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Richard Cobbett

May 19, 2011

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

The Witcher 2 is a game that shoots for the sun while its rivals are still lining up their sights on the moon. It's an AAA RPG with an indie soul, and a charged, exciting adventure you can really sink your teeth into, admire, and for the most part, love. From the raw technical wizardry of the engine, to tent walls rippling in the breeze and villagers running for cover when it rains, it's a game built with burning, red-raw passion and exactly one goal. To be the best RPG ever, whatever it takes.

Ultimately, it falls short of that, but not without giving it a damn good go. Over its 20-30 hours of almost relentlessly superb moments, Witcher 2 raises almost every bar it can get its hands on. It's let down by only two things: an undercooked combat system, and a story resolution that it actually hurts to watch. The rest is simply amazing, from the beautiful writing to the gorgeous visuals, meaningful choices, and a world that feels like a real place that exists beyond the game's limitations.

For fans of the first game, this shouldn't be a surprise. You don't have to have played The Witcher to get into Assassins of Kings, although expect a confusing intro if you haven't. After that, it's a brand new story, with our hero Geralt - a travelling mutant monster-hunting-swordsman-alchemist - on the run after being fingered for the death of the Temerian king he was meant to be guarding, while powerful factions try to take advantage of the post-regicide chaos. The best thing about Assassins of Kings? They only think they're in control. Really, you are. The Witcher 2 is packed to the gills with big decisions and major plot branches, and unlike most RPGs, these have consequences far beyond whether or not you get a magic karma point, a kiss from an NPC, or an extra bit of shiny loot from a treasure chest.

When the funky shaders kick in, you know the battle is Serious Business.

In the opening section, for instance, you're sent to take down a traitor, Aryan La Valette. Whether you kill him in a duel or make him surrender, the game happily rumbles on. You may not even realise that talking him into giving up is a possibility. If you do, though, you meet Aryan again not long afterwards in a dungeon and join forces. If you killed him, on the other hand, there's another scene entirely, which changes the way you escape, as well as giving you more exposure to a key political faction.

The scale of the consequences of many of your choices is almost ridiculous. Chapter 1 features two completely different final acts depending on who you work with, both of them dramatic and well-produced. Chapter 2 takes this to a whole new level, offering two completely different towns depending on your earlier choice. The basic goal is the same on both sides, and they share some maps, but the characters and sub-quests and perspective are unique. Not everything splits the story this much, but even the choices that only affect dialogue or the course of single fight are effective.

"My one-sided workout is coming back to haunt me."

All this detail and ambition comes at a price, however. The Witcher 2 often feels like CD Projekt struggled to take a step back from their game, or were unwilling to bring in fresh eyes to playtest it. Quest markers and descriptions are frequently confusing, wrong, or just plain missing - very much the sort of mistake someone wouldn't notice if they already know where they were going and why. As for the plot, there's so much lore and so many factions and elements that go unexplained that it's easy to feel lost. Technically, yes, much of the information is available in expensive real-world books and in Geralt's journal, but neither is any use when you're trapped in a key conversation with no idea why everyone hates Nilfgaard, or the political implications of a Temeria/Redania pact.

On the plus side, the problems of the first games have mostly been dealt with. The Witcher 2 still has too much backtracking and too many invisible walls, but neither are on anything like the same scale as before. You don't have to buy books to complete basic missions any more. The towns are even smaller than Witcher 1's Vizima, particularly the dwarf city Vergan, but you don't bump into the same character model every five seconds. As for the infamous sex cards, they're gone, replaced with animated cutscenes full of uncensored nudity, but which are true to the characters involved and pack a decent amount of sentiment in with their gratuitous fan-service. Even in the intro, with Geralt's arm carefully positioned to frame his lover Triss's bare buttocks while she sleeps, it's not subtle, but it works.

Most importantly, while the opening chapters of the first game practically defied you to actually play them, The Witcher 2 hits the ground running, with huge armies clashing, dragon attacks, daring escapes, and an opening village full of drama and intrigue and interesting moral dilemmas. Lessons have been learned, and learned well, across the board. At least, for the most part...

"Touché?"

The new combat system is a more mixed bag. As before, the gimmick is that you use a steel sword against humans, a silver one against monsters, along with several simple magic spells to stun, burn and otherwise tip the balance in your favour. Between fights, you mix magic potions to adjust your stats in various directions, and lay down traps. Instead of pointing and selecting like before though, every attack is a direct interaction with the game: mouse-clicks for fast and slow strikes, and hotkeys to hurl magic and bombs, parry attacks and roll. This works well against one or two opponents at once, but a mix of long, non-interruptible animations and bad targeting can make fighting groups a pain.

Oddly, this is especially problematic early on, when Geralt has almost no stamina, his spells are weak, you can't block more than a couple of hits at a time, rear attacks deal 200% damage, and you can easily be obliterated by random encounters. Many early skills aren't about making Geralt a better fighter but stopping him being a crap one. This means that combat can be much harder at the start of the first chapter than anywhere else in the game, with little sense of escalation outside of specific boss fights.

Going to need a silver-ier sword.

Playing on Easy, this is never a problem - the enemies practically beat themselves up. I played on Normal, and after the first few levels, most combat quickly became trivial. I kept a bag of basic Swallow potions on hand, and rarely bothered with anything else unless I was fighting a boss. A couple of sword upgrades mixed with hefty use of the Aard (stun) and Quen (shield) spells dealt with everything, even before unlocking the special 'I Win' group execution attacks during Chapter 2. In fairness, there are harder difficulty modes available, but I never felt tempted to switch to them. The combat was OK, but it was firmly the story, and spitting in the faces of kings and demons alike, that kept me going.

Which, tragically, is where things went wrong. Just an hour before the credits rolled, I had The Witcher 2 pencilled in for 92%. Great game. Some annoyances, but drowned out by the good stuff. Chapter 1 was glorious, beautiful, involving and heartfelt. Chapter 2 was even better: epic, dramatic, amazing. When I hit Chapter 3, it felt like the game-changing mid-point, where the gloves would come off and the second half of the story absolutely explode into life in a flurry of fire and steel.

The combat is fun, but the story is the main attraction.

It wasn't. Chapter 3 turned out to be the end, as if The Witcher 2 suddenly looked at its watch, and went 'Whoa, is that the time?'. Things are resolved... mostly... but in the most cack-handed ways. Plot threads are unceremoniously dumped, characters sidelined and forgotten, a couple of final quests rushed through as quickly as possible, and then the word 'Epilogue' appears like a slap in the face. Huge, world-changing events happen, but get no time to breathe or explore the consequences that were the whole damn point of making those big choices in the first place. It's as if there's a whole concluding chapter simply missing. Ending the story like this isn't just disappointing. It's a betrayal.

For such a story-based game, this is a killer - the only reason you're not looking at a 90+ game. But make no mistake: everything leading up to that point remains amazing, and this is still one of the best RPGs in years. It's not the deepest, the longest or the toughest, but nothing touches it for great moments, genuinely meaningful choices, or the passion that makes it easy to ignore the many rough edges - at least after a little levelling up and tooth-grinding.

Ultimately, The Witcher 2's only major crime is simple: failing to live up to its own high standards, even after exceeding almost everyone else's with fire and passion and style. All things considered, that's not a difficult thing to forgive. Forgetting? Overlooking? Not so easy. Still a great game though.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

Last minute collapse onto its own silver sword aside, this is one of the most impressive RPGs you'll ever play.

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