Wednesday, 21 November 2012

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

Post-Launch Review
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings
Developer: CD Projekt RED
Released: April 17 2012


After the attempt on King Foltest's life, the witcher Geralt of Rivia has been made into Foltest's personal bodyguard. But he fails - Foltest is assassinated and Geralt is framed. The witcher sets out to clear his name, and while tracking the mysterious assassin, he runs into plenty of monsters and finds himself tied up in a war that will determine the fate of peoples and kingdoms.

At Launch

The Witcher 2 was very well received, earning average scores of 88%. Critics enjoyed the game's graphics, customization, combat, and story choices, though many felt that combat was too difficult early in the game. There were complaints of poor performance on the PC version.

Post Launch

An early patch removed the game's DRM entirely, and since the DRM had some relation to performance issues, frame rate and load times improved as a result. Further patches fixed bugs and balance issues and tweaked gameplay (such as being able to block with no endurance left) as well as introducing an arena mode, new quests, a tutorial, and a new difficulty with better rewards.
The Enhanced Edition includes further fixes and improvements as well as more gameplay and cutscenes. The EE upgrade was free to existing players and is included with all new copies.

The Good

Save Carries Over
If you've still got your saved game from The Witcher, you're in luck, because inventory items and plot choices will carry over into the sequel. I started The Witcher 2 with a pair of unique swords I found in the first game. Some of your choices will be mentioned by characters and you'll hear about the outcome of the final chapter. Some other choices come up more directly - you might run into a group of Order of the Flaming Rose soldiers, and whether they're friendly or hostile depends on whether you sided with or against them in the first game. 
However, there is one curious exclusion. If you favoured Shani over Triss in the first game, that's never mentioned once, and you don't hear a word from or about Shani.
This game looks great. I had to play on fairly low settings, but even then it still looked pretty good. Outdoor environments look very nice, and character models tend to be highly detailed. Character animations are mostly pretty good, and while facial animation could be stronger, I was impressed with the eye movement - characters look around or shift their focus depending on the situation and emotion.

Plot Divergence, Choice, Consequences
As in the first game, you face a lot of choices, but here they can produce radically different plotlines and endings. Major characters might live or die, kingdoms might rise or fall. And as in the first game, the choices you make are rarely black-and-white, but more often lesser-of-two-evils or priority-based. For example, you can choose to search for the sorceress Triss after she disappears, but if you do you let the kingslayer Letho escape. Furthermore, you never know the full consequences of your choices until much later - what seems like a simple choice between which of two characters to help can lead you down a path of either setting up Temeria for a comeback or fighting for a free state for all races, with the lives of kings, sorceresses, and a dragon hanging in the balance.
The crazy finale of the first game seems almost insignificant compared to the magnitude of the events that unfold in the sequel. It opens with Geralt framed for the murder of King Foltest. Geralt pursues the real assassin and becomes mixed up in politics that will determine the fate of entire countries and the lives of thousands, culminating in secret conspiracies and invasions. But through it all there's still the personal elements of Geralt regaining his memories and trying to protect his friends.
I ended up siding with freedom fighters, creating a free nation, exposing a massive conspiracy, saving a dragon, finally confronting the true assassin, and learning of an impending invasion. The third game looks like it'll be even more epic.
The skill tree has three branches: magic, alchemy, and swordsmanship. Not only do you choose which branch or branches to pursue, you also have multiple paths to mastery, and each skill unlock can be made stronger with a second point invested. I went for both alchemy and swordsmanship, and I was able to unlock the most powerful abilities in each tree while also reinforcing the abilities I thought were most important to my play style (such as potion strength and duration, or adding extra sword damage and vitality). You can even unlock a few entirely new abilities (like adrenaline) with high-end skills. It's a well-built system: you can't max out everything, but you can thoroughly master many different paths and abilities.
You can also mutate certain abilities with mutagens, which will add additional bonuses or abilities. The one problem I have with mutagens is that the paths don't have an equal number of mutatable abilities - alchemy has the most by a lot, I think. I'm not sure if that's a balancing measure to keep the paths the same, but at a glance it doesn't seem quite fair.
Improved Combat & Controls
When I played the first game I noticed that movement controls felt clunky, especially during combat, and that the combat animations were often completely ridiculous. Problems solved - movement is much smoother and Geralt's combat stance is much more natural. Moving the damage numbers down into a small feed in the corner also serves to clear things up and make fights less distracting. You can also lay traps and throw various types of items, like knives or bombs.
This game also does away with the first's rhythmic and style-based combat of the first game. Some enemies are still better suited to fast or strong attacks, but you're free to mix up your style and create your own combos. For example, you can use a fast attack to close distance and follow up with strong attacks for big damage.
Other Professionals
Geralt is an expert monster hunter, skilled alchemist, and formidable fighter, but there are plenty of people that are better at other things than he is: witchers' spells pale in comparison to true sorcery, and Geralt is no commander, craftsman, or archer. It's nice to have a fantasy world where the hero isn't the chosen one destined to save the world. Geralt is an incredibly skillful person who plays a major role in world events, but he's got flaws and there are things he can't do. 

