The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings
Review by Crofty
"CD Projeckt take another stab, which is commendable, but we're not there yet"
Those sell-outs at BioWare and Bethesda don't know how to make PC RPGs any more; there's only the likes of CD Projeckt left to fill the void left by games like Morrowind or Baldur's Gate. That's a common argument with many PC gamers, in any case, and while I can empathise entirely I'm afraid CD Projeckt still aren't quite at that level where they can carry the baton for PC RPGs. In fact, they're less likely to do so now anyway since The Witcher 2 is headed to consoles. Hardly surprising to me, since the game contained many clues that would lead to this conclusion before the announcement even came.
I played the original, of course, but even though I admired its ambition and intent, I didn't find it to be one of the better RPGs out there. I saw what CD Projeckt were potentially capable of, though, and a large part of me felt that they were perhaps restricted in their talents by a less-than-impressive game engine. As soon as The Witcher 2 properly starts this belief was almost completely confirmed.
Things start extremely well, to the point where I almost declared the game an instant success regardless of what was ahead (I assumed, even then, that it would only get better). This is something I rarely, if ever, do when playing a game, so for The Witcher 2 to have such a massive and positive initial reaction from me is something typically unheard of. From leaving the tent where Geralt of Rivia previously laid with his on/off love-interest, Triss Merigold, I was stunned by the detail my eyes witnessed; a mountain vista to the right, littered with tents fit for an army of thousands, and to the left, several trebuchets lay waste to castle walls.
Already dizzy from seeing just how far CD Projeckt have come with technology, I then wondered how well the game played, and how combat in-particular faired. The game made sure my anticipation for fighting was kept high; from meeting up with King Foltest you realise you'll get to take part in this castle-siege, and so from there the game constantly ramps up the music and environment to further lure you in.
Once the assault begins you don't really get much opportunity to test combat properly since enemies and allies are scattered everywhere, but shortly after Foltest asks that you remove a nest of archers above a gateway. It was here I got to see what The Witcher 2 was made of. Again, like the overall opening segment, I was immediately impressed with how I had to approach a fight, almost using guerilla-tactics to pick off enemies in a pack, before going toe-to-toe with left-overs. I opted to play the game on hard difficulty, so taking a lot of hits wasn't an option, but once I developed a gameplay style I really enjoyed the first encounters. I liked that there were different enemy types and so I had to adapt, like against a guy with a shield who can only be properly beaten if you let him attack so you can counter.
At this stage I remembered a developer diary of CD Projeckt, in which one of the team said they found the PS3 game Demon's Souls to be inspirational; to me The Witcher 2 had clear similarities, and as someone who appreciated the combat in that game this was another massive positive for me.
As I had hoped, the castle-siege managed to get better and more exciting the further in I got, with the visuals becoming more and more magnificent, and the combat becoming increasingly more tactical and fun. Once the prologue ended I practically declared The Witcher 2 game of the year; I didn't imagine the quality could drop from what I had already experienced. Yet, even with 16+ years of gaming experience, some games still manage to surprise me, and unfortunately this was the case with The Witcher 2.
After the fantastic opening, the tone and pace of the game slows considerably as Geralt arrives at the forests of Flotsam, with a small village nearby. It was here I got to dabble in the mundane RPG affairs, such as side-quests, trading, mini-games and crafting. Sadly, it was with these bread-and-butter elements where I began to see the quality dip significantly, and things reverted back to how they were in the original game.
Starting with the side-quests, while the story and layout of the majority of them is very good, the execution isn't always the best. For example, I grabbed a quest from the Inn noticeboard that requested reducing the local Nekker population by way of blowing up the holes they emanate from with bombs. This sounds straight-forward enough, except the part about finding where the heck these holes are, and relying on a quest-tracker that seems to decide whether to be useful or not depending on what quest you're on. The forest of Flotsam isn't massive, but it's large enough, and covered with enough trees and foliage to make finding little holes a big pain in the behind. There are some really good side-quests, such as sending your friend Dandelion to lure out a succubus, but it's the process of taking-part in them that isn't handled as well.
The mini-games don't suffer as much, but that's more because of their simplicity. That they're included at all is still appreciated, with other RPGs tending not to bother at all these days (and even if they do they're of such irrelevance that they may as well not exist). However, trading and crafting is, on the flip side, a nightmare.
