[3 June 2011]
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is supposed to wield the PC RPG torch in 2011, and since it’s one of the very few exclusively PC mainstream RPGs, it doesn’t have to work that hard to live up to these expectations. When The Witcher was released in 2007, it felt (and was) completely different from most well known RPGs. Not only was it a bug-ridden, fiddly, and an ultimately deep game, its world and story were immediately recognizable as other than the norm. This wasn’t a JRPG, and it wasn’t one of several hybridized Western takes on the genre. Despite its annoying quality control flaws, The Witcher marked CD Projekt as a bright new prospect in the PC development community; it’s no surprise that even people who don’t game exclusively on PCs are watching this sequel with bated breath.
The world of the The Witcher and its sequel is drawn from the hugely successful Polish fantasy books written by Andrzej Sapkowski. Players take control of Geralt, a genetically mutated medieval monster slayer for hire who uses swords and magic to great effect. Geralt’s world is a depressing one, thanks to a combination of Sapkowski’s novels and (what I must imagine) is the uniquely Polish flavor given the game by its developers. Everyone’s a racist, sexist, murderer, liar, or something worse. Kingdoms and towns are run by the worst kind of despotic male tyrant, and the one powerful faction that is controlled by women (a Sorceress’s Guild – rather unoriginally) are equally as cruel and dastardly as their royal male counterparts. It’s certainly not an original world, but I’ve found it a convincingly, entertainingly realized one for two games now. The Witcher 2 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.
Unlike Bioware’s straight faced epics, the Dragon Age and Mass Effect series, The Witcher 2 has no big boss. In fact, the characters that might be considered bosses can be befriended, debated, murdered, or spared. I watched a friend beat the game, and he fought a lengthy, suitably deadly duel with a genetically modified murderer named Letho. I had a long conversation with Letho and then bid him goodbye. The Witcher 2 isn’t about grand gestures for the most part, nor is it about rousing speeches about “holding the line.” There isn’t a final battle. There are just a bunch of little, dirty, unpleasant conflicts along the path to Geralt’s (relative) peace of mind. And it feels absolutely wonderful to role-play through that kind of story and that kind of character arc.
I played through the entirety of The Witcher 2 only to realize that had I befriended one man and not another, I’d have played an entirely different Act 2. Instead of siding with the underdog city of Vergen, lead by the pan-racial forces of Vaskia the Dragonslayer, I could have sided with the (in my playthrough) villainous King Henselt a man of some honor but little goodness. The game never goes out of its way to signpost these kinds of decisions, though observant players will probably identify branching story sections. In The Witcher 2, I’ve condemned kings, rapists, and murderers to death. I’ve also let innocent men and women die, saved a group of elven immigrants from death by fire, and sent a foolish young man to his death at the hands of false magic.
Assassins of Kings is interesting and compelling to play because there’s never a blue option and a red option. Often Geralt must choose between two options, but plot-wise (though possibly not in players’ consciences) these options do not instantly signify “good” and “bad.” I once spent two minutes sitting in front of my monitor trying to make a decision. I could help a lonely, broken spirit take his revenge upon his two hapless murderers, or I could save them, believing their tales of remorse and mistakes made. These aren’t the straw men found in most games. They aren’t wild villains, cowering civilians, or saints. They’re nothing like Dragon Age 2’s frothing mages, poor souls constantly on the verge of transforming into monstrous demons. Everyone lies, everyone does wrong, but in the end, they often come to Geralt for some kind of (sword-assisted) closure. It’s surprisingly well executed, even the bits that get let down by lesser writing and acting.
The Witcher 2’s plot (which unsurprisingly revolves around a murdered king or two) is a bit less conventional than the game’s RPG play, but not by that much. Attacks and powers are used in real time. To select a spell, trap, or bomb from Geralt’s inventory, an easy-to-use, slick-looking menu pops up, slowing combat to a crawl. Geralt can perform light and heavy attacks, roll, and parry. It feels like something in between an action game like God of War and the original Witcher. It’s a little slower than the average action game, but it makes up for that by being quite difficult. Taking potions in preparation for battle is almost always necessary for new players, and even as I brought the game to its close, I found myself quaffing health and endurance potions when the going got tough. I came to relish the rhythm of combat, moving from reposting, to dodging, to dropping a bomb, to casting a fire sign (spell), and back again. There are many different ways to kill and be killed, and even though some of those ways are clearly overpowered, I haven’t had such hands-on fun with an RPG in years. There’s something to be said for the lack of a pause button, the near-instant repercussions for failure. It makes turn-based RPGs feel like too calm, too tidy affairs.
