Based on a series of books by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, The Witcher made a big impact when it released on PC in October 2007. The first game from developers CD Projekt Red, the title was praised for being a thoughtful RPG with deep battle mechanics and a plot with some real depth. After an aborted attempt at making a console version of the game, the developers created the sequel with a custom engine, and it quickly garnered praise for its more adult story line, branching plot development and graphics that showed off what a PC could do. Like the first game, critics and players admired the title and showed their support with their wallets. Just like the first title, there was a plan to bring this to a console. This time, however, the plan succeeded, and Xbox 360 owners can see what the fuss was about with The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings - Enhanced Edition.
At first glance, the plot seems pretty standard. You play the role of a witcher named Geralt of Rivia, a human who has been genetically enhanced and trained in the art of slaying monsters. You are trapped in a cell and being interrogated about your role in the death of King Foltest, who you were hired to protect. After recounting how an assassin slipped past you and killed the king, you manage to escape, and with your newfound companions, you set out to find the king slayer.
The simple tale provides a solid framework for a deep world you don't often see in games, RPG or otherwise. The world is a bit dirtier than the medieval worlds you're used to seeing in other fantasy games. Small towns on the outskirts of a kingdom look familiar and rustic, but the castles fare no better. No matter where you go, you won't see magnificent-looking palaces or signs of extravagance. The world ends up being a reflection of the people you meet. Most of the noblemen are corrupt, violence is a way of life, and the heroes and villains aren't one-dimensional. No one is explicitly good or evil, and no one is above doing something bad for a good reason. There's blood and cursing as well as a fair amount of sex. Hatred toward those who aren't human is everywhere, elves are into guerrilla warfare, and dwarves work all day while engaging in drinking and debauchery all night. The game breaks all your notions of fantasy and leans toward a more realistic stance.
That realism bleeds into the gameplay since your actions don't always have simple black-and-white results. While you get a few hints as to how some of your responses will be carried out, everything is mired in a shade of gray, and the severity of a good or bad decision is your only constant. The difficulty in the decision-making process isn't helped by the NPCs you meet; they don't give away their motivations, so it's tough to choose the right answer for a given situation.
The difficult decisions factor greatly into the main quest as well as the side-quests. Side quests can only be found in certain parts of the story but can have lasting effects, depending on your actions. One decision you make in the game's prologue, for example, won't produce a result until near the end of the prologue chapter. Other chapters have side-quests that open or close possibilities further down the road. The main quest seems linear enough, though the decisions you make alter paths within a chapter. Some of the side-quests are only available if you increase your difficulty level. Other decisions are grand enough to change the flow of the game from chapter two onward, effectively locking you out of chunks of the story. Restricting how much of the game will be experienced in one playthrough is a bold move that encourages replay.
Combat is just as important as story in an RPG, and it is here that The Witcher 2 breaks from convention. Fighting is slightly free-form, so you can unleash sword and magic combos similar to Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. You can focus on one enemy at a time, but you can also move from one enemy to another without breaking stride. Even though you can't dual-wield, your two sword types are important; silver swords are only effective against monsters while basic steel is good for everything else. Unless you're playing the game on easy, blocking is an important part of the combat system, whether it's straight parrying or unleashing counterattacks. Disposable items, such as bombs and traps, can help you handle large crowds.
What makes this different from other combat systems is the emphasis on preparation. Going into the quick menus only slows down time, not freezes it, so enemies can hurt you badly if you sit there and try to decide on your weapon loadout. The same goes for potion use, since you need to enter a meditative state to conjure and drink potions. The use of potions is also limited since everything you make has a toxicity level that must be purged from your body before you can drink again. Especially in higher difficulty levels, preparing your arsenal is the best defense against seeing "game over" screens.
In between the combat, cut scenes and side-quests, you can partake in a few minigames, though most are only available at certain points and locations in the story. In arm wrestling, you try to keep your cursor in an ever-shrinking area to best your opponent. Fist fights are controlled by Quick Time Events (QTEs) instead of normal combat, so there's little to no say over whether you're unleashing an attack or performing a counterattack until you hit the button and see a cut scene. Both give you the opportunity to earn more money, but since they both fail to be exciting, you'll likely skip these events. A more interesting minigame is dice poker, which can also be played for money. Played with five standard dice, your objective is to roll a better hand than your opponent with a hand system similar to regular poker. Though the game is based more on luck than skill, it is more engaging.
