It is the early morning. Deep in the Temerian camp, you wake up to a heavy gust of wind. Lying next to you is a beautiful naked woman. You place your hand on her, slowly moving up her figure. She responds, looking towards you with longing eyes, and just before you can satisfy your urges, a soldier bursts into the tent. “The King requests your presence”, says the soldier. You acknowledge him even as the naked witch covers herself with a towel. Your name is Geralt of Rivia; and you’ve just been cock-blocked.
This is sort of tone The Witcher 2 starts with, and maintains, throughout its 20+ hour experience. This is a monster of a game—dealing with shady morality, monster hunting, regicide, genocide, and enough sexual references to satisfy a bard. It’s a story that demands your attention and restrains you from feeling anything but totally immersed in its world, its characters, and its lore.
The first Witcher game was sort of an oddity: on the one hand, it was an extremely flawed experience with translation and technical issues; but it also sold more than most PC games did and marked the successful debut of the now critically acclaimed developer, CD Projekt RED. Now I know what you’re thinking, “Does this mean I need to play the first game to understand the second game?” While it may help understand the premise, you would probably get more out of reading the books the game is based off of than playing the first game. If there’s one complaint about the story, it’s that the story arch which involves Geralt regaining his memory relies very heavily on Geralt’s past—unfortunately, Geralt’s past has only been explored in the books, so it’s easy to feel lost. These moments, however, are few and far between—so you never feel lost for too long.
The game starts with Geralt in prison, and through flashbacks, explains how he got there. In order to avoid spoilers, all I will say is that a large event, for which Geralt is blamed, causes him to be arrested. It is that framing that motivates Geralt to pursue the antagonist. Accompanying Geralt in this quest is his love interest Triss, a good friend and bard Dandelion, a drunken dwarf named Zoltan, an elf hunter named Roche, and though I didn’t choose to side with him during my playthrough, I assume you partner up with Iorweth, an elven extremist. Everyone has their own motivations for traveling, and as previously mentioned, you may have to choose who you want your friends to be.
Being a lone Witcher, you are put in the unique position of having no country to follow; though sometimes you might have to choose sides to forward your own agenda. The greatest part about the choices you make in the Witcher 2 is the weight they hold and the delay to when their outcomes occur. While nothing is stopping you from saving before every decision and going back if you don’t like the result, it would be a waste of time. If you choose to play the game like that, you’re most likely going to have to extend your playtime by a few hours for each decision.
The script features a whole lot of swearing and a whole lot of “ploughing”. I don’t think that any other fantasy world could get away with this language, as for some reason high-fantasy doesn’t usually provide the appropriate setting for vulgarity. All the dialogue fits the setting perfectly with sharp wit, accurate accents, and engaging storytelling. In comparison to the previous game where there were translation issues, the script feels like it was written in English (if you do want the authentic experience, you can however download the Polish voiceovers and play with subtitles).
The script is delivered through cutscenes and a dialogue system. It is handled through an elegant choice system which just displays your options as words by Geralt’s head. No UI, no wheel, but the occasional icon identifying whether the choice is intimidating or incorporates magic (for an awesome Jedi mind-trick). There are some rare moments where there is a time limit for you to pick your choice, which can catch you by surprise. This really adds to the tension and should have been used more often than the game did. I’m pretty sure it only happened once or twice.
A story in three acts
The story is split into three acts, with a prologue and epilogue as well. The first two acts are far meatier than the third. I don’t think this makes the third act any worse than the other two; it’s just a far more condensed experience with less traveling needed. There are just as many choices you need to make and just as much action. There’s even a cameo from a character in the first game which got me extremely excited.
In the prologue you are introduced to the new action-based combat of The Witcher 2. Did I say introduced? The more appropriate term would be ‘thrown into’. The game does a fairly poor job of explaining the strategy behind the combat. Making matters worse, the combat looks and feels like a hack-and-slash; but if you play the game like a hack-and-slash, you end up dying in the very first encounter.
