I find myself in a tough position for this review. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings suffered from a number of issues during its launch week: DRM and a horrible game launcher prevented people from activating the game properly; the activation servers were periodically offline; bugs caused random crashes to desktop; the sound occasionally glitches out; and pre-order DLC and the first free DLC ‘Troll Trouble’ were unobtainable by many. While I was able to activate the game on launch day, I experienced all off the other problems mentioned.
Then of course, there is the veritable PC hate crime that the game performs against most machines. Unless you are wielding a particularly powerful rig, you will be experiencing random frame rate drops and various other demeaning illustrations of your processing inadequacy.
The reason I find myself in a tough position, is because as I write this, the first patch for The Witcher 2 is about to arrive, promising various improvements in performance, and fixes for the various issues that have plagued it. Unfortunately I won’t be able to test the patch in time, so I will set aside the performance issues and other gripes and focus on the game itself.
The world of the Witcher
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is set in what one might describe as a somewhat generic European high-fantasy setting, but has enough of its own character to stand apart. There are warring human kingdoms, dragons, trolls, elves, dwarfs, giant bugs, mutants, and the undead to contend with. Things take place within an expansive region named the Northern Kingdoms. In this chapter of the Witcher’s story, players will specifically be travelling up the Pontar river into the turbulent and contested borderlands between the kingdoms of Temeria, Kaedwen and Aedirn.
Protangonist Geralt of Rivia will be a complete stranger to those unfamiliar with the character – that’s okay, because Geralt has lost his memory following events in The Witcher, and the narrative is designed to stand on its own two feet.
As a plot device, Geralt is seeking to recover his memories and this keeps him driving forward. He also finds himself caught up in the political warfare of the land. Geralt begins the game almost immediately after the conclusion of the first Witcher title. He is acting as an aide to King Foltest, who he saved from an assassin. The armies of Foltest are besieging the castle of the rebellious Baroness La Valette. To reveal more would be a disservice.
I will say that the story grips right from the outset and should keep lovers of a good RPG tale enthralled for the duration. There are numerous side-quest diversions to keep one entertained (and levelling up) and they all serve well to either flesh out the general lore and environments of the Northern Kingdoms, or add supplementary story to the main plot. The voice acting is good throughout, full of character and nuance.
At a certain point in the game the story diverges, depending on choices made, and the last two chapters will contain markedly different content. According to CD Projekt Red, there are 3 distinct main plotlines in the game, and 16 different endings. In a week of focussed playing there was definitely not enough time to explore them all; this attests to the replayability of the game.
CD Projekt RED built an entirely new graphics engine for The Witcher 2 – the RED Engine. As mentioned, The Witcher 2 will pound all but the hardiest gaming PCs into submission – but this is for obvious reasons when one claps eyes on what the RED Engine is capable of. Hopefully the patch will resolve performance issues and moderate gaming rigs will have a chance to experience some of the potential visual glory on offer. That said, running the game on low settings is by no means a horrible experience, and it would stand up against many of the top-rated console games of the moment.
Ed – It is probably worth noting here that James reviewed The Witcher 2 on a Core 2 Duo [email protected], Radeon HD 6870 and 4GBs of RAM. I have also been playing the game, and have found my combination of a Phenom II 970, HD 6970 and 8GBs or RAM handles the game just fine on high settings at 1920×1200, but could not quite muster solid frame rates in the much coveted “Ultra” territory.
When experienced on high settings, the visuals are quite frankly jaw-dropping. Textures are provided awesomely high-resolution, with attention paid to every detail. Characters, their armour and clothing come alive, and the the game world is brilliantly realised. Lighting effects and cinematic immersion techniques abound. This is probably one of the best looking games to date. (Ed – Seconded)
There are a wide range of highly detailed and visually stunning environments to explore. Besieged castles, grasslands, marshes, dense forests, war ravaged tundra, windswept rocky mountains, damp caves, busy cities, and dungeons.
The environments are also dynamic, with weather, lighting and time of day effects not only adding visual aplomb, but also affecting gameplay. Rain can affect spells; more nasties appear at night; and certain locations transform from menacing and bewilderingly claustrophobic at night, to serene and inviting during the day. The level design is laudable, with fully functional towns and cities coming to life, and areas that invite exploration – a staple in a good RPG.
