The Witcher is one of my all-time favorite RPGs. When I played it in 2007, I was immediately engrossed by its incredibly complex quest design and was particularly impressed by how it handled moral choices. It felt a lot like an old-school RPG dressed up in a modern skin -- it was sort of the best of both worlds. So I had pretty high hopes and expectations for The Witcher 2, but it didn't wow me as much as the original did. There are some things about The Witcher 2 that are technically superior to the original, but the two are ultimately beasts of a slightly different nature.
Whereas The Witcher is predominantly an RPG designed for enthusiasts of classic, old-school RPGs, The Witcher 2 is more of a cinematic action-RPG designed to interest a more mainstream audience. There are things I like about each game, and they're each very fine games in their own right, but I definitely prefer the greater complexity of the first game. In this article I'll compare and contrast the two games on specific points like quests, story, exploration, combat, atmosphere, and so on, in an attempt to determine which game's execution works better.
The first game begins with Geralt of Rivia being taken to the witcher stronghold of Kaer Morhen on a handcart. Critically wounded with no memory of his past, Geralt is reintroduced to the world of his fellow monster-hunters right as a group of organized bandits attacks the fortress. The witchers scramble to defend Kaer Morhen, but ultimately fail in stopping the Salamandra bandits from absconding with the witchers' mutagens, the very mutagens that give witchers their unique abilities. Thus begins the main quest: recovering the stolen mutagens and thwarting Salamandra's plans.
The second game takes place shortly after the first; after defending King Foltest from a would-be assassin at the end of the first game, Geralt becomes Foltest's personal bodyguard. When Geralt is framed for the murder of Foltest in the introduction of the second game, he sets out to find the real assassin and clear his name. Along the way he learns of a greater conspiracy to eliminate all of the kings of the realm and becomes a key figure in deciding the political outcome of war.
Ah yes, the ol' "super human" plan.
Large portions of the story in TW1 are based on video game tropes of having an over-arcing goal and periodically blocking your progress with side-quests. So you've tracked the Salamandra to the capital city Vizima, but there's a quarantine when you get there, so you're stuck in the outskirts until you solve a series of quests to gain access to the city. Once you're in the city, your access to the upper quarter is restricted, so you have to solve a series of quests to get there. So on and so on. Because of this, the actual story tends to bog itself down in the details. Even though you're constantly learning about Salamandra and making critical decisions in the story, it's sometimes hard to feel wrapped up in the story.
An assortment of important characters posing for the camera.
Between the two, TW2 has the more cinematic storytelling. Compared to TW1, the storytelling is a lot tighter with more focus on the actual story; you don't spend as much time jumping hurdles or working on mandatory sub-quests. You're always free to work on side-quests, but the main questline has a more linear progression with more consistent momentum. Besides that, there are also a ton of cutscenes with beautifully rendered graphics and animations, cinematic camera angles, and of course, great voice acting and sound direction. Parts of this game actually feel like you're watching a movie; it's a lot easier to sit back and just enjoy the story in TW2, whereas you have to put more work into digging up and processing the story in TW1.
But while TW2 has the more riveting presentation, I found its actual story less interesting than TW1's. The world of The Witcher is supposed to be this dark fantasy setting, with witchers being genetically mutated monster-hunters for hire. The first game dealt very heavily with that theme, but the second game is almost entirely about political affairs: running errands for kings and meeting with conspirators. The fact that you're a witcher is mostly irrelevant. The first game, by contrast, is all about being a witcher. The story has you dealing with monsters and magical phenomena more often and more closely, and the task of retrieving the stolen mutagens and stopping Salamandra is a far more personal goal.
Considering that these games are both RPGs, I feel like quest-design is one of the most important factors to consider. Thankfully, both games feature some pretty solid quest design that provide lots of different role-playing options, with different branching paths and different consequences. The main difference between the two games seems to be that TW1 has more total side-quests, which all overlap far more than the quests in TW2, whereas TW2 has fewer side-quests which are all more distinct and self-contained.
