April 18, 2012
Part of fantasy’s enduring appeal lies in its propensity for metaphor. Whether it be in relation to morality, class, race or religion, these tales of swords and sorcery can reflect much about the world in which we live. They travel to distant lands in order to teach us about our own. Also: dragons are pretty badass.
Like anything else, however, when treated poorly fantasy can become a bore. Without new ideas, it’s just another nerdy tale of dwarves and dungeons. And we've already got enough of those, thanks. Especially in videogames.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Enhanced Edition avoids this trap entirely. It may feature kings, castles, elves and wizards, buts its approach is fresh and vital. It has a character all of its own. This is due in no small part to the quality of the source material.
Making its debut on consoles, CD Projekt RED’s RPG series is based upon the work of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. It follows the adventures of the ashen haired Geralt, one of the few remaining witchers, a group of highly trained monster hunters for hire. You do not fuck with him.
So unlike many of its contemporaries, this is an RPG that doesn’t allow you to create a character. Nor does it allow you to form parties. You can develop Geralt’s swordplay, magic and alchemy abilities. You can equip various pieces of armour and weaponry. But that’s it. This is very much Sapkowski’s vision of the character.
Within that, however, you have control. You can choose whose missions you accept or refuse and who you honour or deceive. It’s an impressive balancing act from CD Projekt RED. Handled wrongly, it could have easily undermined the character of Geralt, who is so well defined. But your choices rarely feel inappropriate. You are The Witcher.
The world is similarly faithful to Sapkowski’s text. The author is often referred to as the Polish Tolkien, but its a lazy label. The Witcher's stories are far darker and earthier. They're also unmistakably Polish. So while hobbits suck on pipes in cosy taverns, The Witcher 2 has depressive trolls with an unhealthy thirst for vodka.
Beyond this, Sapkowski and CD Projekt RED’s fictional universe is defined by questionable morality. In typical fantasy tales, the good guys and the bad guys are binary. They’re opposites. The witcher stories aren’t so neat and tidy. They exist in the grey areas between right and wrong, good and evil. As a result, it’s a whole lot more interesting.
It also means that there are no “good” and “bad” choices in the game, so there are no little sliders telling you how righteous or reprehensible you are. Every decision is conflicted, every action is a compromise. It represents a far more mature vision of the world.
Indeed, mature is a word that pops up a lot in discussions of The Witcher series. It’s perhaps a stretch to say the entire game fits that mould, but it’s certainly adult. Expect sex, full-frontal nudity and dwarfs who like to say the word “cunt.” A lot.
There’s also a fair amount of bloody violence, as you would expect. Combat involves keeping on your toes, managing crowds with a combination of offensive and defensive flips, magic, dagger throws, bombs, traps and sword swipes. You can’t just lay into an enemy, mashing the buttons until they die, you have to keep moving and thinking. It’s not easy.
Thankfully, to sweeten the deal there are a number of combat-based achievements to hoover up. The list may not offer up much in the way of creativity, but it will encourage you to try out techniques that may have passed you by otherwise. In that sense the achievements are a great success.
What all this contributes to is a game with a real sense of self. The world, its inhabitants, its whorehouses, bars, forests and dungeons all have character. They have an identity. Combined with an approach to level design that eschews tile sets for a crafted, unique feel, The Witcher 2’s battles, people and places will live long in the memory.
With this in mind, CD Projekt RED’s most impressive achievement comes in retaining powerful authorial control, while allowing you to shape your own adventure. This is their game, made by their rules, but you can toy with it however you see fit.
This is most obviously exercised in the branching storyline. Every conflict you face, whether it be with sword or tongue, will have an affect on the outcome of your adventure. And rather than resulting is relatively meaningless diversions, some of these changes are deeply profound.
Indeed, one choice in particular offers up a scenario that could see you play an entirely different second chapter. That’s about a third of the game. Few developers have the balls to effectively waste that much content.
Elsewhere however, CD Projekt RED have been careful to do the opposite. In The Witcher 2, the side missions are rarely separate entities. Instead they are threaded through the main campaign. Many are not even optional. Everything builds towards the story’s climax.
This results in a real sense of narrative purpose. RPGs are often guilty of fleshing out the experience with meaningless errands - the world’s going to end, so why the hell would I want to deliver an NPC’s stupid love letter? I’m kinda busy here! - The Witcher 2 strips away that kind of nonsense almost entirely.
All of this is to the game’s credit then, but it’s far from perfect. Just like the characters that inhabit its world, The Witcher 2 has a few flaws.
First up is the story. Efforts have been made to reduce the barrier to entry, but it’s still somewhat confusing. Many who come straight to The Witcher 2 will have no knowledge of the previous game, nor any experiences of the books. And while they’ll quickly grasp the broad strokes, the intricacies are a little more muddled. The story could do with a touch of editing.
Then there’s the odd technical issue. CD Projekt RED have done a great job squashing the PC game’s glorious visuals onto Xbox 360. This is a great looking title, lifted even further by the colourful, characterful art style. But it struggles in places, with pop-in textures, dropped frames and poor draw distances blighting an otherwise pleasing experience.
Yet none of this is enough to water down the game’s triumphs. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Enhanced Edition is an astoundingly good console debut, one that announces CD Projekt RED to the masses in a big way. The developer has proved that they can make an independent, visually expressive, expansive console game without a hint of compromise. This is clearly a game that has been made on the developers’ own terms. It’s this clarity of vision that makes The Witcher 2 what it is.
So, while it may just be another tale of swords, sorcery, dwarves and dragons, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Enhanced Edition is unlike anything else. It’s also one of the best RPGs of 2012. Heartily recommended.
The soundtrack is a fairly indistinct mix of medieval tunes and orchestral pomp. The voice acting, meanwhile, is almost faultless. A brilliant delivery system for some great dialogue.
Gorgeous. Though there is the odd technical issue, you’ll struggle to find a game of this scale on Xbox 360 that delivers such a beautiful art style with such clout. Top notch.
Combat sits delightfully between the immediacy of Arkham City and the weighty carefulness of Dark Souls, but brings a depth all of its own. Get it right and not only do you look badass, but it feels great.
Lack of mission signposting and deliberate vagueness of the compass and map may prove frustrating for some. But that’s part of the deal. This is an RPG for grown-ups, with a world and characters to match. Outstanding.
A fairly standard list that encourages you to explore everything the game has to offer. To get the full 1000 Gamerscore you will have to tackle “Dark” difficulty, which is perhaps one of this year’s hardest challenges.
Brilliant. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is undoubtedly one of the best console RPGs of 2012. Stop reading now and just buy it already.