CD Projekt reinvigorates the modern CRPG genre with a mature game that is as visually stunning as it is non-linear.
Then I heard about the sequel. While I didn't like the first Witcher's actual gameplay I did enjoy the characters, so I thought I would give the sequel a shot and put my bias aside just this one time. I figured if the game was still as big of a mess as the first one I could finally ignore the series and go back to playing Gothic 2 for the 50th time...and if it wasn't, well, I would actually get something new to play for a change.
If the score at the top of the review didn't give it away already, you should know that nearly every problem I had with the first game has been addressed and cleared up in the sequel. Though that isn't to say the new game isn't without some problems of its own.
From the very start I was pleased to see that at a time when PC game's visuals are toned down for cross-platform releases on the consoles, The Witcher 2 was one game in which this was not the case. With the best graphics I've seen in a video game this generation and lighting effects that make Crytek's latest engine look like something you'd dig up from the bottom of a cracker jack box it's awfully hard to imagine this game being ported to the consoles one day. It simply screams "PC" in every nook and cranny. It's so gorgeous that my Steam account's screenshot file has around a hundred high resolution snaps of the game that I can't help but go back and stare at from time to time.
Usually with a game that looks as amazing as this you'd expect poor performance, and while many have claimed to be experiencing massive frame loss, my brand new ATI 6950 hasn't had a bit of trouble rendering the game's PC-destroying visuals. I did experience two crashes to desktop during chapter one but other than that it was as smooth and bug free as you'd expect a Triple-A quality PC title to be. Even though very few so-called "Triple-A" quality games even reach that glorious distinction.
It isn't just the lighting or texturing or even the highly detailed normal mapping that makes The Witcher 2 looks so beautiful and unabashedly "PC-esque", it's the game's realistic-looking locales that help make it so screenshot-worthy. Every area is so unique and distinctive and organic that it looks like you're really walking through a photo-realistic middle-ages-themed Slavic forest. After scrambling through Dragon Age 2's Copy and pasted dungeons it feels refreshing to play a game where each area of the world is both unique and purposefully crafted.
Unfortunately, the downside to this uniqueness is that the areas are painfully small. Each of the game's chapters are walled-off "adventure zones" that while pleasing to explore are still a bit smaller than I would have hoped. To their credit, however, CD Projekt managed to stuff in a considerable amount of content and quests within each of these three main locations which does do a good job of off-setting their miniscule size. Still, it might disappoint veteran Witcher fans who were used to the sprawling, load-time afflicted zones the original game played host to.
While it's fun to walk around Eastern European inspired woodlands the core of any action RPG is the combat, and in my opinion the first Witcher failed to impress me in that respect. Thankfully the developers agreed and made the combat system a priority this time around. What resulted from this shift in focus is a combat system that is considerably slower and much easier to use than the confusing and imbalanced sword fights that dominated the previous game.
Combat is still fast, but the combo'ing of your own moves and your enemy's movements have slowed down dramatically since the first game, making the sequel a much more ponderous ARPG that relies heavily on proper skill use rather than mindless button mashing. Parrying and waiting for riposte opportunities as well as correctly exploiting your spells to contain a mob are the main keys to victory this time around, and once you learn this and adapt to the new system's intricacies you'll wonder why they didn't do it like this in the first place.
As far as balance goes, many of the fights in the first chapter required a lot of exploitation...until the start of chapter two when I began to see Geralt outclassing his opponents to such a degree that the combat became incredibly lop-sided in my favor. I suppose this was due to me sticking almost entirely to the Swordsmanship tree and only grabbing the Quen and Aard skills, which resulted in a "build" that not only was invincible to all damage but could knock down and one-shot-kill any non-boss character I faced. While I would have liked seeing those two spells nerfed a tiny bit it is still much better than the usual late-game imbalances I find in most other RPGs, the first Witcher included.
