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CD Projekt RED

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

(Warner Bros. Interactive; US: 17 Apr 2012)

The Witcher 2 is a lot of game.  Most reviews of last year’s PC release reported that it was a lot of very good game, and those reviews are right.


That being said, the game’s prologue, a largely linear affair, does not do the game any favors.  Featuring a number of hours of largely linear play, the prologue gives the impression that the game is largely just a simple action RPG.  What it especially fails to do is convey the complexity and sheer size of the world that the game has to offer.  Also, through the prologue’s illusion of meaningful choices (the initial missions in the game can be played in any order, though that order doesn’t actually matter at all), it suggests that the game is, like so many other RPGs out there, attempting to “pretend” at giving the player significant choices to make in the game world, but those choices don’t really matter much in a game that will largely be following a fairly linear script.


This is misleading because The Witcher 2 does just the opposite, offering any number of interesting choices that change the game in tremendously significant ways.  Indeed, the entire second and third act of the game, which comprise dozens and dozens of gaming hours, will be entirely different depending on choices made in the first act.  The full scope of the game’s plot absolutely cannot be experienced on a single playthrough.  And the game’s endings will vary enormously as well depending on choices made in those latter acts of the game.


Frankly, all of the complaints that gamers had with the limited outcomes offered by Mass Effect 3 would be well served to get a hold of The Witcher 2.  This is the game that you may have wanted Mass Effect 3 to be, where life and death decisions matter to the balance of power in the world of Geralt of Rivia, and entire threads of the plot can be lost or gained depending on the manner in which you decided to handle things.


The latter end of the game is full of moments when you realize that something that you did hours and hours ago had a profound effect on what is happening now and that is a really refreshing experience in a medium that often makes such promises, but fails to deliver.


Those familiar with the first game will find that this new version of The Witcher carries with it some of its PC heritage and will also find that the decision to eventually release the sequel on a console was clearly an element that has shaped how the game has ultimately turned out.


The Witcher 2 retains its unusually complex alchemy and crafting systems, staples of the PC title that reward preparation for battle, rather than purely tactical, twitch-based action.  Like the fist game, Geralt, as a witcher (a medieval monster hunter), depends on alchemical agents and the like to give him an edge in battle against mundane enemies and beasties from the netherworld.  Thus, there is an entire menu system to wade through and time spent preparing potions and thinking ahead about what needs to be done before charging off to battle.  This may come as an annoyance to console players, who are accustomed to their action being served up fast and furious.  However, it is kind of what makes Geralt who he is and is part of what sets the game apart from other combat games with fantasy trappings.


That being said, gone is the complex and rather strange combat of the first game, in which Geralt had to switch fighting styles depending on opponents and had to time blows to strike during balletic pre-scripted combat animations.  I am somewhat sad to see the system go, as it was entirely unique, and it may be a similar disappointment to PC gamers, as it is certainly a system built more for keyboard and mouse than controller.  Instead, once combat is initiated, the game becomes a familiar console experience of skillfully and fully controlling third person combat.


Both choices seem good ones here, as the game’s complexity is not fully dumbed down, but the acknowledgment that console play is different than PC play is a sensible one and makes the game move at a much faster clip than the previous installment.


What The Witcher essentially boils down to, though, is Geralt himself.  The monster hunter is not an especially complex character, part Clint Eastwood (stoic, serious, and badass) and, oddly enough, part James Bond (quiet, though he is, Geralt is a cad, who will never turn down a bit of skirt, should the opportunity arise).  White haired and yellow eyed, he is strangely compelling in his general neutrality to politics and the other shennanigans going on in his world.  However, this outsider is drawn to individual plight and the people around him.  Despite being more or less superhumanly powerful and capable of affecting the fate of nations, he always has time to exorcise the wraiths from an innkeeper’s cellar or to hunt the monster under your bed.


The character driven quality of The Witcher and its intense focus on tight plotting is more reminiscent of JRPGs than the typical American-style of game (say, Skyrim), which tend to favor the player’s ability to design their own hero and wander a world largely how that player wishes.  That being said, the focus on a much more action-based combat system makes it feel very American.  There is not much random battle here and, of course, no turn-based combat.  For someone, like me, who prefers story over turn-based combat and action over generic template character design, it really is a mix of the best of both worlds.


Mostly, though, The Witcher shines most when it offers its own unique approach to role playing and choice.  This is a game in which you can walk away from the final boss fight, and doing so or not, will probably depend on what choices you made all the way along in the game and what feels right based on the context that you have created for the plot.  It depends on how you deecided to motivate Geralt.  CD Projekt has proven that you can make a game with a character that has a complete background and motivations that belong to him as a result of their sense of the story, but also one that the player really has a hand in determining how he will ultimately deal with the problems put before him. 


I have pretty much given up on long form role playing games, finding them too time consuming with too little pay off (I’m looking at you Skyrim), often featuring characters that feel vaguely inserted into a world to pass some time in and nothing more.  While The Witcher requires a lot of commitment because it really is a whole lot of game, Geralt really feels like he belongs in his world and matters in that world, making the time spent there with him seem worth all of the effort.

Rating:

G. Christopher Williams is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He posts his weekly contribution to the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters every Wednesday. Besides also serving as Multimedia Editor at PopMatters and writing at his own blog, 8-bit confessional, he has also published essays in journals like Film Criticism, PostScript, and the Popular Culture Review. You won't find him on Twitter, but you can drop him a line with that old fashioned thing called e-mail at williams@popmatters.com.


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By Thomas Cross
2 Jun 2011
The Witcher exists in a world that is strongly affected by wars, displaced persons and refugees, class strife and political turmoil, and most of all, vengeance and murder on a nation spanning scale.
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