CDProjekt are a company that have built one very strong reputation in only a few short years since their inception. Their debut game, the novel-inspired RPG The Witcher was critically acclaimed and financially successful, introducing a mature, well thought out and powerful RPG experience which, though flawed, was loved by many and considered somewhat of a masterpiece in its own right. Then came along their other creation, Good Old Games, which brought many forgotten games back from the dead with extra features, no DRM and an incredibly low price. So what's not to love about this company? It's a rarity in this day and age for a studio to look after and listen to its consumers so well and with that deliver incredibly polished games at the same time. So, now that the highly anticipated sequel, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is finally out and about, does it still retain the originals flare and go on to pave the way for RPGs? The short answer is an absolutely enormous yes.
While trying not to delve into too many details of the narrative, The Witcher 2 begins four months after the ending events of The Witcher. The protagonist, Geralt of Rivia, has just barely stopped an assassination attempt on the Temerian King Foltest's life, and is surprised to discover that the assassin bears the same cat-like eyes that he has - a sign that the assassin was also a Witcher. With this knowledge in hand, Geralt becomes Foltest's trusted bodyguard... that is until Geralt ends up in a prison, accused of murdering the King during a battle to quell a rebellion in Temerian territory. Here is where Geralt's new journey begins, and what a journey it is.
Throughout the 30+ hour game, Geralt will visit many locales, encounter many different characters (both returning and brand new), and be caught in an enormously complex tale of political corruption, conspiracies, loyalty, warfare, and not to mention a personal journey for Geralt himself as he recovers much of his lost memory and rediscovers who he really was prior to his amnesia. It's also incredibly dynamic, as choices made throughout the game significantly affect the flow and direction the story takes so no two playthroughs are exactly the same. In fact, it's so significant that there are entire areas that you won't see depending on choices you make, and like the original game, these decisions aren't easy. While most modern RPGs go for the black and white kind of decision making where you're either good or bad, The Witcher never really distinguishes what is good or evil in this world; it's all based on shades of grey. This very much reflects the stance of Witchers in Sapkowski's (the author of the books) lore, where they are a very neutral band of monster hunters that try not to take any sides in situations but strive to pick the lesser of two evils if forced to.
Geralt as a character is wise and extremely intelligent and has a level of depth that is rare in video games. This also applies to a substantial amount of the supporting characters too, who all seem to have some personal agenda and goal behind all their motives and relations with you. It is without a doubt one of the most mature, intelligent and borderline brilliant stories in a video game to date that is also highly replayable, especially considering the multiple endings, pathways, secrets and revised and renewed gameplay mechanics.
Gameplay in The Witcher 2 is based off the core mechanics of RPGs: leveling up, some stat building and quest tracking. However, it also applies a very deep, robust and challenging combat system that could be described as a fusion of Arkham Asylum's free flow combat with Demon's Souls methodic approach and relentless difficulty, except more so. While Witchers are considered to be some of the greatest swordsman in the known world, combat still requires a careful and tactical approach involving the use of potions, traps, bombs, sorcery and swords, and this is applied almost perfectly into the game. Prior to jumping into a fight or travelling into the wild, it's always highly recommended you make sure you're well prepared, as monsters and humans alike can cut you down in seconds if you're not careful. The alchemy system returns from the previous game, where you collect herbs, organs from monsters and other such ingredients to concoct the aforementioned powerful potions, oils, traps and bombs. These can help you out in battle, whether it be a potion that buffs your health regeneration or damage, or an oil that when applied to your silver sword increases damage specific to certain monsters, or is just a general damage buff. Potions are limited in their use as too many buffs can raise toxicity levels and kill you, so caution is required. Meanwhile, bombs and traps utilise a fair amount of resources but when used in the correct situation can lead to some devastating effects.
As an example, we created a lure for the undead creatures known as Rotfiends, but also planted an explosive trap directly under it, so once the Rotfiends ran in to grab the bait they were met with a fiery explosion, softening them up. Directly after this we threw a Dragon's Breath Bomb into the group of delirious Rotfiends which emits a flammable gas, and then shortly following this we cast the Igni spell, which you guessed it, emits a small fire ball from Geralts hands, lighting up the flammable area and incinerating a good portion of the Rotfiends. After all this softening up, we finally ran in to finish them off using dodges, parries and consistent sign usage combined with a silver sword to dispose of the Rotfiends once and for all. This is just one of hundreds of different ways you can approach the combat, and it's a fast paced, tactical and downright punishing system which rewards creativity and strategic approach, and it's utterly fantastic to watch and play.
