(PC Review) The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

Developer: CD Projekt Red
Publisher: Atari
Genre: Action / Role-Playing Game
Players: 1
ESRB: Mature
Reviewer: Ryan Newman

Overall: 9 = Must Buy

Minimum Requirements:
Intel Dual Core 2.2 GHz or AMD Dual Core 2.5 GHz, 1.5GB RAM (XP) / 2GB RAM (Vista/7), GeForce 8800 (512 MB)/Radeon HD3850 (512 MB)

Geralt of Rivia returns to the machinations of man and the slaying of monsters in The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, the follow-up to one of 2007′s best role-playing games. As one of the few remaining witchers, humans who’ve been trained and modified to hunt monsters, he finds himself in one of the toughest adventures this side of Demon’s Souls. After being imprisoned for killing a king in whose retinue he had recently found himself, he flees from the impressive cities of man into the backwoods on the outskirts of civilization, where he encounters a conspiracy of kingslayers, a brewing war between humans and non-humans, and a series of tough, game-altering choices. Assassins of Kings is an ambitious title that tries a lot of everything, and like the original, largely succeeds.

For those new to the series, The Witcher is a gritty, sword and sorcery action-RPG that pits a Jedi-like—sorry, long-time fans—monster hunter against a world filled with disgusting beasts and equally disgusting humans. The moral choices Geralt faced in the original were much more serious, both in terms of presentation and impact on the game world, than in what was to be found in its contemporaries. The same holds true for the sequel, where Geralt again wields the power of Signs (re: spells) and swords in a quest filled with difficult, sometimes time-constrained decisions that have far-reaching ramifications. Where the sequel diverges from the original, it often does so for the better, making for an exciting and thoroughly enjoyable journey. However, despite all of the care that has gone into the crafting of Assassins of Kings, a few kinks remain to be ironed out.

I have confidence that the lingering technical problems will be stamped out in time. In fact, this review was delayed because of developer CD Projekt Red releasing two patches in relatively quick succession. The latest patch, 1.2, is a significant update that added numerous balance tweaks and bug fixes, including several tweaks in response to early feedback. Some of these tweaks include an extra auto-save point to help with a difficult encounter, the ability to remap most of the keys from the launcher, and even several barbers who will give Geralt a new hairdo. Going by the developer’s comments since release, and their handling of the original, I wouldn’t be surprised if more extras make their way alongside additional performance upgrades.

What’s available now, though, is a grand adventure that spans a wide world filled exciting quests and interesting characters. Granted, not every quest is as thrilling as being a member of the forlorn hope storming a castle’s walls or facing down a massive kraken, but even the more traditional ‘go get this’ mission tends to lead to something more engaging. Engaging is an appropriate term, too, because the world of The Witcher is just that—the cities, ruins, the people and creatures therein, everything is well defined and richly detailed. The small touches, like the medieval-styled posters warning of monsters and bandits in the forest, organically designed cities, and changing weather add much to the atmosphere. Denizens have all sorts of stories to tell, and even the odd joke overheard while passing by is often worth a chuckle or two. Then there are the books, scrolls, and other bits that add to the lore and recent events. The various warring factions provide great fodder for political intrigue, both past and present.

I was particularly fond of how Geralt’s look evolved over time, as more weapons and gear were added to his person. He ended up looking like a genuine adventurer, laden with all the accoutrements a traveling fighter would need. There could be a better way to organize it all, though, with the unsortable inventory being a pain as it is clogged down with ingredients and based on weight—hopefully this will be tweaked in a future patch. It’s not all aesthetics, either, as many of the embellishments represent powerful items; for example, trophies, stat-boosting objects taken from larger beasts, can be seen dangling from his gear once equipped. Again, it’s the small things.

The voice-over work is also impressive, adding a great deal of life to the often-dreary towns. Save for the odd repeated line and uneven performance, the work really is outstanding and allows the characters’ personalities to shine. There are a few ways to interact with the locals as well, aside from hitting them up for information. Similar to the original, games are available to play with others in the inns and those milling about the markets. Dice returns, and there is also a bizarrely simple-yet-confusing arm wrestling game and a quick-time event fighter. The games won’t make you rich, and some aren’t particularly fun (arm wrestling) or difficult (fighting), but they are a great way to pick up extra side quests and gain additional information.

The world itself is open, but it’s far from an open world. Each city and outpost serves as a hub for gaining quests, while nearby satellite areas host the action. The areas don’t take long to get to, but they do offer a chance to run around in forests and burnt-out villages. The invisible walls can be a bit of a hassle, though, with some inclines navigable and others requiring a ‘use’ icon to appear in order to jump down or climb up. While that might cause an awkward bump into nothing, the walls do help to keep the illusion of openness by allowing for the appearance of vast surroundings while keeping Geralt within the playable areas.

