Review: The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (Xbox 360 Enhanced Edition tested)
It’s another RPG, courtesy of my bro-in-law, Dan. Regular readers will know how he got me hooked on RPGs, starting me off slowly with Mass Effect, before getting me fully hooked on fantasy RPGs against my will – with Skyrim. Recently, it was my birthday and this time he gave me a copy of The Witcher 2 – a game I knew nothing about.
At least with Skyrim I knew it was by the same team that had written Fallout 3, that it was the sequel to Oblivion, that there was mega, unprecedented hype surrounding it. I was aware of it. The Witcher 2, on the other hand, was a complete surprise. What was this game? There was a prequel? Who are the authors (CD Projekt)?
So, unsure what to expect, I started it up. The Enhanced Edition of the game that I tested begins with an extra tutorial that regular versions of the game don’t get. Sounds great in theory – in practice, it throws the player straight in at the deep end. Within minutes you quickly establish that your character is called Geralt (of Rivia), that he is a Witcher – some form of supernatural being – exploring the land of Temeria. It’s a feudal, war-torn land with a real Game of Thrones feel to it.
A barrage, nay an onslaught, of complicated controls are explained in quick succession followed by some exploration and some dialogue. Then there is a a brief intro to the game’s combat system (s) – a fight with multiple opponents is staged and the various swordplay, magic attacks and other tactics are shown.
That initial difficulty curve is too steep. Impressions from the first 15-30 minutes are not very good. The game doesn’t feel accessible at first and it is not possible to remember everything you are shown during the contrived brawl at the end of the tutorial. The game sets its difficulty based on this – I fared so badly that it recommended I played on “Easy”.
So that was a real downer to start off on. But the game proper begins with one of the best cut scenes I’ve seen for a while – a strange, supernatural, meat-head of an assassin murders a feudal king aboard one of his ships, despite his troops’ best efforts to save him. Then, as the focus returns to our hero Geralt, we find the Witcher in shackles – locked in a dungeon and accused of murdering another king. A man called Vernon Roche is questioning him – the commander of the Blue Stripes, the King’s special forces.
Here things start to quickly improve. The level of intrigue immediately rises and the game lets you play meaningfully with dialogue for the first time. The answers to your captor’s questions set the scene for the game. The flashbacks that follow show how Geralt, the Witcher, was framed artfully for the murder of King Foltest. Once more the huge assassin from the game’s opening sequence is shown to be the true culprit. But, with Geralt due to hang for the crime the following morning – how to prove the Witcher’s innocence?
It all hinges on the answers you give. Do it right and Roche will believe you, slipping the key to the Witcher’s shackles to him and allowing him to escape. And that’s the end of the prologue – the chase is on to clear Geralt’s name and bring the true murderer to justice. From there, the game goes from strength to strength. It isn’t necessary to remember and use every control and technique from the tutorial straight away. With a little exploration of the towns, houses and places of Temeria, everything falls into place.
You can learn how to fight, with weapons or magic, you can learn how to trade, how to craft items, weapons, potions etc… All good stuff. Along the way you meet the different races of Temeria – humans, dwarves, elves, sorcerers and more. They don’t match the usual stereotypes though. The elves aren’t the loveable, cute things you see in the Zelda games – in this, they can be xenophobic guerillas, some groups of them are virtual terrorists.
And soon you get drawn into the drama and the intrigue and all is well with the game. After a couple of hours’ play I raised the difficulty level back to Normal – all good. I began to enjoy it more and more, despite being inaccessible at first.
Other points – the graphics are great. In many ways they are better than Skyrim’s – particularly in detail for characters, objects and so forth. The Witcher 2 was always originally a PC game, designed to be played on monster rigs with vast graphics cards. It doesn’t seem as if much has been lost at all in porting it down to the Xbox 360. The music is stirring and atmospheric – the Enhanced Edition also comes with a soundtrack. So far so great.
The interaction with other characters is very satisfying. The choices you make, through dialogue and action have far-reaching consequences for the game. I have seen it written that it is impossible to play through the game in the same way twice and at least two playthroughs are required to see most of what the game has. There are some hard choices to be made and agonized over – always the mark of a good RPG.
Also – it has to be said – there is more smut and bad language in this than any other game I have ever played! Within minutes of the game’s start (after the tutorial) there is full frontal nudity, swearing and violence. Throughout the game you can visit brothels – and see a fair bit of what goes on there – you can have affairs with other characters and more. And when I say bad language I mean every swear word from A to Z is in here.
But, it somehow fits. It’s as gritty, feudal and dramatic as watching Game of Thrones. And right now there is a real appetite for this stuff – post Lord of the Rings adventures for grown-ups.
All in all – an excellent, mature RPG. I was worried at first due to the shaky start, but it quickly grew on me and won me over. It’s a very different experience to Skyrim and if you enjoyed that, then get this also. The Witcher 2 gives tens of hours of grand drama, excitement, intrigue, war, sex and magic. Highly recommended, but definitely for adults only!
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is out now for Xbox 360 and PC