I was surprised to even see a crafting system considering most sequel-RPGs I play tend to strip out complex features, rather than add them. Even so, once I got the chance to use crafting I soon wish CD Projeckt hadn't have bothered. Like a lot of known problems in the original game, crafting in The Witcher 2 is overly cumbersome due to stupid item-management, and poor menus. For example, in order to craft something you need to have the plans for it, but there's no way of knowing if you already own the plans a vendor is selling without looking at your own list, which requires you to navigate the tabs and scroll down. This is minor, but so is the solution; merely make it so you can't already buy plans you have. Simple. Also, to get the crafter to craft items you need materials, and some of these can weigh stupid amounts, which then makes inventory management a game in itself to avoid becoming encumbered. This is a moderate problem, but, again, the solution is painfully simple; give the player a storage box (which they did in the original, so its absence now is bizarre). There's plenty of issues like this which served to bog me down and made the game a chore to play.
I could probably overlook these problems, and did try, but once I started to battle opponents other than humans I saw another problem occur. See, with humans the game offered me a challenge and made the combat feel well utilised, but once you begin to level-up, buy talents and start fighting monsters, it actually gets pretty boring. I actually specialised in Alchemy with my talents, which should have made it less noticeable to me since it's the Sword and Sign (magic) talent trees that seemingly make combat easy, but even for me the game turned into a mass hack 'n' slash. The initial Demon's Souls-esque feel of the game quickly disappeared when I realised I could spam mouse-clicks to quickly cut-down 90% of monsters, with the remaining 10% requiring the occasional roll to retreat, before reverting back to button bashing. Again, I have to stress that this was on hard mode too, but the only way the difficulty seemed to matter was with my health being weak, rather than the AI becoming more imposing.
Fighting humans managed to retain some enjoyment, but once my bombs, traps and potion-buffs got stronger it made even large packs of enemies a non-issue. It was only really the boss fights that posed proper challenge, and to be fair these are some highlights of the game, but they are too few to pull the game back to glory.
With the game going out of its way to put me off playing, it was thanks to the story and setting that I actually kept going. I likely appreciated the story more than someone new to The Witcher, since I invested a lot of time into the original and so had a rough idea of the characters and lore, but even so there was a huge amount that went over my head. I guess I can say I followed the main story within The Witcher 2 without feeling liking I was missing anything vital, but even so I did feel left-out whenever a character would refer to an event or a place I had no idea about.
Staying with the story, one of The Witcher's and The Witcher 2's most appealing features is to let the player have freedom of choice to alter events of the game. Unlike a game like Dragon Age II, choices that you make here really do change things drastically. In fact, this is the first time I've played a game where the main content can be completely different -- and I really mean that -- depending on what decisions you make, and I appreciate that. Also, and again with Dragon Age as a comparison, decisions aren't black and white, or good and evil; what you choose really depends on your opinion of the situation. I picked my choices based on my beliefs, and not because I wanted easy "good guy points", or whatever.
Since content can alter drastically it essentially means a couple of completions are needed to see all the content available. Even so, the game isn't as long as the original, but considering a large chunk of development time went on the actual technology (which they already had last time with the first game) it's easier to see why they couldn't make it a 70 hour long epic. Considering how impressive the tech is -- and I'd argue this is the new benchmark over Crysis, by the way -- I'd say a shorter game isn't such a bad deal. Also, unlike other places I've read, I also found the The Witcher 2's ending to be satisfactory-enough, so it's not like there's clear signs of a rush-job towards the latter end of the game either.
Even though I enjoyed the story, characters and, particularly, the game engine, I don't ultimately believe it was enough to cancel-out my misgivings with everything else in The Witcher 2. To go from combat that draws comparisons with Demon's Souls, only to be reduced to a repetitive hack 'n' slash and essentially ending up underutilised is a dire shame. As is retaining cumbersome inventory management, and adding a crafting system that only adds further administration duties rather than overall depth.
That said, even with some clear ignorance, it's hard to deny the passion with which the game was made. I can't offer it unjustified praise, but when I see those awesome animated cutscenes whenever Geralt remembers a vision from his past, or hear any number of tracks from the excellent soundtrack, I feel the game deserves some applause. Like the original game, the developers are primarily making an RPG by gamers for gamers, and it's hard to knock that. They still can't seem to get the formula spot-on, and are no closer to making a superb RPG as they were in 2007, but you can't hate CD Projeckt for at least trying.
Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 06/27/11
Game Release: The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (Premium Edition) (EU, 05/17/11)
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