It took me eight straight hours to crawl through the sewers, beneath Cologne’s conference centre and then up through an impossibly tight U-bend into a disused toilet somewhere in the North Hall, but finally I was back at GamesCom. The guards had turned me away when I’d tried to enter through the main doors – disgusted by the foul breath that had resulted from eating a sleeping tramp’s shoes and by the rotting pigeon-skin loincloth I had been forced to don once I’d sold my last clothes to afford a cup of frightening grey coffee. I thought of Quintin, and his shoes made of finest unicorn hide. Perhaps he could spare me a promotional t-shirt to cover my filthy body? But not. He would have his minders throw in the Rein on sight. Better to carry on, and to my next appointment. At least the world of this game would mirror my own condition. Onwards, and to the Witcher 2.
Meaty. It is the Witcher but it isn’t. It’s meaty. Magic assassin-ninja-superdude Geralt and his world are solid and physical, moving with dynamism and variety rather than the light looping of before. Where the first game sometimes struggled to reconcile RPG with action, this seems much more confident: a game that knows looking good as men get chopped doesn’t mean roleplaying subtlety and intelligence has been overlooked.
It’s a bigger, bolder game all over – a pre-demo stat-blast revealing that it has 256 cutscenes (160 mins) vs the first’s 130 (53 mins), 30 armour types versus 6, 16 game endings versus 3 and, most appealingly, 4 load screens instead of 700. (They say the increased cutscene count doesn’t mean it’s going to be one of those games that think they’re movies. Warren might not agree).
Visually, it’s a big step up too – the wounds on a newly post-torture Geralt’s back were visceral enough to make me grimace, and lupine hints to his face are unmistakable. Visual improvements are useful as well as superficial – the interface and UI is slick and modern, stripped down but smart. Dialogue choices float on the screen like artful subtitles rather than a brutalist box. The word ‘elegant’ is in my notes. This is, I suspect, going to be an enormously impressive game on a technical level. They’ve put the time, they’ve put the money in, and we’re probably going to look at Dragon Age 1’s muddy surface with a little bit of contempt following this.
Yet signs of a certain crudity remain, something uncertain and immature lurking underneath the surface confidence and maturity. The demo goes to great lengths to show a gritty, unpleasant world filled with suffering and dirtiness. And then, hey, boobs. Big, incongruously perfect, brazen breasts, gleaming like oiled whaleskin amidst the blood and grime covering every other surface in the game. The woman in question is a prisoner, supposedly being tortured. It’s supposed to be a harrowing moment – a mother who’s just lost her son and is now in grave danger, treated with monstrous disdain and the threat of hideous sexual violence.
Instead, it’s masturbation fodder, an unashamed invitation to admire a pixel-perfect fantasy figure. This women is supposed to be suffering, but I’m supposed to salivate. The camera lingers, closes slightly on those improbable appendages – even when Geralt dispatches her torturers-to-be, rescues her and she requests to cover her porn star body up again, we’re treated to a final titilatting jiggle, rather than a demure turnaround, as she pulls her unscathed dress back up. She doesn’t seem terribly bothered. The game doesn’t seem terribly bothered. It just wanted to show us some tits, because apparently that’s how you know a game is mature.
In the demo, I start typing frantically. One of the devs seems to glance towards someone at the back of the room with some consternation. ook, I’m not going to make this preview about the Witcher 2’s attitude to women, and I’m enormously optimistic about this game, but coming off the back of the controversy about the gotta-bed-’em-all sex cards in the first game, it’s impossible not to mention this. I know this is meant to be a game for adults, featuring adult situations, and it’s absolutely fine that it features sex and nudity. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t. But it doesn’t have to throw all discretion to the wind at the same time. Fine, show us perfect nipples – but don’t do it just because, no matter what the context may be.
But let’s leave that alone, wait and see what the rest of the game is like in that regard, and instead go backwards to the context of this demo. The situation in question sees Geralt breaking out of a prison he’s been locked in. In an earlier part of the game, the player had chosen whether to kill a guard or to simply render him unconscious. If he’s killed, we end up in the rescue scenario above, which leads the bereaved mother to help Geralt’s own escape, even if she can’t forgive him for the death of her son. She is of noble blood, and calls upon a sympathetic local general to send his guards to the wrong part of the dungeon while Geralt makes his escape.
Alternatively, the son was merely knocked out. As Geralt creeps through the dungeon – with an appealingly tangible stealth system that involves extinguishing torches and quaffing a potion that renders nearby guards’ circulatory systems glow-in-the-dark – he stumbles across this chap (Arjan) being tortured by his former colleagues. For reasons I’ll admit I didn’t quite follow, apparently his shapely mother has likely been killed rather than captured.
Cue fighting, in a brawling/swordfighting fandango that evokes the crunchy cinematic style of Arkham Asylum rather than the mechanical wait’n’stab of the first game. It looks like a cutscene, but it’s entirely controlled by the player. It’s brutal and impressive. (That there’s a box-quote if ever there was one).
Arjan’s rescued, but he’s in bad shape. So Geralt takes him on his arm and leads him out the prison. Against, it’s physical and meaty, not two marionettes following each other across a textured surface. It looks like one guy hauling an injured foe about – the weight and closeness of it.
Recovered, Arjan’s fury about his presumed-dead mother takes hold. Angrily, he torches the entire dungeon. Geralt flees amidst sound and fury, not amidst stealth and a partial pardon. You can damn well bet that’s going to shape the game later. This is just one example, one early quest, and one simple decision had led the game down an entirely different path.
Actions mean consequences, and constant ones rather than long-term ones. That’s clearly the mantra of the game. It even extends backwards – import your Witcher 1 savegame and you’ll see one of three different introductions, plus a slew of changed states throughout the game. Treated the elves like crap last time? They’re going to remember. Oh, and a dev assures us that people without their saves will be able to make a bunch of up-front choices to make the game reflect how they’d like to have kicked off.
We’re also promised no fed-ex quests, no empty collection of trinkets. A tale often told by RPGs and MMOs, but they seem to mean it. They want to make something earthy and real and vicious and smart and subtle and grown-up. I think they can do it, but I do expect a few slips. Nip-slips, if you will.
The game jumps to a later section – another world, a fiery, hellish battlefield in which spectral soldiers battle eternally. It looks incredible – hundreds of lost souls lunging at each other, flames everywhere and, amidst it, lumbering demons made of mystically-magnetised armour. Not matching suits of armour – random collections of shields and helmets and greaves mashed into roughly humanoid form.
Above it all looms the Draug, leader of these demons. He’s immense, seemingly made of shields. He summons archers, artillety, flame upon flame. Geralt hacks away desperately, with chunks of the metal’n’leather construct’s patchwork armour-shell falling away as he does. It’s a boss fight, all special attacks and careful dodges, but it looks gloriously apocalyptic. Remembering the annoyingly little ghost-dog boss and the big angry plant of the first game, I smile. This is a world apart. This is taking on the big boys of roleplaying head-to-head and very possibly winning.
On screen, the grim fight continues. The Witcher appears doomed. Fade to black.
It’s by and large an excellent demo, affirming my long-held belief that this will be one of the most satisfying RPGs of the last few years. Who’s watching the witchmen? Me, and closely.
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