Review: The Witcher 2, Assassins of Kings
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An amnesic release of epic proportions...
CD Projekt's PC masterpiece The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is now available for the Xbox 360, bringing the dark, gritty and sexy world from the book series of the same name by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski.
Witcher 2 once again plonks you into the shoes of Geralt of Rivia who has lost his memory of the events in the first game. The adventure actually starts with you accused of the murder of king Foltest of Temeria. After some interrogation, it is your job to make your way out of the castle dungeons, and embark on your quest to find the true culprit, and clear your name, lest you face the hangman’s noose. This leads you into a world of dark and violent fantasy. The Witcher 2 is never to ashamed to throw out a few swear words here and there, and sex is something commonplace. Although some may say it's a bit exploitative, it does help to create a more adult and realistic world. Well, as realistic as magical white-haired monster slayers fighting dragons can be.
Like its contemporaries Dragonage 2 and Skyrim, conversations with the various NPCs in the world have multiple answers, which then branch off into new directions with the story. A single decision can greatly influence what happens to Geralt and the people around him. In fact, the whole middle section of the game will change depending on which side you choose. The questions asked and the conversations you have don’t have a signposted “this is the right thing to say” quality about them, and the answers that you give are really down to your own moral choice. Sure, you can be that guy who tries to say all the nice things, or you could just intimidate everyone and be a generally nasty guy. The same goes too for your choices on the field. Do you rape and pillage all around you, or do you be nice to that one person in the hope that by scratching their back, they’ll one day scratch yours? There is no black or white in The Witcher 2 - you make the game your own by the choices you make. It all may sound terribly cliché, but it's true, and it really works to make a dynamic story tailored to you.
Combat is very satisfying, making you feel the weight of every slash, blow and telekinetic push. Combat doesn’t rely on you simply hacking away at someone until they stop moving, because that will leave you a bloody mess on the roadside. You have to employ tactics into your fights, choosing your targets and picking them off, making use of all the gadgets at your disposal. The one thing that Geralt has plenty of is traps which help no end in ambushing mobs. What starts as simply luring some bandits into a man trap, leads to creating obstacle courses of murder that'll mean you'll hardly have to lift a finger to finish off your foes. However, sometimes just wading in with a nice piece of sharp metal can be the most cathartic experiences in any video game. Geralt has two such instruments of death strapped to his back. One sword is made of steel, and is designed for human foes, or those of less magical nature. Next to it is a silver sword for monsters and other ghoulies and ghosties that couldn’t give two hoots about that less-than-magical lump of steel you use for everything else.
As well as your more conventional means of baddy-bashing, our Witcher has a few spells - called signs- up his sleeves as well. Pretty much all you need is available from the start of the game, be that stunning opponents with the equivalent of a force push, to setting them alight or placing magical barriers. What’s great is that mid-sword-swing you can cast a sign before switching back to slashing again. The real time battles are full of pace and excitement, but can be fiddly with the 360 controller. A game that was originally made for the PC has a hard time translating the control scheme. Thankfully, to combat this you may use the quick menu for selecting spells and traps, which slows down time to allow you a few seconds to plan your attack, before firing off some magic into an unsuspecting monster's face.
Of course you won't be spending all the time fighting for your life. After all, there is some exploring to be done. Many times you may be wandering the woods completing one of the quests available to you as a monster hunter, that require you to venture out into the surrounding woods and swamps. However, it's very easy to just get caught in the moment, blissfully ploughing through the overgrowth, finding little nooks and crannies. It helps that the world is beautiful to boot. Trees and bushes are lush with foliage. Rivers run into small waterfalls, and the sun glistens through the leaves. The towns themselves are bustling with life, and everyone seems to fit into place, and make everything seem natural. There's no skipping out when it comes to even the most insignificant characters; they all seem like everyday folk acting out their lives. Its makes you feel you are part of a living, breathing world. However some of the beauty doesn’t show up straight away, and there have been plenty of times – mostly in cut-scenes- where it has taken a couple of seconds for the textures to load up. In this day and age its a little unacceptable for a game to struggle this way, but with everything else being so good, it's hard to fault it. It does make you cringe sometimes, though.
Another way that CD Projekt has made a truly living, breathing world is the voice cast. If there's one thing that I will remember in this game, is the realistic British cast. Of course characters like Geralt and Triss are typical American voiced game characters, but the townspeople sound like the average Joe you might bump into on a market day. Sure, sometimes you might find a voice reused for another soldier in another town, but the sheer mix of voices – but not so much dialect- make each NPC seem like they have their own personality as they go about on their daily business. It also adds to the atmosphere in the game. There’s a definite class divide, with the peasantry speaking in northern English dialects, and the upper-classes and nobles speaking in perfect Queen's English.
Another neat addition are the various mini-games that help add variety to proceedings. Sometimes an all out sword fight just isn’t the right way to go in a town square, and a more traditional bout of fisticuffs is in order. When such a fight happens - be it part of the story, or as an optional mini-quest - the camera swings over Geralt's shoulder and command prompts of the 360's face buttons appear on screen. Time things right, and the thug you're battering will be unconscious on the floor in no time, but get it wrong, and it’ll be your head firmly planted into the floor. Another great feature is the arm wrestling mini-game, which combines both rapid button mashing with precise control with the left stick.
The Witcher 2: Enhanced Edition is a a beautiful and fulfilling game. Due to the fact that much of the story revolves around your choices, you are sucked into a world where every death, betrayal and debauchery you commit has impact on the story. You do get a feeling that you can play this game however you want. You aren’t restricted to being a good guy, or even a bad guy. You are your own character who has their own moral decisions, and no one can tell you how to enjoy the game.
The game itself has 16 different endings, and there is great joy sometimes just finding out what happens if you save that one person, or slaughter them without thinking. The bad texture loading times are somewhat an issue, but it doesn’t distract from a very sexy game that had me absorbed. If you're tired of playing the game by someone else's rules, and just want to spend the nights wandering into the woods, or perhaps spending some quality time at the tavern, then The Witcher 2 can do no wrong.
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