PCs have always had a few distinct advantages over consoles, chief among them the ability to find an audience that cherishes game design beyond the bounds of what may be convenient, fashionable, and/or efficient for the day. Games like Eye: Divine Cybermancy, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and recent hits like The Legend of Grimrock have all been PC exclusives that have thrived on their purportedly outmoded designs, and taunted console gamers with their focus on low-risk PC exclusivity. This is, of course, a matter of community rather than hardware, and it's engendered a fierce desire amongst core console gamers to prove that they can handle the rawest and most unapologetic of PC games- but if only they can get publishers and developers who are willing to port them!
Enter The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. A game that, for the belief of every word one hears about it, has been the sharpest arrow in the PC quiver for the brief year it enjoyed exclusive status. Now it has made its way to the Xbox 360, from the original dev team at CD Projekt Red no less, promising the most intricate and grown-up legend of fantasy gaming on the market right now. So how well does it fulfill those promises? As with any legend, there's always a disheartening measure of fabrication to the tale, and despite its charms, there's no hiding that the legendary status surrounding The Witcher 2 has quite a bit of fabrication to it.
Unlike other fantasy games which trend towards player customization, Witcher 2 casts everyone as Geralt of Rivia, a magical-monster-hunter-for-hire-- with a past! At the outset of the story, Geralt has lost both his memory and the trust of the landed gentry for assassinating a local king. But of course, Geralt isn't the real killer, and so he sets out to capture the man who framed him, and attempt to reclaim his memories in the process. It's an intriguing set-up, and it works doubly so for new players who are just as nonplussed by everything happening as Geralt is. Unfortunately, this shared sense of mystery extends farther than the bounds of the script, and into the gameplay itself.
Early on, The Witcher 2 breaks apart in an important way. Geralt might have amnesia, but that doesn't mean that he's forgotten how to be a Witcher. In conversation, Geralt and many other NPCs are quick to remind the player of his impressive abilities. His inventory and skill tree are both replete with equipment and techniques that are specially tailored for monster slaying, but frustratingly, none of it is ever explained, and only a few things are evidently useful. It takes no minor investment of time and experimentation for the player to obtain the same level of familiarity with Geralt's skills as he supposedly is. This leads to a lot of moments in the early hours of the game where Geralt, would-be badass monster slayer, dies or makes dumb mistakes because the player doesn't know how to use him as well as they should.
The game has three main elements: combat, conversation, and exploration. Of those, conversation is the strongest, and actually rises above a measure of games with similar mechanics by not judging any decisions the player makes. There's no such thing as “good” or “bad” choices, there are just choices, and it's very refreshing. The game isn't afraid to hide large chunks of content from the player just based on the decisions they make- it just goes where it will, and that fearlessness is to its credit.
The fearlessness to leave its conversations unvarnished also translates to its exploration, which is not to its credit. The Witcher 2 has some of the worst quest markers and map design seen in any genre, period. The map itself is overwhelmingly vague, not accounting for building interiors (which is left to the mini-map in the HUD), and is seemingly more interested in looking artsy and tattered rather than detailed. The way quest markers are placed is downright irritating, as characters only appear in specific locations at specific times of day.
The gameplay loop this generates runs something like this: look at quest marker → run to that location → find no one → open the meditate menu and wait 6 hours → no one appears → wait another 6 hours → still no one appears → wait through the full day cycle just in case-- nope, no one appears. Next step: run around the area to find all other points of elevation that the quest marker could be sitting on, inside buildings, or outside a wall instead of in it, etc. When you get to those plausible locations, go through the waiting cycle again to see if the person you're looking for shows up.
It. Is. Absurd.
The quest notes don't often tell the proper time of day or specific location you need. As a result, it can take upwards of half-an-hour to find the place Geralt needs to be, which wastes time and burns out the momentum of the current goal.
The last element, combat, fares better, but not by much. Battling foes in The Witcher 2 carries all the confusing embarrassment of a ballet dancer in a breakdance fight. Geralt dallies and pirouettes around the battlefield from one enemy to the next, but he is not often accurate or fast enough to preserve his grace and fight seamlessly. The game prioritizes animation over function, which leads to lots of cheap hits and miss-timed control inputs. In the early moments, this player disadvantage is brutal, as enemies are stronger and Geralt's skill-tree is still blooming. A lot of encounters end like that scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” when the swordsman confronts Indy with a lot of flashy moves, only to get shot down instantly.
