While I was playing The Witcher 2 (subtitled Assassin of Kings) my first thought was ‘something this beautiful can’t be perfect’ and while I was not wrong, it’s close enough to be called a masterpiece. The Witcher 2 may have a few flaws but it is a mature, enjoyable, RPG experience with a fantastically realized world.
The important thing to know first and foremost is that The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings is not the sequel to 2007’s The Witcher. In my opinion it is actually the sequel to 2008’s The Witcher: Enhanced Edition. I say this because when developer CD Projekt released the original version of The Witcher it was severely flawed. They then went back to the drawing board and released the enhanced version which has better animations, textures, combat and is a vast improvement on the already good original game. That mentality of working until things look and play right is what fuels the excellence that is The Witcher 2.
The game starts with the hero of the story Geralt, who is the titular Witcher, a grizzled and capable mutant monster hunter, on the run after being accused of killing a King. After he is captured, the prologue sets up the story by having Geralt recount the events leading up to his capture. During this prologue you see that Geralt was actually working for the King and he was unable to stop the assassin before he escaped. This kickstarts the plot revolving around this assassin who is going around killing Kings from surrounding lands, elves who are trying to get back what is theirs, and many more political fueled plot devices I won’t get into to avoid spoilers.
The story (right up to the unfortunate ending) is incredibly solid with characters you become attached to; quests, missions, and scenarios you actually want to experience; and a story you want to see unfold. The Witcher 2 is also an incredibly customizable experience as you, the hero, have the ability to make world affecting choices and actions. As a Witcher and someone tied to the assassinations, you are asked to deal with problems no one else can deal with and learn secrets no one else knows. Being involved in all of these high level choices and scenarios means that you actually impact the world around you. This is especially evident in Chapter One, where a decision you make changes the entire final act.
The whole game works like this with the ability to help, join, capture, or kill characters you meet with and these decisions carrying forward to add real weight in the game. This persistence and attention to detail with characters extends to the most important character in the game, the world. The Witcher 2 has perhaps the most fully realized and beautiful world I have ever seen in a videogame. The towns are active, vibrant, and fully explorable; the environments are lush, varied, and stunning. Caves feel unique, dungeons feel like dungeons ,and there is never a point that I feel the world did not deliver in spades.
The environments, towns, and characters will pull you into The Witcher 2, but the gameplay is what will keep you around and experiencing it for 30-40 hours. It is also something of a mixed bag. The original title has a very complex system centered on multiple stances and weapon types. In The Witcher 2 the combat itself is limited to a single stance and two weapon types. A Witcher’s silver sword that harms monsters, and any other weapon you can get your hands on. You can dodge, block, and attack (fast and slow attacks) to start, then as you progress more options unlock depending on the path you choose. You also have a complex alchemy/trap system and a more relaxed magic system.
The magic is very easy as there is a hotkey available to cast whatever sigil you have equipped, whether you want a damage shield or simply to burn or stun your enemies. Traps and bombs are also tied to hotkeys and they can be placed or thrown at targeted locations with a quick press. Potions are created with the alchemy system, and in a decision that is surely designed to encourage tactics, they can only be drunk out of combat and have lasting effects. You find materials to build your arsenal of weapons, potions, bombs, and traps from the bodies of monsters and plants as you explore the world. The system works, but the creation system is cumbersome due to the sheer amount of materials and possibilities available. Just hours into the game your inventory is crowded to bursting with materials.
The combat works, but in small doses and groups of enemies, which rarely happens. Often Geralt is attacked by groups of enemies at a time and the limited attack options coupled with animations that last too long (and cannot be interrupted) make the game almost unnecessarily challenging on the normal difficulty. Sometimes as you are rolling to attack one person you are hit by another (and cannot break the attack to block), which ruins your momentum and you are then hit by another. Preparing yourself with the Quen (shield) spell in advance helps, but more often than not I switch to Easy mode, which is something I despise doing in games as I like a challenge. Once Geralt hits the later parts of Chapter One you build up more stamina and abilities as well as a large stock of potions/bombs/traps which makes the tactical choices more varied and allows you to power through this slightly flawed combat system.
Despite the combat system needing some work and some other minor annoyances like only being allowed to change options in a pre-game launcher, I have to say that The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings is one of the best experiences I had in years. Even though I hate the combat at times, even though the alchemy system caused my head to spin as I searched for components, and even though my computer would smoke as I raised the settings, I loved every minute, till the rushed ending. But so-so ending aside, The Witcher 2 is one of the most fully realized videogame experiences I have had the joy to play. From the striking world, to the engaging characters and a deep story, I just could not stop playing this game. It is a true triumph and raises the bar for RPG’s to an extremely high level and I cannot wait to see more from this studio.
The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings is rated M (Mature) by the ESRB for Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Nudity, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, Use of Drugs.