Bringing 'shabby chic' to a whole new level.
Before we proceed, understand that I actually like the gameplay in The Witcher 2. In fact, it's exceptional. Combat is easy to play yet hard to master – an elusive quality in action RPG combat mechanics – with plenty of difficulty and interesting combat scenarios. By the end of the incredibly well put-together tutorial, you'll feel like you honestly participated in medieval siege. A rich and complex crafting system underpins plenty of gameplay interactions and makes many of the incidental bits of junk you collect through the game have real value. And on top of all of this, The Witcher 2 is one of those rare RPGs that flirts with having real consequence to player decisions throughout the dialogue.
Thus, I feel I have to give The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings a good review score; by every objective standard of game design, development, and production values, it is an excellent game. I cannot recommend it unreservedly, however, as a few things about the game never quite clicked into place for me. I found myself, at the end of it, more stricken by some of the evident gaps in story and gameplay direction than enthusiastic for the inevitable sequel that, presumably, will tie together the numerous loose ends of the storyline.
The first Witcher was a game that I had a very hard time playing through. On the one hand, I loved the writing and variety of choice available throughout the dialogue and intrigue portions of the game; on the other hand, most of the momentary gameplay was painfully overcomplicated and obtuse. Any game requiring that I explicitly enter combat mode and then explicitly choose a stance before I can start wailing on dudes loses points in my book. The Witcher 2 eschews many of the more glaring flaws of the original game—a more streamlined UI, a closer camera so you can really see what's going on, and a combat system that emphasizes skill are all welcome additions to the series.
There are some distinct flaws in the gameplay, though nothing major. The first and most obvious one is how side quest objectives are communicated. The Witcher 2 has joined the slew of recent games that basically lead you through the objectives to complete side quests (and, actually, main quests) by hand. While I have some objections to that in general, my complaint in this case is more about some of the little gaffes in how that's presented.
Exhibit A: The Grapeshot Bomb. For one quest, you're told to blow up some tunnel entrances made by some nasty little monsters. By that point, you've got bombs handy. Since the contextual 'destroy nest' button just has Geralt mutter something about needing to blow up the nests, it made complete sense to throw a few bombs at the nests. Right? Wrong. Turns out you were supposed to build a specific kind of bomb called grapeshot in order to wreck the tunnels. Only, nothing in the game tells you that, and other bombs do nothing.
The next major flaw in the gameplay is that autosaving is used in the game, but not always in intelligent ways. At some boss fights, the game will autosave right before the big introduction cut-scene of the boss. This makes sense if you walk away from the game for a few days after dying to the monster once; but if you're like me, and try again… several times… then needing to blunder through the cut-scene time and again becomes a real nuisance. Even with the option to skip the cut-scene. What's perhaps worst about it, though, is that if they were going to give you a save before the cutscene, why not make it a few steps back, so you had a moment to chug potions and do all the little prepwork steps involved in being a good Witcher?
The third major flaw is that there are unique gameplay modes – such as stealth – which will activate contextually, but you are explicitly told to enter them. Since the game decides when you enter into the mode, why are you telling me to go into the mode? What button is that? Not a big deal by any means, but a little irritation all the same.
Graphically and aurally, the Witcher 2 is a very well put-together game. Lush visuals, fantastic texture work, great visual effects, and clear iconography keep the game attractive. The game is a bit of a beast, though, and framerates will be an issue in some areas if you have the settings cranked up.
The music is, by and large, very fitting, and the sound design tactfully places you in the middle of the events of the game. Lots of nice little touches – folks chopping away at wood in a little village, the crumbling of nearby rocks as you climb down a cliff face, or the occasional snap of twigs as you tromp through the forest – pop out of the speakers regularly. Voice acting – with the hilarious exception of Geralt himself – is also quite good. The issue with Geralt's voice acting is that he always sounds like he's trying his best not to shit his pants. This is unfortunate in a character that's supposed to be the hero of the story; if he's clenching muscles so hard that he always sounds kinda like the Christian Bale Batman, something's very wrong and he should get a check-up.
I think I take the most issue with the writing and character design. By and large, the Witcher series has a very dim view of most people. Just about everyone is an asshole in The Witcher 2; even Geralt's sorceress girlfriend, the character who the writers tried hardest to make sympathetic, comes off as a catty, jealous bitch at times. It's not that I believe people are always nice and friendly, but when there's not a single decent person to talk to, it gets hard to take any of the characters seriously.
Main characters like Roche, the medieval equivalent to the head of the CIA, and Iorveth, the fantasy equivalent of Muqtada al-Sadr, both treat Geralt approximately the same (barely-concealed disgust and overt distrust); this makes key choices in the plot line feel irrelevant and arbitrary. When just about every person in a village calls you mutant to your face and spits in your general direction, you really have to wonder why you help these idiots with their monster problems. Maybe they deserve to get eaten by the local kraken-esque monstrosity.
The other side of this is that some of the best written, most charismatic and genuinely fun characters to be around don't last terribly long. This is made abundantly clear by the end of the tutorial. Apparently in Witcher world, fun people aren't fit to live.
By the end of the game, I found myself left with a distinctly ashen taste in my mouth; the victories are left hollow and incomplete. Partially because the ending doesn't fully resolve the numerous sub-plots of the game, but also because the storyline felt arbitrary and disconnected. The Witcher's style – weirdly dark and artificially edgy, especially for a fantasy title – creates disjointed storylines that, even when the promised ending occurs, are a letdown.
I also might mention that The Witcher 2 represents a… particular view of women. If you are comfortable seeing women portrayed as little more than tits and ass, then this is the game for you! If, on the other hand, you find the lack of strong female characters in games to be irritating, then this really isn't for you. Triss and Ves, two of the notable female characters of the game, don't count, by the way; both spend most of their screen-time in form-fitting outfits, prancing their overly shapely asses about the focus point of the camera and generally requiring Geralt's manly help to accomplish much of anything.
Despite all the little flaws and caveats, The Witcher 2 is, ultimately, a fantastic game; any fan of darker, more consequentialist fiction will find themselves right at home. Nevertheless, those of you looking for something more upbeat, more uplifting – and frankly, less draining to play – will want to look elsewhere. The Witcher 2 is bittersweet.