What makes the combat interesting, though, is Geralt's arsenal of particular weapons, traps, potions, tinctures, spells, totems, oils, and modifications. The man pretty much stores the entirety of Diagon Alley inside his waistcoat, and Witcher 2 is at its best when players are selecting the proper potions and weapon enhancements that Geralt needs to prepare for battle. Stat buffs and weapon effects actually feel quite potent, compared to the stingy percentage bonuses of most RPGs, and the specificity of the different potions and blade oils makes the ecosystem of Temeria very well realized.
Unfortunately, this aspect too is undercut slightly by the fact that players often don't know which enhancements to select at which points until they've already been defeated by the monsters awaiting them. At one point, Geralt knows he's about to encounter a troll, but the beast turns out to be friendly, which makes for a frustrating waste of resources should players decide to kit up. The guesswork diminishes the empowerment.
It's a recurring problem in The Witcher 2, none of its most impressive elements can help but disrupt themselves.
The prime version of Witcher 2 is regarded as a benchmark game for PCs, and remarkably, CD Projekt Red has managed to improve on those standards and port them over to the Xbox. This is, of course, within reason, as consoles don't have the freedom to overclock their specs, but The Witcher 2 makes for a very handsome game, at a solid framerate to boot. Be sure to install it to the hard drive, as this shows a marked improvement in aliasing and post-processing effects. At two discs, it'll take a bit of hard-drive real estate, but the benefits are worth it.
It's about more than just polygons, though, the entire visual design complements every trick in the bag. This is that rare kind of fantasy game where the art-style and the tech aren't in competition with one another. Rather, the art looks good because of the tech, and the tech looks good because of the art. It makes wonderful use of color, especially in clothing, which actually has different textures for different materials like velvet, burlap, and leather. It's a beautiful game to watch, especially its lighting, which makes it very easy to get pulled into the experience. The only downside of the visuals is that all facial animation happens beneath the nose; eyebrows and cheeks are disappointingly stiff.
It's not unreasonable to say that The Witcher 2 is one of the most engaging and attractive fantasy games out there. The detail given to things like embroidery, bowstrings, or an embarrassing tattoo that Geralt receives from a drunken night of partying, crops up everywhere and really sells the fiction behind the game. Unfortunately, that sense of immersion turns out to be its own worst enemy, as other factors constantly conspire to take the player out of the moment. Specifically, checkpoints are very infrequent and inconsistent, meaning players are taught to save as often as possible to reduce the amount of replay, but it's easy to get so drawn into the world after every tough sequence that the idea of saving is forgotten... until it's jarred back into memory by another combat loss and an hour of content that needs to be replayed. The only way to avoid this is to frequently remove oneself from the moment to save-- rendering the first half of the game an exercise in choosing between plot momentum or enjoying the world that's on display: that's fair to no one.
When this is paired with the asinine quest seeking, and the game's refusal to give players the same knowledge-base as its protagonist, it reveals a game whose promise is only fulfilled through the patience of the person behind the controls. That might make this a legendary experience for some, especially for RPG fans with tolerances for this kind of archaic design, but for those who simply want to jump in and enjoy the game's unique combat elements and story, they'll be left wondering just what the heck everyone was singing about.
There's also the matter of the game's narrative. It's been lauded for its so-called “adult”-ness, which doesn't shy away from fully nude sex scenes and fractious political intrigue, but here The Witcher 2 seems to be capitalizing on a vacuum in gaming, or rather, compressing it. The problem is, the overt sexual aspects of the game could be removed and the tale wouldn't suffer for it. There's nothing necessary or interesting about the nudity and sexual frankness, it's just there, and in some moments it even feels unintentionally silly. As for the political tension in the story, it's handled well, but (not to spoil too much) so many fantasy games have used human vs. non-human plots to parallel real-life race drama that it doesn't have as much impact as it should. It's definitely a good story, especially with regard to the way it handles player choice and a seriously cool antagonist, but it's not the revelation some have made it out to be.
In the simplest terms, playing The Witcher 2 is a lot like attending an archaeological dig with nothing but your bare hands: you're sure to come up with something amazing, but you'll suffer a lot of unnecessary punishment and stress to attain it.