Confession time: i’m not the biggest fan of role-playing games. In fact, I find few things less appealing than grinding with petty fetch quests, ridiculously complicated skill trees, and combat that relies more on statistics than my own abilities.
Fortunately The Witcher 2 commits none of these heinous gaming crimes. Released early last year exclusively on PC, the new Enhanced Edition for the Xbox 360 not only packs in over 100 improvements, hours of extra quests and superb console controls, it also offers some of the finest storytelling and most challenging, considered gameplay ever seen in an RPG.
The Witcher himself, protagonist Geralt of Rivia, is a silver-haired fox who usually spends his days eviscerating demons for coin or seducing buxom wenches. A rogue Witcher has started committing regicide in his peaceful realm and it’s up to Geralt (who also happens to have been framed for all this king-slaying malarkey) to put a stop to it.
While any more story details might spoil the myriad surprises and possibilities the tale offers, those looking for solid narrative are unlikely to find anything better crafted or delivered in any genre. Graceful dialogue is peppered with cursing and droll asides on top of lore and directives, and rarely does conversation become skip-worthy. It’s also interesting to see seemingly placid dwarves portrayed as drunken womanizers, and elves as a race of bandits and thieves; this is a game that ignores tired genre norms and instead prefers to craft its own take on high-fantasy, a choice that’s as bold as it is refreshing.
Although still relying on inescapable necessities such as speaking to characters for information, fetching simple items for them, or squabbling with them before slitting their throats, the quests in The Witcher 2 surprisingly never feel tacked on or too much like grinding. Even a simple “investigate the mysteriously-vacant house” sidequest turns out to be a tiny story all its own, complete with proprietary characters, reading material and a moral dilemma with far-reaching repercussions. You’re always made to feel like what you’re doing is of either some benefit to you or to the progression of the story, so there’s never any need to begrudgingly complete these smaller tasks simply because you’re bored or obsessive-compulsive.
Morality is handled well in that most decisions you make are not black and white, and thus neither good nor evil. This makes for some cerebral gameplay, and The Witcher 2 challenges you to employ some common sense along with doing your homework on your own before making a call. A good (spoiler-free) example is a side-quest involving an enigmatic succubus, an elf who’s fallen in love with her, and a long trail of dead bodies behind them: do you brand the obviously guilty demon as the murderer immediately, or do you question the suspicious elf and venture into the catacombs to examine the corpses yourself before playing judge, jury and executioner?
Whichever path you choose in the dozens of quests you’ll face across three impressively lengthy chapters, know that you’ll spend a fair amount of time reloading your saved games thanks to some seriously challenging combat. In fact, the first few hours of the game are so brutal that even a handful of severely stupid goblin-type creatures can pull even a Witcher to pieces in seconds.
This is due to a combat system that relies on consideration and cunning rather than the traditional button-mash-o-rama we’ve grown so accustomed to. As one might expect in reality, Geralt is unable to consume healing potions during a fight, and must therefore prepare for each battle by drinking different elixirs depending on what enemy is to be faced. This is supplemented with a selection of oils with which to coat each of your two swords (one for human, one for non-human), five basic magic spells, and a host of bombs and traps which must be strategically implemented before the ass-kickery commences. Dodging, parrying and ripostes are equally crucial, and once the first few hours of staring at the ‘GAME OVER’ screen pass it becomes a pleasure to prep for a seemingly impossible scuffle only to emerge victorious thanks to your own crafty thinking.
As The Witcher 2 is heavily reliant on combat expertise the actual character development aspect of the game is somewhat underplayed. Three single skill trees for magic, alchemy and swordplay are all you’re given to play with, but with this simplicity comes a very clear understanding of what kind of character you’d like to play. I personally favoured a strong swordsman with high evasive ability, a reliance on protective magic and little skill in mixing potions, and assigning points in these relevant categories did exactly what I intended it to do.
Hardcore RPG fans may be left wanting with minimal character stats in sight, but once you become accustomed to the combat-heavy gameplay and its complexity you’ll agree that throwing D&D-esque statistics on everything down to your shoelaces would do nothing but hinder a simple system that, quite simply, works.
On the tech side, The Witcher 2 is one of the best looking games on the X360, and while it may only appear to be at roughly the Medium setting in comparison to the PC version, the outstanding level design and art direction more than compensate for lacking razor-sharp edges and texture detail far beyond anyone but the most indignant fanboy’s perception.
From derelict seaside towns to towering forests, from castle battlements to slimy dungeons, each locale is an authentic environment brought to life rather than a façade cobbled together in a level editor. Even the soundtrack is exceptional and worthy of blaring on a pimp home theatre setup. Add to this the top-notch voice work along with a ton of fixes under the hood and you’re left with an overall package that oozes quality, attention and obvious love from its developers.
In closing, The Witcher 2 is easily one of the most mature, considered games I’ve played in years. It treated me like a grown-up in everything I did, from making me think about my moral choices to forcing me to plan my every attack: quite simply, I imagine that it’s exactly what a real Witcher might feel like. I was sucked in by a clever narrative that fed me enough lore to paint the picture but not too much to bore me – upon completing the game I immediately started another playthrough just to see how much more The Witcher 2 has in store.
This brings us to one final note. There’s a word that crops up a lot in the game, as well as in this review’s heading: ‘ploughing’. Clearly a precursor to today’s F-word – dwarves will tell you to plough yourself, whores in brothels will offer you a good ploughing, and kings and peasants alike will utter the word no matter where you go in the game.
My use for it? You’d be a ploughing idiot not to pick up The Witcher 2: Enhanced Edition immediately.