The Witcher 2 is a fairly challenging game. If you play on any difficulty above easy mode, you'll have to rely on potions, blocking, and dodging to succeed in combat. Some fights are incredibly difficult to approach head-on - I often found myself testing to see what I was up against, dying, and loading a save to prepare appropriate potions and rethink my strategy. Some fights I just straight-up could not win by direct combat, and I resorted to hit-and-run tactics instead of blocking and counterattacking.

The Neutral

Fewer Side Quests and Contracts
The Witcher 2 has fewer side quests than its predecessor, particularly in the third act. It also felt like it had fewer secrets to discover. On the other hand, I found the narrative to be stronger and more cohesive in exchange. Whether or not you like that is up to you.
Animated Bits
I don't really like the animated cutscenes. The art looks weird to me. I think it's all the lines on everyone's faces and skin. In any case, it really doesn't fit very well with the game's graphical style.

Voice Acting
Not sure how I feel about voice overall. Some characters are very well done (like Iorveth), but others are kind of weak. I liked Geralt's voice, but I can see how some people wouldn't - his tone varies little and he rarely displays any strong emotion. I think it shows that he has very strong control over himself and doesn't like to open up, but I can also see how one might find it wooden.

The Bad

I listed this as a good point above, in that the game's difficulty makes you draw on your entire arsenal to succeed. However, sometimes it feels too difficult, especially in the first chapter (of three). In particular there's a boss who is invulnerable probably 2/3 of the time, throws bombs, and can poison, burn, and bleed you. Even with potions at the ready I had a very hard time.

Occasionally Unresponsive
Sometimes in combat I'd push a button and nothing would happen. I noticed it the most in (highlight for spoiler) the fight with Letho in the elven garden, but it did occasionally happen elsewhere. Most of the time it wasn't a problem, but when it did come up it was very annoying.

A Little Crashy
I had three or four crashes over the course of the game, but that's really not that bad considering I played for about 30 hours.
In or Out of Combat?
Many actions - such as opening doors, picking up loot, or activating buttons - can't be done until you're out of combat. The problem is that there's a delay of a few seconds between finishing a combat and actually being "out of combat" - you'll kill the last enemy and have to wait a few seconds before you can open the door to leave, for example. As with the above complaint, this is rarely an actual problem, but when it is it's awful. In a couple of instances the game puts a time constraint on you, where you'll fail if you don't accomplish your objective in time. But there are enemies between you and the objective, and after you kill them or run past them, you're standing there waiting desperately for the game to decide combat is over before you can actually pull the switch or open the door.

The Verdict

Recommendation: play it.
I liked the first game, but I'm even more impressed with the world and characters after playing the sequel. In particular, I like how the series manages choice - nothing is easy, outcomes are not always predictable, and everything has consequences. Aside from that, The Witcher 2 is a strong RPG with lots of room for customization and different styles, and the plot can turn out completely different depending on your choices. I'm interested to see where the third game goes and how it builds on the first two.


  1. Should I play The Witcher before playing The Witcher 2? What are the pros/cons of doing so?

    1. Yes, I recommend playing the first one first. It seems to be structured like a trilogy: the first game introduces the world and the characters and explores that it means to be a monster hunter - kill all monsters, kill only "bad" monsters, whether or not to hunt human criminals, etc. The second one expands on the lore and increases the scope.

      Since Geralt has very little memory in the first game, characters get a very thorough introduction. In the second game it's more like "Oh hey, that guy again!" and just carry on with the story.

      Also, saves carry over, so some of your choices and equipment will show up in the second game.