In May 2011, Barack Obama made a trip to Poland. Following tradition, Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, had some gifts prepared for the president. Among them was a copy of The Witcher 2, the pride of Poland. This esteemed rank, though slightly made up, is well earned by the game. Developed by CD Projekt RED, it is the second installment in the Witcher series based on the novels of Andrzej Sapkowski. You play as Geralt of Rivia, a witcher who is serving as a temporary bodyguard and good luck charm to King Foltest. As soon as the game starts, it throws you smack dab in the middle of a plot of regicide, politics, sorcery and revenge.
ALERT: Spoilers for the first game are below.
CD Projekt RED: Making The Best Even Better
Recently, CD Projekt RED has released The Witcher 2 version 2.0 update which, along with several performance and gameplay tweaks, brings along a few new features. One is an arena game mode where you duel several different enemies for gold. It features a scoreboard so you can compete with players around the world. There is also a new dark difficulty, which in addition to being insanely hard, gives the player opportunities for several unique ‘dark’ items. Finally, the last feature that was added that players have asked for since its release: a tutorial. Having never played the game before the tutorial, I can safely say that I would have been lost without it. It teaches you all the intricacies of the combat system and a bit about alchemy and side quests, all the while telling a cool story to introduce the new arena mode. To see how difficult it was without the tutorial, you can just go straight into the game; there is little to no explanation and you get no time to practice before being pushed into the fray. The fact that CD Projekt RED has offered significant updates for both Witcher titles free of charge is amazing. In this day and age where most developers and publishers try to find new ways of milking customers for every dime, CD Projekt RED shows they are the standard by which all other companies should follow.
Who Are The “Assassins of Kings”?
At the start of the game, you are being interrogated about the murder of King Foltest. Geralt tells the story of the king’s siege on Baroness La Valette’s castle to reclaim his bastard children as you relive it. After the assault on the castle, the king finally gets to his children just before being killed by a witcher disguised as a blind monk. Soldiers immediately flood into the room and spot Geralt standing over the dead king’s body. Vernon Roche, Geralt’s captor, believes the story and leaves him a key to unlock his manicles and tells him to meet by the docks. And thus, they embark on an adventure to clear Geralt’s name and reveal a conspiracy that affects all of the kingdom.
By far, the coolest part of The Witcher is the non-linear narrative. The branching story is so extensive that, having played through the game, I can look at a summary of the plot and have a completely different story from the game I played. There are several key characters I didn’t even get to meet in one playthrough. Even if you exclude the main plot of the game, there are several small points that change based on your actions. For example, a fight breaks out between a group of elves and soldiers of a local town. You have the choice of helping one of the sides only to, then, get distracted by a lead on the kingslayer. When you return to town after pursuing your lead, the townspeople will either be throwing a feast to celebrate their victory over the elves or rioting against all the non-humans in the town. It’s small things like this that make you feel like you are having an impact on the world.
There are three chapters with a prologue and an epilogue. The first two are epic in scope, offering a wide range of side quests, items, characters and cool things to easily miss the first time through. The third chapter was disappointing in comparison. While the epic story does not waver, there are no side quests, no NPCs chock-full of witty dialogue, nothing to do besides progress the plot. It does nothing but wrap up the story, but it does so in the epic fashion you grow accustomed to while playing through the game.
Prepare For Frustration
The Witcher 2 features an intricate combat system which can be extremely difficult to master. You have two swords, one steel and one silver. The steel is for human and elf opponents while the silver is to slay monsters. Both swords handle the same: you use the left and right mouse buttons to hit with either a fast or powerful swing which both have unique uses and can be strung together to create long and complex combos. In addition to swordplay, Geralt also uses signs, which act as spells for witchers. You have five signs at your disposal which cover the magical bases: a shield sign, a mind control sign, a force push sign, a fireball sign, and a freezing sign. Then you have your items such as bombs, traps, and throwing weapons. Traps can be set down during or before combat, though setting a trap during combat sort of defeats the purpose. Over the course of the game, you will have to use swordplay, magic, and items in combination to defeat some of the tougher enemies in the game.