Beyond the easy to grasp combat and awe-inspiring visuals there lies one more diamond in The Witcher 2's crown that deserves to be pointed out and that is its cinematic quality and highly stylized presentation.
Though it's getting silly to point this out in an age where most CRPGs are already about one degree away from being an interactive movie, Witcher 2 actually takes that last step and makes the game as enjoyable to watch as it is to play. Combining some of the most fluid and natural looking movements I've seen in a PC game with great camera work (especially during kill shots) and high quality facial texturing, The Witcher 2 manages to reach a level of cinematic presentation that is usually reserved for BioWare games. Whether it's watching Geralt spar with an enemy for a few minutes as you sit slack-jawed staring at the screen in disbelief at their movements or marveling at the uncensored nature of Triss Merigold's body, Witcher 2 has a level of refinement within its so-called "Cut scenes" that no other game can even come to close to. For a company who is still very inexperienced it's quite a feat to be able to create such evocative and detailed cinema-like scenes like the ones you'll find here.
One aspect of the dialog scenes I particularly enjoyed were the decisions you were forced to make before time ran out. Though this tactic was used in a couple other prominent RPGs, Witcher 2 seems to make much better use of it by forcing you to pick an answer to an NPC's question within a few seconds or deal with the conversation taking a decidedly different turn than you'd have hoped. There was even one instance where I neglected to choose an answer and was cut down by a volley of enemy arrows, ending my game right then and there. For a game to have enough confidence in itself to automatically kill you off in a conversation tree because you didn't pick an answer is refreshing to see, and rather than being mad at dying that way I have to admit I laughed a little.
For those gamers out there that chant the mantra of "Choice & Consequence" you'll be happy to know that even more so than the first game, Witcher 2 revels in its gray area morality and plot line changing dialog choices. As a matter of fact it subscribes to that belief so wholeheartedly that the entire game is divided into two completely different pathways at the end of chapter one where a choice drastically slices the game in half. It was such a drastic change that when I compared my game experience with that of my friend who took "the other path" we had completely different end scenarios and came away with a completely different viewpoint on the game's conflict. Whereas I killed the last boss because I saw him as being a malcontent troublemaker, my friend saw him as a misunderstood rebel who was just trying to save himself and those he cared about.
Different people were met, different NPCs died and I was given multiple opportunities to make allegiances with *or* murder several key characters. Witcher 2 may force you to do certain tasks, but how you get there and how you deal with the people who you meet along the way is completely up to you. Body counts between games are vastly different and your experience varies greatly as a result. Overall, this was a nice change of pace over the forced linearity I've had to put up with in the last few CRPGs I've bought this year.
As convoluted as the plot can become, I found it easier to follow this time around. Whereas the first game confused me so much I *still* didn't know what I was doing 30 hours in, Witcher 2 had me sitting at the edge of my seat the whole way through, posting in forum discussions about the story and theorizing on what would become of Triss.
Speaking of which, I like how Triss, as well as several other key characters, are treated this time around. Triss isn't just a set of mammary glands and a pretty face anymore. Though she does sleep with Geralt and the game isn't shy about showing her off to the player, at least she supports Geralt and plays a suitably large role in the story. The same can be said for Vernon Roche, who I felt stole the show as the game's most interesting character. I found myself growing to like him and actually felt bad if I chose (or even thought) something that ran counter to his own beliefs or plans.
That is solid proof right there of some truly stellar storytelling.
Last, but certainly not least on the list of "Thank goodness this was changed" is the skill system. While it isn't as robust as what you find in old D&D licensed RPGs or the two Drakensang games that recently arrived it is still light years ahead of what the first Witcher game used. Instead of forcing you into odd perks governed by a silly color coded system of coins that are either highly imbalanced or incredibly ineffective you instead have a simplified skill tree that you spend a point into at every level up interval. It's not revolutionary by any means but at least it makes sense and allows for a fair amount of build creation. They even manage to give you a quest near the end of the game that allows you to "re-spec" your points, though I was happy enough with my own build that I didn't need to.
