I’ve never been much of a PC gamer, save for some of the older Blizzard titles. There are a number of reasons why this is, but the point I’m getting at is that in recent years there has only been one major title that really caught my interest. That game is The Witcher.
I picked it up on a whim, based on its reputation as being a really solid game. And solid it was, as not only did it have an interesting combat system as well as some very impressive visuals, but the story was quite impressive for a game I had no expectations for. You had to make a lot of choices that influenced the outcome of the game, but there were no clear cut “good”Â or “bad”Â choices. Everything you did could have both positive and negative connotations to those around you and it was thrilling to see what those consequences were. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings was already out by the time I finished, but upon word that there would be an Xbox 360 version, I was interested to see how they would adapt it to a console. So, how did they do?
The Witcher titles are based on a series of books by the same name, and are tales written about a Witcher known as Geralt of Rivia. The best way to describe Witchers is to think of them as mutants that were created as an effective means to hunt monsters. Geralt in particular was believed dead, but has instead been struck with a case of amnesia. His quest to regain his lost memory began with the first game, and continues into this one while being embroiled in the nation’s political struggles.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings begins shortly after the end of the original. Geralt is found locked in a dungeon, beaten and tortured, before a man named Roche comes in to inquire about the events that lead up to this. The entirety of the prologue is told from Geralt’s point of view, in a similar style to Dragon Age 2, which lasts until the beginning of Chapter 1. From then on, Geralt embarks on a quest to find an individual known as the “Kingslayer”Â which spans three chapters in total.
While three chapters doesn’t sound like a heck of a whole lot, there are a number of quests and dialogue options that can influence the outcome of a number of events. Similar to how the BioWare games normally work, you can have an experience entirely different from the one another person has. And as with the original game, the choices you have are not so cut and dry. For example, the ghosts haunting a burned out hospital will not lift their curse unless two of the individuals involved are brought in to accept punishment. Do you bring these people to face justice at the hands of the ghosts, or do you destroy them on account of being, well, ghosts? The game is full of situations like this, and they’re all very well written.
The core of the main story is also laced with a number of heavy themes, involving politics, racism and class warfare. A number of them involve races that are found in many fantasy novels and stories, including elves and dwarves. Even so, even cliché beings are easy to overlook in the face of a tale that goes much deeper than that, providing commentary on problems that can easily be reflected in our own society.
The only downside is that in setting up for an inevitable followup, the ending doesn’t do much to wrap up loose ends, and instead leaves things open ended. That aside, the characters that aid you on your quest are entertaining and generally well scripted, so you won’t grow weary of the antics of Dandelion or Zolton anytime soon. The inhabitants of the world have their own lives and habits and can be found doing different things during different times of the day that you visit them.
Story/Modes Rating: Classic
One of the major concerns people had with porting The Witcher 2 over from the PC is how scaled down it was going to be. While I can’t vouch for the PC version much not having played it myself, from what I have seen of footage and comparison shots, the Xbox 360 version looks nigh indistinguishable. You only have to look no further than the opening cinematic that plays before the title screen to know that you’re in for a treat. Environments come to life around you with scenery that doesn’t look at all like copy and paste jobs from other parts of the game. Even the characters themselves have some very convincing looking movements and appearances, right down to their bad teeth.
Unfortunately, all of these lovely visuals come at a bit of a cost. Whenever the camera cuts to a new character or scene, it takes a second or two for the game to render the textures on screen. According to the game, installing the discs to the hard drive should alleviate this problem, but from what I could tell from the before and after, it really doesn’t. The screen also has a tendency to flicker if you are scrolling through your menu really fast. And, as you might expect, loading times are more present than ever, though installation does seem to help with those a bit.
Graphics Rating: Great
While The Witcher 2 comes packed with the game’s soundtrack, the best way I can describe it is atmospheric. The music is befitting of every scene that you encounter, from dramatic battle tunes of epicness to the creepy horror music you would expect to hear while wandering the forest at night. On the other hand, I can’t pick out any one track as being memorable. So while it does its job, I can’t see myself actually listening to the soundtrack on my own.
