The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings review
A sequel that is both excellent and disappointing
In the past, I had reviewed The Witcher, and yes, I did seem fangirly in that review, but it was a very well designed game with the only issues being that it takes lengthy periods of time to load and a few quests every now and again were pretty lame. Regardless, I had very, very high hopes for the sequel, certainly more than I had for Duke Nukem Forever (although kudos to Gearbox for letting us finally play it), and when it finally arrived at my doorstep, I rushed to my computer to install it, and while waiting, I grabbed a box full of Coke cans because goddammit, I want to play the hell out of this game - and you know what, this game is *bleep*ing awesome. It, however, seems to have a few problems that just leaves me gobsmacked, especially the menu's interface, but more on that later. Right now, let's just get on with the review!
So what kind of adventure are we going on for this game? Well, what happens is that Geralt is accused of killing a lot of kings and is then thrown into the slammer. He manages to escape, and is out to clear his name, but to do that, he must uncover a series of conspiracies while trying to regain his memories (yeah... he still has amnesia). Once again, the direction that the story goes depends heavily on the decisions that you make throughout - no two playthroughs are the same unless you make the exact same choices on a subsequent playthrough. Even the smallest choices can make big impacts, especially early on. Killing certain folks obviously means you don't see them again, but if you spare their lives, you may meet them again, and their insistence on living will make an impact on the story. Same for... really, anything within the confides of this game, like how you interact with everyone. What keeps things interesting is that it's not always between good and evil; it can simply be between two things. I really love this in a game - when the choices you make ACTUALLY make an IMPACT on the story, instead of just changing the dialogue.
Much like the first game, The Witcher 2 will constantly remind you that it's an M rated game. Lots of violence, sex, F words and political themes will be involved, and is probably going to be a soccer mom's worst enemy, so parents, don't purchase this for your kids. For the love of god, don't purchase this for your kids - I do not want you coming into the game shop to complain about how little Timmy got scared for life and then petition to get it banned...
However, the story is not perfect. It might seem that way, but then you complete chapter three, and then in big letters, epilogue will appear on your screen. Man, I was *bleep*ing pissed off when that happened. A good chunk of the plot is left unresolved, and even parts that are resolved, well, you're not given enough time to reflect or enjoy it, because they bloody forgot to include a fourth chapter! This was the worst, because chapter three was where the gloves came off; it was time to kick some ass and really tear into it.. but nope, the game ends... I just hope that there's an Enhanced Edition to rectify this...
The quests are better this time around. It still feels like Monster Hunter in that you have to hunt down monsters and kill them, but there's more to it than that. Some exploration around the terrain and striking at the nests is what's needed to satisfy whoever gives you the quest, and they tend to add more to the story, rather than just feel like random monster hunts. As fun as random monster hunts may sound, they tend to work better when they're related to the story, as it feels like there's a purpose beyond simply gaining some skill points and killing more monsters.
The combat has been given quite a facelift. I'm not sure if I was alone in actually liking the fact that the first game had you timing your clicks for your strikes – maybe I was just in the minority, because here, there's less emphasis on rhythm and more on clicking fast, although that's never a good idea, because after a while, enemies will guard and launch a counter attack. So while the clicking is less rhythmic, everything else requires careful thought and strategy, like how often should you hit, when to dodge, where to dodge, and who to kill at what moment. On top of that, you can't regenerate your health while in the midst of combat. Now, you have to be in meditation for it to regenerate, and to use items as well. I think it's just easier to say that this game is hard. Thankfully, you can change the difficulty settings mid-game, in case you're finding things a little too easy or hard.
The spells are far better balanced in this game. In the first game, you could pretty much destroy enemies with the flick of your wrist – not anymore. Now, spells do modest damage to enemies. So don't think for a second that you can spam the fire spell and be done with that pack of enemies... Same with the potions, which now have negative effects. For instance, some potions that let you see in the dark will make any light source blinding to look at.
