Review: The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (PC)

Witcher_2_coverDeveloper: CD Projekt RED
Publisher: Atari
Genre: Action RPG
Price: $19.99 
ESRB: M
Once upon a time ago in 2007, I found myself searching desperately for a sanctuary where I could shelter myself away from angry “(frat)core” gamers who vehemently cursed the very existence of the Wii as they found its overwhelmingly dominant presence on the market as a threat to the entire video game industry. I discovered a small, private message board called Wii Hardware Social. There, I found some less rabid individuals who were not so much Nintendo fanboys as they were connoisseurs of good games like myself. One such user, 47Pik would eventually recommend to me a game that I had never heard of, The Witcher, and bought it for me as a Christmas gift on Steam.
There was no turning back after that. The concept of a monster-hunting mutant human created through magic and alchemy piqued my interest. I tolerated its outdated graphics engine (2002), awkward animations, and hideous NPCs (who thought it was a good idea for every elderly woman to have the nose of a witch, one tooth, a huge chin mole, and breasts to her waist?) for its splendid storytelling, plot development, and lore.
One would expect The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings to live up to the production values of its predecessor, especially with a newer engine, but one also would expect great things from Dues Ex: Invisible War after its seminal predecessor, but we know how that turned out.

Story

Letho Roses

The Witcher (1) concludes with Geralt foiling an assassination attempt on King Foltest. Because the entirety of the first game revolves around the quest to recover the secrets of the Kaer Morhen clan of witchers that the criminal syndicate Salamandra had stolen, the reveal that the assassin in the ending cinematic was (also) a witcher suggested failure despite victory. Nevertheless, this cliffhanger and the ensuing CGI intro of Witcher 2 justifies the subtitle, Assassins of Kings.
Witcher 2 begins with Geralt wounded and feeling, his pursuers unknown. He faints, and after regaining consciousness finds himself being under the custody of abusive guards. A hooded yet distinguished gentleman interrupts the guards’ heckling and orders Geralt to be escorted to a private chamber. Therewith, the man introduces himself as Vernon Roche, self-fashioned as fair yet fierce, and offers Geralt an alternative to execution or rotting in a dungeon forever, for our hero finds his person accused of regicide with the blood of King Foltest on his hands. Geralt’s inquisitor is perplexed; why would the witcher save the king’s life only to snuff it later? Roche offers the White Wolf a chance to tell his side—the truth of course.

Roche Path story

Players are given the choice between selecting several dialogue options, each of which transitions into a playable flashback sequence outlining how Geralt had nobly served King Foltest but faltered an inopportune time when the same assassin who had beheaded King Demavend decided to strike. At least for a time, Roche believes Geralt, and agrees to assist in the clearing of the witcher’s name, a mission which may also provide answers behind the purpose of the kingslayings.
Roche conducts Geralt’s conditional liberation by discretely providing a key for the witcher’s escape. While the primary driving force of the plot is the mystery of the Kingslayer, the assortment of sub-plots and side stories that litter each chapter supplies plenty of delight, and they are every bit as engaging as the main quest(s). Furthermore, the attention to detail in relation to CD Projekt Red’s world building blows my mind. Throughout Witcher 2 for example, many NPCs that Geralt interacts with address him as a fugitive with a bounty on his head; at times, mercenaries working on his side mutiny or bounty hunters try their luck against him during scripted events. These things happen persistently without actually accepting quests such as convincing a troll to put down the bottle or investigating the death of a city’s best runesmith. Honor, greed, deception, loyalty, courage: gamers will find no shortage of these characteristics on display while making headway through the campaign; the storytelling in Witcher 2 has few peers.

