The Witcher 2 – Assassins of Kings

tl;dr: Most of the hype around this game was justified and it is indeed one of the best modern RPGs available.

Despite my earlier notes, there are still a couple of things I’d like to add. The game, to me, is great in all the points that matter the most. I’m a fan of the books, so I already like the character of Geralt and the world he exists in. The story of the game is thankfully more complex and interesting than the overdone “save the world”-theme (which, at this point, only makes me cringe) and it is complemented by several fleshed-out characters, not just a proper main protagonist. The quests are interesting and motivating and moved farther away from the standard Witcher contracts part 1 featured. Even those (supposed to be the routine jobs) are now a little more demanding than just slaying a fixed number of monsters. Finding all the Nekker nests (a Witcher contract in Chapter I) had me running around quite some time, since it’s not marked on the map and therefore is above blindly running in the direction an arrow points to. The game was enhanced in several aspects, that becomes apparent fast – from the 3 armors in Witcher 1 (although Raven’s armor came in 3 flavors), it’s now possible to find quite an amount of different armors, not counting that there are now slots for gauntlets, trousers and boots too. The same variety is true for weapons. Not only is the world full of numerous steel and silver swords, because of the new crafting option, a couple of those can only be built by collecting all the necessary ingredients. It’s good that it pays off, because managing the inventory (now limited by weight and not available slots) is a small challenge in itself. It’s not possible to carry everything around (I’m aware this is good, because what’s the point otherwise) and it’s usually hard to say which items are really unnecessary later and can therefore be thrown out safely.
Another huge change to the better is, how loading is handled by the game engine. There are few spots, where the game has to actually pause for a loading screen. Those are usually only visible when starting the game initially. And on top of it all even those vanish fast. So it’s safe to say, shortly after release, the game is in a much better state than its predecessor was.

I didn’t like all the talk leading up to the release, concerning the graphics of the game, I frequently thought it was very exaggerated. The screenshots did look good, but not that mind-blowing either, as many texts claimed. And then there’s the little fact, that graphics aren’t everything. With that in mind, I started to play the game myself and what makes the game very endearing to me, is how detailed everything is (e.g. picking up herbs removes them from the game world visually) and how it feels to simply walk through the woods. Few (just to avoid an absolute statement) games pull that off so well. I was really reminded of how it was to stroll into a dungeon in Ultima IX or Gothic 2 (something I had immense fun with), just with current technology backing it all up. It was also very refreshing, to strife through a new and diverse game world, that looks distinct in all places. Lots of effort must have been put in building all this by hand. There were no copied maps, let alone countless re-iterations of the same one. On that note, I’m very relieved to say that the game world is big (or at least big enough), there were some concerns it might only be a collection of smaller areas. Witcher 2 succeeds to deliver a very nice balance, between narrow pathways that suck and frustrate and a world so big, the player will get lost in and that’s, due to its size, just a wasteland except for some landmarks. The engine positively reinforces these impressions further, by enabling the player to just enter places, without noticeably loading new levels, so it actually feels like traversing through one world and not just loading from one level to the next or between different maps. Risen was the last game I played, that could do something like that.
Also, due to all this talk about graphics, other aspects are unjustly overlooked, like the sound. In W2, it’s normal to hear noise through doors and not just from the current area. This is very uncommon in games, AFAIK. If people talk very loud inside a house, their words are audible outside, just less noisy. I’m using a (still simple) 7.1 sound system and I always heard torches in dungeons behind me, after passing them (and the like). The battle noises in the beginning, which came from all sides, were a good demonstration of what was to come. I was always a little sad, when I had to switch to headphones, later at night (though the sound was still satisfying).