Take the second chapter of TW1, for example, when you arrive in Vizima, attempting to trace the Salamandra mage Azar Javed by figuring out who's working for him. There are initially six different suspects, and it proves to be an incredibly complex web of quests and evidence that all overlap and impact the course of the quest. There are multiple stages for proving someone's innocence and plenty of circumstantial evidence that could indict any of them if you don't dig deeply enough, and the order in which you do things affects the way the evidence looks. It's one of the major quests in chapter two and nearly every quest you do has some sort of impact on it. The game has separate quest entries for each suspect, but it doesn't follow like a linear quest. There's nothing quite like this in TW2.
"I'm a witcher. Neutral as hell."
The bulk of quests in TW2 don't overlap with each other, and relatively few of them seem to affect much outside of their own questline. So in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't matter as much how you choose to solve a quest, except in the sense of allowing you to see something slightly different during a replay. While many of the quests still provide the same depth of role-playing options, the ultimate goal and how you go about accomplishing them ultimately feel a little more straightforward. The quests in TW1 sort of permeated the world to the point that it almost didn't feel like you were working on specific quests, whereas in TW2 it usually feels like you're specifically on course to complete a certain quest, like picking and choosing different things from a buffet line.
The coolest thing about TW2's quests is the fact that the main quest truly branches in two different paths. The middle portion of the game is completely different depending on which path you take, with Geralt going to different hub locations and completely entirely different quests. This allows for huge replay value because such a large chunk of the game can be completely new in a second playthrough. But this also comes with the consequence of narrowing the game into more specific paths; whereas in TW1 you had three different "paths" to follow with multiple decision points in each chapter, TW2 condenses it down to two distinct paths with fewer decision points along the way.
A typical quest bounty board in The Witcher 2.
So while TW2 has the truly branching paths, making for far greater impact in the course of the main quest, I feel like TW1 had longer-lasting impact in its side-quests and smaller main story decisions. Early on in TW1, you have a major quest to kill or save an NPC; if you keep that character alive, she shows up later at two different stages of the game, helping you during one important quest. If you let her die, then another NPC ends up in her place who refuses to help you because of the blood on your hands. There's a similar thing going in TW2, where you have the option to kill or spare an important NPC, but if you leave him alive he only has a handful of irrelevant lines of dialogue to say to you later on.
The first game also helps you realize the impact of your decisions a bit more, thanks to the Fallout-style summaries at the end of chapters and during critical moments. The game will either explicitly show the consequences of your actions, or make you reflect on your decision by indicating things may have gone differently with a different action. In TW2, they don't do this, perhaps to intentionally obscure the effects of your decisions so that you can't see binary outcomes as easily. Either way, I think I prefer the style of TW1 in this regard because it made me think a lot more about my decisions and made it really clear how some small decisions early on made a big impact later.
In TW1, you visit a lot more locations, and each of those areas feels much bigger and more open than the locations in TW2. In TW1, a forest would be a large, open space you could explore in 360-degrees; in TW2, a forest would consist of winding pathways and preset areas. In a sense, this gives the areas in TW2 a feeling of slightly greater complexity, despite being smaller, because they sort of crammed the same amount of detail into the folds of a smaller space. On the other hand, it makes some of TW2's areas feel a little more straightforward and underwhelming, so it's a tough issue to balance properly.
The larger, more open spaces of TW1 gave it a slightly more realistic feeling, and also gave you literally more space to explore. Unfortunately, that also had the consequence of making a lot of quests more tedious than they needed to be because they forced you to run back and forth across large, spacious maps. Certain areas like the Vizima swamp got to be a complete chore to traverse because of its great size and because of the endlessly respawning drowners and bloedzuigers.
The Vizima swamp cemetery.
The thing that works in TW1's favor is that it was set in a more specific, confined space. You actually got to visit more locations in TW1 (with probably a greater diversity of themes), but they were all in Vizima and the surrounding areas. In TW2, you travel all over the continent and into different realms and kingdoms, which I guess makes for a more "epic" story, but it made it harder for me to care about where I was and what I was doing. Since you stay in basically one area in TW1, it makes areas relate to each other more closely and it lets you feel more embedded in the world, since you're not just skipping by it like in TW2.
