witcher 2 instead," then congratulations: you were right.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (PC)
Developer: CD Projekt RED
Publisher: CD Projekt (Europe), Atari (North America)
Release Date: May 17th, 2011
Geralt of Rivia is back, and he is as bad-ass as he ever was. Following some events during a siege on a castle, Geralt finds himself a prisoner in a dungeon of the very kingdom he once protected. The witcher is being accused of a crime and acts like it's either one he didn't commit, or acts as if he knows more about it than he's willing to tell just anyone. A crime that appears to be a grave one, given the torture marks on Geralt's back and the guards' pleasure in beating him to a pulp.
After the White Wolf is being brought to an interrogation chamber, a seemingly familiar face greets him and asks him just what the hell happened in the events that led to his capture. Thus, Geralt is given the option to start at the beginning and tell his tale in chronological order, or to simply go to key events; events you'll play through yourself.
Choosing to recount his tale from the beginning, you play through Geralt's recollection of a massive assault on a certain castle. After waking up next to the lovely Triss Merigold -- who happens to sport the best areola and shaven vulva textures of any game to date -- the battle-scarred witcher is summoned before the king. As you exit the little tent you woke up in, you are greeted by a massive valley the likes of which you haven't seen before.
Army tents litter the field encampment and the distant scenery as trebuchets lay waste to a castle's defenses in the distance, launching their ammo in 5.1 surround sound. Soldiers idle, train, and talk about rape and glory, and you're instantly transported to a fully realized and living world that stands on the brink of a major assault.
You are free to walk around and talk to soldiers, who sometimes have a few lines to say but always seem engaged in something even if they're just standing around, and a few "friends" from Geralt's past. There is one problem though: Geralt can't remember his past up to a certain event that made him lose a significant part of his memory.
These former acquaintances are happy enough to fill you in on some of your previous dealings with them, including tales of even more rape and murder. If you are sick of JRPGs or anime tropes that deal with sexual innuendo involving 12 year old girls, and prefer a brutal and adult medieval fantasy world, this is the game for you.
Following some dialogue, the unapologetic soldier bandits present you with a choice. They have stolen a magical trinket from some defenseless priestesses and would like to know if it would protect an inexperienced member of their merry band in the battle ahead.
Geralt's wolf medallion reacts to the trinket's magic, but there is no way of telling what the magic item actually does. You are given the choice to tell them that it will protect the new guy or that you just don't know what it will do -- the latter resulting in the guy being donned in armor and sent to battle without magical protection.
After a brief detour, to experience the dialogue system and the way in which The Witcher 2 deals with choice, you make your way to King Foltest who briefs you -- and some of his slippery political advisors -- on the battle ahead. Though the new graphics engine looks fantastic, the camerawork and the production values of the in-engine cutscenes might be even more impressive. Even minor characters show personality before they speak a word -- their posture, brief hesitations, and clothing often communicating more than mere words could ever do.
Instead of having a tiresome chain of events explained to you, the game expects you to figure out what exactly is going on by just dealing with present events and by paying attention to key characters that shed light on the situation at hand. It's a refreshing take on the old narrative structure we've grown accustomed to in RPGs, for sure.
What matters for Geralt there and then is the battle at hand, not why the battle is fought in the first place, and that's what the game focuses on. You make your way to the castle's walls, riding along in a tower with the King's elite, while Geralt notes how the real men fight in the piss- and shit-filled streets below as the aristocracy literally towers above them. Finally, it's time for action.
Combat is now a far easier affair than in the last game. Geralt automatically attacks the nearest enemy when you click to attack, so you can just mash the mouse buttons (for quick and heavy attacks) to hack and slash your way through combat if you please. You'll see Geralt making acrobatic leaps and rolls to cross the distance before he slashes down his foe. That is, until you encounter shielded and heavier enemies who will destroy you if you don't block incoming blows, or dodge out of the way to attack them from behind.
Alternatively, you can use various types of magic to set your enemies on fire, lay traps for them, blow them out of the way or buff your defense. Holding down the control key slows the game down and lets you select magic or weapons with a cursor. Or you can just use the keys centered around the WASD control scheme to do all of that. It works well and it's pretty easy to get the hang of.
As you fight your way through the castle's defenses, you'll mix up regular fighting with supporting the army's advance. Launching a ballista here and opening a gate there, the gameplay varies from scene to scene. The scale and ferocity of the siege is pretty impressive in its depiction, as axe men are ordered to chop down a wooden door instead of having it just magically open as a game's trigger is set off. Cutscenes seamlessly break up the gameplay to depict medieval "special forces" tactics and assaults that propel the main attack ever onwards.
It's what you'd expect from a medieval assault, until a "monster" enters the fray changes the mathematics of warfare. One scene sees you frantically fighting your way to survival alongside a group of soldiers and key characters, while "thing" wreaks havoc on the battleground. Some other scenes are even more dramatic, and breathe fantasy back into what could've otherwise been a plain old medieval world at war.
Eventually the battle reaches a couple of climaxes. In some of them you can choose how to deal with the situation at hand, which affects some events afterward, eventually leading up to Geralt's present predicament back in the dungeon you started in. Throughout the entire siege recollection you go back and forth between the events you just played through and the "present time" interrogation, to discuss what happened before choosing what event to play through next.
