By Jim Rossignol on May 18th, 2011 at 5:34 pm.
So. Finished. I even had a little time to play through some of the alternate storyline stuff. What do I think? Well, I don’t think I’ll be putting any spoilers in this review, so you can read my thoughts on the subject with some degree of safety. If something else needs go above the jump here, it should probably be this: The Witcher 2 is going end up being talked about for a very long time to come.
This is one of the most significant games of 2011. Right now it looks like most significant PC-only game of 2011.
The Witcher 2: Assassins Of Kings is the sequel to 2007’s wonky fantasy RPG, The Witcher, and it improves on that precarious foundation in almost every conceivable way. I suppose the ambition of the developers for their work should have been clear after they relaunched their original game with the voice acting and character animation redone in 2008, to give us an Enhanced Edition, but even that was a pale creature when compared to the muscular effort of their most recent work. The Witcher 2 is a collossal beast in terms of vision and complexity, and it has engrossed me for the past few days. It’s shorter than the original by some measure, but it is burning half as long to be twice as bright.
I’m getting ahead of myself, and giving away the critical conclusion about how much I admire this game. There’s more to it than simple admiration however, as it’s tough to have an uncomplicated attitude towards this game. So let’s start with the basics. It’s a third-person fantasy RPG. There’s level-based progression, which allows you to unlock skills via a large talent tree. There’s a sizeable, linear story with dozens of quests, set across two distinct, large areas, and two other smaller intro and outro locales. The story is told mostly via dialogue scenes and cutscenes, of which there are many. Your choices have genuine impact in the game world, to the point where the tale told actually wholly diverges after the first chapter. It’s a huge bifurcation of plot, and means that pretty much everyone who enjoys this game through the first time is going to want to play it through a second time.
That story is set within the world of the titular Witcher, who is the creation of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. Sapkowski created the character in the 1980s and then wrote a number of novels and short stories based on The Witcher’s exploits. Those stories have proven rather popular. The Witcher himself is a chap called Geralt of Rivia, whose genetic mutations means that he is great at fighting, can make a little magic, and is popular with the ladies. All these elements go toward defining CD Projekt’s games, in which we can watch over Geralt’s shoulder as he slays monsters, cast spells, makes potions, collects herbs, has “romps” with sexy females, and a lot of other things that might happen in a world where a cynical magical mercenary with a warped-but-strong code of ethics makes his home.
One of the defining characteristics of Sapkowski ‘s world is that it is morally ambiguous, and fraught with complex politics. While it’s a standard fantasy set up with elves, dwarves, and humans, the dynamic between them is interesting. Humans are warlike and prejudicial towards the dwindling older races, and also fight among themselves in a baroque, multi-factional struggle over land and power. This means that The Witcher 2 has a relatively complicated plot, with numerous characters who are introduced with little scene-setting or explanation. This is one of the first points at which some of The Witcher 2’s intended audience might start to feel a little uncomfortable. As a player you are dropped into the middle of an ongoing story, with minimal exposition, and little reason to care about the characters that Geralt himself obvious does care about.
To be honest, though, I tend to loathe standard modes of exposition in games, and I find the labyrinthine plotting of this game refreshing. Although there are villains, there’s no Chosen One, no Ultimate Evil, just a lot of petty, powerful people squabbling under the shadow of magical weirdness, and all underwritten by the machinations of sorcerers, adventurers, assassins and other complicated, interested – and interesting – parties. It’s quite a world, but it definitely doesn’t welcome you in.
Nor does the difficulty of the game. While there’s a lot of wandering about and chatting, and even a bit of shopping, The Witcher 2 is action-heavy, not least when it comes to fighting. Combat is real-time, and is reliant on you being nifty with your positioning and timing. You perform fast blows with left-click, heavier, slower blows with right-click, and blocking with E. There are also some spells, but I’ll come to that in a moment. What’s weird about The Witcher 2 is that the prologue is about the hardest bit in terms of how this combat system handles you. There’s a lot fighting and a lot of getting flanked by groups of enemies. Because you don’t unlock skills to cope with being flanked until later in the game, the prologue (which lasts a couple of hours) and chapter one (many hours more) are significantly tougher than the chapters that follow.
