The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is the long-anticipated sequel to The Witcher, a 2007 Western RPG based on the titular main character and world of Andrzej Sapkowski's book series of the same name. It is an ambitious and at times confusing adventure which is extremely enjoyable, but ultimately feels somewhat unfinished.
You play once again as Geralt of Rivia, the amnesia-afflicted Witcher who, through sheer apathy, manages to involve himself in every minor problem faced by his world. He has become something of a senior advisor to King Foltest of Temeria, and is helping him to lead a campaign against the La Valettes, a family of barons with their eyes on the throne. Needless to say, something goes horribly wrong, and (this is really becoming an overused cliché now) he is sent to prison. Together with his sorceress-girlfriend Triss Merigold and the commander of the Temerian Special Forces, Vernon Roche, he travels the Northern Kingdoms to clear his name and find the one responsible for the crime (there are no prizes for guessing what this crime is). It doesn’t carry on immediately from the end of the original game, but nothing overly important happens between the games. As you progress through the game, Geralt slowly recovers his memory and begins to remember the events surrounding his first death.
It really strikes you how large the world is, and how insignificant Temeria’s problems really are. It is only one of five main Northern Kingdoms, the others being Redania, Lyria, Aedirn and Kaedwen. These are all dwarfed by the enormous Nilfgaardian Empire to the south, ruled by a mysterious emperor with an enormously powerful army, with whom they have a tentative peace treaty. Many characters in the game have this nasty habit of referring to past events, particularly the war between south and north. For those who have read the novel series, this is a nice allusion, but it can be more than a little confusing if the Witcher game (or its sequel) was your first foray into the universe. Over the course of the game, however, with copious amounts of help from the Characters section of your Journal, you do begin to get a picture of the history and politics of Witcher 2’s world, and it’s a very interesting world indeed, once you begin to understand it. The story as a whole is engaging and fascinating, the train wreck of an ending notwithstanding.
After Act One, the game effectively splits into two branches, each of which only tells you half of the story. As in the original Witcher, you can side with either the Scoi’atel (a group of elven and dwarven freedom fighters), here led by the elf Iorveth, or the human establishment, this time represented not by the Order of the Flaming Rose, but by Vernon Roche and his Blue Stripes. This time around, the effects are not simply slightly changed lines of dialogue and prices, and the odd mission. Quite literally the entire game hinges upon one decision that you make. To be fair, it’s not a spur of the moment thing: you have a chance to speak to both characters before coming to a decision. A handful of other choices you make do have reasonably significant effects on story progression, but nothing game-changing like the choice outlined above.
It is, however, slightly disappointing how little most of your actions affect the game. Usually, at best, you can hope for a line of changed dialogue; sometimes not even this happens. I have had characters describe to me in detail how to attain a piece of armour that I am wearing. I have had explained to me the best strategy for killing the man I’ve just explained that I’ve killed. This makes the game feel somewhat rushed, a feeling strengthened enormously by the game’s ending. Some choices from the original Witcher, if you have imported a save file, do affect the game very slightly, but less than I was hoping.
The fact that I’ve gone five paragraphs without mentioning gameplay will hopefully highlight how much more to Witcher 2 there is than the latter. Of course, Witcher 2 being a game (albeit one that is occasionally in denial of this fact), gameplay is extremely important, and the good news is that, for the most part, it’s very good indeed. Admittedly, it takes a while to get going. The prologue is extremely slow and ungodly difficult, and the game makes no effort whatsoever to help you. If you dislike reading manuals, I can guarantee that you will dislike dying twenty times on the first half hour of the game much more. I didn’t know how to block properly until several hours in. This isn’t helped by the fact that it’s extraordinarily linear and doesn’t really make much sense. Reading the manual will ease the difficulty slightly, but the opening still doesn't become good by any stretch of the imagination, just more bearable. I would go so far as to call it decent, if you read the manual before starting and are extremely patient. If you look at negative user reviews of this game, they will almost exclusively state that they played for five minutes and it was terrible. They are correct. If you play for five minutes, it is terrible. Play for an hour, and it’s still pretty bad. It seems to be something of a rule that RPG prologues have to be terrible (the Oblivion sewer prison, anyone?), but this one is longer than most. Get through that god awful prologue, and you begin to see why people like this game. And yet, it doesn’t really hit its stride until the end of overly-linear Act One, which is nearly halfway through the game.
