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Return To The Witcher 2: Part 2 - The Not So Good Bits

Assassin Of Things

Featured post 'Geralt, what do we do?' 'I DON'T KNOW THIS IS STILL THE TUTORIAL HOW DO I DRAW MY SWORD AND HIT THINGS!?'

So, last time we looked at The Witcher 2 in all its glory. Today, we’re flipping it round. Where did things go wrong? Before we start, a clarification. While this will inherently be negative, it’s not to bash the game. The game was awesome, and many of the balls it dropped to the ground were at least pretty well gathered up by the Enhanced Edition. This is really more looking at issues to hope won’t be repeated by The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt [official site], allowing it to be all we want it to be.

1) Development Insularity

If The Witcher 2 had one fatal flaw, it was that it very obviously didn’t get enough fresh eyes on it during the later stages of development. My first hint of this was at a preview event, where the producer was running around telling everyone to use the medallion to find secrets, but when asked what the hint was that there was something to find, falling back on (paraphrase) “Because I just told you.” Sitting down in front of the full game, it quickly became obvious that too much of it had been built like that. Incorrect map locations for instance, which could only be missed if everyone was running to where they knew the thing actually was. Not taking any time to explain the magical Signs properly before dumping the player into an extremely tough fight. Poor conveyance of mechanics during the boss fights, most notably the appalling Kayran encounter early on. Assuming knowledge of the world geography and kingdoms, or where it was present, burying it in a boring codex. Codexes are for players looking to dig into lore, not for devs to avoid presenting it properly.

This also badly affected much of the story, which simply assumed that everyone playing would have at least a decent understanding of the world and characters and mechanics. This was also the case in the original Witcher, but that game was far more aimed at existing fans than the sequel, which shot for a far bigger audience. To Witcher fans, I’m aware that complaining of things like, say, not knowing the strategic importance of the Pontar valley or the nature of dragons and magic in this world is as petty as sitting down in front of a Star Wars game and going “What’s this Force thing everyone keeps talking about? Darth WHO?” Going in cold though, just basic things like whether or not the struggle over the Pontar Valley is actually important is easily missed, to say nothing of all the factions whose schemes were often either lost or seemingly dropped depending on the paths chosen in the game.

The Enhanced Edition went a long way to fixing these issues of course, and hurrah for that. Its proper tutorial offered a far better introduction to the game, and additional content sprinkled throughout the rest. Still, with Wild Hunt introducing more characters, including Ciri as a playable one, hopefully it will find ways to subtly clue in players who only know the world from the games, without slowing things down too much for those who already know the details from the books.

(My favourite moment of insularity remains when I previewed the game, and was told that I could talk about anything in it, except what happens to King Foltest. Yes, in a game called The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. They genuinely couldn’t see it wasn’t going to be a big surprise.)

2) Late Modding Tools

A minor one, but a disappointment. A couple of years was just too long to wait for the modding tools. If Wild Hunt is going to bother trying to push the mod potential, it has to be far quicker off the mark.

To kill one man is a tragedy. To kill a hundred... well, honestly at that point you're all just XP to me.

3) Combat Balance

The first few levels of Witcher 2 are just ghastly, mostly because you’re not so much making Geralt a better fighter as slowly making him a not-shit one. That’s an important distinction, especially when it comes to basics like not being able to even parry properly, and the ludicrous rolling-circus that every battle inherently becomes. By the end of the first Act though, the pendulum has swung almost the other way. For most of Act 2 and 3, you’re almost unkillable on regular difficulty levels unless you do something particularly stupid. Wild Hunt badly needs to find a better balance here where Geralt is good, but the threat of more than a couple of guys or taking on a large monster isn’t simply a case of struggling, picking the correct sword, and doing his world-famous impression of a blender.

4) A Lack Of Monsters

Yes, yes, there are monsters, but for the most part The Witcher 2 isn’t all that interested in that side of Geralt’s job, save as an explanation for why he’s good at killing the kind that wear human skin. That’s somewhat interesting in its own right as a plot element, but a game called The Witcher could have done with just a little more, well, Witching. Ideally of the kind beyond just killing some things in the forest with a couple of sword-swings. The monsters of the books tend to be much more interesting than that, not least in requiring lots of preparation and knowledge that demands a specialist’s attention rather than just a passing warrior. Wild Hunt’s open world will hopefully allow Geralt to get back to that kind of stuff, as well as ideally bringing in more of the Slavic and other more interesting mythological creatures that could do with getting more of an airing in fantasy worlds.

That said…

5) Boss Fights

Most were pretty bloody awful, either because the mechanics sucked (Kayran) or the timing wasn’t right (Letho, Round 1) Letho really could have done with being a bonus boss of sorts, with a reward for beating him but no expectation of doing so at that point. His final optional fight is far more enjoyable, both because it’s your choice and because it feels like a fair battle between equals. The escalation would have worked far better if the original had been a likely curb-stomp battle for comparison instead of something you still had to win.

