Review by 47pik
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is not a game that is screwing around. It's rare to see a title such as this in the modern gaming climate, one which has tutorial mission entitled "Trial by Fire". Certainly the name has plot relevance, as it involves a grueling battle by the armies of the kingdom of Temeria, and the sudden appearance of a fire-breathing dragon, but in terms of player progression the name is more apt, for to call it a tutorial would be more than a bit incorrect. Instead of easing the player into the controls and game mechanics, The Witcher 2 throws them into a battle against multiple enemies and leaves it for them to figure out. Sure, some quicktips pop up for a few seconds to assist the player in getting their bearings, but one could be forgiven for missing them while being attacked from all sides. Furthermore, even when consulting the tips from the pause menu, certain key ones are missing, as they are not given until later in the tutorial, despite that they would be much more useful in the present. There is something to be said for this approach; The Witcher 2 refuses to talk down to the player, it is the firm parent demanding excellence instead of the nurturing parent who provides support for growth. Some players may find this to their liking. Most will not.
To it's credit, The Witcher 2 presents a unique flavour in it's disregard for certain conventions. For instance, potions cannot be taken during a battle, only before. Of course, this is problematic since potions only last for a few minutes, and it's hard to know if you will need them in the immediate future. More successful is the approach to player player choice. Gamers familiar with the Western RPG, or PC RPG are familiar with the genre's affinity for player choice, often with an accompanying "morality" tracker of some sort. The Witcher 2 choices in contrast may have far reaching ramifications that are not immediately apparent, and may not be for some time. Furthermore, these choices must stand alone in how they affect the story, there will be no Paragon points to gain, or Karma points to lose. The Witcher 2 does not judge player choice as good or bad, merely presents them all as valid (and flawed) potential actions, something which is a refreshing change. By removing the morality metagame, where rewards are tied to "good" or "evil" affinity, players are free to make decisions for role play and story immersion purposes, instead of for purposes related to micromanaging statistics.
The setting of The Witcher 2 also provides an excellent location for such a system. As in the previous Witcher title, the game takes place in the ever popular "dark fantasy" setting, where racial tensions run high between humans, dwarves and elves, and everyone has sex and curses a lot. This is not to belittle the setting - far from it - it is to illustrate the skill with which the writers at developer CD Projekt RED have pulled it off. While the dark fantasy has now become as much of a cliche for video games as high fantasy, The Witcher 2 succeeds by making it much more believable and multi-faceted. Early on you encounter a group of soldiers about to kill an elf girl, accusing her of being a spy for the terrorist non-human group, the Scoia'tael. You can save her or leave her through several means, but regardless, it ultimately turns out that she was indeed with the Scoia'tael. For once, the racist humans were actually right. Here is a world where every character exists in the moral gray. The case for The Witcher 2 is also bolstered in that it goes places with its story that other "dark fantasy" doesn't, including topics such as rape and incest,
Navigating his way amongst all this, is protagonist Geralt of Rivia, a Witcher (biologically enhanced monster hunter) by trade. After saving King Foltest of Temeria at the end of the original Witcher title, Geralt has been adopted as the King's royal bodyguard during a civil uprising of nobles. However, when another assassin makes an attempt at Foltest's life, Geralt is unsuccessful in his efforts to save the King, and is accused of the regicide himself. Seeking to catch those responsible and clear his name, Geralt sets out on a journey that occurs across 3 chapters and multiple kingdoms, crossing paths with a plethora of flawed individuals who want his help, playing a role in events that reshape the entire power structure of the Northern Kingdoms. The scope is much larger in The Witcher 2 than in it's predecessor, especially given the massive branching paths that present very different experiences, however, unfortunately, not as focused. Given that the entire first game was mostly spent within the walls of a single city, the story was slow, methodical, and unfolded in a highly satisfying manner as the player gradually solved the mysteries in the city of Vizima. More happens in the second and third acts of The Witcher 2 than in all of the first game, but the larger scale means the finer details that made it's predecessor stand out are lost. It would be absurd to say that The Witcher 2 tells a bad story, it is in fact better than most, but not what I expected given the pedigree of the series.
