Tuesday, 8 November 2011

The Witcher 2 review

Polish developer CD Projekt RED does things differently.  As far as I'm aware, The Witcher and its sequel, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, are the only games they have developed, but for those two alone, the studio deserves great praise.

Both games are an anomaly in the world of gaming.  They push the envelope in terms of what's 'socially acceptable' in media these days, portraying an incredibly grim and dark world where violence, sex and extremely coarse language are all part of everyday life.  They also both offer the player some shocking decision making options.  When it comes to morality and decision making, Bioware tends to be king, but CD Projekt RED approaches it from a slightly different angle.  Most of the time you're making these decisions, morality does not enter into it, you may not immediately understand the ramifications or consequences of your decision, and finally (perhaps most importantly), these decisions can greatly affect the way the game plays out.  And I'm not just talking about different endings or unlocking special 'dark side' powers.  The Witcher 2, along with its predecessor, throw away the rulebook in pretty much every regard, instead creating something that is both curiously fascinating and unequivocally unique...and that's a wonderful thing, especially in today's world of gaming.
The game is dark in tone, but the world can be as beautiful as the story and characters are grotesque.

So just what is The Witcher 2 all about?  Well, it continues the story of the first game, albeit in a slightly unconventional way.  Oddly, CD Projekt RED must have been fairly confident about the success of their first game, as it ended with many unanswered questions, and capped everything off with a development that leads directly into the subtitle of the sequel, 'Assassins of Kings'.  A risky move, considering The Witcher was and remains a PC exclusive; a platform that continues to lose ground to the much easier alternative of console gaming.  The Witcher 2 curiously was also developed as a PC exclusive, though will soon be ported to Xbox 360, a move which I fully support and I want to see this development team and this series continue on and prosper in every way possible.  It seems as if the gamble has paid off though.  

Fight big baddies like the kayran in spectacular manner.
The story once again follows our soft-spoken hero, Geralt of Rivia, a witcher.  Witchers are monster hunters and experts on curses and the paranormal in this world.  Effectively, they're mutant humans, trained in all sorts of martial abilities as well as magical tricks known as 'Signs'.  What's quite fascinating about this series is that it's actually based on a series of books and short stories by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski.  This is something that's all but unheard of in gaming, especially when you consider the incredible quality of the games; this is no cheap cash in, and the books themselves have little more than a cult following to begin with.  The story itself involves much more politicking than the first game.  Geralt is now King Foltest's personal witcher, after our hero saved his ass in the ending sequence of the original game.  The way the game opens up is brilliant and captivating.  Geralt is in prison for reasons we can't explain, and very quickly, during a well played-out interrogation, he unveils the events that lead up to his imprisonment.  This prologue is nothing short of breathtaking, as you partake in a massive siege of a large castle, come under attack by a dragon, and perform an incursion behind enemy lines.  It puts Hollywood to shame in the spectacle department.

I will say that the game is not perfect, certainly not on release, as with the first game.  Most of these flaws are technical or bizarre oversights.  One of my biggest gripes is the way the graphics customization works.  Bafflingly, the only way to change them is through the launcher menu; once you're in-game, your only graphics options are brightness and gamma.  It's strange and irritating, and on top of that, the graphics options themselves are numerous and overly complicated, leading me to recommend that you search online for a better explanation as to what your ideal setup would be for your computer.  Because this is a damned demanding game.

The comabt is much more like an action RPG than the first game.  Generally speaking, this is a good thing, but it can
feel a bit unfair or unforgiving at times.
Another oddity is the difficulty curve and the way you're introduced to combat.  The gameplay has changed massively since The Witcher.  In the original game, combat pretty much boiled down to timing your mouse clicks and knowing the correct counter style to your opponent.  In The Witcher 2, combat is much more active, and arguably much better, but it's also less forgiving.  The way they throw you into it with effectively zero understanding of the changes can be jarring, especially if you're just coming off the tail end of the first game as I was.  Luckily, it seems they've now introduced a tutorial of some sort into the game, which was certainly needed.  The game has changed in many other ways as well.  You've still got a large and complicated talent tree, something RPG fans will squeal with joy to see, though it barely resembles anything about the tree from the first game (most of the weird/overly specific/useless talents are gone).  Alchemy, a major component of the series, has also changed, mostly for the better, though the way you are forced to meditate in order to consume potions is frustrating, as you won't always be able to anticipate when fighting will break out.  Overall, I would say the vast majority of the changes to gameplay are an improvement, some of them significantly so.

Gameplay is well and all, but what makes The Witcher so unique is the matter-of-fact thematic style it exhumes.  This is a world where racism is a fact of life; humans, for the most part, are a bunch of prejudice assholes that want to lord over or eliminate non-humans, which consist primarily of elves and dwarves, though there's plenty of negativity to go around for witchers, sorcerers and sorceresses as well.  The hatred is certainly not one sided however; elves and dwarves fight as terrorists, massacring innocents in an attempt to tip the balance of power back in their favour.  Racist, derogatory and offensive comments accompany outbursts of violence against those who are different.  All-in-all, Lord of the Rings this is not.  This is not a nice world to live in.

