Both myself and Jim have recently been exploring preview code for upcoming dirty fantasy RPG The Witcher 2, which comprised the first two sections of the game. We both found ourselves simpering away like tabloid newspapers at a royal wedding in response to it; we are cynical men by nature, but so far The Witcher 2 has defeated that. Jim's preview is here, but it's well worth distilling our experiences down to some of the game's most impressive aspects. The Witcher 1 may have been a little bit divisive despite the generally fond sentiment towards it, but right now it's looking as though the second game is exactly what the starving roleplaying hordes have been praying for. Here are just a few good reasons why we're all a-quiver- and hopefully the full game holds yet more.
1. Geralt = Clint Eastwood (more Unforgiven-era than Rawhide-era). I wasn't sure about him in the first game - he seemed a mix of tortured hero stereotype and cocky lech, but he's had a bit of a character redesign as well as a new face for thes second game. He's still macho and self-assured, but resigned and battered, not too talkative, even a little bit torn about what's the right thing to do, rather than just a surly hard-nut with a mysterious past. He does a wee bit of wise-cracking, and he's also prone to rolling eyes about other people's fancy talks and stupid ideas. Rather than forever being 'I am master of all I survey', he's got a vague air of "oh for God's sakes, not again."
2. Almost every potion has a negative effect, in addition to the fact that drinking one briefly poisons you. What might add health reduces your magical energy, or vice-versa, while one that lets you see in the dark for a few minutes makes emerging into daylight a painful experience. It's chemical gambling, choosing what sacrifices you make in the name of success, rather than the dubiously neat'n'perfect potions of fantasy tradition. You also can't down something in the middle of a fight (really, when does that ever happen in reality?), but instead have to prepare beforehand. You plan your fights rather than simply blindly react to adversity - and you may well get your pale arse kicked if you don't.
3. It's packed with Welshmen, and assorted other regional British accents. This suits the general low fantasy, colloquial air of the game - there's not too much in the way of prissy, clipped Lord of the Rings tones, which makes it much more convincing. Although it must be said that the occasionally open American accent is a little jarring - Geralt is relatively restrained, but his on-off sex-partner Triss sounds entirely out of place.
4. Brute force will only get you so far - You'll need specific tools to truly defeat specific monsters and quests. Nekker (tunneling zombie-goblin thingies) can be relatively easily dispatched with a sword, but they'll keep on spawning from nests unless you find the right ingredients to construct the right bombs to finally close off those 'orrible portals to the undergound. Giant spiders, meanwhile, will keep showing up in droves unless you find a way to lure out and murder their queens. That's not an easy fight, but a slew of other traps (explosive, snappy, flamey, stunny) might just keep you alive if you have chance to set 'em up before the big brute scuttles your way...
5. Dragons and krakens oh my... The game wastes no time in introducing you to really, really big'n'ugly stuff that requires complex tactics to defeat. This isn't beating up kobolds in the woods, but a game of high stakes and high spectacle. And that's just the first chapter - the later game is doubtless laden with new setpiece horrors.
6. Granted this was introduced in the first game, but the dramatically improved writing and acting means it's more convincingly explored this time around. Elves and dwarves aren't the charming, friendly chappies of this particular fantasy world - they're outsiders, looked upon by the governing humans with contempt at best and violent prejudice at worst. Fairly early on in the game, you need to make decisions about whether you sympathise with a group of bitter elves who are essentially terrorists, or side with a human governor who's working to protect his people but is openly racist in his attitudes. It's not easy. The elves (and to a lesser extent so far dwarves) are violently angry about their treatment, and righteously so - but that means other lives are placed in danger. This is a morally complex world, with no easy answers.
7. It's astonishing to look at - doubly so if your graphics card is up to Ultra settings, but even medium and high looks pretty spectacular. This is one of those all-too-rare games where the PC's technological superiority over its console fun-box cousins simply can't be denied. It's designed to be a PC game, to make the very best of the PC, and it shows -from the remarkable amounts of detail on the characters (you'll wince at the scars and wounds on Geralt's torso) to the rays of orange-yellow light through the dense forest at sunset and sunrise. The Witcher 2 may well be one of the best-looking games in history, and not purely on a technical level. In addition, the vast bulk of the world streams quietly in the background, mean you can wander across huge areas of beautiful landscape without encountering any loading screens. On that level, it's been very strange to have played Witcher 2 preview code in the same week as I played Portal 2...
8. The collection and construction of mega-loot is a proper and satisfying quest in itself. For instance, collecting a certain amount of Endraga jaws to build a powerful sword, or scouring local traders for rare materials to create a new set of armour. It's all done off your own back, in your own interest, not just because some near-motionless goon with a quest arrow has inexplicably demanded you collect 12 pig testicles for him. It's meaningful to you, not to a silent NPC.
9. Magic is woven into the fabric of this world, but again it's not the noble, omnipotent, convenient splendour of other fantasies. It's small, simple, tactical, dirty and weird. A powerful mage casting a protection spell (which prettily transforms incoming arrows into butterflies) swiftly results in her collapsing seconds later - humans were not meant to wield such power. Geralt, meanwhile, has immediate access to around a half dozen spells which only ever enhance rather than replace his swordplay. A small gust of force might keep enemies at bay, a burst of flame could soften up a shielded guy enough to find an opening, or the mind-control spell might bewilder one of several attackers for long enough that you can get out of a pinch. Visually and effectively, these are small, simply tools to even the odds, not to dominate them. It's unusual to even see full-on magic in this world, let alone to wield it - and while Geralt can upgrade his powers significantly, he's not going to be raining fire and summoning demons. This isn't the X-Men, this is a guy who clobbers stuff with a sword but has a few parlour tricks to help out.
10. There's not too much signposting of sidequests. This isn't an artificial place waiting for you to turn up and fix all its problems - it's there anyway, doing its own thing, and you have to make it work for you. Get out there and explore, chat to people, nose at billboards, create your own story through the game. No big yellow arrows to denote quests here, just a big, subtle world to figure you way through.
11. It's a morally and politically complicated place, on a micro to a macro level. Is slaying a murderous troll under a bridge necessarily a good idea, given he could legitimately keep bad sorts from entering town if only you can talk him out of whatever blood-crazed doldrums he's in? Is a king who's sired bastard children and embarked on arguably unnecessary wars a bad king, or does his general conviction and generosity make him a better ruler than most? Or is he just a man, and should be thought of as such? There's an awful lot of politics in the Witcher 2; unfortunately some of it is near nonsensical to newcomers (a serious worry about the game is it presumes everyone has played and finished the original Witcher) but many fascinating bigger pictures emerge once you dig in. Its interest in dark politicking, wrestling with prejudice and grand conspiracy means it's immediately a whole lot more interesting than the usual "walk over there to save the world" claptrap.
12. Sword fighting is visceral and tactical - it's a mix of player skill and quick thinking and character skill (for instance, unlocking parrying skills and various extra attacks) rather than invisible dice rolls or the unusual timing mini-game of the first Witcher. It's genuinely an action game within an RPG, and doesn't seem to have compromised either aspect. Fighting is meaty and satisfying, and a good battle feels like a workout.
The Witcher 2 is released on May 17, and if we don't get review code soon we'll explode.