It has been four years since Polish developer CD Projekt Red released The Witcher back in 2007. Inspired by the works of fantasy author Andrzej Sapkowski, this dark, high-fantasy role-playing game followed the stoic Geralt of Rivia, a "witcher" well versed in the study of monsters and other creatures. Set after the events of the first game, The Witcher 2 pits Geralt's martial and magical prowess against a deadly elven spy, Iorveth, as well as the mysterious assassin Kingslayer. The sequel also changes up the combat mechanics and forgoes the rhythmic timing and constant stance switching of the original Witcher in favor of one fluid system. We got the chance to see a few of the changes in motion during a hands-on demo set in one of the game's numerous side quests. Be advised that although this story focuses on a side quest, it may contain minor plot spoilers.
Our journey began in the city of Vergen in front of an old tavern. Nearby, an elf was anxiously looking about, and we could tell just by looking at him that he was eager to tell his tale to anyone who would listen. Seeing his distress, we decided to approach but then passed right on by into the warm glow of the tavern beyond. Inside, we took the opportunity to try out one of The Witcher 2's mini-games in a friendly round of arm wrestling with one of the dwarven patrons. While playing this mini-game, a bar appeared onscreen underneath the characters with a constantly-moving slider. In order to win the match, we had to keep our mouse cursor within the area of the slider long enough for Geralt to pin his opponent's wrist to the table. Having proven our manliness, we were now properly warmed up for the inevitable adventure and stepped outside.
After talking to a few patrons, we made our way out of the pub to begin our mission. Ele'yas, the elf we had met previously, had explained to us that he had uncovered the body of an elf who had died mysteriously. He wasn't sure, but the presence of numerous cuts and gashes on the body suggested a violent end at the hands of some sort of monster. Since Geralt is an expert on monsters, he asked us to seek out the cadaver in a nearby tomb and determine the cause of death. We agreed and headed toward the main gates of Vergen. On our way out, the locals met us with equal parts fear and loathing, suggesting that Geralt's status as a vagabond and troublemaker hasn't changed much since the previous game.
Not long after we ventured past the city's walls, we were ambushed by a troop of well-armed highwaymen; they even had a wizard in tow. But, before they could slice us to pieces, we reached for our secret weapon--The Witcher 2's new radial action menu. This new menu system lets you swap Geralt's weapons, items, and active magic spells on the fly, and it also has the handy property of slowing down time while it's open, even in the middle of battle. We used this new feature to our advantage by equipping a steel sword, Geralt's patented stun traps, and a magical telekinetic spell that flings enemies away.
The bandits quickly encircled us--while their pesky wizard scampered around in the back--and attacked in pairs of two or three. This was a crash course in the merits of blocking and rolling out of the way of stuff as a trio of swords and one scorching fireball bounced Geralt around the battlefield like a pinball. As one of the bulkier assailants raised his weapon for yet another blow, we (finally) responded with a block. This sudden change of tactics from doing nothing to doing something caught the brute off guard and sent him reeling back; thus leaving him vulnerable to a counterattack.
When attacking, the left mouse button controlled our light strikes, while the right mouse button controlled the heavy blows. There wasn't any switching of stances or timing of hits. Instead, it was just raw, uninhibited carnage: fast, loose, and limited only by how quickly we could dish it out. A few heavy body blows left the towering oaf in a heap before his buddies could even react. As they closed in with cries of vengeance, we blasted them right back with a forceful push of magic before tumbling away. After rolling back a safe distance, we lobbed a stun grenade in the crowd's direction. There was a loud crack and a blinding flash of white. When our sight returned, what was once a band of murderers was now a groaning pack of meat awaiting the butcher. Now that our enemies were in a stunned state, each swing triggered a stylish execution scene featuring plenty of swords and sorcery. Not even the wizard escaped our wrath.
After defeating the villains we collected our spoils, which came in the form of a new chest piece and a pair of gauntlets. Equipping these items altered our character's appearance to reflect his new threads. After this encounter, we pushed onward across the shoreline and into the woods beyond. Ahead, we spied a serene glade where a tiny lake had formed. A few stray rays of sunlight slipped in from between the treetop's canopy and gave us pause to admire this beautifully rendered scene. And then, of course, there were more bandits. But not just bandits, there was also a vicious pack of Nekkers: small, blue-skinned creatures that look not unlike satanic children. The two groups were at each other's throats in a flurry of fangs and steel. Not wishing to miss out on all the fun, we popped our shield spell--accessed again through the radial menu--and charged into the fray.
Ultimately, it was the magical shield that did most of the work. Our control of the infamous witcher amounted to mostly swinging the sword wildly and rolling headlong into enemy attacks. This made us a pretty easy target, but when our foes did strike, they received a nasty shock from our electrified shield that, in many cases, incapacitated them on the spot. Leaving yet another pile of corpses in our wake (no wonder folks are scared of Geralt), we finally made it to the rocky, cliffside entrance to the underground tomb our elven employer spoke of earlier. With a little nudge-nudge, wink-wink, one of our CD Projekt Red copilots suggested we switch from our atypical steel sword to our sexy silver sword for the fights ahead. Inside the dusty old tomb, we found all the classic trappings of an underground complex: old bridges, burnt-out torches, and rickety walls that looked just ripe for the smashing. Armed this time with our trusty, wall-smashing fireball spell, we blasted our way into the tomb with little regard for the structural integrity of this ancient resting house.
