The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Impressions

We bust out of prison and swing our sword with a look at the divergent story in this upcoming fantasy RPG.

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When The Witcher was released in 2007, critics and fans alike applauded its use of rich storytelling; intelligent, mature choice and consequence systems; and the creation of a detailed, living world. Three years on, Polish developer CD Projekt Red is back for another tour, bringing with it a sequel that builds on each of its precursor's core strengths.

Since giving it a fresh lick of paint wouldn't fly with the game's dedicated audience, the dev team has completely overhauled the project, and the proof is in the numbers. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings will feature three different game openings, 16 endings, more than 150 minutes of cutscene video, and a total rework of the streaming technology. The latter means that where the previous title included 700 load screens, the follow-up features just four. Our demo included an extensive look at the branching narrative and choices available to players and their ability to make the experience a personalised one by either relishing in it or avoiding conflict.

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Skipping straight into the action we were reintroduced to monster-hunting mercenary Geralt, who had found himself in a bit of a predicament in a mission called Escape from Valette Castle. Suspended in the air by his wrists and covered in fresh-looking lash marks on his back and chest, we scrolled around the environment to take in our setting. Cobblestone walls met our gaze everywhere we looked, while not too far away, on the other side of some thick, steel bars, two guards sat chatting. Unbeknownst to them, we already had the key for our escape in our possession, but as they were clearly not ones to shy away from a fight, we opted to play the social card first. Goading the pair into the cell, we dropped down violently, unleashing fist swings to knock one of the men unconscious. Guard number two fell with little resistance, and once the room had been cleared, we took the opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with our sword rather than take on all comers with bare knuckles.

The development team was quick to point out that it is still in the process of tuning difficulty and that for the purpose of skipping through the combat quickly, most enemies required only one or two swipes with the sword to be dispatched. Itemisation has been a key area of focus for the studio, with the character menu screen being divided into all the archetypal inventory slots, such as belts, pants, and gloves. The Witcher 2 will include a significantly raised number of items available to players, while a new crafting system will allow you to add runes to weapons, in our case giving it a faint blue glow and some juicy new stats. Cat potions are just one of the items that have been given a rethink in Witcher 2 and now allow the imbiber to not only see in the dark, but spot targets through walls, not unlike Detective mode in Batman: Arkham Asylum.

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It was time for our demo to showcase some of the choices available to players. Rather than simply being provided a set story and being asked to follow the bouncing ball, we were given a firsthand look at how the game will branch as a result of your choices. A two-PC setup had one guide take the combat route to escape the prison, while the other snuck around in the shadows, blowing out fire torches illuminating the corridors and stealthily knocking guards unconscious. The first path led us to a woman being tortured, and after springing to her defense to confront her attackers, we opened up additional dialogue with her, offering optional help from her associates. Path two had us locate the woman's missing son and escape the prison before burning it to the ground. Different choices will determine whether you walk the worn path to the front door, scamper around underground in hidden passages, or accept non-player character assistance to use secret exits.

The final part of our demo showcased a boss fight in an open space with a huge elemental field commander named Draug. The three-phase fight included dodging the flaming arrows of his archer minions, running to safety as tornados destroyed objects on the battlefield, and a meteor shower that charred the earth.

CD Projekt Red isn't mincing its words with this game, telling audience members that they are happy to be put side-by-side with any RPG shipping next year with the belief that The Witcher 2 will be the "best looking RPG of 2011." Easily one of the most visually impressive titles at Gamescom 2010, character models were lifelike and moved naturally, indoor environments were suitably dingy, and the outdoor vistas were beautiful and bathed in warm, natural light. The development team confirmed it is actively exploring options for bringing the game to current-generation consoles, but will not be doing so if the hardware can't give the game the graphical fidelity the studio believes it deserves.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings already looks gorgeous, and the studio still has six months of time up their sleeves to tweak and tune. Keep an eye out for it when it hits the PC in the early part of next year.

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