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Pew Review: The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

For new readers: I used to do a lot of "Pew Reviews" on the cblogs, and after becoming an editor it became a bit silly to post reviews on the cblogs instead of the front page. Hence why you haven't seen one in quite a while. I meant to post this earlier, but spreeing The Witcher 2 and L.A. Noire kind of destroyed my activity in the last week or so. This is not meant as an alternative review of any kind, but more as a more elaborate and different point of view on the game, as well as a place to discuss some of the game's elements in a place that is not flooded by "OMG y u no can play PC games!?" comments.

So The Witcher 2 then, a game I had such high hopes for. All the elements of a possible GOTY are in the first few hours: hard to master combat, hints of a huge and epic storyline, non-linear narrative, a different take on the western RPG genre and some great graphics and sound. Yet while I still enjoyed it enough to finish the game within two full days, it left me a bit stupified about some of the game's design choices.

Last week, I had quite a few chats with Jim about the game, discussing the things that irked us or just annoyed us (as well as things we liked). And while different things can annoy people in different amounts, we saw eye to eye on pretty much all the negatives that are there. Whether or not the good parts make you forget about the bad parts depends from person to person too; but it doesn't mean there are only good parts.

Although some people seem to disagree, the combat is a weird beast and in my opinion not for the better. First of all, you're thrown into the combat with the bare minimum of tutorial tooltip pop-ups. Which was initially fine with me, because it's a PC game for a mature audience after all; you can expect people will figure it out by themselves rather than forcing them through a silly training scenario that wouldn't fit in the game world.

However, while a few quick deaths teach you to block, evade, and deal with weaker enemies in groups lest you be overwhelmed, combat in Chapter 1 can be a pain. Part of this is excusable, as some sidequests make you go into caves filled with Nekkers (so racist!) who can rip you to shreds in seconds if you go there too early. It's an RPG, so you could say that you just shouldn't go there until you are ready.

The thing is, the game never tells you when you are ready or not. The first things you'll do after the Prologue is to upgrade your blocking skill so Geralt can actually block blows from behind. Blows that deal 200% damage, another thing the game never tells you unless you read the Sword tree description (which isn't accessible until you unlock it).

But for a strange reason, blocking costs Vigor: the same resource used for magic. Actually, in-game it feels like using Vigor to block a blow regenerates back faster than if you use it for magic, but the game never tells you that either. The result is that it becomes far too easy to be overwhelmed by groups of enemies even if you go down the pure fighter path. Vitality upgrades help Geralt become beefier, and so does armor, but pretty much all large combat encounters turn into you running around in circles when you get stuck in a group for a second or two and receive 70% HP damage.

Just having been able to block without it costing Vigor would've helped a lot in dealing with groups, something that may have been an odd remnant for the previous game's "group stance" that let you deal with groups more efficiently. Witcher 2's combat is all about one-on-one combat, and while you can disorient or disband groups with the tools at hand, in most cases you are just going to run in and hope for the best. Maybe that's a dumbass approach, but I couldn't help but do it continuously. A bomb here and there did help a lot, but maybe I needed those bombs for a potentially tougher fight, you know?

Sure, beefing up with potions before an obvious combat encounter helps. And sure, you can use bombs and traps for crowd control. But everything in the game almost screams at you to run in and be a bad-ass, so you do that and die repeatedly.

Moreover, because you die so easily if you're not playing at your best for every group encounter for the first 10-15 hours or so, you simply put skillpoints into Quen (a shield spell) so you can shrug off 3-4 hits before receiving damage and save yourself some loading of quicksaves. This in turn makes you cast Quen, enter combat, get hit, cast Quen again and repeat the process. A boss fight? Cast Quen and if you run out of Vigor when it hits you repeatedly, just run around evading patterns until Vigor regenerates. Because if you don't, you die easily and have to replay almost all sections of the boss fight again.