Then there's meditation, which can now happen anywhere (well, outside of a fight, anyway) and doesn't require you to set up a fire. From there, you can mix and match ingredients to create potions, drink said potions, and fill out your skill tree, which contains general, melee, magic and alchemy to make you a more proficient fighter and item maker. Typically, you'd want to max these out as quick as possible, but just killing enemies will take forever and a half, so it's usually a good idea to find sidequests, though it's not possible to max out every stat in one playthrough, forcing you to have to choose what should be levelled up, and what should be your Achilles Heel.
Unfortunately, for every improvement to the combat engine, the difficulty curve feels like a jagged mountain, and you're starting at the top. The tutorial stage, once it's done not really explaining much in any vivid detail (yeah, it's a joke of a tutorial and you're better off learning just learning everything on your own), you'll be treated to quite a tricky fight that will put off all but the most skilled or persistent. The rest of the game seems to get easier and easier as you find more gear and progress through the skill trees, resulting in the final boss being a bit of a joke. So if the ending being so abrupt wasn't bad enough, try a final boss that's so easy, an infant could do it.
Oh, and one big issue I ended up having is with the interface of the menu, in that although it's aesthetically pleasing, it's also something that doesn't feel right. It autoscrolls when you move the cursor to the bottom or the top, which seems convenient, but when you're accidentally chucking away a good piece of equipment when you're actually intending to chuck away a bad piece that's just taking space, it's a right pain in the ass. Not to mention, you can't sort your items. Yeah. Fantastic. Because when I play RPGs, I've always thought “man, this is a good interface, but having a computer sort out my inventory? Man, what am I, lazy, I'll do it myself!” - In other words, the interface could use some work...
The last problem I had with this game was with the mini map, and how useless it ended up. Typically, mini maps are meant to be pocket sized maps to guide you on your way, but it doesn't have a compass of any sort to remind you where north is... nope, that's up to the big map that always took a few tedious seconds to open up. Want to be able to track down your quest? Be prepared to have the quest tracker point you elsewhere half the time... oh, if only we could read minds...
If the screenshots haven't said it, then I guess I should – the graphics are fantastic. EASILY the best that I've seen in ages... In fact, I think this actually beats Crysis 2. The forest is about as lush as it can get, and the amount of detail put into everything you'll ever see in this game is just pretty impressive... so much so, that you'll need a pretty damn good computer in order to run this at the highest settings, and you bet your sweet ass I mean DAMN GOOD COMPUTER. Even at lower settings, the game still looks bloody awesome. On top of all that, the feeling of darkness in a realm usually populated by bouncy or sort of dark with a shade of bounciness (otherwise known as Final Fantasy 7) is still as refreshing here as it was back when the first game came out in 2007.
As far as the audio goes, the ambience is strong. From bustling villages to the rustling of monsters, there's always something to draw you in, keeping you alert. The soundtrack is what seals the deal for me, though. Ranging from beautiful to epic, the perfect mood is always set for each situation, and the songs on their own sound fantastic – definitely worth listening to on whatever you listen to music on. Hell, listen to it in the car if you can! Sure, every game these days has an orchestra with a choir behind it, and maybe the odd guitar riff to spice it up, but the way this game does it is so damn well done, that it ought to be a criminal offence...
But you can't have good audio without good voice acting, and the verdict for the voice acting is... good. Sometimes, it sounds a little too quiet, with times when Geralt is almost mute and you pretty much need subtitles, but the performances put forth by the actors and actresses is very well done, managing to give every word of dialogue purpose and power. I especially enjoy how the dwarves are over the top in being all down to earth and amusing, especially when they're drunk, but they never feel stereotypical... definitely something that's very admirable. So overall, The Witcher 2 has audio down to a tee.
The Witcher 2 feels like it tiptoed a number of steps forward, but then took many steps to the side. Just about every minor problem from the first game was fixed up here, but unfortunately, the few problems that exist manages to bring the game down quite a significant amount. The menu interface is a pain to deal with, the difficulty curve seems to be inverted, the mini map is almost completely useless, and the ending is rushed and leaves too much open for a sequel for it to be a good cliffhanger ending. However, it still manages to retain the grittiness and most of the excellence that the first game had, and then some... it's really up to you. Me? I thought this game was pretty damn good, but when weighed up against the first game, it's pretty disappointing, to say the least.
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