Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Witcher 2 is Pretty Good

In 2007, The Witcher earned a strong reputation among RPG enthusiasts because it felt like a traditional, old-school RPG in a modern era of streamlined, dumbed-down pseudo-RPGs. Its sequel from 2011, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, feels less like a true RPG and more like a mainstream action-RPG, as if it's trying to appeal to the crowd of gamers who turn to Bethesda and BioWare for their annual RPG fix. That would ordinarily be a pretty damning criticism coming from me, but compared to the likes of Bethesda and BioWare games, The Witcher 2 is a mighty fine game that still understands what makes a good, satisfying RPG.

The story picks up some time after the conclusion of the first game; after successfully defending King Foltest from a would-be assassin in the final moments of the first game, Geralt finds himself in the employ of the king as his personal guard. The Witcher 2 begins with a prologue sequence in which Geralt -- imprisoned in a dungeon -- is interrogated as the prime suspect in the murder of King Foltest. He recounts the story of events leading to Foltest's murder, revealing that another witcher killed the king and escaped, leaving Geralt alone at the scene of the crime.

Convinced of his innocence, Vernon Roche -- the commander of a special forces unit -- helps Geralt escape from the dungeon so that they can track down the real kingslayer. Along with Triss Merigold (Foltest's royal adviser and Geralt's companion), they head to Flotsam following the trail of the kingslayer. Over the course of the game, the trio become aware of a greater plot to assassinate the other kings of the realm and find themselves in the midst of a political conspiracy where each of their actions might shape the course of war. 

The visuals are absolutely beautiful.

The story unfolds primarily through dialogue and cinematic cutscenes. The game seems to pride itself in its dramatic flair, so there are a lot of cutscenes -- it may annoy some people how much game time is spent with your hands off the controls as a passive observer, but it didn't bother me too much because these moments are largely offset by the hands-on gameplay, and by the fact that so much of the game genuinely responds to and is shaped by your input. I'm not a huge fan of excessive cutscenes in games, but the cutscenes in The Witcher 2 felt appropriate and even necessary for the style of story CDProjekt wanted to tell. And the fact of the matter is they look absolutely fantastic and contribute to the game's grand, majestic feel. 

As with the first game, the main thing that sets The Witcher 2 apart from the crowd is how it handles moral decisions and player choice. There are no good or bad decisions and there's no sort of karma scale keeping track of your decisions; it's just you and choice between two shades of grey, with lasting consequences for your actions. The most iconic example of this comes near the end of the first chapter when the main story branches in two different directions depending on whom you choose to follow. Your choice comes down to two characters, and you'll be visiting different hub locations and completing different quests for each of them, which makes for some good replay value while emphasizing the impact of your choices.

Also in true RPG fashion, nearly every quest is designed to have multiple different outcomes with various solutions. Early in chapter one, for instance, someone asks you to get a recipe from an incense merchant, because he believes one of his products is actually a drug. You talk to the merchant and hear his side of the story, and you have the choice to let him off the hook or to try to get the recipe. If you want the recipe, you can try persuading him, threatening him, using a hex on him, or even just buy the recipe off him. Depending on your dialogue choices you might get the real recipe or a fake recipe (unbeknownst to you). 

Using a mage's staff in combat.

You return to the quest-giver and you can choose to give him the recipe or not. If you give him the recipe, he'll want you to join him at his secret lab and suggest blindfolding you. You can go along with the blindfolding or convince him to reveal the location of the secret lab so you can meet him and his cohorts there. Once there, you learn of their true intentions; if you brought them the fake recipe, they attack you, and if you brought them the real recipe, you can choose to take their reward or kill them to stop their own reproduction of the drug. In this quest alone (one of the mundane side-quests) you can already see how many branching decisions there are and how the game gives you the opportunity to role-play your character and determine the outcome of the quest. 

Questing is aided by the elaborate journal system which provides detailed descriptions of characters, locations, and quest logs. At every step in a quest, the journal provides about a paragraph's worth of text to describe the context, which is immensely helpful if you've been away from the game for several days and can't remember what was going on. Compare this to Skyrim, for example, which only gives you a one-line entry with zero description for a majority of its quests. The journal in The Witcher 2 also keeps track of information regarding beasts you've read about, and helps to inform you of the game's lore, so it's a handy tool for processing all the game's rich depth and information. 