Skills make sense this time around and are for the most part well-balanced and fairly useful for the entire game. Though the shield spell "Quen" was a bit exploitative I didn't discover it's power until halfway through the game when the community began raving about how easy it made everything. Combine the hit-point absorbing shield ability of Quen with the no-saving-roll trap you get in the form of the Yrden symbol and it's pretty hard not to make it through even the largest of enemy mobs.
So we have a very easy to learn combat system, great skill selection, beautiful graphics, a ton of non-linearity and well written plot quests that aren't medieval fed-ex delivery routes...Is the game as flawless as some reviewers say?
First and foremost, the game is alarmingly short. While I understand time constraints and possible budget concerns, especially when it involves a company as small as CD Projekt, I can't shake the feeling that the game was rushed. The ending comes on so quickly and the third and final chapter is so short and uneventful that it feels like they either stopped early to meet a deadline or they cut a chunk off towards the end to later sell as an expansion. While it isn't as obvious as the kind of trick pulled on us recently by BioWare, it does seem a little strange. It reminded me of 2009's "Risen", where even the developers admitted to running out of ideas by the halfway point, resulting in a game that de-evolved into a hack-n-slash RPG 25 hours in. Thankfully, Witcher 2 isn't quite *that* bad and the ending, while feeling rushed, is still satisfying and left me with a small smile on my face.
Another relatively miniscule gripe is the lack of proper quest markers. While I understand and even once *defended* the exclusion of quest markers due to this style of quest tracking being a hardcore European RPG staple, I find it to be a little more annoying in this game than most others. Witcher 2 seems to be dead-set against telling you where to go and instead forces you to walk around aimlessly for an hour trying to find an NPC that is seemingly incapable of being hunted down. Nowhere was this more aggravating than the time I had to report the "Lost Lambs" quest to Zyvik in Chapter 2. Everytime I approached the quest marker that signified his present location on the map it mysteriously vanished and reappeared elsewhere. When I followed it to its new location it went back to its old place of residence. After an hour of moving back and forth I abandoned the quest....only for it to shockingly complete itself towards the end of the chapter when Zyvik materialized in front of Vernon Roche's military camp.
However, my biggest gripe with the game would be the slight streak of consolization I feel in the its GUI and the odd way it forces you to change its engine's internal settings.
Little annoyances such as item descriptions slowly scrolling by without you being able to scroll down manually (which is annoying when an item has about a dozen magical effects), saved games piling up and not being able to be deleted through the in-game browser and no configurable quick load key makes me wonder if they aren't just gearing up for that console port a lot quicker than we were told.
Not to mention there is no support for 16:10 or 4:3 resolutions and anything falling under those two categories is marred by two horizontal black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. Though it is said this will be rectified in a patch, this kind of resolution problem is normally only seen in console ports like Bulletstorm or Borderlands, not "PC First" titles like The Witcher.
Then of course we have the visual and audio settings which cannot be altered in game and must be done when the game is closed. Having your settings handled by the launcher only during a game shutdown doesn't make sense, especially since a high-spec game like this needs to be frequently tweaked and having to constantly enter the game and exit back out of it to alter and compare recently changed settings is both tiresome and very counter-productive.
These small user interface and quest logging gripes aside, Witcher 2 is leaps and bounds above not only its predecessor but most of its recently released competition as well. With the modern CRPG slowly dying and becoming a victim of both consolization and so-called "mainstreaming", it's nice to know at least one developer out there is aware of this unwanted change and has begun to make strides to reverse it.
Though I'm sure nothing will stop the de-evolution of the modern CRPG, perhaps The Witcher 2's across the board success will influence change within the industry. If not, at least there is the hope that we'll get a couple of expansions and some free DLC before the third game's inevitable installation on our hard drives.
Until then, I'm going to be replaying this game and seeing how many different paths I can take to the ending. I suggest you do the same.