Sunday, June 05, 2011
Review - The Witcher 2 (TW2)
It's been four years since the first Witcher game opened to warm reception in 2007. The PC exclusive action-RPG featured a new combat style, deeply evolving and open-ended paths, and a powerful protagonist with some brutal decisions to make.
The Witcher 2 has proven CDProjekt as a powerhouse developer in the RPG arena. This fledgling developer has improved upon the original Witcher in almost every way possible, bringing us a climactic and thrilling adventure that both action and RPG fans alike will appreciate.
Geralt returns in the Witcher 2 to a world rife with political intrigue and itching for some tumultous revolutions. As he explores the world around him, Geralt will often be required to employ deadly attacks and flashy manuevers that are nothing short of awesome. Geralt's two swords also make a welcome return: for newcomers, our badass protagonist uses a steel sword against human enemies, and a silver sword against the supernatural critters he inevitably runs across. Both swords as well as Geralt's armor are upgradable by applying runes and armor enhancements. Further, CD Projekt has added the option to craft almost all of Geralt's equipment.
Leveling up is a fun affair, requiring you to be out of combat and enter into a coolly-animated meditation. Upon level up, Geralt can put points into one of three specializations: physical combat, magic, or alchemy. The game encourages you to specialize, as it's impossible to achieve the maximum level of proficiency in all three specializations. Each point is spent on either a new ability, or an upgrade to an existing ability - none of the points ever feel wasted. Each levelup provides a dramatic increase in Geralt's fighting capacity, and it's a satisfying system overall.
One of the first things you'll notice when playing the Witcher 2 is its new combat system. TW2 has forgone the quirky system of timed button presses of the original game in favor of a more standard light & heavy-combo based combat. On a XBOX360/PC Compatible gamepad, the x button produces a light and quick attack, while the Y button causes Geralt to swing wide and heavy. The buttons can be sequenced together to form devastating chains of flourishes and ripostes that are both fun to watch and punishing to Geralt's victim.
Apart from physical sword slashes, Geralt is also armed with a series of awesome spells. None of them are over the top, but all can end up being pretty deadly. I opted to go through the magic route, which included the always-fun ability to blast enemies with telekinetic energy, often resulting in bodies flying off cliffs and walls, all to a very gravitational death. Geralt is also equipped with spells that absorb damage, fireballs that can be upgraded to do more damage and affect more enemies, a spell that ensnares enemies when they cross its boundaries, and a Jedi mind trick that forces the many mobs you encounter to attack each other.
Fans of the first game may also remember that alchemy played an important role: Geralt could craft potions that would augment his strength, grant him a night-vision, or close up his wounds. Alchemy returns in TW2, though this time can only be used out of combat (more on this in a bit). Minigames including dice, boxing, and arm-wrestling also make a return, which make for a fun diversion in the midst of all the hack and slash.
Overall the gameplay is highly improved over the original, lending itself to a far more visceral and action-packed feel than the somewhat awkward design of the original. There are a few minor hiccups in this presentation however. First, while leveling up eventually results in Geralt becoming an unstoppable juggernaut of raw power, the first few levels are punishingly difficult. Multiple standard fights forced me to load a saved game as Geralt was often overwhelmed by sheer numbers. This wasn't helped by the fact that some abilities (such as the ability to block, dodge effectively or attack multiple enemies at once) didn't come until later in the game.
Further, while the original Witcher allowed you to use potions during battle, TW2 does not allow you to do so. Logically speaking, it makes sense that Geralt wouldn't be able to search his pack and quaff a potion on the fly; however, the potion durations are short and when playing through the game for the first time, this gimick almost forces the player to guess when boss battles are going to come. This is especially frustrating in the first half of the game, when boss battles are so difficult, potions literally could be the difference between victory and a painful reload. Some boss battles also rely too much on quicktime gimicks to up the challenge. Limited onscreen instructions also make a certain boss battle more frustrating than fun.
The targetting system is unreliable at best: if you don't manually lock onto an opponent, the game will often send you spiralling into a horde of enemies when you only intended to attack someone on the fringes. Needless to say, getting Geralt surrounded at all sides is not a good idea if you want to survive, at least during Geralt's first few levels.
Surprisingly, this insane challenge level does not translate well throughout the game. You reach a sweet spot just before about halfway through the plot where the challenge level is just right; after that, Geralt becomes so powerful that you wonder why the first half of the game spent so much time training you to play so cautiously. Certain spells when upgraded become overwhelming, to the point where Geralt could literally walk into a dozen enemies barehanded and still survive health fully intact.
Even with these problems, however, the Witcher 2's gameplay is still somehow addictive - the action is intense and satisfying, and there's nothing more fun than slaying a whole horde of enemies with all the tools you have at Geralt's disposal.
Graphics & Sound:
The Witcher 2 is absolutely stunning in its visual design, detail, and effects. Every aspect of the game is animated smoothly and crisply, from light sources and shadows to Geralt's hair and clothing. It's easy to tell there was an amazing effort put into the visual presentation of TW2. Facial expressions and combat animations and flourishes alike are pleasing to the eye. You'll need a top-rate PC to run the Witcher 2 at its highest settings, but even with most options set to medium the Witcher 2 is gorgeous (outstripping Dragon Age 2 easily).
The game also boasts a stirring and epic soundtrack, filled with just the right sweeping melodies and scores. The voice-acting is for the most part competent. Geralt's voice actor does a great job selling the rough and battle-hardened warrior that the character is. Various other characters are also masterfully voiced, including all the beautiful sorceresses of the realm. A few lines do end up sounding a bit forced, but those are few and far between.
The Witcher 2 continues the tale from the original game, still following Geralt's adventures protecting kings, tracking down assassins, parlaying with an elven rebellion, and dealing with the numerous sorceresses of the land. Geralt's travels takes him across the realm inspired by polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. As he undertakes quests from these kings and witches, Geralt also begins to slowly unravel the mystery of how he lost his memory and the fate of the woman Yennifer, to whom Geralt seems to have some past relationship with.
Along the way, Geralt also has the option to pursue various sidequests and romances. Rather than the lewd playing cards the player earned from the first Witcher, CD Projekt decided to animate several cutscenes for those occasions when Geralt managed to woo a member of the fairer sex (sorry gay friends - there is sadly no gay option available). Some of them are pure fanservice, although a few are quite tastefully done. Then again - it is just polygons moving on a screen.
All in all, the story does not break too much new ground, but its execution is simply superb. The intricacies of a multiple-nation peace treaty are brought to the foreground with multiple sides all pulling at the strings, and Geralt has to decide how best to resolve the situation. Further, the Witcher 2 allows players to greatly impact the narrative of the game, just as the original Witcher did. Certain decisions Geralt makes irrevocably changes the plot, and these decisions are apparent both in the immediate future, as well as the long term. Multiple branching paths lead to several different endings, and offers the opportunity for multiple playthroughs.
The Witcher 2 is an absolute must-have for any RPG fan. A few minor hiccups do not detract from what is otherwise a masterful piece of video entertainment and I can not recommend this game more. It will not disappoint.
+ Fans of the Witcher
+ Fans of action RPGs with meaningful character development
+ Fans of intricate plots with multiple branching paths based on your decisions
+ PC Gamers who don't mind being a little lonely (PC Single player Only)
Not Recommended For:
- MMO'ers need not apply
- Gamers who get frustrated easily - the first few hours of the game are pretty brutal
- Console Gamers (XBOX360 Players might get a port soon, Nothing mentioned for PS3)