The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, follow-up to The Witcher, a well-received PC game from 2007, has been long-heralded as one of the stand-out RPGs of this generation since it emerged to critical acclaim on the PC in mid-2011. Nearly a year later and lucky Xbox 360 gamers finally have the chance to discover what all the fuss is about. Luckily, they will find an RPG experience quite unlike anything the console has to offer. Artistic ambition is met with technical scope; a grandiose plot with sharp narrative and exquisite details are driven without the need for overstatement. It is, in effect, the perfect epic. We originally reviewed the PC version here, where Arthur Kubrick has detailed many of the game's characteristics, much of which still applies to the Xbox 360 version. The intention of this review is to relate the experience of the Xbox 360 version, in tandem with the previous review's more technical critique of the over-arching game, from the viewpoint of someone who has never played the PC version (the likely audience for this game).
The Witcher 2 follows the adventures of Geralt of Rivia as he pursues (surprisingly) an assassin of kings, who (stunningly) has been murdering monarchs. If ever a subtitle sets up a game, this is it. Such a dismissal, however, is doing a great disservice to the grand, sweeping narrative that engulfs hardcore do-gooder Geralt, resulting in him pilfering in the affairs of all men, women, elves, and dwarves great and small. He is backed up in these intrigues by his sorceress girlfriend, Triss Marigold, and the head of the Temerian Special Forces, Vernon Roche, along with a cast of more minor characters. If little of that makes sense, or appears vague, do not worry; the game doesn't necessarily assume a prior knowledge of Andrzej Sapkowski's fantasy world (although it does reward players who do), and information can be quickly and easily gathered from the extensive journal. Many of the major characters are well-developed, with few rarely possessing no redeeming features (Loredo, Commander of Foltest is a notable exception); any inconsistencies that arise due to plot decisions can be laid to the difficulty in holding a consistent plot-line when a player can make entirely contradictory narrative choices. You care about them, question them, or even detest them, because their problems are recognisable, their difficulties understandable; unfounded prejudice, racial hatred, the confrontation between the individual and the community. That one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist has never been more relevant in a video game construction.
Whilst this dropped-in-the-deep-end feel can be confusing and somewhat imposing, it works to give the effect that you are a pawn in a world far bigger, and with far more issues, than you can possibly comprehend. Racial tensions threaten to boil over at any moment, kings barter over high politics and garrisons intimidate those they are supposed to protect. It is a tough and dark world, more oppressive and cynical than most fantasy environments; elves, dark and brooding, serve as Scoia'tel freedom fighters, humans appear as oppressors (or are they?), whilst dwarfs straddle the middle line, dipping a toe in as they please. Although many characters, disappointingly, do little more than grunt or nod, those who you do interact with depict a harsh reality of little towns forgotten by gods and people alike. The aesthetics of the game compliment this pessimistic reality. Streets are gritty, the populace weary and the stone worn, whilst reminders of local tensions lie everywhere; cages, containing the corpses of captured Scoia'tel hang over the walls of the border-town Flotsam, a reminder of the battle between humans and elves.
The effect, strangely, is to make you care about the people and the decisions you make more than if this were a gleaming fantasy world where everything was hunky-dory. You consider every moral option to a far greater extent than you would in, say, Mass Effect, where the fun, and thus evil option tends to be the one that prevails. Not here. The real glory is that I genuinely cannot tell to what extent my decisions have made an effect, except for the obvious partition at the end of Act One. This is an indication of good, seamless story-telling, something far more effective than a swinging moral barometer. Or, it could simply mean that any choice is superfluous, and any real decisions would get in the way of a good story. The decision, it appears on the surface, is yours.
Perhaps the most referenced feature of Witcher 2 on the PC was the fantastic graphics; on a full rig there is little that can match its splendour. For a machine pushing six years old, the Xbox 360 does an excellent job of keeping pace, although it clearly struggles at times under the pressure. The environments are fantastically detailed with plenty of variety, whilst characters portray plenty of, ahem, character. At its best, when sunlight drips over the lilted roses of the Elven gardens, little on the 360 can match it. Unfortunately, there are a range of glitches which hamper the effect; there can be a large amount of pop-up, especially early in the game during engine-rendered conversations, whilst some quests freeze mid-way through, leaving little option but to reset the console. For the most part, however, this isn't the case, and you can't help but be sucked in by the seductively plausible vistas, luscious forests and screen-engulfing battles. CD Projekt RED must be applauded for translating the graphical experience (for the most part) successfully onto the 360.
The varied and epic sound-scape is marvellous and fits the atmosphere perfectly; orchestral scores hum in the forest and roar in battle, never feeling too overstated in the pursuit of a suitable oracular experience. These scores also stand on their own, as shown by the extremely listenable soundtrack included with the game. Probably the most impressive element is the voice-acting; careful consideration has been paid to thwart the potential to overact, whilst regional English accents (mainly Northern) have been used to add a rough authenticity to the different styles of characters. Kings speak with austerity, courtiers with the right balance between respect and malice, and soldiers sound like they're fixing your roof in Barnsley. However, it's probably worth playing with subtitles on; without is more cinematic, but there is a chance you may miss information key to making a decision.
Sometimes, of course, it is worth remembering that this is actually a game, and one with a highly developed combat system at its core. Fighting involves a mixture of preparation, agility and timing; it may seem complicated at first, and you will die a lot, but the satisfaction and rewards once it is grasped are tenfold. The tutorial explains things relatively well, but does not suggest how useful a tactic just running away can be. Firstly, potions must be prepared, either defensive or offensive, to give Geralt the advantage in battle; this is absolutely key, and can be result in success or failure. During combat, you either use a steel sword for humans or a silver sword for monsters, which are wielded with either strong or quick attacks. Signs return - basic magical powers which need to charge up to use; these can range from the defensive Quen, to Yrden traps and Igni fire blasts. Relatively simple, but the devil is in the nuisances; it's quite difficult, even on normal, but victory is all the more satisfying because it has been earned. The conversion to the Xbox 360 has been kind to the combat system; the moves have been well mapped onto the controller, resulting in a natural and intuitive system. Targeting can get a bit lost sometimes, resulting in stuck cameras, whilst anything beyond two enemies at once can be fiendishly difficult, but for the most part it is a fun and rewarding system.
Special mention should quickly be made of the quality of the retail package. CD Projeckt RED and Namco (this is a European copy) have created a gaming package of excellent value, despite the fact it is, really, just an extended port. The Enhanced Edition comes with four hours of extra gameplay, 36 minutes of new cinematics (the intro and outro really are quite something), hardboard packaging (sometimes signed by the producer), a soundtrack CD, a world map, and a mini-game guide. Combine that with the 40 hours or so worth of gameplay (an estimate; there are plenty of characterful side-quests, but the narrative is so absorbing you may find yourself ignoring them), and you have yourself an excellent value package.
The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings offers a unique RPG experience for the Xbox 360; a sweeping, focused narrative on a grand scale, underpinned by a sterling and deep combat system, and supported by a dark and intriguing game world. The transition to console has been kind to the game; the graphics are some of the best on the system, whilst the combat works very well with a controller. The narrative is as strong as ever, as is the sense of character in the world. Everything that the PC game did well is here, with many of the outstanding issues ironed out; it doesn't look as good as it does on a top-class rig, but it could never be expected to. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Enhanced Edition is not only a great package but one of the best RPGs the Xbox 360 has to offer. If you want a strong narrative with epic ideals and rewarding gameplay then look no further; Geralt of Rivia is waiting.
This review is based on a retail copy of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Enhanced Edition for the Xbox 360.