Content Warning

Courtesian

Language: Pardon my taste, but I found the usage of “plow” as a euphemism in Witcher 1 excessively humorous and infinitely more pleasant than the few F-bombs sprinkled in the game. “Plow” makes its return in Witcher 2, however, it’s more unpleasant alternative has multiplied considerably alongside some other four-letter cousins. There are plenty of other terms flying around that one would consider vulgar as well, particularly from the dwarves, whose penchant for strong drink wets their tongues haphazardly.
Dwarven mouthViolence: While Witcher 2 is no MKX, it is not shy about showcasing some brutal stuff. The blood splatters on the screen, the severing of limbs and the beheadings as combat effects are not even the actually offensive parts of the game. Depending on the choices that players make, one could witness a castration, the beginnings of a rape, and an eye gouging. Again, gamers will not see the actual eyeballs, testicles, or penetration, but here, Witcher 2 is more than only suggestive.
Licentiousness: Gone are the trophies, or Magic the Gathering-like sex trading cards from Witcher 1, which elevated the game in the eyes of many “mature” gamers. Instead, players may feast their eyes on genuinely mo-capped sex scenes complete with mounts, thrusts, moans, and panting should they so choose. To the credit of CD Projekt RED, it is possible to avoid every last one of these all of these, though one would have to be somewhere between oblivious and obstinate to avoid the gaming industry’s most famous and award-winning scene between Geralt and Triss.
Even if players manage to emulate Virgin Mary throughout Witcher 2, it is impossible to avoid a venture through a brothel in chapter 1, or interrupting a certain lesbian BDSM session because the encounter is part of the main quest in chapter 2In the latter example, note Geralt’s pleasure below, because dude almost never smiles, for that would break his taciturn demeanor. 

Geralt smiles

Alcohol/Drug Use: Players can drink and be merry to their heart’s content. In fact, there is a sidequest in chapter 1 dedicated to Geralt’s rivalry which resulted in Geralt sporting some body art most unbecoming (and that I never managed to remove). 
The alcohols and witcher potions that Geralt consumes elevates his toxicity levels, using the same gauge that monitors poison from enemies. The developers made no mistake here; they know what’s up.
An entire side-quest is dedicated to Fisstech, the fictional drug in the Witcher series which can be compared to cocaine. 
Misc Spiritual Content: Some of these could be included in other categories, but gamers should know that “witcher” is derived from “witch.” Thus, Geralt is a practitioner of Signs, which may or may not be associated with what Witcher 2 refers to as “the Power,” or the source of the kind of magics that sorceresses like Triss are naturally born with the ability to command. The presence of magic in a RPG should not come as a surprise to anyone, but the reference to it capitalized as “the Power” may receive side-eyes from those that are spiritually sensitive.
The completion of a certain side-quest allows players to have sex with a succubus. Yes, the demon that fancies seducing men to feast on their souls can be…plowed, digitigrade legs covered in fur, hooves, horns, and fluffy tail included.

Gameplay

Boxing

CDPR designed Witcher 2 so that players could traverse each of its three main chapters in large swaths of square footage. A deluge of side-quests compliment the chapters’ one or two primary quests, providing motivation for players to explore these areas. An unrestrictive camera certainly assists in the absorption of all the eyegasmic visuals, and execution of combat maneuvers.
Of course, to solve the mystery of the kingkillings and explore in general, Geralt will indeed have to defend himself. Gone is the old rock-paper-scissors—or strong, quick, and group strike—combat style from the first game as well as the requirement that players must time their blows with the highlighting of the mouse icon to keep the combos going. Actually, strong and fast attacks remain, but the ability to hit multiple foes with cleave/splash/AOE attacks can be unlocked in the skill tree.
Witcher 2 skill treeThis just goes to show that JRPGs and WRPGs borrow heavily from each other, and that is not a bad thing. This reminds me of the FFX leveling system, where certain useless skills such as arrow redirection or the majority of the Alchemy tree can be skipped, allowing players to decide how to build their hero. I heavily favored Combat in my build because carrying two swords without knowing how to use them is like having a large cranium with peanut brain. However, I did not sleep on Signs, which I ignored almost entirely in Wticher 1. I still found Igni near useless with the exception of airborne enemies. Jedi wannabes will enjoy the telekenesis Aard offers as well as perhaps the charming powers of Axii. Yrden and Quen are the cream of the crop, respectively trapping in stasis enemies not limited to the first real boss in chapter 1, the Kikimore Queen, and shielding Geralt from damage.
Options for selecting spells for quick casting, leveling Geralt, mixing potions for combat, and drinking said potions for combat are all available through intuitive menus. Inventory is manageable, though crafting may frustrate players, by requiring trips to their chests (usually found in taverns) to drop off or pick up items due to Geralt’s weight restriction and the fact that some of the best gear can be missed if one fails to resolve quests from earlier chapters.

