The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings: Enhanced Edition
The history of video games is resplendent with fantasy worlds, yet I can think of few as well-drawn or vivid as that presented by Polish developer, CD Projekt RED, in its Witcher series. Based on a series of novels by author Andrzej Sapkowski, 2007′s PC entry, The Witcher, was a role-playing game of brutal difficulty and narrative richness that emphasised player choice and moral quandaries within a fantastical landscape of geopolitical and sociopolitical complexity. Four years on, CD Projekt RED delivered its 2011 follow-up, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, to significant critical acclaim on the PC, with many praising the quality of its story and robustness of its mechanics. Hearing the cries of console owners, the Polish developer has devoted much of the past year to adapting Assassins of Kings to the Xbox 360, refining its controls for use on a controller, rebalancing difficulty levels for a broader audience, re-writing the game engine to preserve their artistic vision on less powerful hardware, and most significantly, crafting hours of new content to further flesh out the adventure of the eponymous Geralt of Rivia. Thus was born The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings: Enhanced Edition for Xbox 360, a title which retains the complexity and richness of its originator while making only minor concessions in the transition to the console.
Having never played the original PC releases of either The Witcher or its sequel, I had little idea about what to expect from the world of the Witcher. How pleasantly surprising it was to discover that CD Projekt RED has seemingly leveraged its literary source material to deliver the most convincing, intriguing fantasy world in recent memory. Where the game’s story excels is in the small details, in the characters and their interpersonal relationships, the sense that the far corners of Temeria are filled with their own citizens with their own particular concerns. In many ways, CD Projekt RED’s accomplishment is similar to what Bethesda accomplished with its Elder Scrolls series, but featuring full-blooded, fascinating and multidimensional characters who straddle moral and ethical boundaries in lieu of the nondescript cut-outs of a game like Skyrim. Instead of the blank-slate everyman who tends to dominate western role-playing games, CD Projekt RED has recognized the value of putting the player in the role of Geralt of Rivia, a non-human warlock who specialises in hunting the monsters of the world. Geralt is a wonderful creation with just enough background context to inform the player’s decision0making process. To cite the particulars of the game’s story would do a disservice to a player’s sense of discovery, suffice it to say that the quality of writing on show is exceptional save for some jarring (albeit endearing) anachronistic flourishes, and the intrigue and politics of Geralt’s world will appeal to any fan of fantasy, particularly those who enjoy the low-fantasy sociopolitical realism of something like author George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga. This low-key approach, representing a stark (heh) departure from the conventions of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth that permeate most modern fantasy role-playing games, makes The Witcher 2 a refreshing proposition. Even better, this Enhanced Edition features additional hours of never-before-seen story content, most of which serves to flesh out and clarify the game’s third act, which was accused by many of feeling rushed in its original incarnation.
Fortunately, the game’s stellar story is ably supported first-class artistic presentation, including voice acting by a large and capable cast (without any of the awkward accents which typify most Eastern European-produced titles), and a gorgeous orchestral soundtrack which mixes folksy, pastoral melodies with sweeping, bombastic themes to accompany Geralt’s travels across Temeria. Where The Witcher 2 really shines, however, is in its artistic design; Temeria is rendered in gritty, convincing detail, and the architectural design and costuming on display is impressive. When games such as the anonymous but otherwise decent Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning fail to establish a convincing fantasy world with a singular identity, CD Projekt RED’s work appears almost effortless; from the rickety, makeshift trading outpost of Flotsam to the rocky, Nordic splendor of the dwarf township, Vergen, The Witcher 2 offers up a world to invest and believe in and is all the better for it. It is a minor shame, then, that the game’s technical mastery fails to match up to its artistic quality. Load times are short, but very frequent, breaking up the game’s environments and undermining the cohesion of its world, and image quality understandably suffers in the conversion from high-end PC to the Xbox 360, with rough edges and muddy textures dampening the game’s visual appeal. While CD Projekt RED has done an admirable job of porting a stunning title to less powerful hardware and having it run smoothly and without hitches, the fact remains that The Witcher 2 sits a few rungs below the best-looking games on the console market.