Despite a decent map and on-screen mini-map, there are times when it is difficult to find a location, which is complicated by the ‘use’ icons. More than a few times I assumed I was going the wrong way because an icon would come up crossed out, indicating the action wasn’t possible. Turns out that I was in the right spot; it was just that…well, I don’t know why. In truth, the ‘use’ icon can be a huge pain as it won’t show up or be useable in a spot, then suddenly show up and work after a quick two-step. This problem is compounded by the fact that the left mouse button is used for nearly every action. So, if you go to use an item and aren’t in the magical spot, you’ll end up swinging your sword at nothing. Even if there are no enemies nearby, it can be a pain to have to go back and forth, staring at a corpse, just waiting for the search icon to appear. The ability to remap keys that was added with the last patch includes several actions, but the ability to change the use key is, unfortunately, not one of them.

To get things done in the world of The Witcher, it takes more than just talk—it also takes a lot of fighting. Much of the original’s combat system has carried over, with Geralt having to use two swords—steel for human and silver for monster—in addition to bombs, potions, and Sign powers. Weapons and armor can be crafted, enhanced, and modified. Different potions, stones, and augmentations can be applied for set periods of time as well as permanently. There are slots available for permanent upgrades, while potions and stones can be stacked for increased potency. A problem arises with the application of potions and toxins, however, and that’s that Geralt can only digest them while meditating; also, in a sense, they are all toxic, as each adds to a poison meter that makes him more susceptible to poison attacks. What this means is that there ends up being a trial-and-error factor with encounters as there is no way for you to know what’s going to happen until it does, and then you quickly find out that you’re out of your league and will need to buff up. That is, if that’s allowed. The game has a few auto-save spots that are set well after meditating is possible, which encourages frequent saving, and the game has no problem throwing out difficult ambushes—or even auto-saving as the enemy is in mid-attack animation. So unless you’re prescient, you’ll be finding yourself silently cursing as you pound vials in anticipation of a rematch after yet another reload.

It is because of such situations that the game has a difficult edge about it. There’s an important distinction between its difficulty and something like Demon’s Souls, which has a similar feel but is much more tactical and methodical. Combat in Assassin of Kings isn’t based around the rhythm-based system of the original but is akin to a more traditional action title. The game lacks Demon’s Souls sense of feedback, and is much, much quicker. In some ways that’s a great thing, with fast and furious action punctuating extended bouts of dialog, but sometimes the lack of precision can be frustrating. The camera can also cause trouble, with trees, rocks, walls, and other objects blocking the view, while the controls feel like they were design with a controller—which is also supported— in mind: there are six combat keys in addition to the left and right mouse buttons and four movement keys. This can make larger encounters difficult to keep up with, though things become a good deal easier due to game’s pacing. Geralt starts off extremely vulnerable because many basic combat abilities, such as hitting more than one enemy at a time, are skills that can take some time to unlock. While it’s nice to finally be able to tackle hordes without rolling every other second, the disparity between early and late Geralt will be jarring for those expecting better balance.

Combat is enjoyable largely because it’s so varied. The bombs and traps that are so crucial in the beginning are still helpful later on, especially if you opt to go a less combat-intensive route when upgrading. Much of what makes combat so great are the Sign abilities. The five classes—Aard, Yrden, Igni, Quen, and Axii—are what really bring out Geralt’s inner Jedi, as he can push enemies away (similar to a force push), throw a fireball, lay a trap that wounds and freezes, encase himself in a shield that reflects damage, and persuade enemies to join him for a time. These can even find their way into conversation, with characters being scared or comforted into a certain direction. Fortunately, time slows down when switching Signs, allowing for multiple switches during a single encounter. Being able to immobilize a massive beast, get in a few swings, back roll, and then follow up with a push and bomb makes for an exciting encounter. The various enemy types also help, with the natural and supernatural making for some excellent sword fodder. Even when the game launched a cheap ambush or quick-time event (ugh), I rarely stopped, but instead I dug in and persevered out of the rut.

What’s especially satisfying is how generous the game can be with experience points. After having tackled a particularly brutal monster or wrapped up a lengthy quest, it’s nice to know that there is a good chance a new skill point will be available to allocate to one of the four level branches: Training, Swordsmanship, Alchemy, and Magic. The branching system is more like a web, with lines meeting at ability nodes that often allow for multiple upgrades. Once the end of a branch has been reached, a powerful mutagen can be added to further strengthen the ability. There is enough time before Geralt beefs up, however, so that plenty of tough encounters and leveling choices await before it begins to take the form of a more standard swashbuckler.

Throughout all the traveling and fighting, the game remains a looker. A few technical glitches pop up here and there, such as a nose going through a hood or a character drinking out of an invisible mug, but it is by and large—for those with the rig—a stunning-looking game. The character models are great, as is the foliage, lighting, and effects. Just about everything is a step up from the original, and often in significant ways. On the minor improvement front is the game’s handling of sex. While the original was more than a little juvenile with its awkward cards of nude women in a wide array of poses—some downright odd—the sequel begins down a more subdued route, something akin to a B flick. The mood never rises to the level of something you wouldn’t be embarrassed someone else seeing when they walk past, but it’s an improvement nonetheless. Small steps.


Overall:
9/10
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is one of the most satisfying role-playing experiences to come down the pike in some time. Even though it has a few rough spots, including graphical glitches and action-heavy combat system that taxes the fingers, there is no denying the immersive charm that awaits those willing to take up Geralt’s cause. Fans of grimy high fantasy with intriguing plots, interesting characters, and fierce combat, CD Projekt Red has something for you.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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