The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings
Gorgeous, ambitious, and not afraid to kill you dead, The Witcher 2 can be a harsh mistress. This dark, unique world is so well realized and populated with interesting characters that it's easy to lose yourself in its environs. Yet, if you're anything like me, you'll hate portions of the game with a burning passion. The driven Polish developers at CDProjekt boldly cut their own path in creating The Witcher 2, and their vision is one well worth sharing despite a few snags along the way.
Legendary monster slayer Geralt of Rivia is the fulcrum around which the fates of entire kingdoms pivot. As Geralt, the player makes decisions that dramatically impact the direction of momentous events. You're not just affecting a portion of the ending cinematic when you choose between working with a royal officer and an outlaw terrorist/freedom fighter (depending on your point of view, of course). You're picking between two radically different paths that each have hours of divergent gameplay. Save this man, kill another, solve a town's problems or don't – nearly everything you do has a real, noticeable impact on the world around you. RPG players have dreamed of this level of interactivity since the medium's inception, and the deftness with which The Witcher 2 pulls it off makes a mockery of the rest of the genre. Your choices shape the 30-plus hours of this heroic adventure to an unprecedented degree, but the ending leaves much to be desired.
The most alluring part of the game is exploring the finely crafted, endlessly detailed world. The audio-visual presentation is second to none, which certainly helps, but the writing puts a soul behind the pretty face. The Witcher 2 is a lasting, rewarding relationship where many other RPGs are a fun night on the town. You can (and should) spend hours poking around towns, reading books, talking to the inhabitants, gambling in smoky basements, and getting so drunk that you wake up with a godawful neck tattoo. The world is rich with people to meet, stories to hear, and secrets to unearth, and many of them have consequences down the line.
The fiction behind The Witcher 2 paints Geralt as a wandering monster hunter in a world full of dangerous beasts and evil men, and the game is at its best when you stick to that role. The studio has emphatically targeted mature audiences, with naked ladies and relatively explicit sex scenes to match the game’s brutal violence. CDProjekt uses the adult subject matter well on occasion, giving complex characters genuine reactions to tragedy and triumph that delve well beyond the shallow power fantasies that limit so many video games. With foulmouthed dwarves, giggling whores, and enough crude humor to make Bam Margera blush, there's no shortage of titillating fan service for nerdy man-children, either. If you're not into that kind of thing, it’s not difficult to avoid.
As amazing as the role-playing is, the gameplay is merely adequate, with infrequent (but amazing) set piece moments and too-common frustrations. The third-person action-oriented combat is brutally difficult in the beginning. The game is tuned to be “realistic,” where just a few blows from any old longsword can ruin your day. Things get easier as you level and unlock new powers, but even a powerful witcher is two mis-clicks away from reloading his last save in most encounters. It's all too easy to accidentally target something you didn't want to and lock yourself into a long leaping attack animation. Allies are also known to come up behind you and prevent you from dodging away from an incoming strike. When the combat goes the way you want it to, it can be amazing and rewarding, but expect to regularly curse a blue streak when it doesn't.
Inventory management is a disaster. The lame crafting system clogs your bags with hundreds of nearly useless items and rewards tiny incremental upgrades for hours of effort. You're better off ignoring the whole thing and just picking herbs to mix with monster parts for always-useful bombs and potions. Interacting with the world is often a pain as well; targeting specific objects in the environment is so finicky that I found myself regularly shuffling back and forth and swinging the camera around to get at a plainly visible container.
The one system that I can endorse with no reservations is the character development. Each point you spend has a dramatic effect on gameplay. Some boring percentile increases exist, but at least they're noticeable – 10 percent more damage is no joke. Other abilities, like doubling the distance covered by dodge rolls or adding area effects to magical signs, are great perks that can completely change the way you approach combat situations. The three-and-a-half skill trees are extensive enough that you have to make tough choices, and creating a skill set that complements your style of play is great fun.
You can pick apart the small missteps in the nuts and bolts of The Witcher 2 all day, but you'd be missing the forest for the trees. I play role-playing games to explore fantastic worlds, interact with interesting characters, and pull off bada*s stunts that only a world-saving hero could accomplish. The Witcher 2 obliterates all but the best competition on those criteria. As frustrating as it can be at times, this adventure's charms vastly outweigh its warts.
The driven Polish developers at CDProjekt boldly cut their own path in creating The Witcher 2, and their vision is one well worth sharing despite a few snags along the way.