The game is now completely experienced through 3rd person view (in Witcher 1 I sometimes switched to isometric views during fights for a better overview), something I thought I would have some problems with, but I quickly forgot all about it and got used to it. Slightly similar RPGs like Gothic or Risen don’t feature that either. Right now I’m thinking Witcher 1 only had it because it used the engine which was made for Neverwinter Nights (and that game was controlled this way).
Witcher 2 consists of 3 chapters (plus prologue and epilogue), but it feels more like 2,5 chapters – the last one is rather short and appears to be a little bit rushed at times, like something that had to be finished, so the game was finally done (a technique I always use to write texts like this one :P). Frankly, I missed a whole fourth act, that was as huge as the second. But that’s probably an impossibility, for everyone who has to work on a budget. Maybe another reason is, that the game splits in two quite different paths after Chapter I and there is still so much left to see after just one playthrough. After one important decision, the player will even get a different set of quests. I’ll try to wait for some patches and maybe even DLC and play it once more. That’s another great fact about the Witcher 2 – it actually is a game, that I want to play more than just once.

A common, and sadly all to often justified, fear is, that games like this one will be “dumbed down”, to appeal to people who usually wouldn’t play such a genre. The Witcher 2 is certainly accessible, but luckily this can’t be said about this title. On the contrary, it it very obvious, that they worked hard to make all the various parts of the Witcher’s skills important and worthwhile. In Witcher 1 it wasn’t really necessary to build bombs and exotic oils. It was a possibility, but the game could easily be finished without even trying it once. In the sequel the developers absolutely realized this and did what they could to change this. There are now many situations, where the Witcher signs, bombs and even traps are necessary to be successful – to the point that Geralt has to prepare for fights (that’s also underlined by the way potions are now implemented). For the same reason it matters how talents are spent. The game has a level cap at 35, which I reached somewhere in the middle of Chapter III, so by this point every skill important to the player has to be selected, or the player has to suffer the consequences (my impression was though, that the game got easier with time, I died a lot in the beginning, but rarely later).

I’m in general no fan of DLC and the Witcher couldn’t really change that either. In the same way I try to complete all quests in such a game and am annoyed when I overlooked something, DLC always gives me this feeling of not having a complete experience – something inevitable when DLCs are exclusive to certain vendors.
This time I had 2 DLCs in the game “Troll Trouble” (should be available in Chapter I/Flotsam at the notice board in front of the Inn) and “Ultimate Swordsman Suit”. I encountered neither. They both had the green checksign in the installer window and everything should be okay, but… I guess it’s just one more new quest I can look forward to, when I play it a second time.

An announced feature that held special interest to me, was the option to import a save game from the prequel. I think it’s rewarding, when all kinds of outcomes carry over to the sequel. When I started with my old save, I already had Raven’s armor and Aerondight in my inventory. My steel sword on the other hand (I had the rune shill and Harvall in my W1 inventory), wasn’t imported. I got the standard longsword instead. Apart from that, Foltest mentioned that Adda was still alive (though books found in the game don’t reflect that and claim she’s dead) and is now married to Radovid (although she isn’t with Radovid, when he later appears in the game, that would have been cool) and someone told Geralt was a poker legend in Vizima (which hints to having completed the poker dice quest). I failed to distinguish any other result, that could have originated from my import.

Most of the drawbacks I encountered were of a rather minor type and I described some of them, again, here. But there’s room for an enhanced edition anyway, I suppose, for example there are always these inconsistencies with names in books, crafting diagrams and formulas. I was supposed to use “beehive” for the Nekker nests in Chapter I, but there was no formula by that name. The correct bomb had the formula-name grapeshot. Or to stop harpys, a trap called “firefly” was suggested, but the proper crafting diagram was actually named “harpy trap”. At least this one was easy to recognize, right? There’s even a formula, where different names are used in the same place, although the same object is meant both times.

So what’s left? I thought the game was too short (good games always are) and I “missed” the old gang from Kaer Morhen (Vesemir, Eskel, Lambert), I wondered what became of them. Are they still wandering around in search of Salamandra? Someone told them, right? :D And I didn’t really get the last scene after the ending credits. If there was any other significance to it, than him walking away, I missed it.

//Update 2011/07/21

In the meantime, patch 1.3 is out and brought (once more) huge improvements (50!) to this game. I already addressed this a little bit over here. Since my texts are mostly based on 1.0, some of the negative comments don’t really apply anymore and I wanted that mentioned specifically.

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