Mechanically, it is apparent early on that CD Projekt RED has done a spirited job of converting an intricate user interface and complex systems to the Xbox 360 platform; menus and sub-menus are attractive, clear and intuitive to navigate, and a newly-added tutorial exclusive to the Enhanced Edition serves as a fine crash course in the basics of combat and questing. Tracking quests and side missions and understanding what you need to do next is simple and compelling thanks to a log which, quite cleverly, recaps progress through well-written prose. The Witcher 2 is a rather methodical role-playing game, favouring preparation (including crafting and alchemy) and customization (through a skill tree which offers players the choice of leveling up their talents in various directions, for example, swordsmanship or alchemy). Conversely, the game’s map system is basically useless, providing no indication of elevation and making quest markers difficult to locate and navigate in the more complex environments; for a game which leans heavily on traversing large distances and exploring, an imprecise and confusing map is an unnecessary frustration.
Combat in The Witcher 2 is also not without frustration, particularly given its emphasis on methodical, tactical battles. The majority of the game’s combat, which represents a significant proportion of its duration, plays out in real-time and mixes close-quarters melee combat with ranged weapons and spell-casting through a quick-select menu brought up with the right bumper button. While I never found the game’s combat particularly difficult outside its first few unwelcoming hours where I learned the ropes through repeated failure, the core fighting mechanics are never quite as fluid as they ought to be on account of a loose targeting system and some stiff animation. If Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was a rock-solid combat system wrapped in an insipid package, then The Witcher 2 is the inverse: a competent but uninspired hack-and-slash set in an amazing context. Imagine a less-refined iteration of the methodical, tactical skirmishes of Dark Souls, and you’ll appreciate both what The Witcher 2 is, and for what it seems to be striving.
Fortunately, combat is but one pillar of The Witcher 2 experience, which is as much concerned with its characters and situations as it is with hacking and slashing. Indeed, many battles can be avoided completely, and problems solved with diplomacy instead of swords. Decision-making in The Witcher 2 is central to the experience, and utterly compelling for its moral quandaries. The game chooses not to spoon-feed the possible consequences to players but, rather, trusts them to make decisions based on the information at hand and their own moral and ethical assessments. Compared to a rigid, inhibiting morality system like that found in the Mass Effect series, The Witcher 2 is utterly liberating, with players able to sculpt their own version of Geralt without need for taking stock of statistics and rewards earned as a result of binary, prescribed acts of ‘good’ or ‘evil’. In other words, The Witcher 2 allows players to truly play a role and impact the story in an organic way. Fascinatingly, CD Projekt RED allows players to make decisions which impact the narrative on both a minor and major scale, with ramifications ranging from diverging dialogue trees to an entire middle section which differs drastically depending on a central, difficult decision which arises at the end of the first act. On one’s first play through the story, it is inevitable that players will miss entire plot threads and key environments , which provides considerable replay incentive on top of a game which already offers up a substantial experience which could last two-dozen hours the first time through.
For those with a high-end PC, the content of the Enhanced Edition is available by way of a free update, and there is no doubt that the PC remains the true home of The Witcher 2, a game which relies so heavily on its superlative presentation to convey the wonder of its fiction. However, this is not to suggest that the experience of playing the game on Xbox 360 is anything less than compelling; CD Projekt RED has succeeded in translating a complex, mechanically-intensive role-playing game to a console without compromising its core philosophies or compromising on content. Most importantly, the story and artistry of The Witcher 2 has survived the transition, resulting in a robust and involving role-playing game the likes of which come around all too rarely. This may not be the best version of The Witcher 2, but it is certainly the most accessible and is highly recommended for any discerning fan of the genre.