Once the game does hit its stride, however, it becomes truly incredible. You fight enormous monsters; you take part in epic battles; you even use stealth to silently take out guards. The level of variety in the main campaign is staggering and, especially in Act Two, this makes a game a blast. Of course, Witcher 2 is a very action-focused game, so the combat is integral to the experience.
Undoubtedly the most significant change to the combat is in fighting style. The original Witcher employed a sort of timing-based system. Assassins of Kings relies upon nothing of the sort. Indeed, the combat in the original Witcher was a way of avoiding the need to actually design a combat system. Battles this time around are fully in real time. Enemies do not dance around waiting for you to take them out one by one: they swarm you, especially on the higher difficulties. Group stance, perhaps the most overpowered facet of the combat segment of any RPG in history, and a crutch upon which you had to depend to even survive The Witcher, is gone. Instead of a quick stance and a strong stance, you have quick and strong attacks. This makes the combat very much more difficult, but also far more satisfying.
However, the game would be nearly impossible with just swords. Indeed, at certain points it’s nearly impossible anyway. The five signs from the original game make a return, with roughly the same function as before: Aard fires a blast; Yrden sets a trap; Igni shoots flame; Axii allegedly mind controls an enemy, but this effect is so brief that it's not really of any use. Quen, as before, erects a shield, but it’s far more useful this time around. Your enemies are extremely powerful at times, and it’s good to have a safety blanket, especially since you can still attack and cast signs with the shield up. The only disadvantage is that you don’t regenerate Vigor (which is used to cast signs and block) whilst using Quen, and this is a good thing, because it keeps the sign from growing overpowered.
Bombs and traps were present in the original, but again, thanks to the all-powerful group style, they were near-useless. Here, they are essential if you wish to survive against large groups of enemies and boss characters. There are few things more satisfying than throwing a fire bomb at a large group of enemies and then picking them off one by one. Once you learn how to fight, the combat becomes very enjoyable indeed, and I would go almost go so far as to call it the best part of the game.
As you fight and complete quests, you gain experience. This is used to progress along four different advancement paths. Training is the first, and gives you the basic skills required to not die (as an aside, not dying would have been very helpful in the prologue, but the game only deigned to tell me how to advance my character about two hours in - again, read the manual). After this, you will have to make a choice between Swordsmanship and Magic. Oh, there’s also an Alchemy tree, but it’s so thoroughly useless that I would hope anyone who sees it would laugh briefly and turn their attention back to the other two. Hmm, an area-effect for my fire spell, an improved chance of instant kill, or very slightly increased potion duration? Tough choice. You could try to strike a balance between the two (fine, three) trees, but to do so is to deprive yourself of the powerful abilities at the end of each tree.
Speaking of alchemy, it is still here, in a severely weakened form. Unfortunately, you can no longer experiment and find new recipes: you have to purchase all formulae. Due to the nature of the gameplay, some potions have had to change - the godsend known as White Raffard’s Decoction originally restored large amounts of vitality (health), but now simply gives a boost to vitality whilst reducing the damage that you deal. Many potions have stayed more or less the same, but I didn’t find myself using them as much. This time around, you have to meditate to consume a potion, and you cannot meditate in combat. Through some act of clairvoyance, you are supposed to know exactly when a group of enemies is about to pounce on you. The only time you’ll really use it is after you’ve died several times and you remember “oh yeah, there’s alchemy in this game”. I did use it to create bombs and, very rarely, oils which improve sword damage, but that’s about it for the most part. When you do remember to use alchemy, usually, as I explained, after dying, it can be somewhat helpful, but only a few battles are hard enough to warrant the use of potions, and cutscenes quite often precede difficult battles, so when you reload, you begin playing after the cutscene, as the battle is starting, and you can't consume anything.
