Developer: CD Projekt RED
Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
If you happen to play the prologue section of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings in the wrong way, there's the chance you could almost break the game for yourself. It really is that crucial you choose the first of the four conversational options you're given, otherwise you'll be thrust into a situation you'll be completely unprepared for.
Go through the disguised tutorial in the proper order and you'll be fine. Don't and you'll end up in a world of fire-breathing pain.
It's the first of a number of niggly little problems that mar what is otherwise one of the best games ever made, simple as that. Some of the others that crop up are less explicable and perhaps more annoying in that they were errors avoided in the first game that needlessly appear here, like overdone, out of place boss fights and bad checkpointing.
However, the meat of the game is a prime fillet steak. Excellent acting, eye-poppingly beautiful visuals, an intelligent, properly adult plot and a challenging combat system that improves upon the original, even if it's still not perfect.
For those unfamiliar with the series, you play as Geralt, a (mutated) human and member of the extremely rare band of elite monster hunters called witchers. Despite their code of non-interference with political affairs beyond the slaying of beasts, Geralt is slightly different and is regularly drawn into the matters of state that he really doesn't want to get involved with.
The world of Temeria is a dangerous place and understanding it is crucial to 'getting' how everything works, and you'll need to understand because the choices you make change how the plot develops. It's a traditional fantasy world in that dwarves and elves are present and correct (in fact, the world is specifically written to be a basic fantasy affair, but with a darker twist) but here they're second class citizens, subdued and abused by the majority race, the humans.
This conflict is, like in the first game, part of the backdrop to the events of Assassins of Kings, with a variety of intertwining political entities attempting to further their own causes, all while you're stuck in the middle. The Scoia'tel, a renegade group of non-humans, are fighting a guerilla campaign in the hope of winning back ancient freedoms, while various kingdoms war against each other, important humans try to seize more power, regular folks just try to get on with their lives and, now, a new player – the titular assassins – are attempting to drastically rearrange the political landscape by lopping off the heads of reigning monarchs.
Story is key then and it's all told in a wonderfully intriguing and excellently written and acted way. There are few games out there that even come close to creating this feeling of proper adult politics and intrigue, drama and tension. It's not an exaggeration to suggest that it's demonstrative of a more mature approach to the way games are made, with all choices having consequences and the world you leave behind in the end being drastically different depending on what you decided to do and you who decided was worth backing.
The only problem is that things come to a relatively unresolved halt too quickly, perhaps something that can and will be solved with the promised free DLC, but as that doesn't exist and isn't part of the core package, it's a let down to have things end, while not on a cliffhanger, by setting things up for a third game as it does. Not that that wouldn't be more than welcome, of course.
With such high standards in this area, it's perhaps inevitable that the actual playing of the thing would be less impressive. On anything other than the easy difficulty level, combat is surprisingly tough, and farcically so on some of the boss battles. It's nice that we're not being patronised here, that it's not just a cakewalk from A to B, but there's too great a gap between insultingly easy and hair-tearingly frustrating. It's also one of those games where you, the uber-hardcore killer, get taken out in a couple of hits by a tough enemy, while they – despite also being only flesh and blood – take a ridiculous pounding.
The first game had a combat system that was relatively hands off, while Assassins of Kings is more traditional. It still retains the reliance on timing your clicks to string together combo moves, but it's more hands on, more like your God of Wars and Prince of Persias.
Part of what makes things challenging is that you can't heal during combat. You have to prepare beforehand by quaffing potions that increase your regenerative powers, smearing your swords or weapons with damage-buffing power and so on. You've also got a smattering of semi-magic powers or 'signs' to use in (and out of) combat.
Igni is a fire attack sign, Aard is like a Force Push or Stun, Yrden lays a magical trap on the ground, Axii (CHECK) is a mind control sign and finally Quen is the most important one you'll use by a huge degree.
It's like a force field and it is absolutely vital if you want to succeed on anything other than easy. It absorbs damage and, when levelled up, deals it back to assailants. Without it, you'll almost certainly die a hell of a lot more, as even with it's power to shield you from one or two blows, you'll be biting the dust more regularly than you'll be used to in a modern game.
Speaking of levelling up, there are more RPG elements to The Witcher 2 than its predecessor. The alchemy system is easier to understand and you can now craft items like new weapons and armour. Unlike Bioware, developers CD Projekt have realised that people like to play dress up with their characters, so have expanded the options in this area instead of reducing them.
The only problem is they've taken out a vital storage feature that means you're constantly having to dump all the herbs, crafting items and other such things you'll be picking up during the course of your quest. It's a glaring error, especially as you could store things with inn keepers in the first game.
There are other silly problems, like the tutorial mentioned at the beginning. Boss battles in The Witcher 1 were just like fighting slightly tougher versions of regular humans, but in Assassins of Kings they're either traditional whittling down the health bar affairs or chopping at hot spots and performing some QTEs, for the most part. It's a regressive step in an otherwise progressive game.
There are also, at the time of writing, a large number of bugs afflicting players, like the game not working properly with Logitech G35 headsets, to name but one example. Thankfully, CD Projekt are pretty good at patching out problems and continuing to support their games, so it's not as massive an issue as it could have been.
The Witcher 2 then is an epic masterpiece, but it falls short of complete greatness because of some strange design decisions, some explicable (tutorial) and some not so (boss battles). It fails to hit the perfect 10 by the smallest of margins, but even so, it's a remarkable effort.
Regardless of the errors, it's hard to imagine anybody even remotely interested in RPGs dismissing this. It hits nearly every nail right on the head and it is an absolute must-play. Just remember to do the tutorial in the right way, 'kay?
Oh, and I guess we should address the whole sex angle, as you'll be able to see the 'female areas' a number of times, and Geralt isn't shy about getting down to business with women admirers. To all the complainers, get over yourselves. It's an adult game, it's a natural process, just give it a rest with the moaning. That is all.
- Wonderful graphics
- Extraordinary story, acting, the works
- Better combat than the first game, on the whole...
- ...but some bosses are stupid
- Quite a few bugs rearing their ugly heads
- Well intentioned but badly implemented tutorial
The Short Version: A contender for Game of the Year, and certainly one of the best RPGs ever made, even if there are a few flaws with the difficulty (bosses) and other little things. Generally wonderful, though.