The ruined elven city Loc Muinne.
The other thing that I feel gives TW1 the edge is the fact that that game had so much more atmosphere, that it made even the tedious drudge work bearable. The entire world of the first game just feels so much darker and grittier than the second; TW1 felt like a dark, mature fantasy world to me, whereas TW2 felt more like bright, colorful, generic fantasy to me. A lot of that is simply my preference for things being dark and depressing, but I remember getting such a creepy, ominous vibe from being in the outskirts at night -- a feeling I never really got in TW2. Then there's the feeling of arriving in beautiful Murky Waters and feeling a hint of relaxation after all the grime and stress of everywhere else -- a feeling of respite I never got from TW2.
That thicker, richer atmosphere of TW1 immersed me in the world a lot more and in effect made me care more about exploration and solving quests for people. In TW2, I was exploring everywhere not because I was intrinsically curious about what was out there, but simply from a completionist mindset. It was basically just me trying to find as much loot and experience as possible to strengthen my character, not so much that I genuinely wanted to explore the world itself.
Combat is one of the biggest areas in which the two games show their differences. The first game seems to have been influenced by isometric RPGs (hence the inclusion of overhead and isometric camera angles), and as such its combat amounts mostly to clicking on enemies in the right rhythm and managing fighting stances. The second game seems inspired by more action-oriented melee brawling games, and as such its combat is more like a hack and slash action game.
Combat in the first game was a hot topic of debate; most people who didn't like TW1 were quick to cite the "boring" combat as a prime reason for their dislike of the game. The system basically has you click once to initiate a complex-looking sequence of attacks, and then click again right at the end of the sequence to go into the next combo, progressively stringing more attacks together as you level-up and invest talent points in sword skills. This basically amounts to left-clicking about every two seconds. Besides that, you have to make sure you're using the correct sword (steel vs silver) and the correct stance (strong, fast, or group) for the right situation, otherwise you'll do very little damage.
Official video demonstration on TW1 combat.
In a way, combat in TW1 doesn't quite feel like you're actually controlling Geralt (at least, definitely not at a 1:1 ratio), but feels instead like you're managing or directing him as you might direct party members in certain older, isometric RPGs. Some people didn't care much for this, but I enjoyed it, because it had a more laid-back, tactical sort of feel to it. Especially when playing on the harder difficulty, the combat involved a lot of micromanaging stances and positioning while strategically implementing potions, blade oils, and magic signs.
Official video demonstration on TW2 combat.
In TW2, combat was completely revamped, getting rid of nearly every aspect of the original system. Geralt still uses two swords, but the stances are gone, his mobility is far greater, and you control his sword swings at a one-to-one ratio. Instead of emphasizing your stats/talents and how you manage the fight (as most RPGs tend to do), TW2 emphasizes your actions and reactions, more like an action game. Your stats and talents still have a significant impact on combat, but in more of a secondary role to your personal skills.
The updated combat in TW2 works pretty well and still requires a lot more tactical precision than, say, Skyrim, but I found myself missing a number of aspects from TW1. Notably, I miss that you don't have to time your attacks like in TW1, and I miss having to switch stances depending on what enemies you're fighting. The stances are still technically represented in the form of light and strong attacks (and a later talent that gives all attacks group-style effects) but they don't really matter as much. Besides that, Geralt's attack animations and combos don't look/feel as sophisticated as they did in TW1.
Potions / Magic
Besides the sword combat, both games feature the use of potions and magic signs to compliment the combat system. They function somewhat similarly in both games, but the first game handles potions in particular much better. Potions are used in both games to enhance your abilities; potions increase your critical hit rate, your health regeneration, your resistance to stuns, and so on. Where TW2 dropped the ball most heavily on this front is in the fact that you can't drink potions during combat; in TW1, you could chug a potion anytime, anywhere, with the only issue being that it left you vulnerable for a couple of seconds while you drank it.