It’s a peculiarly ill-judged baptism of fire (literally at some points). Where you’re expecting a game to teach you how it works and lead you by the hand, The Witcher 2 offers nothing but a few text-based tips boxes. If you don’t take time to figure out that you have to constantly dodge away with the spacebar, or use magic to buff your combat, you are going to struggle. And the game does not tell beginners this. The spells are barely mentioned, and you’ll need to stop and figure it out for yourself if you want to know what they do. While there are situations in which they /are/ introduced to you, at no point are you explicitly taught that it is a lot easier if you use the shield power to protect yourself in combat, for example
Of course by this point many gamers will have dropped difficulty from Normal, to Easy. You can do this at any time in the game, which is a friendly feature, but there’s an issue with that. Difficulty of combat on Easy is too easy. You can basically grind down any enemy by just beating them to death, and that’s not satisfying. Normal is much better, as you have to think, move, parry, and use magic in a timely fashion to win. This is a real challenge, however, and often just too hard. Frustratingly, Geralt is slightly too slow for this to really be a fluid experience. You will find yourself hammering keys while waiting for animations to play out. Although the system is extremely elegant, and soon mastered, your own skills then become limited by this mechanical system. You want Geralt to get up faster, to cast the spell when you demand it, and so on. He’s simply not agile enough to make for a truly satisfying combat experience. It’s very close to being dynamic, and the wandering cursor which hops from enemy to enemy (but can be locked by holding down Alt) sends you leaping about and means it occasionally feels very alive. But only occasionally. You can see exactly what CDP were trying to do, but actually just the wrong side of being frustrating. This is probably the biggest problem The Witcher 2 faces.
That said, there are times when you feel awesome, particularly into chapter two, when your powers have grown considerably. Some of the scenes in that, where I was able to take on multiple enemies, raking them with magical damage as I darted around with my sword, were extremely satisfying. Basically, the pacing of difficulty in the game feels wrong, and that’s going to be extremely off-putting for many.
Speaking of swords, I should mention loot and equipment. Now, this isn’t a loot-focused game, by any means. I used just a handful of different swords through the entire game, and only a single different outfit from the one Geralt started with. That said, good equipment does make a difference to your overall performance, and it’s notable when you step up to something better.
Irritatingly for me, The Witcher’s loot system strikes one of my pet peeves in its sensitive parts. Things in the world are not “real” in the sense that they are in some other games. So you might see swords or armour, but you can only pick up what the game decides has been dropped. This can be a little frustrating, but at least they’ve been reasonably smart about it (so you lose a sword at one point a replacement is dropped soon thereafter, even if you have to look for it). There’s also a staggering amount of incidental material dropped for crafting and alchemy.
Yes, crafting and alchemy are both heavily in evidence, even though they are basically optional/superfluous. You don’t need to indulge in either to get through the game, but they certainly help. Well, they do if you can bothered with them. I munched my way through a few potions, but got bored of picking up herbs and icky monster bits. I HAD PLOT TO GET THROUGH. That stuff could have been left out as far as I’m concerned, so I can’t pretend to care about it. What it does do is reward exploration, so you’re given some reason to spend more time poking about in the various corners of the the large maps you’re set loose in-
I’ve not yet mentioned how artfully crafted the world of this game is. And that’s really at the fore for me. I want you to leave this piece of writing with some thoughts about how beautiful The Witcher 2 is. It’s the kind of beautiful where you find yourself gazing over particular details, a stoned smile on your face. There was a moment where I stumbled across a shallow lake, with forest glades all around. A moment of serene wilderness. I marvelled at the fact that I could make out a shallow path through the milky water that allowed me to cross the lake. It was exquisite: naturalistic, perfect. The Witcher 2 is filled with details like this. The details are rich, and glorious.
The crows that are perched on ruined walls and gallows’ beams, the idle chatter of peasants in the town square, the way enemies crumple and die, the way the time of day shifts, the amazing horror of spider-like monsters descending trees in the forest, the chillingly brilliant undead materialisation stuff that I can’t possibly spoiler here. All these things come together within The Witcher’s world to make me want to go back and run my eyes over it again and again.
The Witcher 2 is the kind of beautiful where you will start thinking about spending money on graphics cards and stuff. You’ll want this to be dressed in its best.
This beauty extends to all the inhabitants of the world. Even when they’re mongrel-ugly bastards, they’re believable and boldly drawn. The way they hang out in the world, or chat when you interrupt them, is just right. The Witcher 2’s characters are without exception strong, and beautifully imagined. Most of the voice acting is well-delivered, with only one or two lines executed inappropriately. It’s even funny at times. Yes, there are actually one or two jokes that made me, an oil-hearted laugh-miser, blurt out the happy noise. I couldn’t believe it.