Then there's the Arena, a side game mode where you face off against wave after wave of enemies in an enclosed area. The waves increase in variety and difficulty, forcing you to apply some tactics instead of relying solely on brute force. Alas, you can't take your current character into this mode, nor can you take this version of Gerald into the story, but you level up quickly enough that you can use this as a "preview" of your upgrades prior to continuing to the main story. Between rounds, you can buy items and potions and hire others like a dwarf, knight or sorceress to help keep enemies under control. Considering that it comes with online leaderboards, it makes for an interesting diversion if you're hungry for combat.
Of the minigames and side modes, the most surprising one is the tutorial. Unlike most games, the tutorial in The Witcher 2 places you on a separate mission instead of the first mission, so those who skip it won't miss anything crucial to the story. The tutorial is quite lengthy and necessary if you want to learn the ins and outs of the controls and battle system, but it is flawed. First, the tutorials don't let you perform any actions in a timely manner. The game gives you the instructions on-screen, but you have to wait a few seconds before you can perform the action, creating a disconnect due to the mandatory waiting period. Second, no matter how well you perform in this section of the game, continuing on to the story will always place you on Easy. Even though you can change this to anything but the two highest difficulty levels, it feels demeaning that anyone who tries the tutorial always gets placed at the lowest difficulty level.
On a side note, the game package is rather impressive. For the price of the standard game, you're given a soundtrack and paper map of the land. You're also given a quest handbook that tracks down the main quests from every chapter as well as all of the side-quests. It's useful stuff, and considering that most of this would have been locked away with pre-orders or through a special edition (though one still exists with even more physical goodies), it shows that the developers appreciate their fans.
The team has done an admirable job of fitting the PC control scheme on a controller. The basics are easy to grasp, with the face buttons handling two basic attacks, dodging and one general magic button. Triggers handle blocking and enemy lock-on, and the d-pad takes care of the sheathing and drawing of swords as well as sword selection. The right bumper lets you use an item, and the left bumper brings up a radial menu so you can select the magic spell and disposable item — or initiate meditation. At first, the myriad of things you can do without going to a menu seems daunting, especially if you use lots of spells and items in a battle, but over time, it becomes second nature.
The sound is nothing short of terrific. The effects are crisp and sound great through even the worst of sound systems. Meanwhile, the music is reminiscent of recent medieval fantasy movies or TV shows. Epic battle themes are peppered in with calmer melodies that suggest a rough, brooding atmosphere even when there's no fighting. It is a top-notch soundtrack that rivals those from more famous development studios with bigger budgets. The voices are delivered well, but the mix of accents makes one raise an eyebrow. The cast is mostly a mix of different British accents, but a few American ones are clearly evident, especially the bard who narrates part of your tale. Geralt, interestingly enough, speaks with a voice that's soft and gravelly enough to be mistaken for a Christopher Lambert imitator.
The Witcher 2 was notorious for needing a really powerful rig to make it look visually stunning. For hardware that's more than six years old, the Xbox 360 handles the engine quite well. As expected from big titles, the character models sport excellent details and textures and have some very fluid movements in battle and during cut scenes. Particle effects appear top-notch, and the environments have enough variety between the usual browns that even places like dank dungeons have some beauty. The most impressive part, aside from the fact that the frame rate holds steady at 30 all the time, is the lighting. Sunlight pierces treetops so you can see light beams bending around objects while artificial light from torches look natural and make scenes even more impressive.
With all of this praise heaped on its appearance, the game still isn't perfect. Navigating menus often creates pure black screens that last for a second instead of displaying a smoother transition method. Clipping becomes a problem on all characters, especially when it comes to flowing hair since that has a tendency to cut through clothes and faces. Detailed texture pop is an issue after loading a new game or seeing an element for the first time. This particular issue occurs enough that the developers recommend you perform an install of the game to alleviate the problem. While the issue still exists after an install, it is reduced enough that this is the recommended way to play the game.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings - Enhanced Edition is a game that lives up to the hype. The story and game come off as more mature than other similarly rated games. The combat is rewarding, and the completely alternate paths and side-quests provide more than enough incentive to replay the game once you finish it. The sound is masterfully done, and the graphics show that, even with a few flaws, developers can pull off some magic with this old hardware. Both RPG and action lovers will be more than satisfied with this very entertaining title.
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