The game follows a three-act story structure with a prologue and epilogue. Each chapter is meant to tell a major slice of the main story (forging alliances, waging war, resolving the aftermath of war), but they also come with plenty of side-quests to complete at your own discretion. While not an open-world game, The Witcher 2 gives you smaller doses of self-contained sandboxes to play in, with each chapter introducing you to a new region to explore, complete with a hub town/location and surrounding wilderness. Most quests can be done in any order, and except for a few plot-centric areas that remain inaccessible until you gain access to them through the main quest, you're free to go off and explore on a free leash.

Seducing (or being seduced by) a succubus.

This style of gameplay strikes an engaging balance between the fun of an open-world game while still  having the compelling narrative thrust of a more linear, story-heavy game. Exploration is fun and rewarding because you can pick up side-quests all over the map, and even though there's a quest marker for tracking quest objectives, the quests encourage you to explore and discover things for yourself. Since the game is structured around a linear plot progression, areas are designed to have specific challenges with specific rewards, so it's to your great benefit to explore everything you can to leave you better prepared for the main questline and the following chapters. Meanwhile, the strong emphasis on the game's story gives you a sense of direction in everything while providing tight cohesion for the overall experience. 

Combat plays like a real-time hack-n-slash game, but without the boring tedium of a typical, straightforward hack-n-slash game. Left-clicking allows you to perform a standard fast attack, and right-clicking allows you to perform a slower strong attack. Holding the E key allows you to block incoming attacks for reduced damage at the expense of stamina, and if you click at the right time during a parry you can counter-attack with a riposte. Pressing the space key while indicating a direction with the WASD keys causes you to perform a dodge-roll. Pressing Q will cast whatever magic sign you have selected, and pressing R will use whatever secondary weapon (bombs, traps, throwing knives) you have selected.

With just that overview of the controls, you can already tell it's an active system that gives you a lot of precise control over your character while giving you plenty of actions to perform as you find necessary. Combat actually proves rather tactical, especially when playing in the harder difficulties -- in most situations, if you just go right into a fight planning to mindlessly hack-n-slash your way through it, you're going to get your butt handed to you. I started out in normal mode (later bumped up to hard) and found combat somewhat challenging but immensely satisfying for the first 20 hours; common enemies didn't pose much of a threat unless they were in large numbers, but periodically the game threw a tough challenge my way that forced me to evaluate my strategy and try something different.

Fighting a large group of nekkers.

When fighting a group of enemies, your positioning is very important because you take double damage when hit in the back. Likewise, you deal increased damage when attacking enemies in the back. In a typical fight, you have to block and dodge at the right times to avoid damage, move around the field to prevent enemies from surrounding you, and use magical signs and items for crowd control. The five magic signs and various types of traps, bombs, and knives have a variety of uses as well, depending on the situation. So it has the thrilling intensity of an action game while requiring you to think a bit about what you're doing (both in the heat of battle, and in how you allocate your talent points).

The combat makes a few noticeable stumbles, however. The first major issue lies with the targeting system -- when you click to attack, Geralt automatically faces and aims his attack at whatever enemy is in the direction the camera is aimed. This leads to some frustrating moments when there's an enemy two feet away on the right side of the screen, so you press D to move right and attack, but then Geralt turns and targets another enemy 15 feet away in the center of the screen. It's easy enough to adapt to always aiming the camera where you want to attack, but you still run into occasional issues where Geralt turns unpredictably to attack an unintended target, leaving your back exposed for critical damage. 

Meanwhile, for some inane reason, they've removed the ability to drink potions mid-battle; you're only able to drink potions while meditating in a non-combat state. It's nice that you can now meditate anywhere you want, instead of having to seek out the nearest fireplace, but it's absolutely stupid that you can't drink potions in combat. The idea is that you're supposed to prepare in advance, but you never know what you're going to encounter up ahead. A lot of combat situations occur suddenly or immediately after a cutscene, so you're forced to stumble into combat without warning and then load a save if it turns out you needed a potion to survive the fight.

The first boss battle in the game.

As an RPG, the combat values stats and character talents, balancing your character's abilities with your own skills. As you gain experience for killing enemies and completing quests, you level-up, which grants talent points that you can spend in one of four skill trees including an introductory "training" tree with basic skills, a "swordsmanship" tree for melee combat techniques, a "signs" tree for upgrading magic spells, and an "alchemy" tree for preparing potions, bombs, blade oils, and stat-altering mutagens. You can spend up to 30 talent points in each of the main three trees, and with a hard level cap of 35, it means you'll only be able to specialize in one field and dabble in a second field. 

