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When The Witcher 2 first released, it fell into a niche that was at the time rather unfilled, except perhaps by Demon Souls for PS3. It was a game that was not only pure in its RPG elements but brutal in its difficulty, refusing to hold your hand and at times even throwing you straight into the deep end while watching you hopelessly attempt to keep from drowning until you inevitably do, then reload your game with superior knowledge so that next time you might fare better.
It was a game that held nothing back and right from the get-go, would either make or break the player, setting them up for the challenges ahead and showing them what real RPGs can do, or watching them walk away with their tails between their legs.
Fast forward a year and The Witcher 2 is still highly rated as an RPG, having won many awards for both its amazing graphics on PC and its pure RPG structure. But the plan was never to stop simply at a PC exclusive and as such, CD Projekt RED have now released what they’re calling the Enhanced Edition, packed with all the free DLC packs and other additions that were released over the past year to PC gamers, as well as various new additions and changes, for Xbox 360. PC gamers rejoice, for if you already own The Witcher 2, you may download an Enhanced Edition patch (it’s 11GBs) to acquire all of these new additions and changes for yourself, free of charge. Bless CD Projekt RED, those Polish beauties.
The only remaining question then, is does The Witcher 2 on Xbox 360 do the job that the former PC exclusive did, just about a year ago?
But first, let’s talk about the various aspects of the game. After all, we didn’t exactly do a review on The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings when it released on PC last year, so there might well be a few who are a bit shaky on the details. Good thing you all have me to tell you about it.
The first and most obvious feature of The Witcher 2 is that it contains probably the most mature and adult-oriented storyline of any game, ever. No, we’re not joking around here. It’s got political intrigue, racial tension and sexual encounters all over the place and apart from the latter with regards to horny teenagers and tissues, most of these would fly right over the heads of those not abundantly prepared for it.
The story revolves primarily around Geralt of Rivia, a witcher living in Temeria who has suffered memory loss after quite literally dying and being brought back to life. A witcher is a mutant, in the canon, a human usually, who has trained their body to the extremes and dabbled in various toxic potions and magic such that their bodies become mutated, giving them cat-eyes and removing the pigment from their hair, but granting them extra strength, intelligence and agility in order for them to fight the beasts that other races cannot. It’s for this reason that the last few remaining witchers ply their trade as bounty hunters, killing monsters for orens — the game’s gold-coin-based currency.
Geralt himself starts off the game in the employ of his majesty King Foltest, along with Geralt’s girlfriend Triss Merigold who serves as royal advisor, but is also a kick-ass mage who is your companion (and fuck-buddy) throughout the game, or at least those parts where she’s actually useful (with clothes on). Foltest seeks to quell a rebellion and retrieve his illegitimate children (they call them bastards) and with the help of Geralt and the Temerian army, successfully does so before taking a knife to the neck at the hands of an assassin, another witcher to whom Geralt was once acquainted but since losing his memory, cannot remember.
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately depending on who you are and how much of the game you want to play, Geralt is framed for the murder and held for regicide by Vernon Roche, leader of the Blue Stripes; basically the king’s secret service of agents. Eventually however, with a combination of Geralt’s recollection of the events leading up to Foltest’s murder and his mentioning of Iorveth, of the Scoia’tel — literally ‘Squirrels’, a radical group of elves dedicated to fighting humans, in order to stop oppression — whom Roche particularly detests, the duo spring a daring escape from prison and Geralt sets out with Triss and Roche in tow, to clear his name and bring the real killer to justice.
What follows is an amazing tale of discovery, adventure (of the carnal kind, as well) and inevitably justice. Perhaps even some vengeance or redemption depending on how you play out the story.