But in TW2, you're expected to use potions solely in preparation for battle, except that you never know what to expect up ahead, and many encounters happen suddenly and without warning. This means potions are only useful against telegraphed boss battles, and after you've already died in a fight and have to load a save. But potions in general seem much less useful in TW2 because each potion now comes with incredibly steep penalties to use. Is it worth, for example, boosting the intensity of your magical signs by +1, in exchange for -50% of your health?
The alchemy screen in TW1.
I guess the point of the harsh penalties for potions in TW2 is to limit their usage, and to give you some sort of incentive to go into the alchemy tree. But TW2 also drops the ball somewhat in its toxicity gauge. In both games, consuming a potion raising your toxicity -- too much toxicity has an adverse effect on your health and stats, and too much can kill you. In TW1, toxicity effects lasted a long time, even after the potion wore off, meaning you had to consume other potions to reduce your toxicity. You also had the option of consuming more potions with lower toxicity values (and thus weaker effects), or consuming fewer high-toxicity potions (with stronger effects). It was a delicate balancing act; in TW2, you're arbitrarily limited to only having three potions active at once, and then the toxicity disappears once they wear off.
In both games, magic signs consume stamina. In TW1, it was a typical numerical meter with sign casts consuming a certain amount of stamina. Higher-level signs cost more stamina to cast, and you could upgrade your maximum endurance to facilitate more casts. You could also unlock special melee attacks that consumed stamina. In TW2, the stamina meter is replaced with stamina "blocks," with each sign cast consuming a single block regardless of level, and there are no melee attacks that consume stamina. Instead we have an "adrenaline bar" that builds automatically in the background.
One of the distinguishing features of RPGs is that your character's skills should affect how the game is played. Hence, in RPGs you earn experience points, level-up, and invest skill points in whatever talents you find most appropriate for your playstyle. So it should go without saying that character development is a very important aspect of these games, since this is one of the core criteria for what makes an RPG. And in this department, TW1 blows TW2 right out of the water.
To put this category into perspective, if I've counted everything correctly, TW1 has 246 total talents to choose from, whereas TW2 has a mere 102 talents from which to choose. That alone should be pretty indicative of the fact that TW1 has a more robust talent system than TW2, but quantity isn't always everything. What makes TW1 much better is the fact that it features more skill trees that are more open than TW2's. The second game only features four skill trees (one of which is a very small "training" tree for basic skills) that only ever let you branch out in two or three directions; the first game features a skill tree for each individual stat, magic sign, sword type, and fighting stance.
A comparison of skill trees: TW1 left, TW2 right (click to enlarge)
So in TW1, if you like Aard and Igni but don't care for the other signs, you can choose to put talent points into those two signs and ignore the others. While you're at it, you can customize those two signs as much or as little as you want, with each tree featuring 18 different talents. In TW2, if you want to upgrade your Yrden sign, you have to upgrade Aard, Igni, and Quen before you can even put points into Yrden. Furthermore, each sign only has two-to-four talent options for upgrading them. The second game simplifies the various talents and lumps multiple effects together into fewer streamlined skill threes, drastically reducing your options to custom-tailor your build and playstyle.
But while TW2 has fewer talents to choose from and more streamlined skill trees with a much lower level cap, one nice thing about its character development is that the individual talents tend to be more potent, making each level-up have more of a dramatic effect on your character than a single level-up in TW1. In TW1, you might level-up, invest your talent points and not feel that much of a dramatic change in your character, but when you leveled-up in TW2 you were more likely to experience a gameplay-changing upgrade. But still, it was nice that TW1 gave you three talent points to spend per level, which made it easier to branch out into different fields or to pump all of them into a single field.