6) Overly Fractured Story

One of The Witcher 2’s biggest features was its two different Act 2s depending on who you decided to trust at the start of the game. This is definitely very cool, and impressively ambitious. Looking back however, I think it was also a pretty serious mistake. Choosing means that far too many plot points are either not introduced properly or resolved poorly/off-screen. The sorceress conspiracy, the hunt for Triss, the whole business with the royal children… it’s there, but only in theory.

This reaches critical mass in the final act, which is just awful. To someone with it mapped out on a big whiteboard, there’s both a ton of content and lots of resolutions to everything. In practice, only seeing a tiny slice of it isn’t very satisfying at all, and the idea of replaying the entire thing… well, that’s a big time commitment, and one most people are only going to bother with if they were incredibly satisfied. I’d be curious to know whether or not you actually bothered, and which side you joined if you did. Certainly when I reached the end only to find nothing I’d been chasing resolved, and the big political upheaval being that a country I’d never heard of was going to take over a country neither I nor Geralt seemed to have any particular ties to, that wasn’t my first inclination.

I do still like the idea of seeing the story from both sides of the war, but it rests on actually seeing the story. At least, in enough detail to appreciate the bigger sweeps of what’s happening by the end, if not necessarily everyone’s reasons and rationales. (To use Dragon Age as an example here, one of my favourite things about the original game is that you get to talk to Loghain about his many acts of dickery and realise that for all he ballsed up, his motives were relatively sound.)

7) Pacing

Somewhat tied to the previous issue, yes, but the pacing of the game was a real mess. I remember reviewing it over a weekend or so, being near the end of Act 2 and e-mailing my editor to warn them that there was no way I was going to have finished it by Monday. I figured I was about halfway through, at the point where the story really kicks into gear. About ten minutes later, I looked in the game diary to be told that I was on the final leg. An hour later, the credits were rolling and I was feeling very, very let down.

A lot of this is tied to the first village, Flotsam, which contributes very little to the story, then the bulk of Act 2 as mentioned being fractured and throwing in plot elements all the time before only a few of them are actually picked up on for the end. I kept expecting a chapter where, for instance, I’d be dealing with the Sorceresses again, and finally rescuing Triss, not knowing that all that was going on in a different game entirely. I was waiting for a bit where I’d find out about the villain’s scheme, not realising that it would be a conversation largely tacked on the end where he just says “So, what do you want to know?” and infodumps harder than Tolkein after five laxatives. The end, where a few characters appeared to say a couple of lines, was a cliffhanger without the decency to bring a cliff.

The Enhanced Edition at least added some Fallout style final boards to the game to add proper context about what happened next around the world, and that helps a lot. The political situation is bigger than Geralt, but it was silly to spend that much time making you key to what happened and then not bothering to properly explain what that actually was. Wild Hunt will need to learn from this, and provide a storming finale in its own right, not least because it’s being sold as Geralt’s final adventure. I already know that I’ll want to know what happened to the people I met and helped, especially in a world where doing the right thing isn’t always what’s best.

I'M TRYING TO HOLD ONTO THIS PLOT AND ALSO THIS DRAGON AND SO FAR HOLDING ONTO THE DRAGON IS EASIER!

8) Mature Content Redux

Okay. Last time I praised half of the game’s handling of this, and now it’s time for the flip-side. To be clear, I don’t really care about the prostitutes and other casual encounters in the game, which are both fine in-context and not particularly interesting. Some of the major scenes though, I found a bit off-putting – the gratuitous Triss flashing in the intro, with Geralt’s body even making windows to admire her ass through, and a few specific things like the handling of Dethmold in his final scenes, which felt like it had come from another, far inferior game, and Phillipa’s scenes with Cynthia thrown in for no particular reason save audience titilation. In both instances it’s a case of execution rather than necessarily concept, especially after other things in the game showed that The Witcher 2 could have done them far better. Hopefully Wild Hunt will be as strong throughout.

9) Oh, Yes, And There Was A Character Called “Dethmold”

Fucking no.

For all this complaining, I reiterate that The Witcher 2 got far, far, far more right than it got wrong, and working through the list it’s gratifying to see how much is at least addressed if not entirely fixed by the Enhanced Edition. Certain things of course are baked in, like the nature of the plot, but even then it saw additions like more content for the otherwise pretty empty third act. It would have been very easy for CD Projekt to simply sniff at complaints that, for instance, the combat was too hard to get into. Instead, it took the time to implement a dedicated tutorial. Where information was lacking, it was added in as carefully as possible, and smoothly enough that it’s tough to notice that it wasn’t there in the first place. The result is a far more polished, and more importantly, far more self-aware game than the one that first hit shelves, with lessons being both learned and applied already. I can’t think of many better ways to suggest that Witcher 3 will be as big a jump for both the series and CD Projekt RED’s RPG craft that Witcher 2 was from the original. I for one can’t wait.

And hopefully this time, we won’t even need a second version to fix it all up…

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