Deciding how to build your character is one of the most satisfying aspects of The Witcher 2 because there are so many great talents to choose from and only so many talent points to spend. Like any good RPG, it forces you to weigh the benefits of different skills while considering how they contribute to your desired playstyle. It encourages role-playing a specific type of build, which allows for great replay value since you can play an entirely different character and experience a different style of combat (while also making different choices in the main story). The talent system is also great because it allows the combat to evolve dynamically over the course of the game, with new talents unlocking new maneuvers and enabling different playstyles. 

The Witcher 2 even has an amusing sense of humor.

If I had to mention a major complaint, I guess it would have to be that the chapters got progressively less interesting as the game went on. I really liked the area in the first chapter because it felt organic and down-to-earth; meanwhile, the main objective of "find the kingslayer" was still fresh and had a strong impetus. In the second chapter I went to a dwarven city, and for some reason I always find dwarven architecture drab and uninteresting. The second chapter is where the most action is, but that's also when the quests start turning into politics. Once I was in the third and final chapter, the plot was basically all relatively mundane politics set in a crummy area consisting of a cluttered, confusing ruined city and underground sewers, and the momentum of the main quest had sort of petered out.

I got about 50 hours out of The Witcher 2, and even though the second half wasn't quite as interesting as the first half, it was an enjoyable experience all the way through. And even though it feels like less of an RPG compared to the original game, it's still a far more satisfying RPG than anything Bethesda or BioWare has put out lately. Here's hoping The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt turns out alright. 
""Skyrim" was and still is one of the most popular games in the history of gaming, and "The Witcher 3" is not only drawing inspirations from that game, but also from the developed but never released "Kingdoms of Amalur" MMO." (from the Examiner)
Well, shit. 


  1. I had been holding out on your consensus of the game since its release in 2011 and I am glad that you finally got around to playing it.

    Although I do agree that the game has lost depth to its choices (few) and other sundry trade-off's but overall the production quality is still higher than most current generation RPG's in my opinion.

    Being developed completely in-house with their own technology meant that CD PROJEKT RED gave it a crazy amount of graphic fidelity and made the combat more immersive and certain traits were carried on from The Witcher.

    I have hope for The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt (latent fan-boy passion)to be a success (commercial) and remain true to its roots. Just because it aims to take inspiration from SKYRIM and Kingdoms of Amalur I don't think we should instantly think on worst case scenario lines. CD PROJEKT was covered by Game Informer for a Preview Story (head here -->

    I hope haven't blathered something inappropriate here. Keep up your work, really enjoy reading it.

    1. Ever since Gothic 3, I've been very cautious whenever a developer decides to make the jump to open-world games because there's so much potential for the game experience to become bloated and diluted with filler. But sounds like CDProjekt know what they're getting themselves into in regards to making the third game open-world.

      I read an interview somewhere (can't remember where, maybe Eurogamer) in which the director TW3 basically called Skyrim out for being generic. It sounded like they understood what went wrong with Skyrim's design (and by extension, other open-world flops like Oblivion, FO3, Gothic 3, etc) and will be making sure not to make the same mistakes.

      I initially put that quote and "well, shit" response in there just to be humorous, but I'm actually cautiously optimistic that CDProjekt can make a more ideal open-world game that will conclusively show how shallow and flawed The Elder Scrolls games really are.

  2. Well Amalur combat was interesting in some parts and the main element they take from Skyrim will be the fact that it's open world. I hope. Cause goddamn it those Skyrim dungeons were some boring shit after the first two and it's the freaking whole game!
    At least oblivion had some bloody diversity.

    I'm also worrying a bit about Dark Souls II.

    Meh for both games only time will tell!

  3. If I may ask, which path do you prefer (Iorveth or Roche)?

    1. I sided with Iorveth in my first playthrough because I liked the idea of supporting the outcast rebels more so than the king's special forces unit. I tried doing a second playthrough in Dark Mode and sided with Roche that time, but lost interest during his chapter in the military camp, and never finished that second playthrough. Not sure if was because of the chapter itself, or because I just got distracted with other things.