It’s important to note that as an RPG, The Witcher 2 does exactly that: it places you in the role of Geralt of Rivia and lets you play the game. To that extent, you will make decisions, complete quests and build your character exactly the way you feel you should and the game does nothing to promote a particular style or direction. If you want to ignore a burning orphanage with children still inside while helping an old lady to cross the street, that’s your prerogative. While there are ‘moral choices’ of some sort, there is no ‘morality scale’ that measures how evil or good you are, allowing you to pick and choose as you desire. It’s quite an interesting way of allowing a player to discover who they truly are, without any sort of meter to measure how much of a nice guy they are, or what have you. The only incentive to making a certain decision would of course be the loot you could acquire by making it, and that decision could be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or somewhere in between.
As an example of this, you could opt to bait two soldiers who tortured the patients at an insane asylum by leading them to a ghost who seeks to kill them in order to find peace, or you could warn the soldiers of the ghost’s intentions and head in and kill the ghost yourself. Which is ‘good’ choice again?
The quests in The Witcher 2 all deserve some acclaim for this as even the lowest-level fetch-quest turns into a learning experience, an engrossing adventure that has you spending far more time on it than you would in other RPGs. Exploration is encouraged as a result, where you find yourself exploring and re-exploring areas of the game world, just in case you missed something the first, second, third or fourth time. And it never gets old.
Each chapter in the game then changes the game-world, mixing things up for the player even further. What’s really interesting in The Witcher 2 is that depending on your choices in the first chapter, the next two play out entirely differently. And by entirely, I mean the second chapter will be based in a whole new side of an area depending on your choices in the first chapter. Instant replayability? Check.
The Witcher 2 was always a beautiful game on PC and it delights me to no extent that even on console, somehow, the game still looks gorgeous. One might easily call it the Xbox 360′s new most graphically superior game. And it really is. Compelling proof that a game can be both beautiful and engaging. The engine that CD Projekt RED are using is something for the history books.
It really helps the atmosphere of the game when you can place a player in a forest teaming with undergrowth, flora, fauna, and make it so believable that they forget they’re actually in a game and this forest doesn’t really exist. At least, until something attacks them and kills them forcing a reload. Engrossing is an understatement, in this game. Even on console, I find myself walking through areas with wide-eyed-wonder at the graphical splendour on show.
The greatest irony then, and perhaps even more of a plus based on what I’ve already said, is that you will actually find yourself spending half your play-time in the menus.
Remember, this is an RPG and as such there is typically an inventory of items that you’ve collected, either through looting, purchasing, crafting (through the use of diagrams) or as rewards for quest completion, so you’re always managing that inventory and making sure you don’t become over-encumbered, which would severely limit your combat capability. The usual map screen also features, showing you important quests and the area you are currently in, although for the life of me I could never quite read it correctly.
Furthermore, there’s the obligatory character screen which contains various sub-menus but most notably your skill trees, of which there are three major variants (salute), namely Mutant, Combat and Magic. With Mutant, you acquire skills that involve the creation and use of bombs, traps and most notably potions. Potions in The Witcher 2 cannot be consumed in combat and must therefore be consumed, typically before combat begins, which adds to the preemptive nature of most combat scenarios. Each consumed potion adds to your toxicity level, meaning too many will kill you. However, if you take a potion and become ‘poisoned’ meaning your toxicity level is above zero, you could gain certain bonuses to your character’s abilities. The Combat skill tree provides bonuses to your combat abilities, as if that needs saying, while the Magic skill tree provides bonuses to your Signs, which are basically spells in the game. More on this in a bit. The final skill on each tree is, let’s call it a super skill, each unlocking a special ability that effectively rewards you for investing many points into that particular tree. The way the game is structured, at best you can max out one skill tree and have a few points in the others. Further replayability. Check.
Probably the biggest addition to the game’s typical RPG menus is that of the Journal, which you will spend hours and hours reading through. Trust me, even the most illiterate action-nut — who saw the box and thought “hurr durr new God of War game lol” or something — is going to find themselves paging through the journal as not only is it intriguing as fuck, but it’s also entirely necessary in order for you to progress with certain quests. Seriously. It’s not about being babied around, or not being smart enough to figure things out on your own. You need to read the fucking journal. There is simply no other way for you to progress with certain quests. A huge boon then that it’s as interesting as it is. The quests themselves contain notes and text in a style of narration, as if told many years later by a character you will familiarise yourself with over the course of the game.