The way you should approach combat is far more strategic. You are required to dodge or block frequently, as—especially in the beginning—Geralt takes a lot of damage from a single blow. As blocking uses up your “vigor” you can only use it sparingly, so dodging becomes your number one way of escaping enemy blows. The dodging and blocking mechanics work well, for the most part. The exception to this is when you need to dodge in the middle of either a falling or fighting animation, as there is no way to break that animation. You’ll find yourself pounding the dodge button as Geralt is getting up only to be hit again because his animation wasn’t finished.
Geralt does have tools besides his two swords in order to take out his foes. The first of them are signs, which are the equivalent of spells in other fantasy RPG’s. Geralt has access to a sort of “force push” ability, a flame spell, a trap spell, a shield spell, and a mind control spell. Depending on how you level Geralt, you may rely on these spells for damage or end up using them only to tip the battle in your favor. The last tools which Geralt can take advantage of are the throwing weapons and traps. The traps are especially deadly when used correctly and aren’t properly introduced during the prologue. PROTIP: Use and craft traps whenever you can—unless you are playing on easy, it can be extremely hard to defeat large groups of enemies without them.
As far as how you go about Witcher Strutting* through the story, the main quests are given to you as you proceed. The current mission hub for the most part corresponds to the act of the game you are in (except the prologue and epilogue). You can find side-quests by either proceeding through the main quest line or finding the notice board which hosts tasks around the mission hub. These missions can range from hunting monsters to dealing with an unruly troll. You’re going to have to extend your playtime significantly to complete every single quest in the game.
We’re gonna need a bigger GPU
Have I gone this long without mentioning how good this game looks? This game is a visual masterpiece; a technical and artistic achievement. From the texture work on the stone city of Vergen, to the amazing modeling of a giant dragon, both you and your PC (and soon Xbox 360) will be crying in an attempt to plow through the details of every scene.
Every setting in the game succeeds in creating a living, breathing world. There are characters everywhere having their own conversations, doing their own chores, and occasionally getting drunk. What really brings this all together are the atmosphere effects which create a sort of depth-of-field effect on anything in the far distance—which turns into a sort of haze effect. This allows the game to have a smaller view-distance without sacrificing visual style and quality.
While the world of The Witcher 2 may be gorgeous to look at, this game does not feature a beautiful RPG world. The towns are haunted by bandits, there’s a brothel next to every bar, people aren’t very attractive, and monsters are just waiting for you to step outside the walls of civilization. I was especially impressed with the monster and specter designs, which never fell into fantasy conventions. I don’t want to spoil anything but there is a battle at the end of the second act which blew my mind in both style and scale.
The voice acting is as good, if not better, than the graphics—with a lot of the voice actors from the first game returning to their respective roles. There are a few changes in the cast, but it is for the best as the new voice actors are far superior to the previous actors. The dialogue looks great with solid lip-syncing and appropriate expressions to really sell a character’s emotion. It’s not the most accurate lip-syncing you’ve ever seen, but it is quite impressive when you consider the number of conversations this game features.
Dialogue isn’t the only fantastic audio to reach your ears. What brings the whole game’s presentation is The Witcher 2’s music. The soundtrack is filled with huge orchestral pieces that seem to come in at the perfect times and mellow out when there is a somber scene. On top of the music there are layers upon layers of ambient noise which never become too loud to be annoying but are clear enough that you’ll notice details like barking dogs, growling monsters, and casual NPC conversation.
In the end, you still need to pay $50 for this experience. From my playthrough it seems absolutely worth it. You get a 20+ hour single-player experience, the promise of free DLC, multiple endings, and maybe the eventual expansion pack. That is a lot better than what most games give you for the money; and on top of that you are contributing to the production of future Witcher games and a company which has taken a fantastic stance on DRM. Watch out RPG titans, CD Projekt RED is gunning for you.
The Witcher 2 is available digitally via Steam, but the The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings – Collector’s Edition looks pretty darned swank, with all the pack-ins it comes with.
*Geralt has the walk of a badass; I thought it deserved a name….