NOTE- This review is for the release day version through patch 1.65. CD Projekt Red has announced version 2.0 with new content and refinements to several of the issues addressed below.
RPG designers should study what CD Projekt Red has accomplished with The Witcher 2. In the almost four years since they released the original Witcher, they have built a detective story wrapped in a mature fantasy where choices beget choices from the second you start a new game to the credits roll.
The Prologue starts with Geralt of Rivia, amnesiac Witcher, strung up in chains in a prison cell. Within moments, he’s reciting the events that led to his detention to Roche, an agent in King Foltest’s secret service; about the assassination of a king and his dedication to find the man responsible. What’s most amazing about this section is that it poses both as an introduction to the world and as a tutorial about how to engage within it. Each part of his recital compartmentalizes a specific pillar of the gameplay- narrative, combat and action set pieces. But that’s just the pieces of the whole. This opening sequence isn’t just about exploring the scenarios that the game will thrust on you but is your first experience with the player efficacy that CD Projekt Red has built into the foundation of the Witcher 2. You can choose to tell this story in whatever order you wish, but there are repercussions.
Choice in most western games is akin to ordering a burger meal at a fast food joint and swapping out the regular fries with the seasoned curlies. The bulk of the experience is the same for everyone but it’s how you finish the meal that separates any two plays. To that metaphor, the Witcher 2 is an assembly line where the choices down the progression distinguish the end result. The most startling of which happens at the end of chapter one, where a decision establishes an alliance for the next act and sees Geralt residing in one of two locations that he would otherwise be locked out of. Even small choices can have significant ramifications. Inquiries down a dialogue tree can determine whether Geralt receives a piece of information and whether or not he has the option of utilizing it later. Even in telling his story at the beginning, choosing an event out of order can mean you’re not fulfilling the requirements for a quest that you would have been given earlier.
No matter which decisions you make, the writing is outstanding. CD Projekt Red’s ability to set up and execute a scene is on par with anything you can find, regardless of the medium. A few standout examples are King Foltest’s dialogue on the mechanics of a ballista and an exchange with an excessively chatty character where the witchers’ consistent retort is a dry ‘mhm’. Characters are fleshed out and, unlike the first game, models aren’t recycled ad nauseum. The studio has also taken criticisms of the sex card collectible metagame from the first witcher and replaced them with interactions based (at least slightly) more on developing relationships. While definitely mature and explicit in content, these interactions don’t come across as trashy. All these scenes are well directed, offering well lit shots and nice editing. In the prologue if you chose to tell the story in chronological order, its beginning takes place in a tent, the deep red warm color of the fabric, its gold furnishings and the caress of returning femme Triss Merigold offering a stark contrast to the stale, cold prison Geralt currently occupies and the beatings he receives from its guards.
And holy crap is this game beautiful. While the graphics can certainly be straining on your processor, the programmers have done an incredible job at breaking down the graphics engine so that it looks amazing on even years-old computers. Enviable are the players who can run on ultra settings. Forests are dense, light beams shoot from between branches and enemy types are all well designed.
While the narrative and its execution is the primary draw, the Witcher 2’s combat needs discussion. Completely revamped from that of the first witcher, the combat is much faster and more action oriented and most easily compared to Rocksteady’s mechanics from Batman: Arkham Asylum. This game has Geralt juggling enemies within engagements using sword attacks, blocks, dodges and magic. While it’s fast and responsive, it’s also unrelentingly brutal.
Similar to last time, the witcher comes equipped with his iron and silver swords- iron works well on human types but is a waste on monsters. Magic consists of five different spells but it’s often difficult to know which to use when and awkward to move between when you do.
Use a gamepad if you’ve got one. While the keyboard works well for the basics, the combat can get a little hectic when you try and pull off any of the more advanced systems. It’s far too easy to get surrounded and until you’ve leveled up enough, they just flat out do more damage than they should. This is absolutely the biggest hurdle to overcome with the entire product.
Leveling is a tree broken into four sections-Training, Swordsmanship, Alchemy, Magic. It might have just been me, but I found very few reasons to put points into anything besides Swordsmanship. Since most enemies come in groups, its almost necessary get crowd control talents like reduction of damage taken from back attacks and the ability to strike any foes that are within range of your swing rather than only the one that you are locked onto. But these abilities are just far enough into the tree that I was reluctant to start at the beginning of any of the others.
Just as your proficiency with your sword will dictate your chances of success, so will the prep time that goes into the moments before you use it. Mixing and consuming potions will imbue various stats such as strength and health regeneration, to which the importance of the latter should not be underestimated since there aren’t any potions that instantly refill your life. As important as they are, I found myself relying on the same ones at the end that I did at the beginning. There is also a fully featured crafting system that, mechanically, is similar to other games in the genre. These systems are all balanced so that no single one will mean victory. You need to understand and regularly update all.
But that brings us to the Witcher 2’s single biggest problem- the game’s inability to properly convey its gameplay systems to the user. A small box under the mini map in the upper right-hand corner fills with text that relates updates to quests and basic gameplay concepts. The main issues are that the text is easily missed, disappears too quickly and pops only when you use its function for the first time. This wouldn’t be so bad if the in-menu tutorials picked up the slack but are sadly just as lacking.
But don’t give up. CD Projekt Red has done such a remarkable job at crafting an experience that is rare enough that it would be a shame to let its frustrations stand in its own way. My only hope is that I don’t have to wait another four years to see where they go from here.
DEVELOPER: CD Projekt Red