Platforms: PC, Xbox 360 (Reviewed)
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Thanks to CDProjekt and Namco Bandai for providing this game for review.
In this post Skyrim land, many gamers find it nigh on impossible to play another RPG without comparing it to Bethesda’s massive open-world adventure, and that’s fundamentally wrong, because the Witcher 2, a port of the PC title, proves that you don’t need a massive open-world full of things to do to be a good game. Instead of a sprawling landscape, the ability to create your characters face and the promise of crafting a virtual life for yourself in a virtual world, the Witcher 2 is a linear game driven by its narrative, characters and beautifully crafted world. It may not be as vast as Skyrim and it’s combat may not be as brilliant as Amalur’s, but this is one RPG you shouldn’t miss out on.
The star of the game’s story is Geralt of Rivia, a man who strikes an imposing figure with his pale skin, white hair and golden eyes. In many of todays RPGs the lead character is usually a voiceless husk, left empty so that you can sort of jam your own personality into his or her body, but in the Witcher 2 Geralt is a fully formed personality, and as such is perhaps one of the most interesting lead characters I’ve ever played as in an RPG. He remains incredibly calm no matter what the situation, his voice rarely betraying his emotions even in the most heated of moments. Because of this you could be forgiven for assuming at first that Geralt is a flat character with an equally flat voice actor, but it quickly becomes apparent that Geralt isn’t an emotionless bastard, rather he’s battle-hardened and world-weary. You see, Geralt is a Witcher, a professional monster hunter who was “altered” at birth to make him more effective at slaying the dangerous beasts that he gets paid to fight. Because of their nature, Witchers are subject to a mixture of admiration, respect and plenty of fear from the populus, with some even referring to Geralt as a mutant – a description that is, to be fair, apt as Geralt is very different from what we would usually class as human, having increased speed, strength and senses to name just a few. Given this life of constant fighting and mistrust it’s hardly surprising, even given his amnesia, which plays a major part in the story, that Geralt is world-weary, calm, dry and often quiet. He’s seen it all and done it all. And yet he can still surprise you with more emotional moments during the game, proving that he’s not all gruff monster-hunting badassery.
At the start of the game our hero Geralt, having lost much of his memory, is currently helping out a king, despite the fact that Witchers aren’t supposed to get involved in politics, and enjoying the company of Trish Merrigold who is just one of the many fantastically written characters within the game, but we’ll get back to that them, and her, later. The war in which Geralt is currently helping out in serves as the backdrop for the games tutorial, and it’s not long before a mysterious stranger with a Witchers distinctive golden eyes slays the king, leaving Geralt to take the blame. Having been accused of kingslaying, Geralt is of course forced to go on the run, searching for the strange Witcher so that he may clear his name. Geralt himself is no hero: this is very much a tale of personal revenge rather than some noble tale of saving the world or a fair damsel in distress. But this is only one of several plots that get woven into the games overall narrative. As you journey through the game you’ll uncover Geralts past helping him to regain his memory, deal with a group of magic users and uncover a massive plot regarding the kingdom, as well as several other sub-plots, all of which eventually tie beautifully into the main narrative. Best of all, while there isn’t a lot of side-quests in the game, many of them have stories that also tie into the main narrative, providing extra details and backstory that can influence the choices you make during the story. You don’t need to complete these quests to go through the main story, and they’re not going to radically alter anything, but it’s nice to have side-quests that actually feel relevent to the main narrative thread, unlike many other games where they often feel a bit pointless. And of course along the way you’ll also got caught up in other situations and events, dragged along by the cruel whim of fate, or something dramatic like that, anyway. The story constantly delivers twists, turns and fantastic moments, as well as managing to feel considerably more mature than we usually see, running in the vein of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series of books which many of you will know as Game of Thrones off of the TV. Sex and violence are large themes in the Witcher 2, but unlike other games which often feel like they’re forcing sex into their game and then pointing at it with big neon signs and saying, “look how mature our game is! We’ve got sex in it! LOOK!”, sex in the Witcher 2 simply feels like a natural part of the world, as does the violence. If you hadn’t gathered from these words of praise, then, the Witcher 2′s plot is a stunning tale that shows gaming is just as capable as movies or books at telling a story. It’s a dramatic, mature, intriguing, gripping and beautiful piece of writing, only let down slight by a weaker third.
