Review: The Witcher 2: Assassins Of Kings (PC)

Posted: May 22, 2011 in PC, Reviews
Tags: , , , , ,

Witcher 2 Review

Out of the East

The Witcher came out of nowhere a few years ago (well, out of Poland, actually) to become something of a cult classic among PC RPG fans. Fast forward to 2011 and its sequel has finally appeared, with a brand new engine and continuing storyline from the original.

Damn Good Fabric

To start, the engine looks beautiful. The environments, the hideous men, the almost uniformly attractive women, the water, and the fabric – my god, the fabric textures! – are lovely. I don’t think I’ve yet seen a game with better looking fabric. You may not think that’s a big deal, but my jaw dropped at the detail in King Foltest’s tabard. Skin looks realistic, in places cracked, wrinkled, pitted, freckled. And you will be seeing quite a bit of skin, as the Witcher 2shows plenty of it. And it’s very well rendered. And I’ll leave it at that. Beyond this, there are lovely fire effects, rippling banners, and lighting that ranges from subtle to blinding. Heck, even the urine-soaked streets of Flotsam are beautifully rendered. There are a few seams in the engine which particularly observant players might notice, but I’m confident these will get patched. CD Projekt seems to be proud of their new in-house engine and rightfully so.

Time Warp

Witcher 2 Assassins of Kings ReviewThe storyline is pretty good, although nothing too original. If you’ve read any fantasy literature published since the mid-1990s, there’s not really anything surprising in the story. You are once again put in the shoes of Geralt of Rivia, a Witcher, an itinerant monster hunter; however monster hunting has noticeably taken a back seat to political strife in this episode. The game begins with you being thrown in jail after allegedly assassinating King Foltest of Temeria. The writing ranges from very good to weak, with major characters like Geralt and Iorveth getting the best lines, and secondary characters tending to suffer. There’s one scene in particular where a sorceress brings up cells and genetics, which feels completely out-of-place and really took me out of the game. This is a medieval fantasy, not an issue of X-Men. Does that really belong here? Where the game really triumphs in this department, though, is its atmosphere and setting. Like its predecessor, it feels more truly medieval than your typical fantasy realm (although it tends to go with the typical fantasy portrayal of elves as elitists and dwarves as crude, even if both are now second-class citizens). It’s a morally ambiguous world of hypocrites, schemers, and everyone in between. Geralt happens to be one of the in-betweens.

Swords and Sorcery

In addition to a new engine, there’s a new combat system as well. The overall reception, as I’ve seen on various forums, is mixed, to say the least. Some people love it, some hate it, and others, like myself, have come to terms with it. It completely eschews the multiple sword styles of the original in favor of a more action-RPG approach, not unlike that of Demons’ Souls. You have a quick swing, a heavy swing, a cast spell button, a block (which I never managed to successfully pull off), and a secondary item slot which can hold throwing knives, traps, or bombs. In addition, you can perform rolls in any direction. The chief thing to note is that combat is initially very difficult, even on the lower difficulty, and I found it quite frustrating that I was unable to engage groups without getting my head handed to me. I eventually found a way to mediate this, but be warned: if you’re not prepared, you’re going to see that reload screen a lot.

Witcher 2 for PCBasically, make the system work for you.

Note: The 1.2 patch tweaks the balance early on, making the game a less harrowing experience in the early phases. The 2.0 patch improves the tutorial aspects even further.

The alchemy and crafting systems have been overhauled, and definitely for the better. The menu system is much easier to follow, as it lists your ingredients and what you have available to you. You must still meditate to perform alchemy, however you don’t have to pass time with it. In fact, leveling up, alchemy, and potion consumption are all done from the meditation screen. The potion drinking from meditation is a good idea in theory, however it leads to several moments where you can be caught unprepared, and at least one occasion where it’s flat out impossible to drink a potion and prepare because there are several cutscenes between your last possible meditation and the battle.

Fighter’s Block

Leveling is less complex than in the previous game, with only four skill trees and one kind of talent to distribute. Before you can move onto the sword, alchemy, and magic trees you have to fill out the Witcher training tree.

