By Richard Cobbett on February 21st, 2011 at 12:00 pm.
Richard has a brand new T-Shirt that says ‘One Of The World’s First Players Of The Witcher 2: Assassins Of Kings’. They don’t give those to just anybody. He’d probably better tell you about what he saw while questing for the right to wear it…
Geralt’s clearly been watching CSI. His experienced, monster-hunting eyes scan the freshly unwrapped corpse, scanning it for evidence. The eyes. The hands. He sees something embedded in a wrist, though without proper tools, there’s little he can do with that. He dismisses it for now, and turns the corpse over for more accessible clues. “Fingernail marks down his back,” the unmoved witcher muses. “At least he had some fun before he died.”
That’s all he needs. He sits back and goes over the evidence. This is merely one of a number of victims, all of them male. The smell of sulphur in the air and the book of love poetry on the corpse fill in the remaining blanks. “A succubus,” Geralt deduces, matter-of-factly. And of course it’s a succubus. It’s a demo of The Witcher 2. What else was it likely to be?
I liked The Witcher a lot. I thought the sex cards were stupid and tacky, the opening chapters should have been burned out of the game with an arc welder, and the only reason I played it long enough to start liking it was that I had a friend who kept telling me it got better, honest, no really… So keep playing I did, and my reward was one of the most interesting RPGs in years. I loved its setting, the dark fairytale spins on what initially seemed like standard fantasy tropes, and the way its moral choices were never clear cut. The plucky rebels fighting against the racist status quo were just as bad in their own ways. The persecuted witch would turn out to have taken her revenge too far. Everything had an edge to it, and far from picking good and evil, all you could do was hope to muddle through.
Once the story kicked off, and after the Enhanced Edition put the real script back in, it was a terrific game, and I for one can’t wait for this sequel. In a year of awesome looking RPGs being released, it’s the one I most want to play right now – this second, or ideally sooner.
Even playing through a tiny, tiny segment of the game – not even an entire subquest – it’s clear that CD Projekt understands the problems people had with the first game. It doesn’t feel toned down. It doesn’t feel dumbed down. It simply feels smarter and more confident, from the fact that it’s rocking its own engine rather than Bioware’s to the fact that while the silly sex cards are gone, the sex definitely isn’t. It feels unapologetically like the RPG the company wanted to make, and never mind if people get ticked off about random shopkeepers dropping the c-word or Geralt being as good with the old pork sword as his trusty steel and silver ones.
While that’s the part that’s probably going to get a lot of people talking, the more impressive part in the demo was hearing about just how big the full game is going to be. It’s split into five acts, with multiple paths, and so split up that you may never actually see the town the demo was set in – its act having two completely different starting cities depending on how you resolve things earlier on in the game. The subquest on offer was short, but intricate. With the right tools for instance, you can extract that thing in the corpse’s wrist and get another clue from it. By studying the book of love poetry, you can summon the succubus more easily near her lair.
And then of course, there’s what happens when she shows up.
Tracking her down is easy, with Geralt roping his friend/travelling companion Dandelion into the action to act as extra-foppish bait. This means temporarily taking control of him to read lines of love poetry, trying not to notice that it’s generally a succubus’s job to make the sales pitch, not her target. But no matter. The poetry works, and then you get that most important moral choice: how to ruin Dandelion’s day. He’s a bard. Bards suck. It is your moral duty to punish them for it.
But how. How? Do you deliver the ultimate cockblock, ‘saving’ him from the acknowledged sexual heaven in the succubus’ lair, or send him to his probable death, making a note to regain the lost karma by kicking his corpse afterwards? Decisions, decisions, decisions…
In the end, I opted for Option A, mostly based on the philosophy that no matter how good a demon lover from the depths of Hell may be, there’s always going to be a girl who won’t want you to put your immortal soul on her dresser before you take your pants off. (At least, there always seems to be for other people, sob…) Dandelion promptly ran back to Geralt, who looked quietly glad to see the lack of bump-mapping on the disappointed bard, and readied his sword. Then, drawing his silver one for good measure, he descended into the lair.
Of course, nothing’s ever so simple. The succubus, idly standing around naked for the same reason that she was the subject of the demo – because this is The Witcher 2 and not remotely ashamed of it – didn’t seem particularly surprised, and even greeted him by name. She had her own explanation of what was going on, unsurprisingly of the “I’m a sex demon, I know pricks when I see ‘em…” variety. The demo ended before the next stage of the investigation, in which you hear her out – I said hear – and go on to track down the real killer. She may be telling the truth. She may be lying. Either way, nobody’s likely to leave the story smelling of roses.
(Unless you sent Dandelion in, who probably would, being a jammy, tambourine shaking git of a bard. Bards! Bah! May succubus-induced priapism stop him pissing for a week…)
Getting to this moment of coitus/carnage interruptus offered plenty of time to see The Witcher 2’s other changes from the first game, all of which seem positive. It looks terrific, with much more visceral combat replacing the original point-and-click ballet. Combat styles are out, with quick and slow attacks now bound to the mouse buttons, but otherwise, everything’s still here – the Signs, Geralt’s swords, and a special slot purely for extra toys like bombs. The focus is on winning battles because you’re more skilled/more powerful, not because you’ve got a satchel full of health potions to glug down, although it’s clear that you’ll still need to make heavy use of alchemy to prepare for those fights on the higher difficulty levels. On others, it’ll just help.
The one thing it really lacks is the same all-round perspective – it’s easy to fight enemies in front of you, but harder to keep track of casters off to one side, or anything sneaking up on you. There are a few minor tweaks to the formula, like the way time slows down to help you target weapons like bombs, and a few more need to be made before release, but it feels much more intuitive than the original Witcher ever did, with enough options and levelling choices to feel like an RPG, but with the pace of an action game when things inevitably kick off. Thankfully free of a repeat of that tedious amnesia sub-plot from the first game, Geralt is due to start this one as a capable warrior, complete with access to at least the basic Signs and some decent abilities.
Good as the combat seems though, it’s not really what I’m looking forward to. It’s the narrative side that feels the freshest about The Witcher 2, coupled with some excellent world design. The dwarf city of Vergan isn’t particularly inspired, but it looks lovely, and feels lively. The shopkeepers in the market babble constantly, and while there may only be a few real characters of importance in the local inn, its benches are full of NPCs with a line or two to be triggered. It definitely feels like a world I want to explore, especially knowing that the branching story isn’t afraid to cut off paths and opportunities throughout the game, not simply at the end.
I can’t wait for Dragon Age II. I’m really looking forward to The Old Republic. But really, it’s The Witcher 2 that has me most excited. Even if it simply repeats what the first game did in a more polished form, it’ll be good. And even an hour with it makes it obvious that CD Projekt has much higher ambitions than that. I want a world that embraces its shades of grey, and that understands that ‘mature’ can be a compliment, not simply a content warning. Everything I’ve seen of it suggests it’s going to be very special indeed. I really hope so. I want it to be a game I love, and a game I can recommend to friends without adding ‘after the first few hours’.
All the signs seem favourable. My fingers are crossed. Roll on the full adventure…
The Witcher 2 is due out on May 17th. Keep your eyes peeled for an interview with its Senior Producer later this week. Not literally though, that would be disgusting.