Similar to alchemy is crafting, which is a complete and utter mess. By scrounging through drawers and looting enemy corpses, you find odds and ends such as lengths of twine and pieces of cloth, and if you buy the required (and obscenely priced) diagram from a merchant, you can have an item crafted by a craftsman. As I will mention later on, you have very little money in this game, and you’re better off buying what actual items you can afford. This is another method of creating bombs, but why let others do what you can do yourself?
I have one main problem with The Witcher 2’s gameplay, and indeed, with the game in general. It feels somehow empty and unfinished. This isn’t even really one problem. It’s a wide range of problems. I’ll begin with how it affects the game most directly.
There is a rather clear lack of side quests in The Witcher 2, which is a real shame considering the wide variety and enormous numbers of quests in the original game, and in other games at the pinnacle of the genre. Most of the NPCs have nothing more to say to you than “Greetings” and “Get away from me, you brute” and (funny the first few times and eventually just irritating) “I remember you from Vizima!” (Vizima being the main setting of the original Witcher). Mildly interesting people show up as a green dot on your minimap, whilst quest givers are blue. The fantastic but messy old system of holding alt and seeing the names of everything pop up, with interesting people in green, is gone. Instead, you can press Z to activate your medallion, which highlights loot but not important characters. It’s a lot neater, but it’s trading functionality for appearance.
The point is that these blue dots are rare. Act One has twelve side quests including the minigames, which isn't too awful, but Acts Two and Three have even fewer, and you barely have time in Act Three to even complete those before it ends. I thought that perhaps I had just missed all of them, but I looked at the Game Guide, and I had completed almost every single one. This is a pity, because as I mentioned earlier, side quests were brilliant in the original Witcher. They greatly extended the length of the game, they were often a lot of fun to play, and they gave you money. Indeed, there is a lack of easily-obtained money in The Witcher 2. By the end of an RPG, you should be a killing machine with the best weapons and armour that money can buy, and more money than you could ever possibly spend. I finished The Witcher 2 with 1000 Orens in my pocket, not enough to buy a sword. I had bought very little over the course of the game: one piece of armour, and some formulae and diagrams.
There was a simple form of entertainment and money-making in the original game known as Dice Poker, and it's still there. It is, however, slightly problematic. Roll a die off the edge of the table (very easy), and it disappears. Your opponents are far more aggressive with betting, and somehow luckier, so it's a great deal harder. Fistfighting makes a return, with its peculiar rewards intact, but it is now just a quicktime-event driven slog and no longer any fun. I did somewhat enjoy arm wrestling, which involves keeping your mouse inside a certain area, but this hardly gave me any money at all. If you manage to weather the grind of fistfighting or the blind luck of dice poker, there is admittedly some money to be had. Maybe I was just extraordinarily unlucky this time (it's worth noting that I wasn't in the original), but that's not the important point here.
Fortunately, despite the lack of side quests, you'll get a fair bit of gameplay out of The Witcher 2. The painful grind of the prologue lasts about two hours. Acts One and Two together are perhaps 25 hours. Act 3, I kid you not, is something like two hours long. The reason I didn't spend my 1000 orens is that I thought I would have time to save more and buy something decent. 30 hours isn’t terrible for an RPG, admittedly, but it’s not great, either. Add to that the time taken for the game to really hit its stride, and you start to get a problem. The good news is that, because of the alternate paths, it’s worth replaying the game, if only to figure out the other half of just what the hell was going on. As well as that, almost every quest you do will be different; you even do different side quests in Act Two. It's a greater differentiation than you sometimes find between two different games, and it brings the total amount of unique content to about 45 hours, which is far more respectable.