This is one of the little things that bothered me. Wasn’t Geralt a fully powered Witcher after the first game? Sure you have to mediate and depower him at the start of the second game, but he’s nerfed to the point where it’s quite jarring. I mean he could march through a horde of knights cutting a bloody swath by the end of the first game, yet here he has to pull one guy away from his buddies to hack him to death.

Metal Gear Geralt

Healing potion in Witcher 2Also, there are a few sections where you are supposed to sneak around. In one case you’re allowed to smack enemies in the back of the brain to subdue them. However, the cursor is so inaccurate that you’re likely to raise the alarm and end up punching them to death (if you manage to encounter just one) or more likely, suffer an untimely death by bludgeoning. At another point, you’re given two choices of how to enter an enemy camp, one of which involves sneaking into an enemy base Solid Snake-style, only without the benefits of a real stealth system. Since there are no real stats for your sneakiness, you’re stuck with “if head faces your direction = true then INSTANT DEATH”. In addition to this fun, once I did manage to get to the place I was supposed to go, the door I was supposed to enter through (and I checked the included game guide) was locked, certainly a bug of some kind. I don’t understand the need for developers to shoehorn in stealth segments in games with no stealth mechanics, but it was bad enough that I reloaded an earlier save and took the other option. Oh well, it’s not like CD Projekt is the only developer to ever do that.

Medieval Miscellany

The music and sound are good; although I didn’t find the music to be particularly memorable, it always fit the scene well. Sound is what you would expect – swords have audible sharpness, dragons roar, and the Aard sign makes a satisfying whoosh when you cast it. The voices are overall quite good, although as far as I know only Geralt’s voice actor returns from the original game (considering the overall quality of its dub, probably a good thing). As I said before, the writing/ translation is of uneven quality, but the actors tend to do their best with what they’re given.

Witcher 2 One issue I noticed is that on the rare occasion you’re paired with someone, the AI isn’t great. They tend to get in your way and just stand there. So when in doubt, don’t get cornered with a bunch of dwarves following you. They will stubbornly refuse to move.

Finally, I must say that the game is disappointingly short. While I didn’t do every sidequest, the main quest along with some various other errands came in at around 20 hours, and the story feels unfinished, like it either ended abruptly or is banking on a sequel/expansion pack releasing soon. However, CD Projekt will be distributing some free DLC which may help to alleviate the game’s short length.

The Final Verdict

Overall, the Witcher 2 is a pretty solid game with some nagging flaws. It’s enjoyable once you get the combat down, and the main story is entertaining if nothing particularly original. It is short, but I still found it to be a better experience than Dragon Age II, and it is $10 cheaper. It’s not a bad experience to tide you over until Skyrim arrives.

Update: As of the latest patch, I’ve noticed the game’s biggest gameplay flaw has been addressed, and that’s its overly difficult early phases. I re-played through the prologue on Medium difficulty, and, while you still need to stay on your toes, the game is noticeably more forgiving than it was before. The stealth-heavy jailbreak in particular has improved.  It is on this note that I move my ruling from “solid” to “recommended”. Kudos to you, CD Projekt. It’s rare for a company to pay such close attention to their fans as well as addressing their concerns quickly. Much respect.

BNBGAMING Recommended Award

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  1. matthewsakey says:

    Prettier than Olivia Wilde? YOU SHUT YOUR FILTHY MOUTH

    Great review, Chad. You succinctly itemized the key complaints while highlighting the good stuff, particularly the sense of handcraftedness that comes with this game. I’m just a few hours in to Witcher 2, but enjoying it immensely. Nice work!

  2. Joe says:

    I just adored Witcher 1, played through it numerous times, despite its kooky mechanics. Once you got the hang of it, you could move through it and dig deeply into the story and make the choices that made the game so amazing. It had it all, fighting, potions, magic, sex, choices, and a wonderful quirkiness.

    I simply could not wait for Witcher 2. I pre…

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