Originally published on Pixelitis.net on May 2, 2012.
+ Outstanding story | Satisfying combat | Faithful transition to consoles
- A few minor bugs | Pop-in textures | Cumbersome menu
Last year, I was absolutely enamored with Polish-based developer CD Projekt RED’s work on the PC role-playing game, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. I enjoyed the game so much that it easily became my Game of the Year for 2011.
Since then, the developers were hard at work on an Enhanced Edition of the game for Xbox 360, toiling for over a year to bring all the PC game’s content over to consoles and then some.
Though I was very curious about how well the game could transition from PC to game console given its scope and highly detailed visuals, what I found was a job well done – even with some minor hiccups.
Spanning two discs, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Enhanced Edition is one beefy package, even before considering the added soundtrack, world map, manual and mini-game guide designed by the developers. The game is composed of five distinct sections – a prologue, three main chapters and an epilogue. A few new quests specifically made for the 360 version helped beef up the noticeably shorter third chapter.
Combined with the game’s overwhelming amount of enjoyable mini-games and open-ended sidequests, you’re looking at a good 25 to 35 hours of playtime from start to finish. And that’s not counting a second playthrough (which you’ll want to do – I’ll explain later), the game’s “Dark” difficulty mode or the Arena Mode, which is a pretty fun diversion, truth be told.
Common complaints about the original PC version were that it didn’t do such a tremendous job in explaining the game’s mechanics in its prologue, opting to let the player figure it out for themselves. The Xbox 360 version, however, has a new tutorial mode, which is highly recommended for newcomers to this game. It may not go too in-depth with the more advanced functions of gameplay, but it’ll prepare most for the game’s challenging combat.
And though combat can be challenging if you’re not careful, it’s also the most satisfying system I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing in a Western-made RPG. Neighborhood witcher Geralt comes equipped with two swords – one for people-slaying, the other silver-imbued for monster-slaying. Players can dole out light and heavy attacks with said swords, which lead to some very extravagant and gratifying swings. In addition to this, five ‘signs’ (spells), traps, and alchemic bombs are at the player’s disposal to help keep the witcher in control of battle.
Using signs like ‘Aard’ to stun your foes and ‘Quen’ to create a protective barrier for yourself are essential in staying alive. There are also your traditional offensive magics like ‘Igni,’ which sets opponents aflame, and ‘Axii’ which makes an enemy attack its allies. This makes for a very fun and tactical battle system. The tools you’re given are handy in various situations, thus combat never gets old.
To add even more strategy, Geralt can brew a bevy of potions using alchemical ingredients found in the environment and from monster loot. You can’t simply drink these potions in battle, however – the game requires you to meditate and prepare these potions beforehand. Admittedly, this can sometimes lead to some guesswork required on the player’s part, but there are instances where the player will know a battle’s coming up and accordingly plan for it.
The game’s leveling and character development system is also versatile – with three branching paths (swordsmanship, alchemy and magic) and with several nodes in those paths that offer up new abilities and enhancements. Players can try to completely develop one specific path, or strike up a balance – it really depends on their playing style.
Expect to die many times throughout the game, as it only takes a couple of strikes to bring Geralt down. Battles take patience and quick wit – simply flailing your sword won’t do you any good in most of the game’s fights.
Autosaves are only made at certain, sparse points during a quest and it’s easy to forget to save after being heavily engrossed in the action. Admittedly, a quick save button would have been handy to have here, although I got used to saving manually on occasion.
The game controls incredibly well with the Xbox 360 controller, though that’s not too far of a stretch, considering it was one control method in the PC version. This time around, however, the new, retooled button placement works very well and makes targeting enemies a lot easier than it was on the PC.
The game’s menus have been slightly retooled for the Xbox 360 controller but they still could have used a little work. Cycling through Geralt’s inventory, quest journal, character development screen, and map is done with the press of a trigger. This is somewhat unintuitive, since the player has to press the trigger twice just to get from the inventory screen to the journal.
It doesn’t help that there’s a slight delay as the screen quickly fades out and back in to load the next part of the menu. I even noticed this quick flicker happening when quickly scrolling through a long list of items in my inventory and in shops. The layout could have used a bit more work – I still find the PC version’s mouse cursor quicker and handier.
There are no buts about it: the Xbox 360’s hardware is incredibly dated. And even though the 360 version of The Witcher 2’s visuals aren’t as pristine as its PC counterpart’s, it’s still easily one of the best-looking games on the system. Although there’s a notable downgrade in terms of resolution and texture quality, the game still does a fantastic job of maintaining a smooth frame rate and wonderful lighting.
With that said, I did notice delayed texture pop-in more often than I did in the PC version. Loading times happen more often on the 360 version too, although thankfully it’s not particularly long if you install the game to the hard drive.
I did notice some of the occasional clipping and awkward animation quirks from the PC version, which leads me to believe that there was a bigger focus on actually getting the game to run well on Xbox 360 than to fix these minor graphical glitches.