Eventually Geralt of course escapes the dungeon somehow, finding some allies (or are they foes?) along the way. If you happened to tell one of the soldier bandits -- who you met at the beginning -- that their magical artifact probably wouldn't protect their new guy in battle, you can find him along the way and he'll recount how your choice saved his life. In return, he'll help you distract some guards. If he used the artifact instead, who knows what would have happened?
Later on in the game you arrive in a forest infested with bizarre creatures and Elves to continue on your quest. And like everything else in the Witcher universe, even the Elves are badass. None of those Lord of the Rings or World of Warcraft graceful kinds of Elves, or even Dragon Age's "Elves as social commentary" stuff. Elves are a race like any other; one that has suffered through many wars and has its own internal political divisions. More than that, they just don't screw around if you get on their bad side. Some, however, are friendly and peaceful enough.
You quickly find yourself in a miniature world of humans, non-humans, and all kinds of social and political themes reflecting both interracial relations and internal divisions within a race. A public hanging, for instance, can be resolved by pointing out that one man is being hanged for debauchery, to which a previously cheering townsman reacts: "Debauchery is one of my favorite pastimes, and I wouldn't want a noose around my neck for it!"
It's great stuff, and if you're a fan of potty-mouthed NPCs who scream random obscenities at you, or at seemingly no-one in particular, you can eat your heart out. Peeking inside a prison cell rewards you with someone shouting a continuous stream of obscenities for almost a minute on end. Elsewhere you can find an NPC named Fliparse. And later on, some shady sidequest NPCs may offer you to participate in an experiment that could perhaps make you stronger. But to finish that quest, you'll have to meet them again in some town two years from now. Two years!
That's the kind of scope you're going to have to expect from this game with regard to choice and consequence. Some consequences may be easy to anticipate when you are given a choice. Other choices may affects things you weren't even aware of. It appears that The Witcher 2 attempts to weave a magical tapestry of non-linear interactive storytelling throughout the entire game. And from the looks of it, it does so without making it as obvious as in other games.
The forest environment also provides a taste of the more open-world affair that the game offers, because the mostly linear castle siege and the escape from imprisonment -- which takes around 3+ hours in itself -- merely forms the Prologue of the game. You'll spend that amount of time only to be greeted by "Chapter 1" being casually thrown in your face as you enter the forest in question -- something that bodes well for the full game's length.
Backtracking seems to be less of an issue compared to the first game -- which for full disclosure I sadly didn't play all that much -- although even 15% of the forest map already yields you a fair number of sidequests that gradually let you explore the area.
You can fight monsters, resolve disputes, help out townsfolk with random things, or even perform tavern fist-fights through QTEs. I was afraid that the QTEs would get tiresome, until I saw Geralt kick a guy in the nuts. It was almost as if you could hear the design team talking to you through the game, holding a meeting where they once went: "How awesome would it be if we'd insert an animation where he kicks a guy in the balls?"
Typical other Witcher elements make a return as well, like crafting, potion making, and an extensive skill tree. The moment you first lay your eyes on the inventory system is when you start to understand just how deep the game will go. It's a hardcore, but still pretty accessible game that attempts to offers both a polished and extremely immersive world while seemingly not restricting you in your freedom.
What I played was a still unfinished preview build, so some bugs are to be expected. And while there were a few instances of getting Geralt stuck, it felt like even those would be minor annoyances if you just quick-save a lot. PC gaming excuses aside, the loading times were reasonable and the game looked and ran playable enough on a two year old PC (E8400 3.0GHz, 4GB RAM, HD4830 512MB) at 1680x1050 and "medium" detail. If you are looking at upgrades and have a good dual core CPU already, then a current-day midrange graphics card will probably let you run the game on pretty good graphics settings without too much trouble.
Overall, my 7 hours or so with The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings left me very impressed. Again, I didn't play The Witcher as much as I would've liked, but the difference between the two games feels like the difference between Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2. Everything from the gameplay to the consistently high quality of cutscenes and the voice acting just feels like a labor of love by CD Projekt RED.
I looked back on my experience with Dragon Age II afterwards, and BioWare's fantasy RPG now feels like it's in almost every way a mere toddler in the shadow of The Witcher 2. That's not to say DA II sucked, but a single village in The Witcher 2 already has more personality than all of Kirkwall. Moreover, the politics now run deep without treating you like a child for once. Characters feel human and treat you like an adult, the player is expected to deal with temporal jumps in narrative to keep up with the story, choices actually carry weight, and oh my god the breast textures!
Not that it's a male-oriented or misogynist game in any way, just because it deals with adult content matter. There's plenty of manflesh and pretty boys to admire as well, and the female characters are strong, confident, and don't take any shit or act like girly caricatures. Triss Merigold in particular already feels like she's going to be a fan favorite of gamers regardless of their gender; which is how it should be.
I knew I should keep my eye on The Witcher 2 even before I first saw it in action last year, but now that I've finally played it I feel confident enough to say that as a PC owner you're not likely to find anything like it all year. Sorry Hawke, but your cardboard persona is about to be witched in half. And Shepard? I still love you and I know you star in a different kind of RPG. But I'm really, really glad that your third space adventure is scheduled six months away from what will inevitably be Geralt's assassination of our social lives.