It’s perhaps not as large a game world as I would have liked. I think I got through it in around twenty four hours, and although that was a hasty run, I’m sure it could be completed much faster. There are two main areas to explore – with the prologue and chapter three being more sort of book-end pieces – and each of these sprawls off in a number of directions, with sidequests, dungeons and odd vignettes. It doesn’t feel like enough, though. Which is probably because I just want more. More of these entertaining characters, these brual fights, and these oddball quests.
While much of the dialogue shines, the writing isn’t all as good as I’d like it to be, and I’m unsure of how much of that is a remnant from Sapkowski’s work. For example, there’s a moment where the characters make a Lord Of The Rings reference, and then dismiss it as a “fairy tale”. It’s quite out of place, and jars badly. Making that kind of genre meta-reference doesn’t suit the game, and doesn’t make sense. Jokes yes, but this isn’t Magicka. There’s also the constant reference to modern scientific terms. I understand that is in keeping with The Witcher’s back-fiction, but it’s incongruous and just comes across as a series of anachronistic mistakes in the writing. These issues, combined with the overall opacity of the plot do not welcome anyone with either a drifting attention span, or a pernickety sense for imaginative coherence. Finally, although the game seems to set up for an epic sequel, the writing in the closing couple of hours really doesn’t wrap the game up satisfactorily. I’m not saying it’s bad or disappointing ending, just that it runs out of energy, and is something of a let down next to the ludicrous awesomeness of Chapter Two. I’m not going to spoil that, but let’s just say: Strong like ox.
I suppose I should mention the sex stuff. I found it to be extremely low-key by comparison to the previous game. It’s bawdy at times, and a little sexist, but seldom too offensive to worry about. There’s nakedness and bad sex jokes, but it’s fine. It is however totally fucking weird at times. There’s a scene where Geralt deliberately bursts in on some lesbian dominatrix stuff. It’s entirely (to my perception) random, and makes about as much sense as the camera panning around to reveal a Martian wearing a Tuxedo. There’s no explanation, and the scene skips straight to quest dialogue. (Yes, I have the magic crystal, etc.) I’m not sure what it was meant to say about the character in question. I don’t actually know why it was there at all. Weird.
You can, of course, have sex with prostitutes. (And in the game!)
So, now that I’ve finished blathering about words and flesh, are there other issues to take note of? Well, there was a moment toward the start where the scripting just didn’t work, but that seems like a minor issue in a game of this breadth and complexity. I managed to complete all the side-quests that I went for, even if I did get badly stuck on a couple of them. The worst element for me, actually, was the map. The close-up view left me baffled about where I was, and was near-useless for navigating my way around. I’m usually Captain Spatial Awareness when it comes to this kind of game, but The Witcher 2’s map had me running in circles. It’s also notable that you can zoom out and get a wider map of the various regions, which are all in Cyrillic. (Although, I now note, in english on the paper map that comes with the Premium Edition.) That seems like authentic touch, until you realise it conveys no information at all to anyone without that language. You can’t even make out where you are supposed be if you’re not up on that particular alphabet. An English-language map might not have been as atmospheric, but it would have made all the rambling on about different nations and regions make sense. It would have given me context, I would have been able to see who was fighting who. That would have made a huge difference to the overall experience of the game.
Also, doors are terrible. Really badly done. Characters have to use them one at a time, rather than walking through a door that is already open. This created some combat weirdness, and made me shout. A minor quirk, but not good.
Yet none of this really matters, because of what The Witcher 2 manages to do overall. It creates a sinister, cogent, violent, colourful world that is routinely affected by your actions within it. The game comes to life as it is merged with your decisions and articulates a story that is at once overwhelming and engrossing. I’ve enjoyed this collision of combat and story more than I have with any RPG since Vampire Bloodlines. It dissolves my lack of interest in fantasy games with its intensity.
The Witcher 2 is flawed in some ways, and a paragon in others. I cannot recommend everyone play it, because it simply won’t satisfy everyone in the same way, and will frustrate and off-put many with its bizarre little quirks of difficulty and moments of poor design. But I will recommend everyone buy it, because I want to play another one. And another one. And many more after that.
Well done, CD Projekt, you’ve just brought the fantasy RPG back to life. It’s still twitching from the electricity, but it’s a beautiful thing.