Even the awkward door mechanics of the PC version remain intact – doors can’t be opened during battle, and the player will have to take turns with NPCs just to go through the entire ‘open-and-close door’ animation instead of just simply leaving the door open for everyone to pile through. Delayed prompts for opening a door, examining something, and sheathing your sword still crop up from time to time as well.
Nevertheless, to dwell on these petty issues is to ignore all of the other things that this game does right.
The Witcher 2’s story is remarkably complex and engaging. Even if you’ve never read the original fantasy novels by Andrzej Sapkowski or played through the first Witcher title on PC, you should have no problem getting into its dark, fantastical universe. It’s interestingly gritty – complete with downtrodden villages, ruthless politicians, monsters, sorcery, sex, racial tensions among humans, elves and dwarves, and more.
Our hero, Geralt of Rivia, is, for a lack of better words, an amnesic badass who just so happens to get mixed up in the political turmoil of every locale he visits. Without giving too much away, Geralt desires to regain his memories, all the while trying to hunt down an assassin who is plotting the assassination of every king of the Northern Kingdoms.
The Enhanced Edition adds a new mind-blowingly good CGI intro that makes for a stylish introduction of the game’s “antagonist” (notice the quotes here). A new CGI outro was also added which essentially confirms that there will be a Witcher 3. New interludes between chapters have been added as well, complete with narration by Geralt’s friend, the lovable, womanizing minstrel named Dandelion. These make for better bridges between the different locations you’ll find yourself in.
The Witcher 2’s cast of characters is wonderfully diverse, and CD Projekt RED excels at bringing out the ugly in even the most seemingly innocent of people. The game’s dialogue has some of the best game writing I’ve seen in a long time (complete with cleverly made concoctions of swear words), and while I don’t mind the English voice acting, I opted instead for the original Polish voice-overs due to preference and perhaps even authenticity.
It also made things more interesting for me, as there were quite a few instances where statements made by the Polish voice actors were translated and localized differently than in the English text.
I mentioned before that the game comes with a soundtrack CD, and rightfully so – Adam Skorupa’s and Krzysztof Wierzynkiewicz’s work on the music is a fantastic mix of orchestral, choir and Eastern European folk. It has its beautifully calming, string-oriented music for village and environment exploration and intense brass and percussion-led tracks for the more epic and violent encounters one will face throughout the game.
The Witcher 2 for me has all the elements of a Western RPG done right – combat that takes skill, an engaging storyline with an expertly crafted plot and open-ended decision-making that’s *gasp* actually open-ended!
A lot of Western RPGs in this gaming generation simply fail to expertly handle the moral grey area, opting instead for the easy “good” and “bad” options that, to be quite frank – have been immensely played out.
The story in The Witcher 2 handles the ‘grey’ area of morality extraordinarily well – you’ll realize that even so-called ‘good’ people have their immense flaws and the characters you think are villains have their own reasons and motivations for their actions.
It is in this way that the game is truly mature – not by the over-the-top sex and violence, but by its believable characters and their fleshed-out backgrounds. You’ll find that it’s impossible to please everyone in the game. Many of the decisions you make for Geralt have enormous consequences for the world’s characters and plot.
Returning to this title for a second time after completing the PC version a year ago, I realized how many story elements I missed out on – particularly in Chapter 2, which can play out differently in plot and setting depending on an important decision you make at the end of Chapter 1. Simply put – you need to play through the game more than once, just to see what you might have missed out on by not choosing a certain dialogue option or not siding with a particular character.
Having an entire segment of a game change drastically depending on your decisions is something I’ve yearned to see more of within open-ended games. I can’t imagine the kind of nightmare this must have been for the people behind the scenes at CD Projekt Red, but it really makes the game stand out that much more.
I said at the beginning of this review that The Witcher 2 was my 2011 game of the year. The 360 version might as well be my current 2012 game of the year. It’s easily one of my favorite RPGs of this generation. It’s a game that doesn’t mind being a little complex and challenging among a sea of games that are dead-set on scaling back and holding the player’s hand everywhere they go.
I’m grateful that CD Projekt RED was uncompromising in their adapting The Witcher 2 to consoles. It’s still essentially the same game, with a few additions and some necessary tweaking here and there. It would have been nice to work on some of those odd, quirky bugs, but it doesn’t sully the entire experience.
The bottom line here is that The Witcher 2 is worth every penny and should not be missed, regardless of which system you get it on. If you have a computer worthy enough to run the game on high settings, then go with the PC version, as that one gets all of the Xbox 360’s new features in a free update. Otherwise, the 360 version is still a wonderful adaptation (complete with “cheevos”) and a shining example of how to both make a standout RPG and handle a PC-to-console conversion.
(Full disclosure: Pixelitis received its copy of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Enhanced Edition directly from CD Projekt RED through this event.)