In terms of actual fighting rather than combat options and preparation, Witcher 2 borrows from the Batman Arkham games with several twists. For the first quarter of the game, fighting is challenging enough to turn off all but the most persistent players. Geralt begins the game taking double damage from strikes to his sides and back as well as  until players take the attribute reducing this effect, and enemies actively block strikes which stagger the White Wolf, leaving him vulnerable to blows. These frustrations come from vanilla enemies, human and beast alike; encountering those who wield powers such as Quen of their own are even more sinister! However, once players unlock parry, damage reduction, roll, and riposte skills, combat becomes more much more fun.
Notwithstanding, the incongruence of plot choices made in Witcher 1 carrying over to Witcher 2 yet Geralt needing to re-learn how to fight does mar some of the immersion, as does having to replay the entire game to better understand its entire scope—there are upwards sixteen different conclusions to this game depending on choices made at

 Presentation

Kayran

In 2011, Witcher 2 set the bar that thus far, only FPS games like Arma 3 and Crysis 3 has been able to meet in terms of graphical intensity. The cracks and crevices of stone makes flesh perspire at the suggestion of scraping against it. The grassy dampness of the marshes brings forth paranoia of mosquitoes and other pests and longings for showers. Luckily, wherever water appears, the smoothness of its flow enhances its tranquility rather it be located in a pool, lake, or river. On short, this game is gorgeous, and something that has to be seen to believed. I am especially impressed by the inclusion of a certain cursed battlefield location chapter 2; the number of simultaneous bodies and effects on the screen is just nuts.

Nature

Many of the tracks found in the game are derived from the title ensemble, but not one deviates from its environmental inspiration to the point of distraction. The addition of Witcher 2 music to the ol’ workplace YouTube for background tunes would create a sense of peace in the exploration tracks, or establish a stimulating pace with the battle and suspense themes.
Gone are the hideous character models from Witcher 1, as its sequel has been enhanced with an enhanced engine providing greater variety in the types of people one may encounter in towns and on the roads. This kind of diversity is not limited to NPCs—I honestly cannot recall two people who looked alike through the entire game, faces, hair, clothes, armor, hair. Impressive. Because the antiquated and distracting engine is gone, one can better appreciate the voice acting that was among the industry’s best in Witcher 1; Witcher 2 upholds the quality in this area with production values equal to Naughty Dog (TLOU) and Bioware (DA:I). 
Of course, the quality of voice acting does not mean squat if the writing is abysmal. That is not the case in this game as it is brilliant from the wit in the lore journals that Dandelion authors to the scheming of diplomats and envoys to the way in which a certain dwarf manages to define even life-threatening scenarios in libidinous fashion—a feat so grand that it is more impressive than offensive. As a sort of intentional yet underrated feature of Witcher 2, the women characters are not just eye candy, but just as courageous or sinister or malevolent as the men:

Sorceress wit

maiden leadership

 Click to expand.
My frames remained at or over 60, and I could detect no sort of distortion or polygon breakup. Perhaps once, one of my swords became misaligned with its sheath, but that is the extent of the inconsistencies. Witcher 2 did crash on me a few times, but it frequently auto-saves and I am playing on a modern rig, so I was not too inconvenienced, but crashes are never a good thing.

 Conclusion

Until I can get my hands on The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings stands as the best WRPG this side of party-based games like Dragon Age and Pillars of Eternity. Everything about Witcher 2 exudes precision and mastery of craft.  While at times some of the language is unnecessarily boorish, the greater part of the “mature” elements are handled with…well…maturity rather than sensationalism and spectacle. CDPR demonstrates good taste in all gaming, and anyone who chooses to play this masterpiece Witcher 2 takes part in that categorization.

deal with itAnyone who disagrees can just deal with it. 

The Bottom Line

Though at times Witcher 2 takes on the role of being a mature game to the extreme, it is still one of the best RPGs in the industry and ties-in perfectly with the franchise lore.

 

9.4

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Maurice Pogue

Since picking up an NES controller in 1985 at the age of 2, Maurice and video games have been inseparable. While most children aspired to be lawyers, doctors, or engineers (at the behest of their parents), he aspired to write for publications such as EGM, PC Gamer, PC Accelerator, and Edge. After achieving ABD status in English at MSU, Maurice left academia and dedicated his writing to his lifelong passion. He is currently the Video Game Editor at Geeks Under Grace.

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