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The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Review

Date: May 25, 2011
Author(s): Jamie Fletcher

A war is brewing. Monarchs, Lords and Nobility squabble away over fractured lands, the Mages fight amongst themselves, deception runs rife, corrupt officials, over-taxation and a world full of monsters to cast asunder – Geralt of Rivia is back, in The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings.



Introduction

Geralt, a Witcher, womanizer, monster-slayer, white-haired hero of bard songs, myths and legends, is back for another round of purification. Old friends reunited, new enemies to create and discover, and so many deceptions, half-truths and lies to pierce through – it’ll make even the most devout question their loyalties.

The world is so unashamedly vile and corrupt that only a silver sword and iron-will could cut through it. Gender inequality, xenophobia, rape, torture, militaristic oppression – all under the power of inept Nobility and egotistical Sorcerers. Past sins manifest abominations of unparalleled horror. Fairness is a one sided affair. The world is on a tipping point – a single action starts a cascade of events that could unfold into a labyrinth of delight and misfortune, chaos and order, death and life. That action is regicide.

Who would sever these deities of their mortal coil? Who would have the gall to plunge kingdoms into a bitter feud over leadership?

Witcher 2

The Witcher 2 really throws you into the deep-end as the prologue unveils the heart of the story. Those who have yet to play the original game will quickly find themselves over their head with many of the characters, back story and locations. Being a follow-up to the original, this is unsurprising, but it does encourage players to visit the first game – and yes, the original is really worth the time, not just for the story, but for the game itself.

Being a PC-only title at this point, The Witcher 2 really shines in the graphics department as you will find out reading through this review, even though it’s surprisingly only a DX9-based game. It cannot be stressed enough at how stunning the environments are; the quality of the textures, lighting, and to a certain extent, the post processing effects.


Witcher 2 Screenshot
Witcher 2 Screenshot

The lack of DX11 may come as a surprise, but when things look this good, who needs it? It’s not completely unreasonable to guess that a future patch or expansion could bring about a DX11 update, considering what happened with the Enhanced Edition, but again, it’s not as if the game needs tessellation to make it even more impressive (though it wouldn’t hurt).


Witcher 2 Screenshot
Witcher 2 Screenshot

The textures are high resolution, and ambient occlusion, volumetric and bloom lighting, various post process effects such as vignette (camera darkening around the edges), motion blur and depth of field focusing are included. All of these effects can make even a modern PC break a sweat. The icing on the cake comes in the form of ‘UberSampling’ which is an aggressive combination of Anisotropic Filtering and Super Sampling Anti-Aliasing, creating a very smooth and cinematic effect that removes a lot of the sharp glossy lighting and shadow aliasing.


Witcher 2 Screenshot
Witcher 2 Screenshot

While the effect is suitably impressive, it pretty much cuts the frame rate down a good 60%, bringing an Intel i7-2600 and AMD Radeon HD 5870 from ~60 FPS down to ~25 FPS; but the final image quality speaks for itself. This does mean that we have a possible benchmark game on our hands, but we’ll see how it handles in a future update.

Havok’s physics engine was used instead of NVIDIA’s PhysX, so no hardware acceleration available here. CPU-only physics and a graphically demanding game engine does mean that those with lower-end systems will really struggle to play.

Game Mechanics

Combat mechanics have been changed a fair amount. No longer must you rest your hand over Z-X-C for combat styles, flicking between swords while juggling the right Sign to cast.

Fast style is now the left mouse button and Strong style is the right mouse button. Group style was rescinded and is now an ability you can unlock in the character development screen. You don’t have to time attacks to continue a combo anymore either, but you still need to juggle those Steel and Silver swords.

The camera is the free movement type. Under general running around and dialogue, it remains fairly close to Geralt; when things turn ugly, then it pulls out, providing a wider field of view. Progressing through the game also allows you to take control of other characters throughout the story, which can be a little disorienting at first.

However, it’s not a simple button mash now, as you still need to think on your feet in a fight. Block/Parry is a new action, allowing you to block attacks to begin with, but later on can be upgraded to parry, arrow deflection, and eventually counter attack. This consumes vigor (equivalent of mana) per hit, and in a group attack situation, can completely deplete your vigor in less than a second for little gain. A dodge roll can be performed with either the space bar or double-tap of WASD.


Witcher 2 Screenshot

Nearly all Signs (magic) are given to you straight away in their basic form, you don’t have to pick them up from stones or some such to learn them like the original. Signs are triggered with the Q key and you can either select them via keys 4-9 or by the new quick-menu system by holding CTRL.