Now, onto the subject of visuals.  My god is this a beautiful game.  Even with a more modest rig like my own, this is head and shoulders above other RPGs, both in terms of art and technical prowess.  If you have a machine that can max out the graphical settings, your eyes may explode with joy.  The first game was no slouch in terms of graphics back in 2007, but its sequel is one of the most advanced looking games available to date.  Animations are incredibly fluid, character models are unbelievably well detailed, and the environments are nothing short of breathtaking.  True, some modern FPSs like Crysis 2 and Battlefield 3 look gorgeous, but those games use a lot of hard edges and static, rigid models.  It's difficult to think of a game that is this organic while also managing to look this good.

I just want to stress how good looking this game is.  This is in-game.  Seriously.  In-game.

In the sound department, things have massively improved as well.  I loved the music from the original game, but one of the things that always took me out of it was the voice acting.  It wasn't exactly awful, but it generally sounded wooden and shaky, and to top it off, the quality of the recordings wasn't amazing.  Geralt in particular was rather off-putting, often sounding like he was speaking directly into your ear, and as if he was reading off a script.  It should be fitting, then, that Geralt has some of the best voice work in the sequel.  He now manages to sound rough-around-the-edges, yet doing so with a soft and almost foreboding voice.  Pretty much all the voice acting is bang-on now, including returning friendly faces like Triss Merrigold, Zoltan Chivay, and the previously rather irritating Dandelion.  All of them sound great, and you get some really great four-way interactions and conversations that do a wonderful job of pulling you into the experience, making you feel like a genuine part of a band of friends, adventurers and freedom fighters in this dark and brutal world.  The conversations themselves, while perhaps not quite up to the standard of Bioware's masterful writing, are extremely believable across the board.  They just feel natural, and do an infinitely better job of conveying the story than the first game.

You should also know that this is a very long and meaty game.  Perhaps not as long as the original, especially if you power through it, but many of the optional quests and contracts have multiple phases and layers that will be unlocked by fighting monsters or exploring in general.  This is a very unusual style of questing for an RPG as well, and I find it incredibly refreshing when compared to the very cut-and-paste style presented in something like Dragon Age 2.  Gone are fetch quests, and you can forget about feeling completely complacent in your safety with finishing quests.  You can absolutely fail quests, and in multiple ways.  And on the subject of failure and consequence, I must go back to the subject of choice.  Some of the choices you make will change the way the story plays out.  You will take sides, sometimes unknowingly, and there's no morality meter to tell you if it was right or wrong; that's up to you and your own moral compass.  

One choice in particular will actually completely change the later two of the game's three chapters entirely, giving you different allies and in some cases, different goals.  I can't stress how incredibly rare this is in gaming, especially these days where developers want more and more control over their players, and where they're terrified to include content in their game that many people may never see.  Personally, I will probably never see that alternate path in The Witcher 2.  I'm certainly curious, but it's a very long game, and there are many great games coming out in the coming months.  But that's so great.  CD Projekt RED doesn't care that I've missed out on some of their game; they felt that the decision to offer choice and provide very different experiences for different players was more important than making sure everyone who plays through their game sees absolutely everything it has to offer.  I can only wish that more developers would show this mature and enlightened philosophy.

So how does one sum up The Witcher 2?  Well it's not perfect, as I've said previously.  Some technical issues and head-scratching oversights keep it from breaking into my top 10 list (if only just), and sadly will probably prevent it from gaining Game of the Year accolades.  However, it's a game that I see as roughly 5-10% flawed, and about 90% brilliant.  It's a much more rich and unique experience than you'll get from just about any RPG these days, and it will open your mind to some of what the gaming industry turns a blind eye to.

Story/Presentation - Not on Bioware's level of writing, but it sucks you into this rotten world and makes you see both the good and the bad as if experiencing it firsthand.
Gameplay - Much more action-oriented than the first game.  Alchemy has been largely refined, and the talents offer more interesting choices.  Choice, in general, plays a huge part of the game, and the consequences are great.  The erratic difficulty curve keeps it from achieving near-perfection.
Visuals - Good lord...this game is unbelievably good looking.  Even on my mid-to-mid-high range rig, it looks damned gorgeous.  On a top end machine, I can't think of a game that would look better.
Sound - Terrific voice acting, wonderful music, and nice crisp combative sound effects.
Value - As with The Witcher, this sequel offers a ton of content.  The main story is fairly long, but there's many side quests and places to explore as well.

In summary, The Witcher 2 is something that any RPG or fantasy fan must experience.  If you're a PC gamer, you owe it to yourself and the PC community to buy and support this piece of PC exclusivity gaming and enjoy it to its fullest.  It's a rare and unique experience that you won't soon forget.

Overall - 9.3/10

Geralt is the man.

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