The voices are where the audio department shines. Geralt has a very deep, distinct voice when he converses with people, sometimes containing subtle humor during his otherwise stern and serious dialogue. The supporting characters like Triss and Dandelion also do an admirable job, as do the random villagers that you encounter. Half of the fun is just listening in on the random conversations people have with each other, especially the ones getting drunk and throwing parties. Some of the towns peoples’ dialogue tends to get a bit repetitive, so if you visit an area frequently, you may grow tired of hearing the same phrases time after time.
Sound Rating: Great
It took some adjustment to get used to playing the sequel on a console versus a PC, mostly because it’s quite a bit different than its predecessor. You still carry two different swords as before, a silver sword for monsters and steel swords for non-magical beings (usually humans) which can be alternated using the directional pad. However, you no longer swap between fighting styles as in the original. In The Witcher, each sword had a fighting style for fast opponents, strong ones, and groups which had to be leveled separately. Instead, quick strikes are mapped to the A button and strong attacks are set to X. You can also dodge with B and cast whatever currently equipped spell you have with Y. You can target enemies with left trigger and use the right thumbstick to switch who you have your focus on. If you hold right trigger you can block attacks, though you can still sustain some damage from doing so. An icon may pop up during an enemy’s attack while you are blocking and if you happen to hit one of the attack buttons when this appears, you’ll perform a riposte which serves as your counter attack. The right bumper will throw any currently equipped items, such as daggers, bombs, or traps and can be alternated, along with your spells, with left bumper.
What makes combat so satisfying, aside from the tools you have at your disposal, is the way combat feels. The screen shakes when you land blows, giving weight to the attacks you land on your enemies. When stunned, you can even perform some incredibly graphic finishing moves that impress no matter how many times you see them. Depending on how you disperse your talents, you can even perform a finishing move on multiple enemies at once which raises the level of badassery through the roof.
Inventory management has been streamlined a bit this time around. While you can technically carry as much as you want now, you are given a weight limit. Every item carries a certain amount of weight and if you exceed that, Geralt’s movement is severely hindered. Extra weapons and armor tend to weigh the most, so it’s in your best interest to get rid of it as soon as possible, or at the very least, dump off your excess at the local inn for storage. Some of the heavier components, such as ores and leathers can build up quickly too, though these can be crafted into new gear by visiting certain shops. Socketed items can be fitted with enhancements to make them even stronger yet.
Alchemy makes a return, though not quite as much of a nuisance as it was before. In the original game, you had to have kindling for a bonfire in order to sit down and mix potions. Now, you can sit down anywhere and mix potions so long as you have the formula to do so. You can also meditate to advance the time or drink potions should the need arise.
Geralt’s talent trees have been simplified as well. Rather than each level up granting you bronze, silver, and gold tokens to distribute among your available talents, you get one talent point per level that can be dispersed among one of four talent trees. There’s one for training, which is the only one you start out with. There’s also one for swordsmanship, alchemy, and magic. Each talent can have two points invested in it, but you only need at least one to advance down a given path. Certain ones can even have Mutagens applied to them to make them stronger yet, which can be pretty easily found on monsters.
Control/Gameplay Rating: Great
Depending on how much time you invest in sidequests, you could probably clear the campaign in about 20-25 hours. It doesn’t seem like much compared to the original, but it’s meant to be played more than once. There’s a choice that has to be made in Chapter 1 in particular that could send you on a completely different path depending on which route you take. There are a number of other decisions that can influence the outcome of the game, such as who you decide to let live and so forth. You can even avoid a final boss battle depending on your selections.
Aside from just questing, there are a number of diversions that you can take part in. Fist fights, gambling on dice, and arm wrestling are all par for the course, as well as arena battles should you want to participate. While none of these things are particularly deep, they at least offer something to goof off with if nothing else.
Replayability Rating: Great
There is a tutorial quest of sorts that you have the choice to take on when you first begin the game that helps immensely with getting accustomed to the controls. Based on your performance in said tutorial, the game will recommend a difficulty level that it thinks you should play on. Regardless of its recommendation, you can switch difficulties at any time, even after you’ve already began the game. So if you’re really having a rough time of it, you can knock down the challenge and finish the game if the story is your only concern.
