I was one of those console-owners who rejoiced when the news broke that developer CD Projekt RED was bringing an expanded version of the acclaimed PC game, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, to the Xbox 360. It didn't matter that a full year had passed since the PC release, in fact, all that mattered was that I would finally be able to enjoy the game in front of my TV, while lounging on my sofa, without having to battle my ancient computer and its painfully out of date hardware. But a single question lodged itself in my brain: has the wait been worth it?
In The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, the player slips into the leather boots of Geralt of Rivia (also known as the White Wolf or Gwynbleidd). Geralt is the eponymous Witcher, a member of a reviled group of magically enhanced mutants, who have forsaken their humanity in order to pursue and destroy magical creatures. The game blasts off in medias res with Geralt accused of regicide. His former employer, King Foltest, is dead, and the King's right-hand man, Vernon Roche, has been tasked to investigate. The White Wolf on the other hand, wants to clear his name and in turn bring the real Kingslayer to justice. As the Kingdom of Temeria crumbles, a deadly game of thrones ensues, but Temeria is just a small part of a much bigger event. You see, Foltest isn't the only King to have fallen before the assassin's blade.
What follows is a masterfully told tale, filled with intrigue, political backstabbery and enough twists and turns to put a smile on any fantasy fan's face. In turn, Geralt has to deal with reclaiming his memories, which is fortuitous because it allows even those who haven't played the first game to be eased into this narratively-rich world. The developers have also added a series of new cutscenes to the Enhanced Edition that help to clarify and expand on the original PC release, along with a codex at hand (in the menu), for those who require additional information on the Witcher and the multitude of different characters that he meets.
The Witcher 2 comfortably navigates through its gritty and adult-themed storyline. It provides a glimpse at a world much like ours, where bigotry and prejudice run amok. However, it never comes across as preachy. The racial tensions between the humans and the non-humans run deep (with their bloody history, the cause of all the hardship), but thankfully Geralt isn't the shining white knight that ends all the strife. It's strange to talk about realism and authenticity when dealing with a game that's primarily set within a fictional fantasy world, but the character interactions and overall theme are for lack of a better word "realistic". There are no moral absolutes, since even the good guys are fundamentally flawed. It's a sharp departure from similar games where evil is clearly identifiable and patiently waiting in its far-away den, lair or castle to be conquered or slain. In the world of the Witcher, politics rule supreme, and a moral greyness hangs heavy throughout the game. Throw in a healthy dose of nudity and you have a title that could easily have been an HBO TV show.
Allowing gamers to shape their own path has become a popular theme in recent story-driven games, however, The Witcher 2's take on this mechanic is the most interesting. Actions do have consequences, and allegiances are shaken or strengthened by earlier events. It's still not as comprehensive as it could be, but CD Projekt RED has laid the groundwork for the Witcher 3, and if they continue on this path, their next game could be even more labyrinthine. Towards the middle of the game, it branches off in spectacular fashion, and the fruits of your labours become apparent. It should be noted that the game lacks a visible karma meter, but in my opinion that actually helps maintain the immersion.
The game is a visual and aural masterpiece. It's complimented with exceptional voice acting and a haunting score by composer and sound designer, Adam Skorupa, whereas the game's imagery has a distinct visceral quality that is both aesthetically pleasing and slightly unnerving. The evidence of poverty, war and cultural decline are constantly in front of you. The art design deserves praise, because not only are the game environments meticulously detailed and large enough to allow exploration, but there is an incredible amount of detail put into even the smallest aspect. In this regard, the armour sets and uniform designs instantly spring to mind. While I don't want to say the armour is historically accurate, the detail on the sets is breathtaking. There appears to have been a genuine desire to keep armour practical, yet also visually pleasing. Interestingly, female characters and soldiers aren't given the customary and revealing "metal bikini" for protection either. While the game does feature a fair amount of nudity, one thing that can be said is that it has some of the best dressed female characters (not to mention most beautiful).
While the xbox 360 version might not be the pinnacle version (in terms visuals), there is no question that The Witcher 2 has been successfully ported to the xbox 360. This in itself is an incredible achievement, and proof that even after seven years, the old girl can still impress. CD Projeckt RED has done wonders, but given the visuals it's to be expected that there will be a fair amount of texture pop-in and related graphical mishaps. Fortunately, installing the game onto the xbox 360's harddrive alleviates most of the graphical issues. The other issue that might cause some concern is the controls, or at least the worry that The Witcher 2 might not be playable with a controller. In this regard, the game comes up tops as well. It features a combat mechanic that allows novices to button-mash (on the lower difficulties), but at higher difficulties, requires intense strategic planning. It's imperative to know when to parry, block or even when to run screaming for the woods.
