I hated The Witcher. I know, I know - many of you liked this supernatural roleplaying game. You liked it for its gritty world of poverty and racism. You liked it for its moral choices. You liked it for not being Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.
But I hated it, for its controls, its dull, hours-long beginning, its leaden writing and its sexism.
So why am I so excited about The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings?
In the presentation the developers show me, the first game's returning star Geralt is being held in a castle dungeon, awaiting execution for reasons that aren't explained. Two guards are standing outside the cell, berating him. Luckily, like medieval Marty McFlys, they can't resist a taunt. Geralt tells them to come and say it to his face, girlfriend, and they enter his cell to duff him up. Using his supernatural, monster-killing power of badassery, he breaks their heads. Naturally. The new fighting system looks great, the camera moving in close behind Geralt as the punches connect with a genuine weight to them.
The developer playing decides to approach his escape stealthily, and so swiftly downs a potion that enables Geralt to see in the dark and spot enemies through walls: it's like Batman: Arkham Asylum's detective vision. After sneaking up on and knocking out a few more guards, a cutscene introduces us to another battered and bruised prisoner. This prisoner's mother was killed by the same people who locked him up and, though weakened, he's out for revenge.
Time to rewind. Geralt is back just outside his cell again. The presentation isn't being given by a single developer, but by two of them, a big screen in the middle of the room being switched back and forth between two different PCs. Our new presentation leader isn't interested in any of that sissy stealth stuff, and so chooses to escape using brute force alone. Grabbing a sword from one of the fallen guards, he ignores the shadows, skips the potion and starts slashing heartily at anyone who comes near him. The combat looks like random swishing, but I'm told that it isn't finalised yet.
This time, Geralt climbs into another prisoner's cell and finds a woman trussed up and topless. After freeing the prisoner, Geralt looks away as she covers herself up. It's an uncomfortable moment as a viewer: exploitative, and more than a little creepy. Thankfully, other people thought so, too, and CD Projekt RED have already pledged to change it. The original Witcher took justifiable flak for the misogyny of its collectable sex cards, and the developers are determined not to make the same mistakes again.
In conversation, we discover that this is the mother of the man we met on the last playthrough. This time, she's alive and her son is dead. We don't know the circumstances, but the point here is to show how games of Assassins of Kings can be made drastically different by your choices. In the action that follows, an ally within the castle helps Geralt and the lady to escape by distracting the guards and clearing a path for them to creep.
Rewind. We're back with the injured son. He's too weak to walk, and there are no allies around this time. Geralt moves ahead, clearing a path by stabbing dudes, then returns to carry the son on his back. When they reach the exit, Geralt sets him down, and the prisoner commences burning the castle to the ground.
It's hard to tell from such a short demonstration how much of an impact you'll truly be able to have over the story as a whole, and whether the branching choices will really impact the game in a meaningful way. When the prisoner begins to burn the building down, does that mean when you return later it'll be a ruin? I'm not sure, and I'm taking a lot on faith. But from everything that's been shown, The Witcher 2 appears to be fixing the most glaring faults of its predecessor, and creating an RPG more dynamic than any other series.
And now fast-forward. The developers want to highlight one other element of the sequel: large-scale battles. In the scene we're shown, Geralt is standing in a field. The ground is on fire, smoke blots out the sky and all around, soldiers are fighting. It is, in short, chaos. The developers explained that the area was cursed, and that all of the men fighting here are actually ghosts, repeating a battle that happened long ago.
But there are monsters between the ghosts that are real, and they really don't take too kindly to you. On a giant throne in the midst of it all sits their leader, a creature built from the debris of the battlefield; smouldering bits of trebuchet, spears and broken shields combine to create his hideous shape. The monster orders the archers to fire, and hundreds of flaming arrows appear in the sky above you. Then the monster turns into a tornado. Nice.