Review by Marcus444

"Mature writing, gorgeous visuals, and vicious combat puts The Witcher 2 far above its peers."

The Witcher 2: Assassin's of Kings is the highly anticipated PC slugger from Polish developers CD Projekt Red. Based on Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski's dark fantasy universe, The Witcher 2 continues the quest of Geralt, mtant monster hunter and unwitting tool for bickering politicians. Built on brand new hardware and adapting modern design sensibilities, The Witcher 2 maintains the original game's branching story arcs with tight, challenging gameplay. RPG developers take note, The Witcher 2 is how a sequel should be made: improve upon an old formula without completely alienating the fans that supported you.

Premise
The Witcher 2 takes place in a dark fantasy world modeled after Eastern European mythology rife with political conflict and inter-species racism. Geralt of Rivia, part of a race and sect of mutant monster hunters called witchers, is implicated for regicide in the wake of royal murders. Escaping from prison, Geralt goes on a quest to clear his name while coming to terms with his past after being inflicted with amnesia from an experience that nearly killed him long ago. Nothing is ever simple in The Witcher's universe; what's supposed to be an easy manhunt is muddied by the meddling of power hungry politicians, violent racial tensions between humans and nonhumans, and the ambitions of greedy men that bring suffering to thousands. By the end of this quest, the gap between Sapkowski's books and the game's canon is filled while leaving room for continued adventures within the gritty universe.

As with the first game, The Witcher 2's world is painted in shades of gray. Your choices have delayed impact with whole quest threads changing based on seemingly minor actions made hours ago. There are no "good" or "evil" choices: no 'save the orphans or burn them all' scenarios found in poorer stories. In the first thirty minutes you can duel a traitorous lord to the death or convince him to surrender to save the life of his disillusioned troops. If he dies, his mother betrays her lineage by allying with conniving rivals to ensure her family's survival. If he lives, the proud-but-beaten lord restores his honor by saving Geralt and sacrificing himself to deal a catastrophic blow to his enemy.

If The Witcher makes you feel uncomfortable, that's because the writers have done their job. From start to finish you're fed a mature tale with well-rounded characters and suspenseful scenarios. CDP Red have gone to great lengths to constantly provide something exciting to engage the player's emotions without resorting to horrible cliches or dramatic pitfalls like the throne warming Big Bad Evil Guy or the groan worthy troubled villain-turned-anti-hero. Your allies are tragic heroes with their vices and virtues such as the merciless-but-loyal special operative Vernon Roche or Dandelion, a bard, spy, and lover who stands by Geralt through thick and thin. The villains aren't the wicked overlords or omnipotent demigods seen in other games. You'll tangle with disillusioned warriors-turned-political-terrorists and petty lords who condemn their subjects to death to further their own goals. The Witcher 2 rivals a good fantasy novel (obvious given its pedigree) and bares a few stylistic similarities to HBO's excellent rendition of George R.R. Martin's the political fantasy thriller Game of Thrones. The Witcher 2 puts its competition to horrible shame.

Gameplay
Dispensing with the repetitive top-down, time based combat of the first game The Witcher 2 adopts a more action oriented approach. Unlike other RPG titles that have attempted the same (you likely know who I refer to), the combat doesn't vapidly attempt to appeal to a wider audience. Taking direct inspiration from Demon's Souls and Batman: Arkham Asylum, the battle system is a solo affair that demands liberal use of magic, traps, bombs, and enhancing potions to succeed on all but "easy" difficulty. Positioning is important with flank attacks dealing 200% extra damage; this factor combined with the lack of invincible frames while dodge rolling and staggering blows make it possible for groups of enemies to stun lock and juggle you to death within seconds. Even at high levels with the best equipment low level enemies en masse can rock your world. The mouse-look is unfortunately floaty, with Geralt sometimes targeting the wrong enemies based on camera position, and configuring controls is nearly impossible without some .ini editing although the document is laid out clearly. Until you understand the intricacies of your options, you'll be dying a lot; those of you with little patience or slow fingers have been warned. Kudos to anyone who completes the game on Insane mode which erases your saves upon death.