While The Witcher 2 is definitely not as unforgiving as Dark Souls, it remains a challenging game, with a steep difficulty curve. It features a number of interesting and difficult boss characters, but it's not just the boss characters that can bring Geralt to his knees. The non-elite, riff-raff or even normal enemies can use their superior numbers to overwhelm the White Wolf, but it never feels impossible. The game relies on a simple mantra of "Preparation is Key". Geralt can craft potions to assist him in battle, however, a nifty toxicity bar stops him from quenching his thirst on too many potions. You're also not allowed to take a sip during battle, so all preparations for a fight have to occur beforehand. Fortunately, our hero doesn't have to rely on alchemy alone, and he possesses a small arsenal of tools and abilities to wreak havoc on his enemies. These include long range weapons such as bombs and throwing knives, magic spells (signs) and even two different types of swords - a steel sword and a silver sword. Steel swords are used against all things natural, whereas the silver swords are used to return the supernatural to the great beyond. With the odds seemingly stacked against the player, it helps to master Geralt's peculiar abilities, and much like with Dark Souls, parrying is a skill worth mastering, but so too is his magical signs or how to use traps (magical or otherwise). As Geralt's fighting prowess is enhanced through a level-based upgrade system, additional finishing moves, magic attacks and counter-attacks are unlocked.
The Gwynbleidd isn't just a master swordsman, because when he's not battling monsters or saving bandits from that chronic ailment called life, he's also a gambler worth his own weight in gold. The Witcher 2 relishes in mini-games, from arm wrestling, to dice poker, or even a strange quicktime-based fist fighting mini game. Not to mention, the game features a series of highly enjoyable side quests.
Unfortunately, the game is far from perfect. There are three glaring issues that stood out for me. The first being lootting. Looting is incredibly important, since Geralt relies on it to gather raw material (for crafting potions, armour and even weapons). The game allows for ample opportunity to gather components but there is no way to choose what you want to take. Everything is taken and added to your inventory. This invariably means being forced to open the inventory, and carefully searching through the inventory menu to see what can be safely discarded as junk, making it especially annoying when your character becomes encumbered.
The other issue that almost had me turning into a deranged axe-wielding berserker, is the unhelpful quest markers on the map. While the maps are fairly easy to read, the quest markers are unnecessarily vague, and sometimes even in the wrong place altogether. I should add that I enjoy role-playing games that refrain from holding your hand and demand that you take note of the quest log. The best kind is where you have to dust off the trusty note pad during a dungeon crawl. But I really despise confusing quest markers. I can deal with important NPCs not being marked, or even if there are no quest markers at all. In fact, I'd be quite happy to rely on in-game dialogue or quest texts to guide me, but there's just something wrong about misbehaving quest markers. There's one specific in-game example that almost left me flinging my controller in frustration. During one of the game's best side quests (and not to be too specific), Geralt is tasked to perform an autopsy on a dead dwarf - to find out the cause of death. To do so, you're required to find the Dwarven Catacombs, but it's not exactly clear where the catacombs are, and if you're in the Dwarven town with its underground tunnels, and multiple levels, it quickly becomes frustrating, because the quest marker will take you on a wild-goose chase around town.
Then there's the fussy camera, that makes targeting enemies or even treasure chests a chore. While I enjoyed the swordplay and combat mechanic, the camera does tend to throw a spanner in the works. This is especially true when facing a sizeable group of enemies, where expert timing is needed to parry, counter (riposte), evade or even unleash a devastating barrage of fury. In a nutshell, the camera is the source of many untimely and unfair deaths. It's less of an issue when playing at lower difficulties, but on Hard or above, the camera is an unrelenting and uncaring foe.
To answer my earlier question, the answer has to be an emphatic "Yes!". There is no question that The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings - Enhanced Edition is one of the best looking role-playing games on the Xbox 360. And it's not just a pretty face either, because the visuals are complimented by an intriguing and multiple-branching mature storyline, and a host of interesting (and not always likeable) characters set within a rich game world. While the game is hardly flawless, it's undeniably a must-buy for fellow role-playing gamers. If there was ever a game that would get my stamp of approval it would be the tale of Geralt of Rivia.
- Unparalleled story
- Multiple story paths, with gamer choices (actually) affecting the story
- Exceptional voice acting
- Excellent swordplay and brutal combat mechanic
- Animation is not as smooth as in the PC version
- Unhelpful and confusing quest markers
- Non-ideal looting system