The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings PC Review

Author: Sean Ridgeley
Editor: Howard Ha
Publish Date: Wednesday, May 25th, 2011
Originally Published on Neoseeker (http://www.neoseeker.com)
Article Link: http://www.neoseeker.com/Articles/Games/Reviews/the_witcher_2/
Copyright Neo Era Media, Inc. - please do not redistribute or use for commercial purposes.

Way back in 2007, a little Polish developer by the name of CD Projekt RED wowed PC gamers everywhere with The Witcher, a traditional yet fresh new RPG based on the famed novels by Andrzej Sapkowski. This being their first title, and a big one at that, The Witcher wasn't in great shape at release, though, and suffered a variety of technical and quality issues, later rectified with patches and eventually, The Witcher: Enhanced Edition, a $1 million project given free to previous owners.

The game ultimately proved a hit, selling 1.7 million copies, thus generating quite a lot of excitement for its sequel.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings continues in the same vein as its predecessor, but with shackles off. Powered by a completely new in-house engine and with presumably a considerably bigger budget behind it this time around, it's instantly one of those eye opening 'so this is what the next generation feels like' experiences.

Plot & presentation

Coupled with the stunning graphics is a thoroughly cinematic, mature, and masterfully presented plot: you again play Geralt, a witcher (monster hunter for hire), on a hunt to restore your memory and also take down the 'Kingslayer', a beast of a man lopping off the heads of royalty. 

Many RPG fans are used to maturity in their stories, but I was surprised to see just how far The Witcher 2 takes it -- murder, torture, rape, and sex are rampant and unabashed, but never contrived.

From beginning to end, the story never suffers a dull moment or misstep, thanks in large part to the thoroughly memorable cast, whether the noble Vernon Roche, the infamous and vengeful elven commander Iorveth, or mysterious and beautiful sorceress Triss (Geralt's lover); returning characters feel more fleshed out and better visualized in all respects. Happily, there's so much moral grey area and tough, affecting decisions to make, you're pretty well drenched in it the whole way through. Balancing out the dark tale is plenty of comic relief that had me laughing out loud or smiling wryly.

The soundtrack is stellar to match, playing an integral role to the universe presented, though I can't help but feel nothing blows my mind as in The Witcher (unfortunately the song in the trailer above is restricted to the trailer alone, which is a real shame) -- a few tracks certainly come close, though.

The result of all this is a top of its class, mature presentation that cements CD Projekt RED as one of the genre's best storytellers.

Combat & skill trees

Combat has received a sizeable overhaul. If you're coming from the original game, it feels fundamentally familiar, but changed just enough to be exciting and fresh. Strong and quick style are still here, though not specifically named so: simply left click for quick attacks and right click for strong. After venturing down the Swordsmanship skills path some, you're able to introduce group damage and finishers to the mix. Finishers, this time, go for a cinematic approach -- it's always exciting to hack and slash your way through a group of Harpies, for example, and take the last one out by tossing your swords into its throat.

As before, you can go the sword, magic, or alchemy route, or some mix of both. However, this time each ability can be leveled twice. It's well-designed in that it's often hard to choose from so many appealing abilities, and in the amount of flexibility you have. I went the Swordsmanship route, though invested heavily in the 'Quen' magic sign (a temporary protective 'shock' barrier). After unlocking a given ability, you're free to move onto any other adjacent ability. Rather than putting two points into each ability I chose, mostly I blazed right through to the end of the Swordsmanship tree to unlock group finishers and a major boost to stats. After maxing that out plus two Quen abilities (one of which reflected damage -- and lots of it -- to three foes instead of just one), I was taking out monsters and humans wholesale.

Difficulty, UI, performance

Sadly, this is where the game's major weaknesses come in.

Firstly, unlike with The Witcher which featured fully timed combat, you absolutely can click like a madman here and pull off combos. This is no fun, of course, and I found myself naturally taking a more measured, rhythmic approach to fights, but it is there, and is disappointing to see. However, timing does play a reasonably sized role in knowing when to chain quick and strong attacks together, when to block or counter attack, when to dodge, when to plant traps or throw bombs, and so on.

The second issue is difficulty and balance. At the beginning, even on Normal, the game is satisfyingly tough, at least the first time around. By the time you get to Chapter 2, however (around the midway point), even on Hard most fights are ridiculously easy, at least with a Swordsman/Quen build. The developer made some balance changes in the day 1 patch, however, so hopefully there are plenty more to come. If not, it's likely modder Flash -- who created the great 'Full Combat Overhaul' mod for The Witcher -- will come to the rescue.

A lesser weakness but still a significant one is the UI. While aesthetically very pleasing, it's grossly inefficient and somewhat poorly optimized for high resolutions -- a far cry away from the elegant interface of its predecessor. There are automatic scrolling sections, no sorting options, no ability to switch between menus directly, and no weapon and armor comparitor in shops to make picking out your new digs easy (strangely, a comparitor is present when browsing your own goods). The last one isn't a huge deal as there aren't tons and tons of arms to sort through as in some games and usually the best stuff is looted or crafted anyway, but it's a needed change regardless. These are the big items -- the community has already pointed out many smaller ones. Note there's already at least one mod ('Tooltips') which alleviate the matter a bit.

Last but not least is performance. A good many users at this stage are reporting very poor or subpar performance, and I've been one of them. For most NVIDIA users, installing the new beta drivers without the 3D features (advanced install) fixes or at least helps it, while AMD users are currently waiting on a hotfix driver. In any case, it does feel like RED needs to do some work on their end, too, and that's to come in a patch this week. The game was playable enough to complete, anyway -- framerate ranged from about 20 to 45, sometimes very choppy, sometimes very smooth.

Sidenotes: The Witcher 2 seems to emulate mouse movement as opposed to going the hardware route, so menus can be very laggy (hopefully this is also on the 'to do' list), and 16:10 aspect ratios are not supported for now (promised for a future patch). But where I'm normally bothered, I found the game so immersive, I hardly thought about it.

Final thoughts

Despite these flaws, The Witcher 2 has proved one of my greatest gaming affairs in all respects, and represents some of the finest the genre has to offer. It's been my experience some of the best works (whether games, music, or whatever else) are the ones you want to dive into again immediately after experiencing fully, and The Witcher 2 is exactly that.

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