Platforms: PC | Xbox 360 (tested)
Developer: CD Projekt RED
Publisher: Namco Bandai
My rig died a painful death around this time last year, an event that saw me nearly claw my eyes out and howl with frustration. A game I'd been looking forward to for months was just around the corner, and I'd no longer have a chance to play it. Tears streaming from my face, I handed Dave the review for The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings.
CD Projekt's famously adult-oriented series sequel was a critical knockout, beloved by RPG fans across the land for refusing to compromise; for delivering a game that not only excelled on a technical level, but dazzled when it came to narrative too, steeped in moral quandaries and branching story arcs.
Now, however, PC gaming casualties like myself, and staunch console gamers can rejoice. After a year of PC fans bragging about CD Projekt RED's masterpiece, us lowly console folk are getting a look in too, thanks to the release of the Enhanced Edition on April 17th, which includes the original game and all of its trimmings in their entirety, not to mention a complete overhaul of the controls, tailoring the game specifically to a console gamers needs, and slinging in a new intro video and some additional content as well.
Even for someone who dabbled in the PC version, the tutorial proves useful, using an arena setting to introduce you to Geralt of Rivia - the titular Witcher - and his array of skills. Aside from the two swords strapped to his back, with buttons for both strong or quick attacks, a tap of the bumper brings up a Sign and Item wheel, wherein traps, bombs, or flame-spewing hexes may be equipped. Changing up one's style of attack, and making good use the solid parry-and-riposte swordplay systems, is essential.
But, this being an RPG that harks back to hardcore genre models from before the turn of the millennium, there are also ways to enhance, upgrade, and pimp out your weapons and armour. Poisons, oils, runes, and spells can be used to augment the base powers of your blades. The items you find in your travels can be combined together to craft items and potions, further allowing you to extend your powers for a short while through meditation. The upgrade/progression chart for Geralt himself is a giant weave of potential powers, augmentations, and stat boosts. Your Geralt is likely to be far different to mine after only a few hours.
If that all sounds a bit complicated, then have no fear. The game's tutorial does an excellent job of explaining things, and it won't be too long before you're rolling about and hacking down enemies with impunity, laying explosives traps for unwitting opponents, and spamming grunts with Jedi Mind Trick-esque powers to turn foes against one another.
Given licence to romp through the Prologue for a couple of hours, it's clear that even over the space of two or three hours, different gameplay experiences between two players are likely, depending on the choices that you make. When confronted by a rebel prince, for example, do you leap into the fray against the odds? Do you attempt to negotiate and avoid violence? Or do you look to shame the treacherous swine in front of his men by besting him in single combat, with a duel to the death?
The Prologue begins with Geralt retelling past events, but the order isn't fixed. Want to take a peek inside the camp and have a look at the surroundings before the battle began? Go right ahead. Want to skip to the end and work your way back? Be my guest. There's a well crafted story here, but it's one that's rife with opportunity for you to leave your mark and manipulate as you see fit.
The feedback from your dialogue choices, the impact of the decisions you make, is felt immediately and keenly so. You're constantly reminded of the world around you, surrounded by NPCs and ambient conversations, hubbub that you can tune out if you just want to get on with things, or engage with should you desire a more detailed picture.
Speaking of pictures, the visuals are impressive, for the Xbox 360 at least. Taking the mid-range PC settings of the original - no mean feat considering the size and scope of the game - The Witcher 2 Enhanced Edition looks like a crafted game world, with points of interest everywhere, and NPCs constantly doing things in at the edge of your vision that attracts the attention.
It's difficult to preview a game like this, although letting you sit down and go to town on it for a handful of hours is much better than a 10 minute snippet and a presentation with a fact sheet. But, crucially, my time with The Witcher 2 Enhanced Edition served only to make me want to play the whole thing. The hack and slash gameplay might seem simplistic at first, but it's not long before the enemies start coming in greater numbers, and in differing shapes and sizes.
But it's the details that warrant further exploration - the deep crafting mechanics, potion brewing, and weapon augmentation. After three hours with the opening part of the game (it's said a playthrough can take 30-50 hours), I wanted to play it again, to investigate the different avenues of action, to see what would happen if I changed my approach. And again. And again. And again.
April 17th can't come quickly enough. Code goes out this week, we'll have the review for you soon.