While the narrative is incredibly strong, it’s in the dialog where the Witcher 2 really shines, an area in which most other RPGs, or any other games, for that matter, tend to be rather disappointing, especially in comparison to their two to other main media rivals: books and films. Every line of dialog in the Witcher 2 feels just right. Good dialog is one of those strange things in the universe that can’t really be explained: the writers have either written good dialog or they haven’t, and in the Witcher 2 they’ve written great dialog. It’s amazing how much difference well written dialog makes in a games overall narrative, and when combined with the Witcher 2′s superb story it takes it to new heights. It also helps that the game has some genuinely witty moments that, again, unlike many games, aren’t forced but flow naturally during the course of the story. They’re rare, but help to bring a smile to an otherwise bleak tale of doom and gloom. And kudos must be given out for the references to a certain Mr. Tolkiens work. Of course all the witty lines and fantastic dialog absolutely bloody nothing if uttered from the mouths of boring and lifeless characters, but once again the Witcher 2 emerges triumphant where so many other games fail. The characters that inhabit the Witchers world are well-written people with motives, agendas and distinct personalities, from the lovely Triss Merrigold to the rather awesome Iorveth, the game has a memorable cast, each of whom are backed up by fantastic voice-acting, apart from several case of over-acted and cheesy performances from some the relatively minor characters. The game even avoids the usual stereotypes that plague the fantasy genre, presenting a world that is filled with racial tension: the Elves aren’t all happy and dancing, but rather they’re guerilla fighters living rough in the wilderness, simply trying to survive and regain some of their races past glories. Depending on who you ask they’re either freedom fighters or terrorists, a subject of sympathy or a target for hatred. The Dwarves are drunken, almost lazy bunch living in the remains of their former glories. This isn’t wonder-land where everything is good: this is a believable fantasy realm subject to racism, politics and greed. In some ways it reflects our own world perfectly, which some could argue isn’t really the point of a game, but either way, it makes for compelling stuff.
The Witcher 2 has also adopted the concept of morality and choices into its narrative, again something that we’ve seen quite a lot in this generation of games, and again it’s an area in which the Witcher 2 excels. The concept of making moral decisions is often a bit of a farce in gaming, with decisions clearly falling into “good” and “bad” with little bars representing your moral leaning. As we all know, morality is very rarely black and white in real life, and always making which choice is right and which is wrong so extremely obvious shatters any illusions of true morality, as does the bars that represent your morality and the heavy rewards that are usually handed out for making the “good” choices. the Witcher 2 shows the by making each and every decision a tough, agonising choice with no clear right and wrong. Many a time during the game did I find myself facing down a major decision, my hand hovering over the stick to swap conversation options and alter the fate of my story, because in the Witcher 2 your decisions really do have major impact on the storyline, unlike a certain other game series, giving the story a great amount of replay value. However, it wasn’t how the story would progress that had me hesitating during these choices, it was my own morality. There’s no right and wrong in the Witcher 2, there’s simply decisions and consequences, something which reflects real life beautifully. There’s no neon signs screaming that this choice is right and that one wrong, instead it’s just your own morality and the consequences of your decision, and even when you think you’ve made the morally correct choice it can often lead to horrible results. The only flaw in the Witchers moral decisions and story branching is that the game is not always clear on what Geralt is going to say or do when you pick a certain conversation option. Quite a few times did I find myself selecting an option only to find Geralt saying or doing something completely different from what the description suggested, leading me to often find myself in some problematic situations.
It’s also important to note that you don’t need to have played the first game to jump into the Witcher 2, which is just as well since it’s not available on consoles. However, it’s not a completely flawless entry point for newcomers, because while you’ll quickly grasp all the major points in the story, some of the more intricate points will likely float straight over your head, and some lines of dialog and characters just won’t mean as much to you.