It is not only the short length of Act Three that makes me think it was rushed out of the door. For one, the ending is awful. It drifts all over the place and keeps changing its mind about characters’ personalities and what is actually happening in the world. It treats perhaps the most predictable twist in history as this enormous shock which should have you falling out of your seat. I’m not even sure it was really intended to be a twist, because everyone had been hinting it since five hours before. You receive quests that you never get a chance to finish, and indeed, one which isn’t even mentioned in the game guide. It’s an enormous cliffhanger, and not a good one. On top of that, the final boss battle is just pathetic. The entire chapter looks shoddy next to the grand environments and epic battles of Act Two.
As you are no doubt aware, The Witcher 2 looks incredible. As long as you keep Anti-Aliasing enabled, it looks brilliant on anything from Medium Spec up. Character models, particularly those of the main characters, are designed with a detail rarely seen in games, but it’s the scenery that steals the show – enormous plains, soaring mountain ranges and distant oceans all feature. Naturally, the quality of the graphics is inversely proportional to the frame rate, and the frame rate is rather erratic. The game could handle the previously mentioned enormous scenery, in combat, with scarcely a drop below 30fps, but when made to render the interior of a tent, it suddenly dropped to 15. I would say it’s whenever fire shows up, but fire bombs never cause the problem. The frame rate is almost always lower in cutscenes than in gameplay, and they don’t look very much better. Also, it occasionally takes a second or so for textures to load, when there is no loading screen (which, to the game’s credit, is quite frequent), so for that second you do have to look at some hideous, blurry textures, but this isn’t a huge problem.
The menu system has been completely overhauled and looks much better than before. Items can be sorted into categories to make it easier to find what few pieces of armour and weapons you can afford or manage to loot from dead enemies. The meditation menu is similarly impressive, allowing you to improve your character, brew potions, drink potions or meditate, and you no longer need to be next to a fire for this. Interactive cutscenes have also improved, with your dialogue options displayed on the screen, rather than in a box at the bottom.
The scripted, in-cutscene voice acting is excellent. Vernon Roche steals the show, but the other characters aren’t too bad themselves, for the most part. Geralt does have this tendency to mumble, but then he is a social outcast raised in isolation and accused of a serious crime, so that’s forgivable. Less forgivable is the “dynamic” dialogue that plays during the game. Geralt attempts to make one-liners and fails miserably, because firstly, they’re rubbish one liners (examples include “Shit, you stink!” and “I wonder how many more will turn up”). Secondly, he repeats each of them several times over the course of the game. And thirdly, he’s not Nathan Drake, and has no charisma whatsoever – and indeed, isn’t supposed to be charismatic at all. Perhaps worse is the fact that the characters he passes just say the same thing over and over again. One extreme example of this was a guard singing some sort of drunken song, then being propositioned by a courtesan. I had a mission in the area, and had to endure this some 20 times. Quiet, calm music often plays when you are exploring, but the game awkwardly goes silent during some boss battles. You don’t really notice this unless you are looking for it, but if you do notice it, it puts you off.
On the whole, The Witcher 2 is one half of a brilliant game. The large, overarching problem into which almost everything else fits is that it’s unfinished. The ending is clearly rushed, side quests are thin on the ground, dialogue hasn’t been checked for continuity, and frame rate clearly has not been optimised. What’s there is excellent, of course. The dialogue is well written, the story is interesting, and the combat is far more tactical and enjoyable than before. Everything takes place in a beautiful setting with a fascinating background. The variety in the main campaign itself is of a level that most games can only dream of. With the diversions – side quests and decent minigames – of the first game intact, and a little more time spent, this could have been a truly incredible RPG, to blow all others out of the water. It’s a testament to the game that even what is left is so enjoyable. As it stands, it’s a great experience and a solid RPG, but it could have been so much more.