They all behave as advertised. Easy turns out to be really easy, and the harder difficulties are punishing and force you to rely on alchemy and enhancements in order to survive. In fact, potions cannot be consumed during battle as they could before. They instead must be ingested during meditation prior to a battle, and you are limited to how much you can have based on their toxicity. Fighting multiple enemies can be a challenge too if you don’t do the necessary prep work of setting traps and such before you pick a fight.
Balance Rating: Classic
The transition from The Witcher to The Witcher 2 reminds me much of the jump from the original Mass Effect to the second. The end result is a very streamlined product, though I can’t help but feel there were some elements lost in the translation (at least with the 360 version). The way they have the controls laid out, it mimics many of the action RPG titles that are already on the market, such as Kingdoms of Amalur or the Fable series. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, the end product is fun as hell. It just doesn’t feel as unique as the original with its two sword/multiple fighting style setup.
Originality Rating: Above Average
Despite being a shorter experience overall than the first, even with the additional content added for this version, the content that is here is far better designed. A couple of the chapters in the original slowed the whole experience to a crawl, amounting to not much more than running back and forth across town to talk with people and trigger things to happen. Many of the sidequests felt the same. In The Witcher 2, the main quest is far better paced with something interesting almost always going on at any given time and the sidequests actually having some relevance to the main story. They seem to be better thought out too, even ones that appear to be nothing more than simple fetch quests have a decent amount of exposition behind them.
Addictiveness Rating: Classic
If you haven’t figured it out already by glancing at the glaring “M”Â rating on the cover, but this is NOT a game for kids. Not only is the violence incredibly graphic (one scene in particular depicts a guy getting his genitals carved up), but there is a lot of sexual content. It’s not like Mass Effect where the sex scene is only mildly revealing and buried deep within the game. No, The Witcher 2 has full frontal nudity as soon as the first ten minutes of the game. Some of the later sex scenes also leave very little to the imagination. I’m surprised Fox News hasn’t had a field day with this game already.
If you already own or have played the PC version, there isn’t much reason to pick up this version as well since the additional content presented here will be making it into that version too. The PC edition is also cheaper, and will likely get cheaper yet as more Steam deals start happening. This variation of The Witcher 2 is primarily for those that don’t own a powerful PC or would rather play this style of game on a console. Considering there are a number of games similar to it, I suspect there will be quite an audience for it.
Appeal Rating: Good
Let me talk a bit about what you get with the Enhanced Edition, which unless you upgrade to the $100 Dark Edition, will be the version you should end up with. Inside the case, you’ll get three discs, two for the game and one for the CD soundtrack. As I mentioned above, despite not being something I’d listen to on a regular basis, I’m a sucker for soundtracks and am glad they decided to include one. Aside from the manual, there’s also a fold out map that comes packaged inside, though not a cloth one sadly. Underneath the slipcover, you also have a quest handbook that operates as a mini-walkthrough of sorts. It gives you a general idea on how to tackle each of the main story missions, regardless of which route you take, as well as some pointers for the various sidequests. It’s a well done package overall, and one I wish more games of this style would adopt.
Miscellaneous Rating: Classic
Originality: Above Average
Appeal Factor: Good
Final Score: Great Game!
Short Attention Span Summary
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings makes its way to Xbox 360 and aside from a few graphical hiccups, does so completely intact. The character models and scenery do much to impress, and the soundtrack is atmospheric and very befitting of the events it accompanies. The character voices are well acted and memorable, particularly that of Geralt, and the rantings of the common folk make for some entertaining listening. Combat has adapted well to the Xbox 360 controls, and the game does a good job of adapting to players of all skill levels. This doesn’t mean all gamers should play, as those with a weak stomach and sensitivity to sexual situations should steer clear. PC gamers are getting the same content as the console owners are with this version, so there’s no incentive to upgrade if you already own it. But if you don’t own a powerful PC, are not a PC gamer, or have not picked this up yet, definitely check this out.