The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Enhanced Edition Preview - Full Frontal Fantasy
Written Thursday, March 08, 2012 By Lee BradleyView author's profile
You may not know much about The Witcher series, but you really ought to. The original game was a quiet hit on PC, picking up plenty of fans with its earthy, dark fantasy take on the RPG. Flawed, but nevertheless characterful, the debut from Polish developers CD Projekt RED was an impressive statement of intent.
Then came the follow-up, 2011‘s The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. Righting many of the previous game’s wrongs, CD Projekt RED’s sequel elevated the series to the very peak of the genre, standing proudly alongside the work of BioWare and Bethesda. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Enhanced Edition, the console port of that game, could be even better.
Based on the novels of revered Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, The Witcher games follow Geralt of Rivia, a professional monster slayer trained in magic and close combat, imbued with Wolverine-esque regenerative health. Geralt roams the land of Temeria, slaying beasts and spilling blood for money. With a distinctive grey-white ponytail and scarred body, Geralt is a grizzled, no-nonsense murderer.
Similarly, the world he inhabits is a primal, elemental place more akin to Game of Thrones than the high fantasy of Tolkien. Though there are trolls and dwarves, forests and magic, Temeria has a grubby reality to it. The Witcher is fantasy for grown-ups. As such, when Geralt isn't fighting, he's fucking. The protagonist isn't one to beat about the bush and nor is CD Projekt RED. Expect full frontal nudity.
The first game saw Geralt defeat a rebellion by the Order of the Flaming Rose, later helping to protect the King Foltest from a mysterious assassin. The beginning of The Witcher 2 finds Geralt still at Foltest's side, preparing to join one last battle before he is free to track down the King's would-be killer. First, however, there's a newly crafted tutorial mode to navigate.
The Witcher 2 on PC, at release especially, was an uncompromising experience. Making little or no concession to those that hadn't played the first game, it threw you into an opening battle without really explaining the magic system or the melee combat, then left you to the dogs with a vicious difficulty spike early on. The new Enhanced Edition tutorial mode is an effort to sidestep these problems.
Dominated by an arena battle, the tutorial is a little frustrating thanks to a seemingly endless stream of interruptive messages popping up on screen, stopping you from just getting on with playing the game. You have you hand held through every step, yet it's a completely necessary exercise. The Witcher 2's combat isn't necessarily complicated, but there's a hell of a lot going on.
By the time you emerge victorious from the arena tournament, you'll have a decent grasp of the dodging, parrying, countering, plus the alchemy and magic system. You'll also be aware that you can only mix your potions and treat your blades (one sword for monsters, one sword for humans), before you enter into a fight. In this way The Witcher 2 prioritises preparation for battle above all else. You must be prepared.
The Witcher 2 was made with console controls in mind. Even when it first appeared on PC, CD Projekt RED made no bones about the fact that they had created the controls with an eye on a console port. The clean radial menus are a clear indication of that, making analogue stick navigation quick and easy. Peek a little further inside however, and there's a deep, multi-layered set of menus. We'll need more time with them before we can pass judgement, but for now, know that there is a whole bunch of stuff to tinker with and customise.
The actual controls, meanwhile, have made an easy transition. Geralt is nimble and responsive; he dives, rolls, blasts magic and swipes his sword in a satisfying manner. It remarkably works well. The camera, however, is a little less slick. If you were to be hyper critical, you could say it's a touch twitchy, with what feels like dropped frames if you swoop around too quickly. However, there is time for it to settle in the remaining months before release.
Similarly, CD Projekt RED has struggled to cram the PC version's stunning graphics into the humble Xbox 360. Many of the textures are poor. There's a touch of pop-in here and there too and what were once gorgeous vistas become foggy and relatively claustrophobic, hobbled by poor draw distances. It's not ideal, but nor does it spoil the experience.
Part of what helps you to overlook these grumbles is the extra content included in the Enhanced Edition. There's more than three hours of new missions, plus some of the best CG work I've ever seen. Yet it's more to do with the deeply characterful art style.
Though some of the technical elements may occasionally fall short, the actual visual direction is a triumph. Dwarven towns have a warm, golden glow about them. Forests twinkle with colour and intricately sketched fauna. Character models, while still building on familiar fantasy tropes, are imbued with genuine character.
A good example of this is a troll we encountered part-way through the demo. With moss and weeds dangling from its thick hide, alongside distinct markings and scars, the troll was immensely characterful, a truly artistic achievement. It puts the efforts of the deeply generic Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning to shame.
This is accentuated by the character's dialogue. He wasn't just a growling monster with a meaningless hunger for flesh, but an alcoholic grump with a desperate thirst for vodka. Properly funny. Similarly, slip into one of the taverns to indulge in a beer or one of the mini-games on offer (there's arm wrestling, dice and fist fighting) and prepare for some fantastic earthy dialogue.
One of the many highlights was being told that “I would rather crush my bollocks with a rock than ever arm wrestle you again.”
It's this sense of character, across the narrative, the world and the people and beings that inhabit it, that represents The Witcher 2's key strength. It reflects the passion of the developers with a style and identity all of its own. That alone is enough to raise excitement levels. That enough is reason to applaud The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Enhanced Edition's intent.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Enhanced Edition is out on April 17th, 2012.