Fist fights, along with some cinematic fights, use a different system: quick time events. In fist fights, it works. You are given a lesson early on and know what to expect. Each letter corresponds to a swing, a dodge, or a counter and the enemy’s health gradually depletes. In the cinematic fights, it has the same annoying problem as most quick time events. You kill the boss, see your HUD disappear and lean back to enjoy the cut scene. You see a small circle appear for a second, then wait – what? You died? Well, it turns out you are not finished the fight yet and the tiny circle is a key you have to press. It can be a bit frustrating to have to replay an entire boss fight just because you miss a single button.
As you grow in level, you earn skill points that you can put into three different trees. They are swordsmanship, magic, and alchemy. All three are full of cool stuff to make your arsenal even more powerful but the alchemy tree feels a bit underwhelming. It focuses more on the preparation for battle than the action itself, which is of course useful, but not as much fun. As you open up more skills, mutagen slots will open up. Mutagens are items with stat bonuses that you can latch onto skills with open slots. They serve as another means to customize Geralt and to let you play the way you want to play.
Crafting and item management are present yet insignificant. The first upgrade I made to my armor was in the first chapter, and it was such a big upgrade that I never had to touch it again. With items like gloves and boots I maybe made two or three small upgrades. My two swords were only upgraded once each as well. There are a few crafting NPCs in each city which all specialize in a different material: tailors, blacksmiths, etc. But they were all able to craft the exact same items as long as I had the diagram for it. Geralt is also able to create potions, bombs, and some other items using alchemy. You gather ingredients for alchemy out in the wild by pressing the loot button roughly every five steps.
Considering the openness of the story, the linear environments were a disappointing surprise. The inability to jump is common in RPGs, but there were a lot of areas I would have liked to explore that were blocked off by foliage and ankle high logs. Sometimes you are forced to run all the way around a large area just so you can take the path the game wants you to because otherwise you would have to climb up a two foot cliff. It restricts your movement and binds you to the path you are supposed to take.
Fresh Popped Textures
As anyone can tell from looking at screenshots or gameplay of The Witcher 2, it is a gorgeous game. You can see an entire castle, town and its people as you fight along its walls, or you can turn around and look at the shimmering lake spanning several miles across. Whenever Geralt recovers a memory, the scene changes to a beautiful comic book style. These scenes are amazingly done and could make up an entire graphic novel themselves. The characters are all extremely detailed and have unique personalities that show on their faces. Aside from one scene in a burning tower, the game ran from 40-50fps on my rig at all times on max settings. The only problem was…the textures don’t always load when they should. The game, especially the cut scenes, are full of texture popping. It mostly happens when trying to load a new area, but sometimes it occurs when turning the camera around. If you open your inventory or otherwise pause, when you resume, usually the textures will have to reload. Aside from that, there were a couple graphical anomalies; there were times where an enemy would swing and I would appear to successfully dodge it, but it would still take off a big chunk of health. One small annoyance is that to change the graphical settings, you have to open the options menu from the game’s launcher. It makes it a bit irritating to try and get the game to run optimally on your computer. This also goes for the key bindings; you will have to restart the game every time you want to change them.
The music is beautifully orchestrated and has a great deal of variety. The game comes with a full downloadable soundtrack which is awesome, especially considering it’s one of the game soundtracks I would actually purchase as a full price album. The sound direction is very well done; it’s nice to hear the clash of swords from twenty different fights and the distant smash of a battering ram as you mow your way to your objective. The voice acting is great, down to smalltalk with the townspeople which is an alien idea to someone who spent as much time as I did in Oblivion. Not once did I hear a single mention of mudcrabs!
Is It Worth Your Money?
The Witcher 2 is the best RPG I’ve played in a long time. It has the most extensive non-linear story I have ever seen in a game and one of the most complex and fun combat systems. It is an experience that all gamers should have, there is so much to do, so much to see, so much fun to be had. The game recently dropped in price to $40 from $50 so you really have no excuse not to. The game took about 36 hours to complete and that was a run in which I tried to avoid my instinct to take every single side quest I could. Doing the side quests would easily double that time, and the game receives regular updates which in addition to fixes, add new content to the game.
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