Usually great games come with their own set of hype. If a game is good or generally expected to be good, people talk about it. Just look at the insane amount of anticipation for Skyrim... That is a textbook example of a titanic game making a pretty titanic splash. It's usually easy to keep track of the good games. I may not play everything that comes out, but personally speaking I've heard of most all good games these days.

That's why The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings was such a surprise. Maybe it's because I don't move in enough hardcore PC gaming circles, but I never heard anything about The Witcher before or after its release. It was a vague name without any meaning, some obscure Polish PC game that people weren't talking about. However, I took a leap and downloaded it to see if there was a good game hiding behind all that anonymity. The game is coming to Xbox in April of this year, and I wanted to see if it was worth recommending to friends who don't have a gaming PC.

Like this one that I own. Yeah, I'm rubbing that in.

The result is an unqualified yes. The Witcher 2 is a triple-A action-RPG that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Fallout and Mass Effect. For a game without much publicity, this adventure is a stunning success in so many ways it's hard to know where to begin. A Polish game developer whose name I'd never heard has produced an amazing piece of gritty fantasy wrapped around fast, visceral combat. Talk about surprising.

The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings impresses right from the menu screen with a sweeping score and colorful visuals. The lovingly drawn graphics depict a gritty fantasy world in the vein of Game of Thrones. The world of The Witcher 2 is one full of betrayal, murder, intrigue, sex, warfare, and mutilation. The story follows Geralt, a legendary monster slayer as he works his way through political backstabbing and revolts. Oddly enough, all of these things involve a great deal of people being killed.

Seriously, this is not a game for kids under any circumstances. Geralt's adventures deal with complex issues like genocide, racism, homosexuality, vengeance, and social paranoia. However, the bigger issue I had with the story was that it was a little hard to follow. Having never played the first game, I was a bit lost during the events of The Witcher 2. Note to self: either play the first game or read the summary on Wikipedia. This isn't really an issue until the game asks you to make a choice and you have no idea what you're deciding.

That's a pretty integral part of The Witcher 2- choice. Throughout the story you'll be asked to make important decisions like in Mass Effect. Where The Witcher stands apart from Mass Effect, though, is that these choices have radical effects upon the course of the game. The side you choose determines what people you meet and missions you take for the entire game. After playing through the entire game, I'm certain I only saw about half the actual content.

That's awesome. What other games completely change the mission structure based on your choices? The Witcher 2 makes choice the centerpiece of its story. The result is nothing short of spectacular. Missions, events, and the narrative all seamlessly conform around the player's decisions. I can't wait to play through the game again because of just how much I never saw. Your choices determine your game.

No matter what you choose, there will be a whole lot of fighting. Combat in The Witcher 2 is more like a third-person action game than a traditional RPG. That's not a bad thing, though. The fighting is a whole lot of fun. Keeping with the theme of "realistic fantasy," enemies, weapons, and combat as a whole is held to a strict level of realism. Yes, there are magic spells. No, that is not a contradiction.

And a dragon. Almost forgot about that.

Think of the realism this way. Have you ever wondered what video games would be like if your character didn't have recharging health/infinite rocket launcher/invicibility? The Witcher 2's combat system is the answer to that question. Geralt (your character) is not especially strong. He doesn't have recharging health. His weapons aren't amazingly powerful. The simple truth is that any average-strength enemy has the power to easily kill you. Geralt, even when upgraded, is not really any stronger than his enemies.

So how do you win? Pure, undiluted skill. The Witcher 2 is a hard game. In order to live out the adventures of the legendary monster hunter Geralt, you really need the skills to play the game at the level of a legendary monster hunter. Geralt's enemies tend to be the unforgiving sort. The Witcher 2 does not really like to hold your hand. Think of this game more as the parent who swats your hand away and tells you to be a big boy.

"...and you'll stay here until you can slay a kayran on hard mode!"

Don't worry; it's not as unfair as it sounds. The new update (appropriately labeled The Witcher 2.0) includes a large tutorial system to help teach the finer points of combat to newbies like me. I struggled quite often in the beginning of the game. After picking up the tactics of The Witcher, my skills progressed and the game became so much more fun. To win a difficult battle is its own reward. Really, defeating a group of enemies is immensely satisfying because it's a big f*cking deal to kill a bunch of people in The Witcher 2.

The game also gets a little easier once Geralt gets some upgrades. The Witcher 2 is very good about allowing for personalization and different combat styles. I preferred heavy sword fighting with a small dash of defensive healing magic... but there are plenty of options if that doesn't sound appealing. For a second playthrough my character might have heavier magic skills or perhaps better crafting.

There are a couple flaws in The Witcher 2. First and foremost is the difficulty. This is a brutally difficult game that will most likely come as a shock to anybody who doesn't play Dark Souls for fun. The Witcher 2 is hard. The new update helps ease the learning curve, but the game is still difficult. I also had trouble with the inventory system. The game never explains any item; it expects you to be familiar with the properties and correct use of a Lesser Strength Mutagen. Bookmark a fan wiki or walkthrough.

So, should you invest some hard-earned cash in The Witcher 2? Yes. PC gamers should already have this game. Everyone else can join the party April 17 when the Xbox 360 port of The Witcher comes out. The 360 version will come with all the DLC and updates on-disc. I tried playing the game with an Xbox controller... it works. Mouse and keyboard is better for inventory management, but the controller works just fine for the important part of the game (combat). There is really no excuse to miss this seminal adventure when it comes to Xbox.

What do you think? Have you played The Witcher 2? Do you plan to pick it up when it comes out for Xbox?