The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings: Enhanced Edition Review
Developer: CD Projekt RED
Platforms: Xbox 360 and PC
Reviewed on Xbox 360
Geralt of Rivia is a witcher. That makes him both a monster hunter by trade and a monster himself, mutated to battle the horrors that infest the world. Caught with the corpse of a king, Geralt is accused of regicide, and flees to clear his name, becoming embroiled in the brutal chaos of the region. Based on the books by Andrzej Sapkowski and sequel to The Witcher, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings was released nearly a year ago on the PC. Now, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings: Enhanced Edition brings the game to the Xbox 360, polishing the experience and adding all of the previously released downloadable content.
I almost quit playing The Witcher 2 before I'd really gotten started. This is one of those times I'm glad that I'm reviewing the game, else I'd have stopped sometime during the prologue. Even compared to other role-playing games, The Witcher 2 is complicated. That's why a tutorial is so handy... except when the tutorial breaks and won't allow me to continue thanks to some bug with the riposte system. The opening cinematic was positively jaw-dropping, but my first in-game experience stopped almost as soon as it started.
After giving up on the tutorial, I moved on to the prologue. Gone was the massive, open world I remembered from The Witcher. Instead, I was forced into a heavily linear sequence retelling the death of a king. While the narrative, told as a flashback, was compelling, the sequence strove to be "action-packed" by breaking up the required path with constant, dull combat sequences. It was only once Geralt of Rivia (the eponymous Witcher) escaped from confinement to prove himself innocent that the game really took off.
The Witcher 2 isn't as dark or as Slavic as the press might lead you to believe, but it is honest. If any single thing is The Witcher 2's greatest strength, it's that honesty. Too many games are afraid to waste development effort, so they'll make every quest worthwhile. You're intended to explore every option and any quest or task is worth making, no matter how foolish it seems. The Witcher 2 isn't afraid to let you miss content, or punish you for doing something stupid.
When you turn up circumstantial evidence against an accused traitor and the local constabulary decides to hang her, she claims she just needs to show you something deep in the woods to clear her name. In most games, you're nearly required to go along for the ride. In The Witcher 2, there might be incontrovertible proof in the woods, or a bevy of cutthroats, waiting in ambush to free their collaborator. Do you let an innocent woman die, or face treacherous death in the trees?
That's the dilemma and the excitement of The Witcher 2. I appreciate a title in which I can apply appropriate skepticism and common sense. In Act I of the game, two men on the street asked me if I'd test a new potion they'd formulated. In any other game I'd say, "Uh... sure?" In The Witcher 2, I react the same way I would if two sketchy characters cornered me in Times Square and said, "Hi! We're pharmacists. We've just finished designing this new drug. Would you take a bunch and then come by our lab in LA in a few years so we can see what happened?" "Hell, no!"
Not every situation has a noble, or even correct solution, and The Witcher 2 isn't afraid to let you make decisions without critical information. The game happily misleads you, and then tries to fill you with guilt for making the wrong choice. Sometimes, the lack of feedback on important decisions can be as irritating as it is satisfying, but the choices are meaningful. Quests are easily failed or forgotten, and that makes The Witcher 2 interesting in a way that other games (afraid to waste development dollars on content that might go unseen) will never manage. Occasionally, those choices feel just as dismal as real-world decisions. There's something to be said for escapism, and picking the least of multiple evils isn't escapism.
Apart from offering interesting choices, The Witcher 2 continues to be a conventional medieval-style fantasy game replete with monsters and magic. It differs in style from the genre only by taking a more adult approach than most games (that shy away from restrictive ratings). The Witcher 2 is standard fantasy fare. It's nearly sacred if you were raised on cannon Eastern European fantasy. If not, it would be like playing The Lord of the Rings Online without ever reading Tolkien's books or seeing the related movies. You'd just wonder why they didn't choose more accessible names and why you can't have a pet tiger.
By "adult," I mean that The Witcher 2 includes a lot of prostitution and language some might consider impolite. It's not really a meaningful addition, because if you ask, "Did this situation absolutely require a whore?" the answer is always, "No." You can hire a prostitute to distract a guard, but surely you could just as easily have hired an urchin, a peddler or just thrown a rock. But then the developers wouldn't have been true to the source material, and couldn't have included literal red-light districts in the game. The other side of the "adult" coin is that just about every character is an asshole. It may be true to the source material and make for a gritty world, but at some point, I was entirely full up on cynicism and searching for someone with whom to sympathize.
Unlike the plot and the exploration, combat in The Witcher 2 is a chore. It's a marked improvement from the first game, letting you dodge, riposte (ugh!), and inflict heavy or light blows. You are intended to collect reagents and items to craft better gear and brew potions to improve your prowess, but I found that system to be burdensome. After playing for a few hours, I dropped the difficulty to the easiest level so I could enjoy the story without having to worry about inventory or organizing my cooler full of six-packs of various toxic potions. On that setting, I easily defeated my opponents, unless I failed to spot them coming. Then, I died. That taught me to save my progress, often.
There is a colossal and glorious world to explore, and the Xbox 360 version smoothes out the speed bumps of the original PC version. While adapted to the Xbox 360 console, the game still includes enough arcane systems (alchemy and crafting, in particular) that complicate matters without adding to the fun. The Witcher 2 feels like a prime candidate for streamlining, and could be transformed into something truly elegant. And even though I encountered few glitches, the production values were inconsistent. There were the spectacular opening cinematic, ho-hum interludes that focused on the world map, and flashbacks in a third, entirely different style of animation. Complete with different voice-overs in some situations, The Witcher 2 felt like several cool, disparate projects, spliced together.
I confess, I didn't finish The Witcher 2. Ultimately, the game's autosave function frustrated me too much. I was interested in the story, but the game autosaves at alternate low tides on days when the humidity rises over 30%. Or something like that. Anytime I was truly engrossed in the story, I was immersed enough to forget to pause the action and save. Then, when I died, I often had to retread hours of play, particularly if I had been pursuing side-quests. More frequent autosaves might have kept me engaged until the end. As it stands, there is a lot to enjoy about the vast world of The Witcher 2 and its backstory. There's also a lot to fear, from the horrifying monsters that inhabit Temeria, to the game's intermittent autosave function.