Polish developer CD Projekt’s original Witcher is a title that falls firmly into the “why the hell didn’t this sell better?” category. Despite the copious amounts of praise reviewers heaped on it, the sad truth is the game simply buckled under the weight of its own ambition. While The Witcher didn’t necessarily fail in implementing most of its ideas back in 2007, a host of gameplay bugs, poor Polish-to-English translation, lack of a decent tutorial and a holiday season release date caused most gamers to overlook it in favor of other, more established games. And that’s really a shame because The Witcher was damn good (shut up - it was, dammit).
Above: Any other RPG gamers noticing a recurring theme here, or is it just me?
Four years andone botched console portlater, CD Projekt gives us The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings – a streamlined experience the studio’s hoping will appeal to a much wider audience. Now, being a massive RPG nerd, I understand that “streamlined” has become somewhat of a dirty word in the role-playing community as of late. Let me allay your very valid fears, friends. When I say that The Witcher 2 is streamlined, I don’t mean dumbed-down pants-on-head simple (*cough* Dragon Age II *cough*). I mean CD Projekt has replaced or improved all the needlessly cumbersome design decisions that plagued the first game, Mass Effect 2-style. Whereas the first game was a flawed gem that fell short of being a classic, The Witcher 2 is a masterfully crafted experience that ties the very best game mechanics from across the entire RPG spectrum to an engrossing story you won’t soon forget.
For all of you baby birds just coming into the series, The Witcher gets its inspiration from a collection of Polish fantasy novels of the same name written by Andrzej Sapkowski (no, I don’t know how to pronounce that). The story centers on Geralt of Rivia – a platinum-haired mutant who makes his living hunting monsters for coin. Considering the story is the greatest strength of this game, I’m not going to discuss any plot points or spoilers. While the sequel starts right where the original left off, if you never played the first game, don’t you worry your little head. The Witcher 2 adheres to the finer points of “show, don’t tell” and tailors character interactions during the introductory sequences in such a way that you’ll be caught up in no time.
Four years definitely make a difference
The first thing that returning fans will take notice of is the updated look of the game. Unlike with its forebear, CD Projekt built a brand new graphics engine for The Witcher 2 to create a much finer, more realized world. Textures are sharp and detailed, light sources create realistic soft shadows against surfaces and every environment houses a surprising level of detail. Unfortunately the system requirements for The Witcher 2 are fairly steep. As CD Projekt is a much smaller developer when compared to PC gaming powerhouses like Valve, the optimization for their games has never been all that great, so you’ll need a real beast of a graphics card if you want to play this game with all the bells and whistles attached.
Above: Four years and a custom-built engine reallyshow the improvements
The Polish-to-English translation actually received some attention this time around along with some truly stellar voice work to bring the characters to life. The voice actors for everyone from Geralt to the dirtiest peasant have brought their A-game to the title. After speaking to countless NPCs during my thirty-hour trek through The Witcher 2, I only encountered a handful of instances where a voice actor’s lines were recycled from another character model. In a game of this magnitude, that is impressive.
Much to CD Projekt’s credit, it’s not the new graphics engine that’s truly worthy of praise. The triumph is in the details. Whether you’re walking through a sun-dappled grove watching the trees sway lazily in the wind or haggling in a market square as children watch you from a safe distance giggling and discussing your strange appearance, the level of immersion is so staggering that you’ll simply forget you’re playing a game. Recent RPGs like Dragon Age II are entirely eclipsed by this level of quality. I make no joke when I say that the smallest ghetto in The Witcher 2 is more memorable than the whole city of Kirkwall.
An adult narrative that's actually for adults
Gaming has come a very long way in terms of interactive narratives and the medium has several works to be proud of. But as impressive as your Mass Effects and Dragon Ages are, the complete moral polarization of the choices presented in these games has become almost comical. In layman’s terms, choosing between Christ-like benevolence and jet-black satanic tyranny has gotten pretty old. The Witcher 2 sidesteps this cliché by creating a gray, ambiguous world that abandons right and wrong for a much more complex focus on choices and consequences. From the very first chapter, the game bombards you with a series of confrontations that will give you pause as to how to proceed.
Typically, games that attempt to introduce truly adult themes into their narrative structure usually just come across as unironically juvenile; The Witcher 2 handles its incredibly mature tone with an unflinching, unapologetic sophistication that demands you take it seriously (and no, I’m not just talking about the amazing breast textures in all of those wonderfully detailed sex scenes). You’re constantly encountering instances of racially motivated violence, rape and prostitution. Every faction and political figure is corrupt to some degree. Even your closest friends have their own agendas that don’t necessarily involve you.