There are various sections to the journal apart from the list of quests, most notably the locations and characters menus. There is also one for the monsters you will encounter in battle throughout the game. As you play, you will come across various books with information on monsters as well as characters, locations and a whole load of other things. It is in your best interest to read these books as the ones with monster information in particular, are essential to your ability to kill those monsters. For each monster, your knowledge level determines how much of damage you do against them, how much of damage they do to you, and most importantly; how exactly you can kill them. Because some monsters are not straight-forward slice-and-dice variants. Some have ridiculous weaknesses that could turn a twenty-minute fight into a thirty-second lol-fest. Others are completely immune to certain things. Reading your journal is key.
Coming back to that preemptive nature of the game’s combat, most battles are handled best through preparation. If you are attempting to complete a certain quest that requires combat, let’s say defending an NPC from an army of attacking wraiths, it is in your best interest to first read up on wraiths and discover their weaknesses, prepare traps and bombs that wraiths are weak to, lay those traps and equip the necessary bombs, coat your weapons in something that does extra damage to wraiths, consume potions that will enhance your abilities and finally, save your game just in case you fail and have to do all of that again. This is why preparation is essential; because if you don’t prepare for a battle, you make the game exponentially more difficult for yourself and at times borderline impossible. No, Dark Souls players, do not go “Challenge Accepted!” because trust me, you know nothing of difficulty compared to this game on the aptly named Dark difficulty. These monsters will laugh at you. Prepare for fights and suddenly you have a fighting chance. See what I did there?
Combat in the game is handled in a far more streamlined manner to the first Witcher title, which contained three combat styles that required manually switching between them in order to effectively fight. Cumbersome and tedious, so this time they’ve allowed for just two styles, each mapped to a separate button. Basically the light and heavy attack you know from most other games, Geralt has a speed style and a power style. Some enemies completely shrug off one of those styles, forcing you to attack with the other… you would know this if you read the fucking journal.
To go with this, Geralt has two sword slots; one for a regular sword for attacking humans and one for a silver sword (usually called a Witcher’s sword) for attacking monsters. Each sword could in theory attack anything, but you would do reduced damage if you used the incorrect sword. I try not to question the logic there. Some of these weapons — as well as armour — contain upgrade slots which you can fill with runes that provide minor upgrades such as a slight vitality (health) increase or a bonus to damage.
Spells are another huge point of the game. Whereas in the first game you had to learn each spell as you progressed, in The Witcher 2 you start out with all but one of your spells unlocked. Actually, they’re called Signs here, so let’s get that right. See, this is basically CD Projekt RED throwing you a bone, since the effective use of Signs drastically increases your chances of survival. The final Sign is unlocked upon acquiring the final skill in the Magic tree. Each Sign has a different use; one is basically a force-push — Fus Ro Dah before it was a thing — while another sets traps on the ground and another creates a protective sheathe to block damage. Each Sign can be upgraded for even more devastating effects.
Casting Signs uses up Vigour, which is kind of a mix-up of Stamina and Mana from most other games. You also use Vigour when you block and counter-attack, the latter of which must first be unlocked. Vigour, of course, regenerates over time, assuming no Signs are currently active. You can increase your Vigour by investing points into the relevant skills in whatever skill tree you opt to pursue. You can also increase your Vitality (health) in this way.
One thing I really liked about the combat in The Witcher 2 is that unlike many other RPGs where there’s a certain stigma around the combat system, either it’s clumsy and nonsensical or just doesn’t work, or on the other end of the scale it’s too action-y and therefore loses the entire point of RPG gameplay (I’m sure in your head you’re already thinking up examples of each), The Witcher 2 gets it so right. The action is frantic and fun, but in order to survive you still have to prepare, bringing the RPG elements right into the core and nailing it home nicely. It’s a game where you can have fun battling things, if you put in the necessary work before-hand. Rewarding? Check.