It’s outside the narrative where the Witcher 2 doesn’t impress so much, delivering some solid but unspectacular gameplay mechanics. As mentioned the Witcher 2 is a fairly linear adventure, using a series of smaller environments rather than one massive open-world. As you wander through the story, making decisions and generally killing things, you’ll move from town to town where you can pick up a few side quests and new gear such as armor and weapons so that you can become an even more effective killing machine. These towns also serve as a good place to get your alchemy on and brew some potions, depending on what formulas you’ve acquired, and to get some cool items forged, again depending on whether you’ve attained the correct plans to do so, before heading off into the wilderness on whatever daft mission you’ve signed up for. While some may view this lack of an open-world as a flaw, it really isn’t because it has allowed CDProjeckt, the games developers, to create a far more detailed and believable world, although it should be said that the various NPCs that occupy the areas don’t move around or actually do anything, which sort of shook me from my immersion within the world. There was also considerable worry from gamers, myself included, that during the port from PC to console the game would lose the graphical beauty that it had since the Xbox 360 is obviously getting on in age and just can’t handle what the current PCs can, but to my pleasant surprise the Witcher 2 is a fantastic looking game. Now obviously that’s not to say that it looks as good as it does on a good PC, because it doesn’t, but it is arguably the greatest looking RPG on console, displaying a level of technical ability that few others can even come close to matching. Of course the problem with great graphics is that the rough spots somehow become even easier to spot, and the Witcher 2 does have a fair few rough edges and bland textures that standout because of the high quality of the rest of the game. Still, both in art style and technical ability this is one damn fine-looking game!
Bloody good narrative or not much of the Witcher 2 comes down to drawing your blade and wading into the thick of things, blood flying everywhere in a graceful cacophony of death, although a few times during the story the game does attempt to throw in some stealth sections to mix things up, but mercifully these are few and far between as they fail to impress, offering up clumsy sneaking action. As a Witcher, Geralt carries around two blades at all times: the first is a plain blade for dealing with regular human enemies, while the second is a blade of silver specifically made for killing enemies. Frankly, the fact that Geralt carries around two swords at any given time barely affects the gameplay in any real way, it’s mostly just cool. At the core of the combat is, of course, swordplay. Using X and Y Geralt can chain together light and heavy attacks to make mincemeat of his enemies, with LT being used to lock target and RT to block attacks, allowing you to riposte (launch a counter attack) should you have the skill unlocked. The game heavily pushes you to utilize the lock-on feature, something which the PC version also heavily pushed, but trying to constantly lock-on and swap targets feels clumsy on the consoles, especially in the bigger melee. However, if you don’t use the lock-on then it still feels a little awkward at times, although you can adjust. With counters, dodges and vicious enemies the game puts heavy emphasis on a more measured, tactical approach to combat, something which I highly appreciate. And honestly the swordplay is fun and enjoyable enough, to the point where I never got bored with it during the 15-20 hours (throw in another ten to do everything) it takes to complete the main story, but it simply feels clumsy in its execution.
Swords aren’t the only aspect to the games combat, though, with quite a few other things being thrown into the mix to try to keep things interesting and provide the combat with even more of a tactical flair. Some of these things work, and others don’t. The game urges you to prepare for combat before the actual encounter by guzzling a potion or two, coating your blades with different oils, which can give major damage boosts, and laying down traps. This gives the impression that before the majority of encounters you’ll be given a chance to survey the battlefield and foes so that you can prepare yourself. Except, you aren’t given that chance. Enemies are usually encountered by pretty much walking into them, and while potion effects do last quite a while you can’t actually guzzle them during combat, so taking them is a bit of a guessing game. Happily oils can at least be applied during combat, although how Geralt actually manages that is a complete mystery. Maybe he just asks them to hold on a minute while he applies this deadly poison which will result in an agonizing and horrid death for anyone it infects? Likewise this lack of chance to plan makes traps feel a bit pointless at times. Occasionally you do get a chance to set up traps away from an enemy and then engage them before luring them in, and it does feel awesome when you do that, but generally the only real way to use traps is to roll away from combat and quickly hit the button that causes Geralt to go about his business, but that sort of feels like cheating when the enemy happily walks straight into the trap he just watched you set up. Still, they are at least a good tool for crowd control. The concept of preparing myself before fights intrigued me greatly, but in the end it just doesn’t really work, and so I found it easier to simply charge into fights, coating my blade at the last second. But hey, at least Geralt’s longer range weapons, such as throwing knives and bombs, work perfectly! Ain’t nothing like blowing up a shit-load of creepy things with a bomb.Geralt also has “signs” at his disposal, which is essentially magic. These abilities aren’t visual treats like we’ve seen from magic in past game, such as Amalur’s epic pyrotechnics, but they do add a little more depth to combat. You can burn enemies, hit them with force blasts, trap them in place and utilize shields to help you out in combat.