Simultaneously, while potions can make or break a combat encounter in Chapter 1, you are so powerful in later chapters that you almost never need them again (on the Normal difficulty at least). This in turn puts you off putting points in Alchemy. And because you need your Vigor to cast Quen and survive, the game also doesn't inspire you to put points into the other magical abilities. Normally I do like to take a caster approach in RPGs, but I also like to hack and slash things. And because hacking and slashing your way through it becomes so easy at the midway point, I never had a reason to spare points from something that would make me easier to kill and put them in some elemental damage or "confuse" spell power instead.

It's not that the combat is broken, but when you have a set amount of options at your disposal it's easy to go for those that actually help you not die instead of taking the opportunity to play around. And when the first half of a game is so brutal you end up making your character near invincible if you play it right, you've already invested those skill points into one type of character and you're not just going to put points into experimental skills when you don't know the level cap or the length of the game.

Strangely enough, Chapter 2 is a lot easier than Chapter 1 and this is where the game starts to shine. After a gratuitous few extra level-ups and a few new merchants for fancy armor, quests are better laid out, paced, and simply more intruiging and enjoyable. It didn't help that Chapter 1's forest can be a maze-like to find something without opening the map, or that you end up running back and forth a lot.

While Chapter 2 still does this with the city layout which makes you run around or check the map more often than you will actually be able to find the right door or NPC when you want to find it, the entire chapter is just more enjoyable. At least, from the perspective of choosing to support one character. Because if you chose the other, the ending of Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 is entirely different.

Non-linearity like this is great, and it begs for replayability. Yet one thing that makes you want to replay a game is also to enjoy the gameplay and story again. And after finishing The Witcher 2, I wasn't too keen on running around in the Chapter 1 forest for 10 hours again. Not just that, but the game's final Chapter feels rushed and doesn't tie up the story well at all. Or well, it does technically tie up some loose ends, but it makes you go "that's it?" A bit like seeing Anakin's journey to the Dark Side in the prequels, and then ending 20+ years of anticipation at the "Nooooooooooooooooo" part.

Which is a shame, because after Dragon Age II I was more than ready for a full-on epic adventure that doesn't restrict itself to one city and a couple of overused locations. After a great Chapter 2, you get a rushed Chapter 3 that feels underdeveloped and then suddenly an Epilogue and the credits.

Beside the story letting down in the end, and opening the door for a Witcher 3 years down the line, there were a few minor issues that drag down the game. The game loads procedurally for the most part, but makes you enter doors that don't always work. Sometimes a ledge can't be climbed unless you stand at the right location, even though Geralt should easily be able to climb it. You end up running back and forth over items until the "Pick up" prompt appears and stays on screen. And some scripted events can mess up a scripted quest line, but hey it's a Witcher game so I can look over little things like that.

And although the game's tutorial is pretty much non-existant, it seems to be that a "they can figure it out themselves" attitude permeates the entire game. At one point, you can choose to follow someone down a hidden path to gain entrance to a castle, or say hi to a group of soldier at the gate. If you do the latter, and didn't choose that particular group's side at the end of Witcher 1 and imported your save game, they will attack you and murder you. You of course try to outwit them and fight them all off, because it's a challenge. But even if you do, the entrance will remain closed. Not until you check the game's guide do you figure out that it's not really an option at all.

Also, some sidequests are just not worth it. I spent up to an hour to find the last Harpies nest to destroy by using a trap that a Harpy will fly up to its nest and make it explode. You need to have a few harpies around so one of them can pick up the trap/bomb. I tried all kinds of things: come back at a later time, meditate for a day to make them respawn, go to town and meditate there to make them respawn. But they just wouldn't grab that last trap. And even if they did, you do get a nice XP boost except that by that time you don't really need it anymore.

Still, when you are leveled at just the right amount for an area, The Witcher 2 is a great game. Great enough to play it throughout the night for two days straight, which is something you can't say about a lot of games (although I did do the same with DA II). Yet it's not a game that will be near the top of my top 10 list for this year.

