Pub: Namco Bandai
Dev: CD Projekt
www: Official Site
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings
What do you do when a king under your protection is assassinated, and you are the accused? Do you seek to clear your name, or do you simply go after the killer? Surely avenging the king’s death would exonerate you? Not quite. The difference is subtle, and that’s what The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is all about: shades of gray, and ambiguity, yet with consequence for every choice, as you will surely find out as you yourself take on the role of a witcher.
Geralt of Rivia, the protagonist you play throughout this tale, is a witcher – a mutant human whose role is to hunt and slay evil monsters – still suffering with amnesia, and only remembering patches of his past. The game kicks off with Geralt shackled in the dungeons of La Valette Castle, accused of the murder of King Foltest of Temeria. He’s to hang in the morning unless he can persuade the commander of Temeria’s Blue Stripes Special Forces, Vernon Roche, of his innocence. This prologue sets the scene very nicely, throughout which you play out Geralt’s role in the events that lead up to Foltest’s assassination. Geralt manages to persuade Roche of his innocence, and thus they follow the only lead they have to chase down the assassin.
Of course, it’s quite simply not as simple as that. The Witcher 2’s story is teeming with intrigue, with Geralt continually ending up a central role in the politics of whatever region he finds himself in. It’s here where you, the player, decide on how this tale plays out. All the choices you make in this game have consequences with varying degrees of importance. Some will result in you simply gaining the friendship of one person at the expense of another; other choices can result in a whole town being suddenly and brutally laid siege.
Not only that, but on a more ‘game’ level, certain choices dictate what content you have access to throughout the game. The overall experience can vary wildly depending on Geralt’s actions and choices. Therefore The Witcher 2’s replay value is pretty much through the roof; even two full playthroughs of the game won’t allow you to see all it has to offer. But it’s in how the developers, CD Projekt, have tied all the strands together that marks this game out as something special, despite its faults.
Sadly, this game does have some niggles and annoyances that can lead to frustration. On a purely technical level, the sound is completely messed-up: sound effects can unexpectedly and completely drown out important dialogue, and sometimes the dialogue can veer from ridiculously loud to barely a whisper from one scene to the next. It’s recommended to keep the subtitles on. The map can also drive you mad, as the in-game mini-map doesn’t always reflect what’s on the map from the menu, which can have you running around in circles trying to find where to go. The menu system itself is also rather clunky and slow.
Having not played the first game can be quite a handicap. The game does have a small animated movie explaining what witchers are, and there is some exposition throughout the game regarding prior events, but newcomers may still drown in the torrent of lore that is thrown at them. During the game there are also some awful difficulty spikes that may have you dropping the difficulty to easy just to get past them. The difficulty settings are also an issue; easy mode is ridiculous child’s play, while normal mode can become very frustrating if you’re new to the game’s combat system and allow yourself to get swamped by enemies.
The Witcher 2’s combat however, once it clicks, is rather satisfying. On the face of it, the combat system is very simple. Geralt has two swords, steel and silver, for slaying people and monsters respectively. With these swords you can use a normal or heavy attack. Now, you can get through most of the game simply hacking away at your enemies, but where’s the fun in that? Swordplay has its own skill tree, and here you can decide just how you want to use your swords. You can concentrate on blocking and riposting your opponents’ attacks, waiting for the appropriate time to counter; or you can concentrate on being more agile, attacking multiple enemies as quickly as possible. The latter can have Geralt dancing balletically around the battlefield; it’s quite a sight to behold.
Mixed in with the swordplay are the magic hex signs you can cast. These, along with the many bombs, daggers, and traps you can utilise, mix up the gameplay nicely. Some signs can shield you from combat, while others can push opponents away or set them aflame. The only real issue with the combat is that it doesn’t quite match up with those of other games in the genre, Dark Souls in particular. However, on the whole, the combat works really well, and by the time you reach the final act, you’ll relish every fight.
Visually, the game ranges from truly beautiful to … rather plain. In daylight The Witcher 2 can be stunning, which is thanks to the game’s excellent lighting model. It’s at night that the game’s engine is shown up, with its poor draw distance and flat textures making the game look rather old in comparison to other games of this generation. Thankfully, the character models are very detailed and believable, despite some stiff animation here and there. There are some standout areas though, the mostly dwarven town of Vergen, despite sometimes being maddening to navigate, is very easy on the eye.
You won’t be playing this for the graphics though, or even the gameplay. The Witcher 2 is all about the tale it tells, and it’s at times a decidedly adult tale, replete with sexual themes, innuendos, and vulgar language. Though while the somewhat modern context of the game’s dialogue is often at odds with its fantasy setting, the game never descends into puerility. CD Projekt should be commended, as it has dared where other bigger development teams (we won’t mention Bioware … too late!) have played it safe. In the Witcher 2, you decide the reasons that Geralt takes the paths that he does, be it for love, money, vengeance, or politics; and in doing so the developer tailors the story directly to the player’s input. It’s just brilliant.
If you decide to play this game more than once, and you absolutely should, you will be amazed at the consequences of the different choices you make. It’s almost like two completely different games, and with the hindsight of a prior playthrough you can truly appreciate the thought, effort, and above all love that has gone into this game. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is a remarkable example of the role-playing genre, and fans should not pass this up.