Thereâ€™s something about fantasy games, Iâ€™m not really sure what it is. Maybe itâ€™s implicit in the name. Its many different, but not dissimilar worlds offer some of the best examples at escapism weâ€™ve got. Throughout literature weâ€™ve loved fantasy, gaming is no exception.
So itâ€™s against this yardstick that The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings must be assessed. It markets itself front and centre as a fantastic experience, in both senses of the word. Itâ€™s got mages, monsters, dragons, and danger. Itâ€™s got all the right bits, and they coalesce into a good story. But does it have charm, does it have flair, and does it have fantasy? Bringing all of these discreet parts together is what separates the fantastic from the fantastical.
The Witcher 2 is the creation of Polish developer Cd Projekt. Itâ€™s the second time theyâ€™ve brought life to the Witcher universe, with their original instalment â€“ The Witcher â€“ receiving decent reviews in the West. The Witcher 2 develops on its elder brother, and continues the story of Geralt â€“ a brutal monster-hunter who is part magician, part monk, part emo, and all parts badass.
To sum up the storyline of The Witcher 2 would be unfair. Itâ€™d be unfair to eager role-playing game fans, and itâ€™d be unfair to the game itself. The storyline is a complex mix of intrigue, torture, betrayal choice and death. The biggest clue is in the name; The Witcher 2 is a rollicking tale of regicide and the quest to clear an innocent manâ€™s name. Add to this mix a healthy dose of sex, ego and fantasy and youâ€™ve got yourself a good strong RPG concoction, sure to put even the most experienced player into quite the spin. The Witcher 2â€™s storyline is by far its biggest asset, and itâ€™s an example of great role-playing game yarns done well. Itâ€™s well constructed, immersive, and the prologue and chapter system keeps things moving well. Narratives arenâ€™t static, with your choices affecting the plots development in interesting, replayable ways. Story-wise it ticks all the boxes. Itâ€™s got depth, nuance and narrative. Itâ€™s seriously impressive.
But there are a few issues that can be drawn out from the way the game presents this fantastic epic. Firstly, the voice acting is a little hit and miss. I understand that Geralt is supposed to be a cold kinda guy, but it takes quite a bit of playing for him to emotionally endear himself to you â€“ and minor bit players in this yarn make the extras in The Fast and the Furious look like Oscar nominees.
But the major players, King Foltest for example, are masterfully presented. His portrayal was almost Shakespearean, almost a caricature of Richard the Lionheart - and I mean that in a good way (kind of). That kind of immersion is rare in gaming, and itâ€™s that kind of emotional characterisation that is solely lacking in (dare I say it) RPGs. Add to this the fact that all of the talking is backed up with some competent scoring. Itâ€™s not particularly distinctive, youâ€™d be mad to clamour for the OST, but itâ€™s what weâ€™ve come to expect with our fantasy fare. That being said there were some glaring moments. Good scoring should be heard, not seen. Audio so obviously out of place you canâ€™t help but notice it is undesirable. The Witcher 2 mostly dodges this arrow. But when it does happen, you canâ€™t help but notice it.
The second little niggle comes from the writing itself. Some of it is excellent. Some of it is bad. Some of it is a little... odd. Perhaps this could be put down to the environment it was developed in. What might appear to be clever laconism in Polish can just as easily come across in English as rather strangely to-the-point. This is a minor quibble. But when a game is otherwise so successful in pulling you into its exciting world, the small things stick out like sore thumbs.
More problematic issues arise with the more mechanical aspects of The Witcher 2; those silly little things that make videogames, well... videogames. The gameâ€™s combat is a mixed bag. Itâ€™s generally pretty good. There is an easy to understand dynamic between offensive actions and defensive play, and Geraltâ€™s special abilities are a welcome third limb. But, at its core, The Witcher 2 is a hack and slash; albeit one with an impressive array of upgradeable weaponry.
Beyond that simple, rather linear approach to the combat is not much else â€“ those looking for a new twist on the old grind will be disappointed. Additionally, the AI is a little dopey. Even when powering through on easy mode (which for the casual gamer presents more than enough of a challenge) the AI did some stupid things. Being able to attack enemies in pairs, rather than in the promised hordes, just because you havenâ€™t passed a pathway trigger, is a bit of a buzz kill. So is staring bemusedly at Archers who refuse to engage you, or pop their heads out from behind their wooden barricades â€“ for no obvious reason.
The second mechanical impediment is in the gameâ€™s pacing. Some reviewers have criticised the title for being too slow on the draw, with the game's early difficulty and unexplained complexity acting as a massive barrier to the less-than-hardcore. Otherâ€™s have praised the more mature approach The Witcher takes to your progression to the story. This is, after all, a game for adults. I fall down more on the side of the latter than the former. Sure, there is a legitimate point to be made about the titleâ€™s rather slow, complex and laborious start. But the payoff is worth it and the complexity is easily overcome if gamers simply take the time to read the tutorials and experiment a little bit. It must not be forgotten that (for now) this is a PC exclusive. Wielders of the keyboard and mouse are a hardy sort, especially those valiant few who enjoy RPGs. They are unlikely to be put off by a little bit of necessary self-discovery. In fact they probably rather enjoy the experiment.
However, what might have been necessary were a few graphical tweaks before CD Projekt gave The Witcher 2 the all-clear. The downside of developing for PC is that specifications are at the same time far broader and far more constrained. Many users have reported issues with the game on 4:3 aspect ratios, due to its widescreen presentation. Others have found that the gameâ€™s resource demands on the highest settings are simply unbearable. There were numerous times during my review run-through when entire textures wouldn't load, or entire maps would fail to display - showing plasticine enemies floating forlornly in empty white space.
However, when that sacred equilibrium between frame rates and graphics is found, the visuals hold up well. Even at these lower levels they still display depth, warmth, and sparkle. Textures are well designed and the level layouts are suitably atmospheric, especially in the titleâ€™s big action set pieces. The Witcher 2 scores well on the visual front, and is only held back by the unfortunate addition of the most irritating motion blur effect since Kane and Lynch: Dog Days.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings squares up well with the fantasy-gaming yardstick. Itâ€™s a seriously impressive game that has loads of character and narrative depth. For fantasy RPGs this is crucial, so its great to see The Witcher 2 charging past with flying colours. As a game, and not a story, its got a few operational issues that distract from the overall experience. These are problematic, but are by no means fatal. And in fact, some of them are only all the more obvious because of the polish and spit everywhere else.
The Witcher 2 is a worthy successor to its elder brother. Compared to what came before, itâ€™s a more mature experience - and a more complete game. PC gamers looking to support the continued evolution their platform of choice owe it to escapism to give The Witcher a second go.