In the end I can’t help but come to the conclusion that combat is pretty much the only true weak area in the Witcher 2. And that’s certainly not to say that the combat is any way bad, because it isn’t: it’s more challenging than what we usually see in todays games, has some nice touches’ and demands a more steady approach, but it just feels a little awkward in its execution. Some of the combats clumsiness does stem from the game’s control scheme. In their defense, CDProjekt have done a pretty good job of porting the controls over the Xbox’s more limited controller, and after an hour or two you will get used to them, but they never really feel natural or intuitive to use like a control scheme tailored specifically for consoles does. The various menus in the game aren’t the most user-friendly, either, being a bit of a pain in the ass to navigate, but again that’s something that you can get used to and forgive the more you play the game.
The Witcher 2 does almost fall in to the trap that many other RPGs blunder into: constant combat. Almost every quest, whether it’s following the main narrative thread or a side-quest, boils down the slicing enemies up in one form or another. There are a few moments in the game where the continuous combat can drag to a degree, but thankfully this is where the Witcher’s strong story-telling skills come back in to the play, managing to keep you playing on simply to find out what happens next. It would have certainly been nice to see a few more styles of quest thrown in to the mix, especially since when the developers do mix things up with a mystery to solve or, even better, one mission in which you must solve a puzzle and outwit a Golem in conversation, they succeed brilliantly. With Geralt’s story keeping you hooked, though, you’ll likely not even notice that you’re killing a lot of things.
As you compete the various quests scattered around the world and slay any giant beasts stupid enough to get in your way, Geralt will gain experience and levels which allow you to put points into any one of four different ability trees and power up Geralt’s abilities and talents, such as combat skills, alchemy or his natural Witcher abilities. It’s a pretty standard levelling system that will be instantly familiar to any RPG player but it has plenty of room to craft Geralt into your own creation. Put enough points into a tree to reach the highest skills and you’ll be able to apply special mutagens which can be collected around the world. These further hold to bolster your stats and abilities and add another touch of customisation to the game. In short, there’s nothing that I can really fault with the Witchers progression system. It’s certainly not the most interesting of systems, as most of the upgrades you can get are just basic stat buffs, and as such didn’t really excite me when message that I’d levelled up flashed up on the screen, but it does exactly what it needs to do, and what more can you really ask for?
But before I end this review in another fit of praise, a few more issues must be mentioned, two of which relate to the map. Firstly is a simple complaint: it can be a right pain in the arse to find your way around using the map! This is, of course, a relatively minor complaint, but it still irks me a little. The second is that question objectives sometimes didn’t pop up on the map, leaving you to simply wander around in circles looking like a lost bloody tourist. In one instance the quest was to destroy ten Harpy nests, which was fine except the map wouldn’t say where they actually were. In another instance I was tasked with going to the house of a specific person in a town, and once again the map refused to tell me where it was, leading me to simply walk into each and every house until I found the right one. Other problems include some framerate drops and texture pop-in. And finally the games PC heritage is clearly displayed in the checkpoint system, which is inconsistant to say the least. Thankfully you can manually save the game via the menu, which you’re going to want to do a lot or you might find yourself having to start quite a ways back from where you died. , so that’s the final few complaints out of way!
In a world where our current generation of games is defined by shooters, explosions and poor writing, or in other words Call of Duty, the Witcher 2 is a breath of fresh air, providing one of the most captivating stories that I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing in some time that’s backed up by solid gameplay and one of the few truly believable fantasy worlds in gaming. Simply said, this is one RPG that deserves a place on your shelf. Don’t let your Skyrim addiction rob it of that rightful spot!
+ Geralt is badass!
+ Damn good dialog and writing!
- Damn it map, show me where I need to go!
- Combat needs some refining.
- Roche. He’s such a dick.
Alright, so Geralt’s hair is stiffer than a turned on bull (ahem), but this is still one bloody good-looking game that can sit proudly amongst the most impressive graphical beasts on console!
Terrific voice acting and a fantastic score make this a great sounding game! Still, there’s some cheesy acting to be found in here as well.
An outstanding tale filled with great characters and fantastic dialog that keeps everything flowing nicely. There’s just a few small weak moments to be found.
The Witcher 2 handles morality and decisions better than any other game, but the rest of the game is merely good, never truly impressing.
Around 30-hours should be enough to see and do everything, plus a good amount of replay value due to decisions make this a solid RPG in terms of length.
The Verdict: 9
The Witcher 2 needs to be played by anyone with an appreciation for a well told tale and wonderfully crafted world. It can sit proudly alongside the top RPGs of this generation and take a deep satisfaction from the simple fact that it trounces them all with its dialog and writing. Oh, and seriously, don’t piss Geralt off. He’ll kick your ass.