I completed the enhanced edition of the first Witcher game this past weekend. After an epic ultimate sequence, I found myself seething in an all-too-familiar sort of nerd rage. The game’s concluding cinematic includes a dangling hook, a piece of information designed specifically to get you drooling for the sequel. Curses! I said to myself. How could they leave it like that? Then, of course, I remembered that I had the next game installed and ready to go on my desktop, happily pre-purchased from GoG to avoid any pesky DRM.
For those not in the know, the Witcher games are based on a series of Polish stories by Andrzej Sapkowski that follow Geralt of Rivia, a professional monster slayer. Geralt functions as a sort of Dark Ages James Bond meets Dirty Harry, the kind of character we can all get behind.
The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings takes a wide right turn from its predecessor, abandoning the somewhat addled together modded feel for a completely polished, high budget presentation. The background detail in some of the earlier sequences rivals (or exceeds) that of games like God of War 3 or Dragon Age 2. As you walk through an army encampment you’ll practically feel the mud slap your boots as trebuchets launch bounders at a nearby keep in the morning sun. Soldiers pray, do pushups, or sit sprawled around campfires as they await the order from their king to attack. Furthermore, the in game cinematics implement techniques more typical of traditional film than video games. The camera framing feels intentional, contributing to the mood of a given scene. Angles shift, facial expressions are natural, and voice acting is stellar.
Gameplay is also drastically different. For better or worse, the game is unapologetically difficult. The high budget RPGs of today have a tendency to hand the player things of a silver platter. Not so with the Witcher 2. While Geralt is capable of slaying numerous enemies at any given encounter, he does not do so with a simple hack and slash mechanic. Indeed, I learned this during the very first solo fight sequence; a seemingly simple encounter involving clearing the defenders of a nearby ballista. The difficultly set to normal, I figured it wouldn’t be a challenge. Hell, I’d even maintained some of the nice gear I’d imported over from my playthrough of the first game. As I approached the ballista, surrounded by 6ish opponents of differing types, I began the furious clicking that so often won me battles in the previous game. I quickly found myself surrounded and hacked quite literally to pieces.
Several tries later I finally achieved my goal using a rather complex combination of magical signs, enemy isolation, and well-timed parries. This introductory ass whooping made me realize that simply playing the game does not make me the Witcher. Rather, I had to become the Witcher by playing the game well.
I rather enjoyed this epiphany in much the same way that a so-called “hardcore” player enjoys the sense of accomplishment they get in a multiplayer game. Indeed, the Witcher 2 is not meant for “casual” RPG fans. It’s meant for fans of the old Gothic series, who know what it’s like to get your teeth knocked out by a seemingly simple set of enemies.
This philosophy extends beyond combat as well. Perhaps the biggest paradigm shift between Assassin of Kings and other modern RPGs (including its predecessor) is the lack of traditional “show me everything I can do” button. Environments do not display interactive elements predominantly. You have to explore the nooks and crannies to find crafting and alchemy materials. You can, however, press “z” to activate a pulse from your medallion that will briefly, subtly illuminate certain places of interest. Even using this method, though, it feels exceptionally important to rummage around. It creates a happy medium of sorts, giving you just enough help while still keeping things a bit mysterious. It’s also a very nice change from constantly holding alt or shift. I was really sick of that.
The game is not without problems, however. Sometimes it blurs the lines between intentionally obtuse and outright flawed design. It’s tutorial tips, which contain information that is really quite essential to the player for example, are fleeting. They display tips on how to perform actions in combat while you are in combat. Clicking causes the tip to disappear. Clicking also happens to be the method by which you perform a basic attack. The result is a host of easily lost information. I found myself having to go to the game’s manual just to learn the key bindings and some basic elements of the GUI. Even this was a bit endearing, though. It’s been a long time since I’ve actually had to look at the manual of a game.
Likewise, the grungy realism can present similar problems. Bioware games have me in the habit of turning subtitles off for a more seamless, engrossing experience. Alas, I was not able to do so with the Witcher 2. The background noise of trebuchets creaking and boulders smashing into stone walls was so loud that I simply couldn’t hear the dialogue during some of the introductory sequence. Geralt, being the badass he is, is a pretty quiet talker. Walking around a busy town square also yields such considerable background chatter than I found myself experiencing a similar problem just trying to interact with the local fare.
Thus far my playthrough has been overwhelmingly thrilling and frustrating all wrapped into one. If the presentation weren’t so engaging I might be a little discouraged from continuing; but the game does an excellent job of molding action, RPG, linear, and non-linear elements together to the point where you do not know what to expect around every corner. I’m a good six hours in and I’ve run from dragons, brawled with jailors, manipulated a priest mid-dialogue, won at arm wrestling, lost at dice poker, dueled a noble, scorned an elf, escaped from a dungeon, and more. These combine with re-worked leveling, crafting, and alchemy systems to present a truly unique experience.
If those are the sorts of activities you’d like to do, and you don’t mind overcoming hurdles along the way, I recommend you pick up the Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings immediately.
(P.S. Thus far you don’t have the ability to sleep with anything that moves like you did in the first game, sorry guys ;P )