CD Projekt RED has hit the visual immersion nail on the head with the hammer of a god.
However, in some largely inconsequential cases the animations are slightly suspect, and certain animation scripts are a bit jilting – such as when Geralt is opening a door or climbing a ledge. The physics system is also a little buggy in parts, and in once instance a character that was most definitely not supposed to be present at that point in the script was launching a futile yet maniacal attack while Geralt and the character Iorveth were having a relatively calm conversation. Thankfully, none of these bugs have proven game breaking.
Crafting and enhancing
Through his travels Geralt will acquire and harvest a huge collection of alchemical and crafting items. These can be used to make bombs, deadly oil coating for swords, traps, potions, armour and armour enhancements, weapons and weapon enhancements – all the tools of the Witcher trade. Geralt will also find mutagens which can be used to further buff his various abilities.
The combat is nothing short of brutal, especially in the prologue of the game. You better become familiar with the quicksave button. On the normal setting, you will be lucky to only die a dozen times in the opening gameplay levels.
This can likely be attributed to a couple of things. Firstly, those accustomed to action-oriented thirdperson games think nothing of simply wading into battle and mashing attack buttons until everything dies. This won’t work in The Witcher 2 and I was victim of this pitfall until I revised my approach.
Secondly, there is no in-depth combat tutorial. CD Projekt RED supplies a few dialogue boxes with some generic combat instructions so that one is aware of the basic abilities at their disposal, but then the game takes a ‘figure it out for yourself, dummy’ approach when it comes to actually employing combat tactics. Frustrating at first, the subtle genius of this becomes apparent as one makes progress. After all, what is the point of a role-playing game if you aren’t challenged to develop your own combat techniques?
The Witcher 2 offers only one class to role-play, that of a Witcher. This does not mean that things are lacking for role-playing variety, however. To this end, Geralt has four skill trees at his disposal. One offers only a small selection of general character enhancements, and the others focus heavily on specific elements. One can work with sword fighting skill, alchemy, and magic. Players can choose to specialise in a primary set of skills (this will likely be the sword-fighting tree for first time players), or diversify into an all-round badass for a more challenging yet rewarding combat experience. Regardless of skill tree decisions, Geralt’s primary weapons are his swords (although it is possible to equip a variety of melee weapon types), supplemented by his bombs, alchemic oils and magic.
The combat in The Witcher 2 requires a degree of thought and planning ahead. While Geralt is a force to be reckoned with, he can still easily be overcome by large numbers of swarming enemies. Enemies do not line up nicely and courteously attack one at a time, inviting a quick counter-attack death. They swarm, they charge, they stab you in the back, they shoot you with arrows from afar, they generally fight dirty. So players will have to outsmart them. Traps, bombs and magic will turn the tides, and rolling dodges and sword parries are essential.
At first the controls feel a bit clumsy, and the timing of using skills a bit annoying. Upon reflection I feel that this fits with the general feel of the game. Casting a spell should not be millisecond instantaneous, setting traps takes time, swinging a sword is a physical effort, and disastrous if interrupted. The dodge roll is mercifully responsive, but even then Geralt can be caught a damaging glancing blow if one’s timing isn’t good.
The combat animations are fluid and well performed. They also appear to be cleverly implemented as one can find their blades bouncing off an enemy’s should the paths of the swings coincide. Other times, if the enemy isn’t blocking, the blade slips through defences.
The system has a steep learning curve but as things begin to make sense, and players become familiar with the array of offense and defense at their disposal, it all comes together in a dynamic and rewarding experience. The tougher difficulty settings will invite a test of skill on subsequent playthroughs to explore the alternate plot paths.
The Witcher 2 is currently slightly rough around the edges, especially in terms of game engine performance. There are a few minor bugs to be found within the game, but these don’t break it. The combat has a steep learning curve.
Looking past these issues, it is evident that The Witcher 2 was lovingly crafted by CD Project RED. The story line is gripping and broad in scope; the environments stunning and immersive; the gameplay brutally challenging yet ultimately rewarding. Overall, The Witcher 2 is a fantastic RPG experience reminiscent of a bygone era of PC roleplaying games. When one considers the fantastic standard retail package (and its standard retail price), The Witcher 2 comes highly recommended for RPG fans.