Maybe I expected too much based on the game's first hours. But is it bad to expect a supposedly epic game to actually be epic? By the time the game ends, you are given a choice on how to deal with an enemy. And by that time, you've stopped caring. Most of all, it feels like a wasted opportunity for CD Projekt RED to blast away Western RPG conventions. Everything comes together, but it doesn't quite work as well as it should have.

And this is really the biggest letdown I suffered in the game. Some combat inbalance and other issues are things you can work around with some effort, because you play an RPG for the story. But when the story doesn't leave you satisfied when it concludes, that's another thing altogether. The game drags in places where it shouldn't, and even at 25 hours feels like it's on the short side when you consider what actually happens. That is, not very epic or not epic enough as far as I'm concerned.

In fact, if you strip away some of the sidequest filler and look at what actually happens, it feels like one disc of Lost Odyssey or something. Which can be fine in a game, and some games with confined stories can be great. But this game tempts you with a continent-wide scale of political intrigue and conspiracy, and when it's over it feels like you were missing an entire final chapter.

And what's up with developing all these major characters only to brush them aside in the final third of the game? I can understand this is Geralt's story, but characters like Dandelion, Zoltan and Iorveth are all build up to potentially have major roles in the game when only one (or two) of them end up having any "real" involvement in the final chapter. And even that is perhaps too much credit. They are just there, do some things and then you never hear from them again. Some of it might depend on your choices (Dethmold comes a bit out of the blue depending on some earlier choices for instance), but that's hardly an excuse.

If anything, The Witcher 2 would've benefitted from some user research and testing with actual players. Sure, PC gamers can be expected to be a bit more hardcore when it comes to figuring out things for themselves, but the balance of difficulty and difficulty progression just feels off to me. All the skills you need to survive at first just end up being a bit useless once you get the "Quen-attack-dodge away-recast Quen" routine under control. And while that's just one method, I doubt running around casting Igni (fire) and waiting for Vigor regeneration is much more fun. When it comes down to it, you approach a fight in terms of how much DPS you can deliver to reduce enemy HP in the most efficient way as possible, without dying yourself.

Regardless of all the issues that distracted me while playing it, I brushed off most of them and got over it. Some of you may do the same, and enjoy the game a lot. Some of you may die a few times too often early on, start playing L.A. Noire or one of the bazillion June games instead and forget where you were when you go "Oh yeah I still have to finished Witcher 2!"

In the end, I'll remember The Witcher 2 as a pretty good and fun RPG that had a lot of potential it didn't quite live up to, and left me unsatisfied. I still liked it better than Dragon Age II on the whole, even though they are really two completely different games. The latter game had better polished gameplay throughout the game while The Witcher 2 blows its mythology, politics, and fantasy world away. But they are still different beasts, and just because they are both Western RPGs doesn't mean they are that comparable. The only similarity is that both games end with openings to major events in the world, which you won't actually be a part of for at least 2 years.

Despite all the bitching about what is wrong with it, I think it's still worth checking out the game because it's beautiful and a blast to play when everything works falls into place and feels great. Which is about half the time you play it. And when it doesn't, I expect you to be able to get over it. That doesn't mean it's a perfect game, or even a 90s rated game on Metacritic if you ask me; too many issues detract from the overal experience for that. Don't think people complain about the game because they suck a it, we complain because we care about it.

But it's still a remarkable achievement that could've been a lot better, and a game that can be hard to put your finger on if you want to describe just what it is that feels "off" about it. But you have to take what is there and not what could have been. And it's one game I'll probably replay from a late Chapter 1 savegame at some point, but not any time soon.

If you really need a score to judge a game, then suffice to say I'd rate The Witcher 2 0.5 points higher than Dragon Age II. And while I criticize that game often, I didn't hate it. OMG points! Basically, this is how I feel about it:

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About Maurice Tanone of us since 5:41 AM on 07.16.2007

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Hai! You may know me as Professor Pew in older times. If you see a cblog here from beyond September 2010 or something: that's from the cblogging days and not anything editor-related :)