Depending on which method of combat you prefer as well, you can expand upon it in the skill tree where experience points can be applied per level gain. There are four trees; The Witcher Training Path (which must have some points applied prior to unlocking the other trees), The Swordsman Path, The Sign Path and Alchemy Path. Each tree has several different abilities which allow you to expand on your options in combat and all are significantly different from one another. Want to be up close and personal? Fill up The Swordsman Path almost purely, and you'll eventually unlock group finishers, which are superbly well animated scenes of Geralt finishing off multiple enemies. However, range is this path's biggest weakness, but The Sign and Alchemy paths can excel in it. There's a huge level of customisation and variety available to you and it makes the combat much more personal and satisfying, rather than clinging to poorly recycled animations and repetitive kind of tactics. Just keep in mind that CDProjekt have certainly not made it a cake walk. Much like Demon's Souls you WILL be punished if you make a mistake, and the tutorial at the beginning of the game only scratches the surface of what's possible (though, that's what reading your journal is for). We played through the game twice on hard with completely different builds and both times proved to be a challenging, but highly rewarding, experience. With that said, don't be afraid to lower the difficulty when it gets too hot, as that's exactly what the option's there for.
With all this stellar gameplay and storytelling also comes presentational flare, and to be perfectly blunt this is pretty much the new benchmark in several areas. CDProjekt's proprietary RED Engine is an incredibly robust and beautiful piece of work, with amazing technical horsepower behind it. From Ambient Occlusion to enormous draw distances, Witcher 2 has almost every high end bell and whistle at its disposal, which when maxed out is utterly breathtaking. All this power needs a strong art style behind it, and dare we say it The Witcher 2 has one of the best artistic directions we have ever seen come out of a game - not necessarily due to its uniqueness, but due to passion and attention to detail.
The first village you travel to, Flotsam, is a perfect example. As you arrive on the shores, the town slowly becomes visible through a veil of mist - a densely populated, grimy old village, situated on the coast of an enormous forest that can be seen fading into the fog in the distance. Walking through the town, you'll hear the chatter of villagers discussing the latest gossip, whining about their under-performing spouses and singing songs together. As the town descends into nightfall, wives go home to sleep and many of the men go over to the Tavern to drink, dance, sing and flirt with the local whores. Things are dirty and often times vulgar, but you grow to love it as it feels like a home. This sense of warmth and life you get from the environments in The Witcher 2 is something only a very small amount of games have been able to achieve, and it's an extraordinary feat for a developer to make an imaginary world feel so alive. Throughout the game you'll visit places just like Flotsam that have a real feeling of history behind them, and it's with this you know that The Witcher 2 is a very special game with some incredible talent behind it. Not to mention, the textures are the best you'll ever see in a game (no really, there is nothing better). If you can max this game out, you're in for something truly special.
Even on the audio side of things, you'll be completely mesmerised with the voice work and especially the music. The voice work and writing has gone up a significant amount in quality compared to the first game, ranging from extremely well spoken, poignant performances to downright hilarious and vulgar tones. There were moments where we literally laughed out loud due to the idle chatter and conversations you can have, and it's that sense of humor mixed in with the more serious tones that add an immense amount of realism to the story and voice work, successfully blending together to further pour life into what is already an absorbing piece of gaming. And then there's the music which follows the same tone as the first, with soothing and melodic folk-inspired tunes for the calmer points, and heart-pounding, thunderous tunes sometimes with a mixture of guitar riffs for the combat-focused, intense moments. It's beautifully balanced and rarely lets up, combining with the visuals to create a world unlike any other.
Prior to this review, we completed The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings twice to see just how different things can be, and are now beginning our third playthrough, as we're curious about what other massive changes can happen throughout. CDProjekt have only made two games since their inception, with the first being something of a flawed masterpiece and the sequel now arriving to abolish the flawed part. We can happily say it's just about succeeded in that aspect, although the game is held back by initial launch bugs and issues that hurt the overall package. Full-screen errors, some crashes and controller malfunctions in the middle of combat are but a handful of some of the bugs encountered, and these did hurt the game overall.
With that said, it's possible that these issues will be rectified in due time (with some already completely fixed), and if you can ignore them completely or begin your playthrough prior to a patch... you can see where the score would go. While the gameplay is by no means perfect, and the story may not be to everyone's tastes, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is an in-depth, complex and powerful RPG with an immense level of detail poured into every nook and cranny. This is a game that paves the way for what RPGs of this kind should strive to be.