Bolstering the tale is strong voice acting all around, and the presentation is rounded out by some truly stunning graphics. Most gaming PCs will not be able to run the game above medium settings, and even there it looks great. Texture work in particular is incredible, with some of the finest detail ever seen in a game, and easily the best looking RPG ever made. This visual treat however, is a double edged sword. Given the fidelity of the graphics, any flaws are even more noticeable, specifically the very poor looking shadows and hair, in addition to clipping and sometimes jarring animation. It's a shame that these areas were not up to par.
But sadly, where The Witcher 2 truly falls apart is in the playing. It is not just that the difficulty is high, it is that it is uneven and artificial. The hardest points in the game are the prologue, and a boss fight at the end of the first chapter. The former is difficult because the player is uninformed, and underpowered, while the latter is difficult because the enemy is overpowered. In these situations, as well as throughout the rest of the game, the difficulty restricts the game mechanics. There are many ways to approach combat in the game, however, very few are actually valid. For instance, most magic spells, even when upgraded are worthless, save for the incredibly overpowered Quen spell that grants Geralt invincibility and reflects enemy attacks. Why bother wasting the limited "vigour" meter blocking attacks when for less energy, one can cast Quen and bring devastation upon all enemies? The game also includes a plethora of traps and bombs that can be crafted, but neither is ever an effective approach to combat given the difficulty, which demands efficiency and effectiveness. Such is also the case for the vast majority of potions available to be used; in addition to the hassle of having to use them prior to battle, most are simply not worth using given the side effects; is losing 50% of your vitality worth it for a bit of poison resistance? No, not even close.
Control too, hampers the experience. In combat, where it most needs to be tight, control is unresponsive and sluggish. Upon button press, blocking, casting spells and switching weapons often does not work unless Geralt is standing absolutely still, a luxury that the player is not often afforded in the heat of battle. Targeting enemies is also difficult to do accurately in a group, as Geralt auto targets the nearest enemy in the direction pointed a la Batman: Arkham Asylum. However while Batman could attack in all directions, he could also effortless flow between a light attack, a hard attack, and a counter. Geralt is not Batman, and the fluidity of developer Rocksteady's combat system is not even glimpsed in The Witcher 2. As if the control problems weren't severe enough, often times in the middle of battle, Geralt will stop responding to any action other than movement for up to a minute for no discernible reason whatsoever. Clearly a glitch, it is all too common, and consistently leads to the loss of Witcher life without a strong ability to react quickly and a good amount of luck.
Unfortunately, combat is not where the problems end. The user interface in menus is awful. Menus are as slow and unresponsive as combat, possessing bizarre default locations for cursors, and clunkiness that will cause many a mistake. The problem is especially pronounced when using a Xbox 360 controller with the game, which is truly puzzling given that the entire interface is clearly designed around the controller. Certain menu functions, like scrolling, simply cannot be done, despite ample input availability on the controller. Inventory management is a chore as well, not just due to the poor interface, but also because of poor design; a weight limit forces players to prioritize what they want to carry and is not inherently bad. However, The Witcher 2 demands that you carry countless supplies for various purposes, yet still puts a fairly restrictive carrying capacity upon the player. Judging by the sheer amount of crafting diagrams in the game, crafting is supposed to be a big focus, but the player is not physically able to gather and carry the necessary components. This problem is made all the worse since it is impossible to choose which items to pick up from a crate or loot off a dead body. If there are three items you must take all three, and then discard what you don't want.
All of these issues can be fixed in patches, and I have no doubt that they will be over time. Much like how the original The Witcher was overhauled with the free upgrade to the "Enhanced Edition," I expect fixes to be made to make The Witcher 2 a lot more playable, and a lot more enjoyable. But as of this writing, it is not either. And no amount of good writing or story can save it, for the gameplay issues presented in The Witcher 2 detract from the experience so much, that it is a chore to play, and one's enjoyment of the story is hampered. The sad part is that the game has the potential to be a fabulous title. And perhaps, after significant patching on the part of developer CD Projekt Red, it will be , one which will be looked upon as a classic, a shining example of the genre. Until then however, it's nothing but a good idea.
3.0/10 - Subpar
EDIT 7/11/11: It is my understanding that recent patches have addressed some of my problems with the game. Some of my complaints may no longer apply. However, as I have not replayed the game, nor do I have any intention to do so, my review shall not change.
Reviewer's Score: 3/10 | Originally Posted: 06/29/11, Updated 07/14/11
Game Release: The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (Digital Premium Edition) (US, 05/17/11)
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