The Witcher series has been one of the few games to make me envious of PC players. The game has always required a hefty machine to run its gorgeous landscapes, and not being a PC gamer myself, I have never quite met the standards necessary to experience it. When CD Projekt Red announced the game was coming to consoles, I was ecstatic. The big questions, of course, are if the nearly seven-year old hardware of the Xbox 360 can handle such a taxing game, and if the developers could tailor the control scheme to a console.
You play as Geralt of Rivia, known among the lands as the ’White Wolf’. You are a Witcher; a monster hunter for hire who carries two blades and has a way with women. Geralt is the definition of anti-hero. He can just as easily settle a family squabble as he can simply walk away knowing the dire consequences of his failure to intervene. Those concerned about not having played the original should rest assured knowing the game does a fantastic job of making the sequel accessible. It helps that Geralt has lost his memory, so even he doesn’t remember what took place in the first game.
Throughout your experience, you will slowly pick up pieces of your memory that fill in the gaps, and the game comes packed with a nice synopsis video recapping some of the highlights. If you really want to dig in, there is even an entire rundown of the first game available online to get the storyline of the original game. All that said, feel safe knowing you can jump right into the game without any knowledge of The Witcher. Don’t let the ’2’ scare you away.
For those not in the know, The Witcher 2 is an action RPG with a cinematic flavor and truly epic storyline. It is really unlike anything you have seen before, not so much in style as in execution. Geralt carries two swords, as I mentioned. One is made for slaying human enemies, while the other, forged entirely of silver, specializes in slaying monsters. The combat appears simple enough with one quick and one heavy attack, but mashing buttons will only get you killed. You see, Witcher 2’s combat is more about preparation rather than anything else. Knowing what you are up against is key, and there is definitely no shame in running away from battle.
You cannot simply take health potions during a fight. Instead, in order to drink any potion you have to first meditate. In this mode, you are vulnerable to attack. Potions can be concocted using the alchemy system, which also has to be done in meditation. Geralt can only take so many toxins in his system, which is represented by a bar. This means you can only drink so many effect potions at a time, and each one has a time limited effect, so using them wisely is recommended. The alchemy system is vastly deep, allowing players to gather formulas and create some truly cool potions such as Cat, which allows you to see in the dark, or potions that simply counteract poisons of certain enemies.
Preparation is key, especially in boss battles. Knowing your enemy, laying down traps and having the right tools for battle is imperative. The combat itself is fluid. Geralt locks on to whatever enemy he is facing, and you can hold down the left trigger to focus only on that particular enemy. Handling multiple foes is simple, and the upgrade tree actually feels like it makes a difference. For instance, when I first upgraded my sword skills to allow more distance for my attacks, I actually noticed it. Unlike other RPGs that dole out upgrades that never seem to quite make a large impact, every new talent point feels like it gets put to good use.
Geralt also has a host of magic at his disposal. You can light enemies on fire, cast protective spells on yourself and even turn enemies against each other. All of these skills also have their own branch of the upgrade tree. There are so many to level up that each time I went into the stats screen, I had to really wrestle with my choice of upgrads. It will take you a while to experiment with everything that The Witcher 2 has to offer, but once it settles, it is brilliant.
The game offers a hefty main quest to embark on. As I mentioned earlier, the game is extremely cinematic with long conversations between characters, and plenty of options to change the game. This doesn’t work like a good/bad morality, where the consequences are apparent immediately. Instead, decisions you make in Witcher 2 have dynamic effects on the story throughout its course. Helping someone early on may change the outcome of something fairly late in the game, and it may be significant, or as simple as a formula for a potion. That is the beauty of this system; the game never makes it clear how things will pan out, making it more organic and specialized to your play.
The main story is meaty, but if you factor in all the side quests, this game is massive. The best part is that these diversions are not superfluous; they actually offer up more to the main story should you choose to indulge in them. Whether you are enforcing the sobriety of a troll, or settling a family dispute, the game never leaves a chance to further Geralt or his actions on the cutting room floor. I promise you, these are sidequests that you actually won’t mind partaking in.
Now, I may be gushing on and on about this game, but that doesn’t mean it comes without faults. First up, the engine itself can suffer from time to time. Screen tearing and some occasional slowdown are present. You will also see the odd glitch from time to time, such as your second sword disappearing or perhaps the screen flicker coming out of a cut scene. Lots of your issues are resolved by installing the game, but you will still find the sporadic muddy texture, and of course, this version is not nearly as sharp as the PC iteration, but it comes damn close considering the hardware.
Another main problem with the game is its navigation system. The mini-map directs you to your tracked quest, but navigating the world is not always a breeze, especially without a fast-travel system. The larger map is also hindered by not centering on you when selected, and not offering up the ability to hover over areas to get more info. It all just feels messy. Thankfully, the Enhanced Edition comes with a nice quest guide that can help when the game feels the need to be vague. It helped me out of several instances where I spent too much time wondering exactly where my next objective was. It is frustrating at times, but nothing that breaks the entire experience.
As for the presentation, this is one gorgeous game. The RED Engine is truly amazing, featuring some massive landscapes and beautiful environments. The 360 handles it impressively, only stopping here and there to show its age. As I said earlier, installing it is a must, and with two discs, it can be a hefty spot on your hard drive, but rest assured that you only need one disc installed at a time. This isn’t quite the open-world you might expect from, say, Skyrim. The music is fantastic, really bringing you into the world, and the voice acting is top-notch. Every character is dripping with personality, and the well-written dialogue is both funny and mature. Some of the lines are memorable, while others are downright hilarious. The only sore spot, presentation-wise, are the menus within the game. They feel sluggish and designed for a much smaller screen. Some things can be overwhelming, while others are downright hard to read.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is truly an immaculate experience that fans of the genre should not miss. Sure, if you played it on PC there is little here to bring you back in, especially since the extra content will be delivered via a free download to PC players, but console owners who have been envious of the series are in for a treat. This game is well designed, gorgeous and most importantly, a blast to play. I got lost in the world and really never wanted it to end. I cannot wait to dive right back in and make new decisions and choices to see how things pan out differently. The Witcher 2 is truly a game to be admired, and one you should definitely not miss.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.