Witcher 2 Screenshot

The quick-menu allows you to meditate, select Signs or use pocketed items like bombs, traps and daggers. It also slows the game down, rather than pausing, so you have to be careful.

Combat strategy has been taken up a notch for sure – even on the easiest setting, The Witcher 2 can be a ruthlessly unforgiving game; not quite Demon’s Souls, but certainly enough to cause aggravation. This is especially true during the first chapter, where Nekkers and Drowners can charge towards you in packs of 6 or more with no decent weapons or armor to defend yourself. By the second chapter, this becomes less of an issue as the decent kit starts to come in. As the difficulty is increased, the game turns into a real challenge as mobs can take you out with just a couple blows, increasing your reliance on traps, bombs, Signs and alchemy to survive.


Witcher 2 Screenshot
Witcher 2 Screenshot

However, there are a number of instances that many will call fowl over; such as how 2 guards with halberds can pummel you repeatedly with no way of dodging, blocking or casting since they repeatedly knock you down. The reverse is true too; have a slow opponent and you can spam the Fast or Strong style with the odd Aard Sign and they’ll never be able to make a comeback. But when you are surrounded and get caught in the middle of a 4 on 1 because you forgot to lay traps, might as well reload a save and try again.

There are arguably still kinks to work out, such as weapon collision detection issues, namely with the group attack ability, as enemies standing directly in front of you are unaffected, but those who are a couple feet away and to the side, are hit.


Witcher 2 Screenshot

The inventory system has ditched the item slots and moved to a weight-based system. For the most part, this is can be a frustration as item weights can be inconsistent – books weigh nothing yet item diagrams and formulas do. Plants weigh nothing but diamond dust does… leather, timber and iron ore all weigh the same… needless to say, you’ll be spending a fair amount of time partaking in inventory management.


Witcher 2 Screenshot

Speaking of diagrams and formulae, welcome to the new crafting system! Alchemy is no longer guesswork but dictated by the available formula you find and purchase. Creating armor, traps, bombs and weapons requires diagrams. While each diagram/formula may list what each requires, it’s after a painfully long pause as you wait for it to scroll into view, usually resulting in frequent trips to crafters to see what each item actually requires at a glance. It is not the most elegant of solutions, but does lend to a certain amount of customization, especially with regard to item enhancements.


Witcher 2 Screenshot

Also under the rework hammer comes the skill/ability tree. Each level gains you a point to spend with three major ‘paths’ to follow. What is not immediately obvious, unless you are fond of reading, is that you need to spend at least 6 points in the training path (top), in order to unlock the Magic, Sword and Alchemy paths. You are free to pick whichever skills you like and can mix and match them as you go.

Progressing far enough into one tree can unlock adrenaline abilities which are powerful skills or a Sign that can be unleashed, providing an edge in a fight. Certain abilities can also be upgraded further with Mutagens, items that can be found from monsters or created as a result of Alchemy.

Mini-Games

Many of the mini-games are still present, such as poker dice and fist fights. The fist fights are now – for better or worse – Quick Time Event based (QTE). Now you must mash one or two of the WASD keys in quick succession when prompted in order to strike a blow or counter-attack.

Dice poker remains mostly the same but with a very different set of graphics – admittedly, this is not to my style, the new numbers are roman numeral based with primitive shapes denoting value – much more confusing than the original and familiar dots. Another unfortunate problem is that of the AI’s favor to winning. While in the original game, before the Enhanced Edition came out, winning at dice was extraordinary simple; roll and win, the AI was dumb, you rarely lost, a quick way to gain cash.


Witcher 2 Screenshot
Witcher 2 Screenshot

When the Enhanced Edition of the original came out, they switched the dice engine and pretty much reversed the win streaks. That seems to have carried over to Witcher 2, with the odds heavily stacked against you (very hard to compete against an AI that rolls a full-house, high flush and then 4 of a kind on the first go for 3 sets in a row…).

There is also a new physics model in play where you actually throw the dice into the box rather than simply dropping them. This also means you have to be careful, since if you throw too hard, one or more of the dice could leave the confines of the board and no longer counted for the rest of the match. This also means that rather unexpected flying dice can happen – flying out of the box on a gentle throw.