Many journalists, critics, and gamers have complained about the game’s difficulty and speed, especially in the prologue (where it “should” be the easiest). This difficulty comes down to several things: the game’s tooltips are displayed for a half second apiece, tough enemies regularly surround Geralt and hack him to bits, and the various magic, enemy, and weapon combinations that the game throws at players are complicated. None of this is explained to the player. To really get a handle on the potion, sword, magic, and crafting systems, I had to go into the game’s very robust tutorial codex. There every tooltip that I’d caught a glimpse of (and many more that I’d never seen—for unknowable reasons) was explained in full. I spent 20 minutes in that codex, and afterwards I was ready to play The Witcher 2 on its own terms, ready to learn how to beat it.
I’d be willing to bet that three fourths of the people who play this game won’t have so “easy” a time of it. They’ll spend hours trying to figure out how to meditate, throw bombs, or parry attacks from behind. The tutorial codex reads like an old school game manual, like the thick tomes that showed up in Baldur’s Gate games and various flight simulators. Players have been trained to listen to or instantly recognize on screen and in-audio prompts. The Witcher 2 could have accommodated these players, but it staunchly refuses to. It’s going to drive a lot of people off, and not just with these shaky first steps.
I said that Assassins of Kings had an unconventional PC RPG storyline, and it does. It’s also not nearly as smart or mature as it likes to think it is. As in the comically dark Dragon Age 2, The Witcher 2 throws around a lot of weighty subject matter. Surprisingly, The Witcher 2 doesn’t use rape, torture, and bizarre cruelty as willfully (or as ineffectively) as Bioware does, or even as The Witcher did. For the most part, the game manages to maintain its serious, depressed tone by implication, rather than through tawdry action.
Unfortunately, the designers of The Witcher 2 felt that the best way to render any plot-important woman was with peculiarly medieval, revealing clothing. The game hypersexualizes women in a way that isn’t necessarily surprising; most mainstream games treat women this way, and The Witcher certainly followed suit. This approach is nonetheless disappointing. While the original Witcher’s childish collectible sex cards (every time Geralt had sex with a woman the player would receive a card depicting said woman in some kind of soft-core glory) are nowhere to be seen, Geralt can still have sex with several women. These scenes are animated with painstaking detail, and while they are never as robotic and horrifying as the sex scenes in Bioware games, they’re still terribly unsexy.
I don’t fault the game its virulently sexist, violent world, I just think that it takes just a little bit too much pleasure in depicting certain parts of that world. Likewise, I appreciate that Geralt isn’t another middle class liberal Bioware hero; I always play Geralt as a champion of (non)human rights, of equality between different sexes and classes (though the writing can get in the way of this from time to time). The fact that I can do this in a world that feels even remotely plausible from a political and social perspective means a lot to me and informed my experience with the game accordingly.
Despite my qualms, Assassins of Kings still explores one of my favorite videogame worlds. I love that I quickly had to direct Geralt to choose whether to ally himself with an elven terrorist or a vicious, lawman, nearly a war criminal. These (and other) people do good, but they also do great evil. There’s not a lawful good character among the lot of them (as opposed to the horribly earnest likes of Aveline, Kaiden, and the rest of Bioware’s earnestly righteous bunch), and the lack of that kind of unrealistic characterization makes all the difference. If I seem to single out Bioware and their morality-concerned epics in this article, that’s only because The Witcher 2’s authentically gray moral quandaries so easily surpass and remind one of Bioware’s own efforts. In fact, in its attempts to depict a rogue’s gallery of unsavory main characters, The Witcher 2 hews much more closely to the examples set by Alpha Protocol.
It’s by no means a perfect game. It’s a bit clumsy in places, and it goes out of its way to alienate new players. Beyond that, you can see why some of CD Projekt’s vocal members have compared what they wanted to do with The Witcher 2 to Demon’s Souls; Assassins of Kings is a tough, vicious game. To win a battle in this game is to feel genuinely accomplished. CD Projekt have created an absolutely beautiful, lush fantasy world. It’s as dark as you please (though rarely does it stray into the unintentionally, humorously dark), it’s practically bug-free by any standards, and it’s chock full of quests, revelations, crafting, combat, and truly impressive art. It’s not a brilliant RPG, but it will certainly do until a brilliant RPG comes along. It’s excellent, and I’m about to start it all over again and side with the human murderer, not the elven terrorist with a soft streak. I can’t wait!