Warner Bros Interactive had quite a ways to travel, nearly halfway around the world from the gates of their Burbank, CA offices to pick up their latest RPG release, The Witcher 2. Though, The Witcher 2 is its console debut, the collection of short stories by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski was first brought to Western gamers on PC in the first Witcher game, in 2007. The Xbox 360 release of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Enhanced Edition coincides with a free patch for the resource intensive PC version and on the heels of Bethesda’s blockbuster, Skyrim.
Though glancing at some screen shots might indicate otherwise, Witcher 2 and Skyrim have very little in common. Sure, they are both Western-styled fantasy RPGs, which makes them more action oriented than their Japanese counterparts but, The Witcher 2 has a much tighter narrative and a combat system that shares more with Mass Effect than Skyrim. Speaking of Mass Effect, those that were disappointed with Mass Effect’s finale will be happy to hear that decisions made The Witcher 2 do change the game. Like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, without multiple playthroughs, you will miss out on a good portion of what the story has to offer.
The title, The Witcher 2 may put off some gamers that may be afraid of starting the story of Geralt of Rivia in the middle and not being able to keep up with the deep narrative. Most fantasy enthusiasts should have no trouble getting up to speed, thanks to the new opening cinematic by Oscar nominee, Tomasz Baginski. If you know who’s who in the Game of Thrones series and know the difference between Arya Stark and Tyrion Lannister, without Mr. Garrison from South Park’s chart in this season’s finale, you should have no trouble with The Witcher 2. Some characters won’t have the same weight for newcomers they have for veterans but the in-game cutscenes and conversations adequately introduce everyone of importance.
Besides the system requirements, one of the knocks on the PC versions of The Witcher games is the lack of an adequate explanation the deep combat system. The Enhanced Edition has remedied this with an extensive tutorial to gradually introduce new players to the gameplay. A good bit of the exploration and combat framework of Assassins of Kings is Zelda-esqe. Players can run around large areas at will and interact with characters or play mini-games. The combat, like the exploration is third person with the ability to lock on to enemies.
The Witcher 2 straddles the fine line between hardcore RPG and an action adventure romp. The combat is much deeper than games like Skyrim or Dragon Age. The A button is used for a swift attack and the X button executes a strong attack with either a standard or silver Witcher weapon that has bonuses against monsters. Geralt has the ability to dodge as well as block and eventually parry direct and missile attacks. Of course, he wouldn’t be a witcher without witchy ways. He has a set of signs to use in combat that include, of course a fireball and force push type spell.
All of that would be formidable enough but Geralt has even more up his sleeve. He can aim and throw various daggers and bombs as well as bias the battlefield by setting traps. Nearly the entirety of your arsenal can be crafted with resources plundered and found almost everywhere. Potions, while required in some instances otherwise offer statistical combat bonuses. Using these tools successfully can climax with some spectacular finishes. Dead at your feet, the short-lived corpses of your foes will offer plenty of loot and the exercise nets experience to fill out a massive skill tree.
For a game with so much under the hood, the combat is surprisingly satisfying. So much so, that in addition to the additional four or so hours added to the original game, the developers included an arena mode that plays something like Horde mode in Gears of War. It’s not the furious combat however, that earned The Witcher 2 an M rating. The dialogue, while not likely award winning is less stuffy than that of Skyrim and can get a bit coarse and raunchy and like the adult only programming on HBO, doesn’t shy away from full frontal nudity. As adult as the game is, it’s not gratuitous and the grittiness is really refreshing in a fantasy game.
If you’re hesitant to buy into an Eastern European developer being able to pull off the coup of making the best action RPG to date, you’re right. As great looking as CdProjekt’s port is, there are some major graphical problems. The Witcher 2 can best be described as brilliant but a little rough around the edges. The clipping and framerate issues can be awful and edge detection is inconsistent. All of these technical issues are unlikely to be patched for the Xbox 360 but, adult fantasy RPG fans shouldn’t use them as reason to pass on an otherwise amazing game.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Enhanced Edition is rated M (Mature) by the ESRB for Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Nudity, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, Use of Drugs.