The tomb's spirits were not pleased with our progress. Inside one of these busted-out rooms, we were met with numerous bodies that had been covered and set into the walls. From their dusty corpses poured the spirits of the deceased. These took on the form of wraiths: vengeful spirits of the dead. Because there were only three of them, it looked like it was going to be an easy fight, but these suckers could move. Before we had time to even raise our blade, they were upon us with swiping claws and wailing cries. As our body shook on all sides from their relentless barrage, we (totally not by accident) fired off another fireball that lit up the trio like an oily rag. We then drew our weapon and, with the added bonus the silver provided against undead foes, made quick work of our attackers.
After blasting through a few more corpse-ridden rooms, we discovered the body we'd been sent to find. Peeling back the pale white sheet covering the body revealed a young man who had obviously died a violent death. Now, we were presented with a variety of options regarding what parts of the corpse we wished to examine. The arms showed deep gashes from a source we were unable to identify. When we checked his back, we uncovered some light scratch marks that were less violent in nature and more…passionate. We also recovered a battered book of poetry that, upon further examination, could only belong to our good friend Dandelion, the bard. After we finished our investigation of the body, we concluded that it certainly had several of the telltale signs of a succubus. However, as Geralt revealed, a succubus typically doesn't slay its victims, and the violence on the body was certainly out of place. At any rate, Dandelion needed his book back, so we headed back to Vergen.
Things are just never that easy, though. No sooner had we set foot outside of the tomb than a hulking monstrosity came into view. It was the Arachas, which looked not unlike a giant crab covered in blue fungus. Our tried-and-true tactic of "hit it with a sword" quickly failed us against the beast's hard carapace. Fireballs made it angry, but not much else. In a last-ditch effort, we reached for our stun grenades in preparation for making a speedy retreat. However, the blast ended up wrecking the creature's day much more effectively than we could have hoped. With trepidation, we approached, took one final swing, and ended it right there. A little blip in our monster journal informed us that Geralt had noted that this item was very effective against these creatures.
The remainder of our trip home was uneventful. When we finally crossed back into the walls of Vergen, we zipped right on past poor Ele'yas and made straight for the place Dandelion was sure to be: the bar. He was, of course, regaling some patrons with fanciful tales of battles won and lost, mostly in the realm of love. The poet seemed less than pleased to spy us, as if he knew we were bringing the proverbial raincloud to spoil all his fun. He cheered up a little when we returned his lost book of poetry, and after a little persuasion, he agreed to help us track down the local succubus lair so we could question the beast.
We took the opportunity for Geralt to meditate--a resting state he can enter at any time to advance the in-game clock--since his prey was apparently a succubus, and in the world of The Witcher, those things only come out at night. Under the cover of darkness, we slipped out of town to seek out the creature's lair. Geralt and Dandelion took to a knee and laid out the mission ahead of them. Geralt would squat over in some nearby bushes while Dandelion pulled out his lute and began playing love songs. With any luck, the succubus would hear them and invite him into its den. At this point, we were placed in control of Dandelion. But because we had not first surveyed his book of poetry, we did not know how any of his romantic melodies went. After a few vulgar attempts at seduction, our CDProjekt friends once again showed us the way; this time to the heart of a succubus.
A tiny hatch opened in the distance, and we were invited down to experience pleasures beyond our wildest dreams. At this point, we were still in control of Dandelion and had two options. We could either return to Geralt, tell him what happened, and be completely boring; or venture onward and--as Dandelion so eloquently put it--plow a succubus. Not wanting the lose Dandelion's wit and charm to a sex-crazed beast, we decided to go the boring route and report back to the professional.
Naturally, the monster wasn't pleased when the grisly visage of Geralt dropped into its den rather than the boyish bard from before. After a brief interrogation, the creature revealed that it did know the unfortunate boy we found and had lain with him but had, in fact, not killed him. Convinced it wasn't lying, we determined that the elf who had hired us must know more about this situation than he revealed. However, before we could track him down, our demo ended.
And all of this--the mystery, the investigation, and the inappropriate poetry--was part of just a single side quest. If the main story arc is given this much detail, and we have no reason to think otherwise, then The Witcher 2 should be another masterfully woven tale in line with its predecessor. Combat was fluid, if not a little simple, and being able to switch spells and equipment on the fly without having to fully pause the action really kept things moving. Be on the hunt for The Witcher 2 in the early part of 2011 on the PC.
[Editor's Note 2/22/11: Previously, this story had suggested the game was headed for the PS3 and the Xbox 360, when in fact, the console versions of the game have not been officially confirmed. GameSpot regrets the error.]