Witcher 2 Screenshot

Drinking is now purely a social event rather than a contest – is this the result of political pressure, that of the contests glorifying drinking? Who knows, in any case, in terms of both story immersion and as a pass time, the removal of the drinking competitions does improve social events – you just can’t get drunk on a whim anymore. The head sway and screen blur still remain in all their nauseating glory.


Witcher 2 Screenshot

A new mini-game has been introduced too, that of bicep-crunching, testosterone-pumping, death grip forming and super-manly – Arm Wrestling. The objective is simple enough, slam your opponents arm down against the table at a very awkward and uncomfortable angle. The mechanism to do this will be a little disconcerting although visually simple. Keep the icon in the middle of the slider as it moves across the bar. Sounds simple enough but there is a knack to it, which can be picked up quite quickly – just beware of Dwarves and steroid-packing meat-men.

Story and Final Thoughts

The story is as in-depth as the first game, though a bit shorter in length. Little decisions can have big consequences further down the line. Who should live and who should die? Stealth or blood-bath? Scold or romance?

The story itself is fairly linear though; there are certain key events that will happen, regardless of choice, but how those events unfold is up to you. It’s fair to say that replay value is very high. After playing through the entire game, there were a number of places I left unexplored due to a lack of keys, people left unfound and quests incomplete.

After completing the game once, I suddenly had the urge to try a few things out and started the game all over again, choosing different dialogue options and actions as I went. Needless to say, the events did not unfold the same way as with my first playthrough. Of course, I was still confined to the same and familiar locations, but now with different goals.


Witcher 2 Screenshot

A number of things did become apparent, the odd easter egg left laying around, and a surprising nod every now and then to some of Bioware’s creations. Those familiar with Mass Effect may notice certain events transpire in a similar fashion. This is by no means a sign of resignation to originality; it fits and it works well. The game has its own lore and matches the mechanics accordingly.


Witcher 2 Screenshot

Of course, The Witcher 2 like any other modern RPG, could not be complete without a little romance thrown in – albeit a little more graphic. Opportunities are provided and it’s up to you to take advantage of them. Should you do so, be sure friends and family are present to bathe you in embarrassment.

Admittedly, some may take offense to the casual attitude towards sex and the pornographic display, which is understandable, but not all acts are there for the benefit of hormonal offspring; both story and character development progress, often with some light-hearted humor thrown in for good measure. While for the most part we are still caught within a simple attitude towards romance in games, things are slowly progressing and it’s nice to see developers becoming more indulgent with stories without shying away from sex.


Witcher 2 Screenshot

There is no shortage of ambiance or atmosphere either. Rain has moved on from an overlay of scrolling white lines, to a complex shader, distorting the image as it passes over the screen. Water looks like water, mud is… muddy. While the bloom lighting can be a little overpowering in places, it’s tastefully done for the most part. The forests can be a frightening place as not only can you become lost quite easily, but you never know when something will crawl out from the bushes. Stonework is equally detailed and makes you want to run your fingers across it.

The music is unique to say the least, playing tunes familiar to the original. Everything fits the mood as it’s played. Many of the sound effects are of a generic variety though and can clash somewhat with certain actions. The dialogue is a mixed bag, certain characters perform very well, namely the leads, while others can be rather bland. The world is however, filled with a lively variety of accents, from a cliche brummy, enraged and sometimes articulate Scotsman, to Irish and Welsh. Humor runs rife between certain individuals, stories told around campfires and classic one-liners exclaimed by a beaten Dwarf.


Witcher 2 Screenshot
Witcher 2 Screenshot

The original Witcher proved to be quite the success story and out-of-the-blue, as little known Polish developer, CD Projekt RED, introduced us to a very elaborate world based around Geralt, a monster slayer. With no memory of his past, players had the opportunity to explore and immerse themselves within the world as Geralt learnt to stand on his own two feet.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings continues within this world, building upon it, and without a doubt, becomes a very worthy successor. While there be a few bugs to quash, they remain no more than a dull stain to wipe off from an otherwise very well polished game. I do recommend you to play the original first, less you remain bewildered for the better part of the story.

To give a game an arbitrary number as a score at this point would seem a disservice; how does one discern the difference between two numbers that are a mere 3 apart? Until a better system is found, we shall stick to numbers. The game is not perfect, but it’s pretty damn close. With that, I grant The The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings a score of 95/100.

Why is it 5 down? Bugs, to put it simply, from little sound glitches, NPCs disappearing or unresponsive when you reload a game, lots of little things which can be fixed. An extraordinarily fun game and excellent story, most certainly a game of the year contender.

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