Then there are a number of smaller things that I like/dislike about the two games, which aren't really prominent (or important) enough to get their own category, so I'll just list them here as minor subcategories:
The Witcher 2 wins this category hands-down, which shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. The game is technically superior to TW1 in essentially every way, and it's one of the best-looking games I've ever played. But with that said, I still prefer the visual style of TW1 over TW2; these games are supposed to be set in a dark, gritty, mature world, and TW1 captured that feeling pretty well. Nearly everything in TW2 is bright, colorful, and with bloom settings all the way to the max. I mean, just compare the skyboxes of the two games; TW1 has those depressing gray clouds, and TW2 is full of heavenly splendor. Certainly a taste issue, but I wish TW2 retained a little more of the bleak look from the first game.
Graphics comparison of The Witcher (left) and The Witcher 2 (right)
Coupled with visual design, music plays a crucial role in establishing the mood and atmosphere of certain areas. I remember being totally captivated by the soundtrack from the first game, with tracks like Peaceful Moments, River of Life, Tavern At the End of the World, The Dike, and the main menu theme were so beautifully atmospheric and memorable. Granted, maybe it's because TW1 had fewer songs and so you just heard the same music over and over again, but I couldn't recall any distinctly memorable songs from TW2. The Witcher 2 has its good songs, too, in the form of A Nearly Peaceful Place, Through the Underworld, Vergen by Night, and The Blue Mountains, but none of these engage me as much as the stuff from TW1.
In my first playthrough of TW1, I remember clocking something like 90 hours in it; in my recent playthrough I spent 75 hours in it. Though admittedly, a lot of that time was spent just running back and forth across the maps. The Witcher 2, by contrast, took only 50 fifty hours for a single playthrough. To put it simply, there's more content to experience in a single playthrough of TW1, with more quests, more landmass to explore, and a longer story. But TW2 has arguably better replay value because besides just making different decisions in the plot, you get to see entirely new areas and entirely new quests. It was far more engrossing playing TW1 for the first time, but TW2 is at least careful not to waste your time.
Alchemy / Crafting
Alchemy systems in games tend to be a bit of a chore, but it worked really well in TW1. The system made intuitive sense and was easy to use, but it was also fun being able to experiment with different combinations of ingredients, attempting to brew potions you didn't have a recipe for and then learning their effects through trial-and-error. You could also get bonus effects on your potions by using ingredients all sharing the same dominant substance. Most of this is gone in TW2 and alchemy serves a more rudimentary purpose. TW2 takes the edge in crafting, though, by putting more emphasis on crafting weapons and armor, something that was barely a feature in TW1.
The UI was one of the best features of TW1, because it laid everything out logically in organized tabs and was very easy to navigate with a mouse. The grid-based inventory screen let you see dozens of items at once, let you organize things your own way, and even showed a graphical icon for items. Compare this to the inventory in TW2, which just gives you a long, single-column list of stuff that gets sorted by filters. Your inventory is also limited by item weight instead of visual grids, which is a bit more obtuse to manage. It's much more cumbersome to use and lacks the elegant simplicity of TW1's interface.
Inventory screen comparisons: TW1 left, TW2 right (click to enlarge)
This is an especially minor point, but I really missed having the option to change the camera angle in TW2. One especially nice thing about TW1 was that you could play in a high overhead perspective, a low isometric angle, or from an over-the-shoulder perspective. In TW2, I found myself frequently wanting to pull the camera back to see more of the environment, or wanting to move the camera overhead slightly to get a better view of battles. Even just being able to move the shoulder over the left or right shoulder would've been nice at times. I guess it was a stylistic choice for the sort of game they wanted TW2 to be, but it's just another option you had in TW1 that was removed in the sequel.
As I said at the top of the article, The Witcher and The Witcher 2 are ultimately two beasts of a slightly different nature. Whichever one you prefer will depend on what you value more: RPG mechanics, or action and cinematic storytelling. Both games are fine for the type of game they wanted to be, with The Witcher playing more like an old-school RPG and The Witcher 2 playing like a modernized action-RPG. As a fan of old-school RPGs, it disappoints me slightly to see the series attempting to be more more "mainstream," but even despite simplifying many of TW1's RPG mechanics, TW2 is still a far better RPG than the likes of Skyrim. In the grand scheme of things, I like both games fairly equally, but with my fine appreciation for RPGs I have to give a slight preference to The Wticher.