Now, I understand that in the crossover from PC exclusive to console iteration, there will be certain differences that arise as a result of the ridiculous gap between the technology of modern PCs and the Xbox 360, but I still feel it necessary to dedicate a bit of this review to noting the differences between the versions because, quite honestly, the differences I found are just… weird. If you don’t care for these differences then by all means, skip ahead.
The first difference that would probably be on everyone’s mind is that of the game’s graphics. They’re actually surprisingly on par, in most places, however you ought not to expect the crisp texture clarity or post-processing available on modern-day PCs and that sexy Ubersampling feature is all but a myth on the Xbox 360 version. I’d still rate this game as easily the best-looking I’ve ever seen on console.
The next difference is that of the menus. For whatever reason, there is no seamless transition between them as with pretty much any other game ever. Instead, changing from one menu to another fades the screen to black for a second. Why is this a thing? It’s annoying to say the least, especially considering how much of time you actually spend in the menus.
For no apparent reason whatsoever, the control scheme has been changed up. See, I played The Witcher 2 on PC with a controller, for the most part — the keyboard controls were kinda clumsy — and as an example, the speed style (or light attack) was assigned to X, however on the Xbox 360 version it’s assigned to A. It’s a somewhat jaunting experience, having to re-accustom yourself with controls you were once all too familiar with. Imagine reloading your weapon in Gears of War 3 with LB instead of RB? It’s just… wrong.
There are more loading screens now, an obvious difference I guess, based on extremely inferior console technology. That the game manages to still be somewhat seamless is truly a feat. However it still manages to distort some audio and I noticed some terrible normalisation in places, where Geralt and everything around him would be a certain volume and a specific NPC he interacts with would be double that volume, and of rather horrendous quality. Thankfully this isn’t a constant appearance but during long story segments it can rear its ugly head a few too many times.
Finally, again for reasons I cannot fathom, the difficulty has been scaled for the console version, such that playing on Normal is the equivalent of playing most games on normal, more or less. Gone is the tough-as-steel-nails, you won’t survive, sort of structure to things on even the easiest difficulty. This time around, Casual really is for casuals. I’m not sure if it’s across both platforms that this change has occurred or whether CD Projekt RED thinks console players not worthy enough for the PC’s version of Normal difficulty. Hell, even Dark difficulty seems easier than it did on PC, but not by too much. It’s still going to pwn you, but this time it at least gives you some breathing space and some ice for your battered head, instead of leaving you for dead.
In all these changes are non-consequential for most but could still affect the experience, even if you haven’t actually played the PC version before, especially that egregious fade-to-black that the menus do. Some other issues I found with the game involved the usual RPG story of glitchy characters whose hair would fade into their faces while limbs faded into their surroundings, or who would move about erratically while requiring you to follow them. Then there’s the confusing mini-map which contains various icons I still don’t quite understand.
Protip: Play this game with your manual out. You’ll probably need it at some point.
That’s about it, really. I didn’t have any other issues with the game and found it to be quite the unforgettable experience, both on PC and Xbox 360. If these issues I’ve mentioned are enough of a bother for you then by all means, use the rating I’ve given the game but if you don’t care for them and consider an RPG something to be judged purely on its story, characters and combat then go right ahead and bump that rating up to Perfect.
The Witcher 2 is, once again, an RPG experience like no other — except for itself — and in a year that contains such games as Mass Effect 3, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning and Skyrim (okay it’s a fiscal year or something), it stands right up there and holds its own. If you want a sci-fi experience then without doubt you’re going to try that BioWare game but if you’re up for something more fantastical, more Tolkien-esque, then you can do no better than The Witcher 2.
If you don’t buy it because of what an amazing game it is, what an engrossing story it has, what interesting characters it boasts and what fulfilling combat is features, then by all means; buy it for the gratuitous amounts of sex it throws at you.
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