The large skill tree, spread across four branches, allows you to improve Geralt's general training, combat, alchemy, and magic by spending talent points earned through experience. The five magical abilities (six at a later point) all play a pivotal role in your success, particularly quen which creates a damage absorbing barrier and prevents the almost-always-fatal staggering you'll suffer in group fights. On the alchemical side, you can collect resources to craft the enhancing potions or damaging bombs. Craftsmen can help you create traps and equipment with the proper schematics and material in tow. The crafting is fairly in-depth with dozens of unique weapons, armor pieces, and enhancements providing a plethora of options for those inclined to explore it. Pressing a specific key activates Geralt's wolf talisman which helpfully highlights important objects in the area and makes searching simple. The user interface in general feels clunky and slow with noticeable mouse lag and important tool tips covering each other or overloading the screen. With no onscreen cursor, highlighting small objects is more difficult than it should be. The actual process of drinking potions is baffling as the player is forced to meditate, an action requiring Geralt to be in a relatively safe area as you watch an unskippable animation of Geralt slowly drinking his concoctions. It's an odd decision decision when you consider that in the first game Geralt could drink at any point by simply selecting the item. One could say this is done for balance reasons the timer on your potions is always ticking whether you're in conversation or watching a cinematic. It's minor nitpicks like these that keep the game from perfection but they're easily fixed in the future and don't detract majorly from the experience.

Presentation
Graphically, The Witcher 2 is drop dead gorgeous. With a comparatively small budget compared to other "triple-A" titles (10-15 million USD compared to a 2010 analysis of 25 million average with 40-50 million for "AAA" multi-plat games), CDP Red have crafted a blazing fast engine that produces visuals which rival the juggernauts of the industry and rare loading screens. You need a beast of a computer to run the game on ultra but with a few .ini tweaks and some of the more resource heavy options turned on my cheap $600 computer got consistent 30 frames per second with few dips in crowded scenes. Sapkowski's brutal fantasy world is realized with intricately modeled characters, horrific monsters, and picturesque landscapes. The attention to detail is immaculate; flies swarm around the butcher's meat, towering obelisks to ancient civilizations lie ruined in the overgrown wilderness, people run for cover in the rain, blood splatters convincingly, and Geralt's disfiguring scars are so detailed you can make out the individual bite marks on his shoulders. This is a world you could reach out and touch but remember to wipe the grime from your fingers afterward.

The audio succeeds on the same level as the visuals. Learning their lesson from the first game, CDP Red have gone out of their way to enhance the performance of their actors. Geralt retains his stoic disposition and metallic voice but months of playing a politician's pawn have made him sarcastic and bitter. Principle characters are finely acted while unimportant NPCs are believable in their delivery or have a specific quirk they vocalize in passing. Children chase after Geralt in the streets, women comment on the size of his "sword," rough and tumble men curse you behind your back, and housewives lament the increasing prices of goods as war looms. The music is typical fantasy with heavy percussion and woodwinds but carries with it a somber inflection. At times mellow and other times heart pumping, the music perfectly compliments the atmosphere and setting.

The Witcher 2 isn't without its problems but they're nitpicks vastly overshadowed by everything the game does right. The main quest is short compared to other RPGs, lasting around 20 solid hours (add about 5-10 hours if you're thorough), but the experience is a thrill ride from beginning to end. Because there are two entirely exclusive paths that branch into their own unique parts coalescing into one of 16 different endings, the replay value is high. You cannot see everything in the first play nor the second or arguably the third. Unlike other RPGs, there is no filler here; The Witcher 2 is a full-course serving that will be remembered as a classic title for years. For $50 you're getting a real deal: this is PC roleplaying at its finest. Witness this, pretenders: CDP Red shows how you make a real action-RPG.

Pros:
Challenging and exciting battle system
Fantastic graphics
Great writing and mature scenarios
Crafting system
High replay value
Optimized engine with fast loading and consistent frame rate

Cons:
Clunky interface with lagging mouse
Auto-saves and quick-saves don't overwrite each other meaning your save folder will fill up quickly (I personally think this is a pro because saves are sorted by quest name allowing for easy replay)
No quick-load button (although manual loading takes little time)
You have to modify the .ini to get the controls you truly want (this will be fixed in the next patch as of 5/22/2011)
Upgrades are permanent which may annoy some players (not a con, in my opinion, but many people like to respec)

My Specs
Pentium Dual-Core E5700 3.0ghz
4gb RAM
Windows 7 64gb
GeForce GTX 460 with 1024mb GDDR5 video memory

Custom settings (mostly high with edited .ini and annoying things turned off like motion blur), 1600x1200 resolution. Average FPS 30, lowest FPS 25. Uninstalling Nvidia 3D vision drivers improves performance dramatically. Ubersampling is only for the beefiest of the beefy rigs.


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 05/20/11, Updated 05/24/11

Game Release: The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (US, 05/17/11)


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