As the recently released Dragon Age II showed us, environmental design is really, really important. I use DA II to make that point because it featured some of the most bland, uninspired and repetitive landscapes I’ve seen in a recent major release. If you can make me feel like I’m really adventuring through a vibrant and inspired world, I can overlook a lot of faults, but flaunt your lazy art direction and other cracks will start to show.
Which is why I love The Witcher 2. A continuation of the story from the original that follows Geralt of Rivia, everyone’s favorite soft-spoken and oddly sarcastic monster slayer, The Witcher 2 features some of the most gorgeous environments around. From the lush vegetation to the sweeping vistas, it’s amazing just how alive everything feels. Swampy forests overrun the walls of towns and craggy cliffs are appropriately dangerous, and you’re never quite sure of what is lurking through the mist.
But let’s pull back a bit and start with the basics. Geralt is still searching for a woman named Yennefer and trying to shake off the fog of amnesia. Unfortunately, there’s a bunch of distractions in his way, from giant sea creatures to pesky political struggles. Geralt doesn’t give two hoots who does what so long as he can further his quest, but sometimes he can’t help but get stuck in the middle of things, which, ultimately, is what makes The Witcher 2 so amazing.
Most RPGs force your character to become some form of good or evil, either through limited dialogue choices or carrot-on-stick baiting that plants great rewards at the end of each path. Neutrality is rarely the best choice, if a choice at all, which is a shame, because sometimes you really just don’t care. That’s why you’re going to love playing as Geralt, as neutrality is practically his way of life.
Instead of making choices based on a perceived reward, Geralt’s lack of concrete allegiance allows you to choose based solely on how you want the story to progress. There is no best answer, and there are no blue and red gauges to fill. If you don’t want to help someone, then don’t — it won’t make you seem more evil. If you want to chip in just for the heck of it, then by all means, be a nice guy for a change.
It’s this unchained approach to storytelling, that lets you make the choices you want to make and not the ones you think will lead to a specific reward, which is a welcome change. It’s a dark, depressing world that Geralt travels through, and the tone is appropriately adult. It leaves you free to enjoy the perks of being a monster slayer, namely stabbing things in the face. Armed with silver and steel swords and a whole host of bombs, traps and magical tricks, the combat of The Witcher 2 is a lot looser than its predecessor’s. Gone is the overemphasis on short timed combos and precision mouse control. This time around, the combat is much more action heavy, albeit somewhat slow paced and with a very close camera.
Those are the two things that will likely cause the most problems for new players: the close camera and the slow combat. The view is from a tight over the back perspective, but it really works despite how claustrophobic it initially feels. The traditional WASD movement and mouselook controls are in effect, and they work wonderfully. Left click performs a weak quick attack, while a right click lets rip a lumbering and powerful strike. You can combo them any which way you like, and how far you are from an enemy and what angle you attack from determines what sort of attack you do. From twirling triple stikes to sledgehammer slams, there’s a whole slew of moves to discover.
But before you start salivating at the idea of slashing through swaths of bad guys, remember that the name of the game, especially early on, is slow and steady. You won’t be able to immediately attack after coming out of a dodge roll. You can block attacks, but you still might get knocked back a bit. Get surrounded and you’ll soon find yourself being beaten to death with no way of fighting back. Preparation is key, and using your full suite of tools is a necessity. Spells such as Quen negate damage for a time, and thrown weapons like daggers can stagger an enemy so you can take down his friend.
It’s a deep system, but it can understandably be frustrating early on. The in-game tutorials are not especially helpful and often disappear off-screen entirely if you don’t stop in your tracks to read them, but a shift in mindset to play by the game’s rules will show you that it’s not as difficult as it seems. You’ll eventually find a playstyle that suits your needs, and the skilltree has three main branches that allow you to focus on magic, swordsmanship or alchemy, the latter which enhances your potion drinking and crafting abilities.
There’s also a solid crafting system that involves you buying diagrams and formulas and taking natural resources and monster bits to local craftsmen. It’s kind of backwards that certain diagrams appear early on and then disappear later in the story, but it’s the games way of rewarding you for exploring every nook and cranny early on, and you’ll find somewhat comparable items as you go about your business.
I’ve already gushed about the environments, but enough cannot be said about the graphics as a whole. In short, this is a gorgeous game that is as varied as it is lush. The story takes place across three main chapters, with each featuring a central town and surrounding areas to explore. Though the areas are not especially big, they feel appropriately sized and never become a chore to navigate. Likewise, the soundtrack is the just the right amount of sweeping epic and the sounds of clanging steel are spot on. The voice acting may seem lazy and low key, but for some reason it just works, and by the end I was really enjoying Geralt’s dry quips.
The best part, the thing that surpasses everything I’ve mentioned so far? The story is actually pretty good. Not earthshattering by any means mind you, but you will be thoroughly entertained all the way through, and the choices you make have a real effect on how things play out. Hell, the entire second chapter is completely different depending on how you end chapter one, and by completely different, I really mean that. There is a different base camp, quest line and cast of characters depending on how things play out, which makes this a highly replayable title. It shows just how much work Polish developer CD Projekt put into this project, and that extra effort is really appreciated. The dwarves are particularly noteworthy and have some amazing lines.
So what, if anything, isn’t all that great? Well, for starters, the inventory management system isn’t very friendly. Items can be sorted by category but are ultimately listed by when they were acquired, which makes digging for old crafting recipes and useless trinkets a chore. Your bomb and trap quickbar doesn’t display your current available stock; highlighting an item also hides how many of them you have.
Your carrying capacity is surprisingly limited, which is frustrating not only because there is no storage system, but also because item weights are inconsistent and odd. It’s hard to collect iron ore when each piece is so heavy and the dozens (perhaps hundreds) of crafting and alchemy recipes have actual weight. Either remove the weight of crafting materials or give me a place to drop them. It’s already unrealistic that I’m carrying 20 nekkar brains and a few sacks of eyeballs without a care in the world, so my immersion would not be threatened.
On an unfortunate note, some of the more grand moments are hit or miss. Some chapter-ending battles and boss fights are either mired in strange technical quirks (not problems necessarily, just strange occurrences that are odd considering how polished everything else is) or needlessly difficult unless you abuse some of the game’s mechanics. It’s disappointing that some of the setpieces aren’t up to snuff, but that’s not entirely surprising considering how well done the exploration and storytelling elements are: the development team is clearly playing to their strengths, and their experimentation with setpieces was not a success.
There are other things I could complain about, like the draw distance that wasn’t quite far enough, the poorly integrated stealth system that is mercifully rarely used or the strange lack of pants on a rather large number of inhabitants, but really, a lot of these problems only come about because there aren’t many major things to complain about. From the well-crafted story to the engaging combat, there’s more than enough here to scratch your role playing itch and introduce you to a wonderfully constructed world. You’ll love just about every minute of it.
Oh, and there are some really graphic sex scenes. So, uh, yeah.
[review pros= "Surprisingly deep combat system. Story is engaging and built for replayability. Gorgeous environments." cons= "Inventory management is a bit of a mess. Steep learning curve requires a time commitment up front." verdict= "A great looking romp through an original fantasy world, The Witcher 2 is one of the best action RPGs in recent memory." score= 93]
Surprisingly deep combat system. Story is engaging and built for replayability. Gorgeous environments.
Inventory management is a bit of a mess. Steep learning curve requires a time commitment up front.