Discussion The Patient Gamer: The Witcher 2 - Assassin of Kings - A Flawed Gem

GodisanAtheist

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Nov 16, 2006
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I recently completed a playthrough of The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings. Having heard such great things about the Witcher 3, and having played and completed the Witcher 1 with some enjoyment, I decided to give the maligned 2nd game in the series another shot. This was probably my 3rd or 4th start on the game, with me abandoning my prior runs primarily due to difficult gameplay that I didn't really understand. This time I made sure to use an Xbox One controller and keep some game guides handy in the event that I needed them. I'm glad I did.

The TL:DR here is this - If you've been looking for a "Bioware-esq" RPG with branching dialogue, choice and consequence, that cinematic experience with fully voiced characters and lines, and plenty of "we'll bang", then the Witcher 2 is exactly what you're looking for. Its on sale on Steam at the minute for a couple bucks and is really never too expensive anywhere, so buy it.

The game centers around Geralt of Rivia, a legendary Witcher (a modified human made to hunt monsters) in a pseudo medieval world that is rife with Game of Thrones style political machinations between numerous factions (The Nilfgard Empire, Temerians, Redanians, Kedwenians, Adernians, rebellions, dragons, elfs, dwarves, humans, sorceresses, and on and on and on). Geralt, using a well worn fantasy/rpg trope, is suffering from amnesia and looking to find clues to his past life, but given the ending events of the prior game has found himself in the service of a king.

The game definitely does not hand-hold on the story telling elements much, perhaps in a ploy to get the player in the same "amnesiac" shoes as Geralt, and I sometimes found it difficult to follow who or what the characters were talking about. The game really embraces the concept of "this character knows you, and clearly has a history with you, but you know nothing about them". Nevertheless, I felt compelled to keep playing as the plot of the game unfolded, as the intrigue from the GoT style politics as well as Geralt's past were cleverly interwoven to keep the lead firmly in hand pulling you forward. My only critique here is while the prologue and the first two acts are packed with things to do, the game does definitely run out of steam and really narrows the scope for the third act. I didn't really mind however, as by that point I was ready for the game to wrap up and reveal its secrets.

The game also has some entertaining villains, the best kind that possess some elements of nobility and logical goals that just happen to be in the way of what you're trying to accomplish, never devolving into "I'm the bad guy because every game needs a bad guy" and always feeding the core plot.

The plot also branches significantly after the first act, where you're forced to choose between two sides of the same conflict. My understanding is you still visit the same places, but get a different set of quests, dialogue, and options to continue the story.

As mentioned earlier, the gameplay had always been my biggest hang-up with the game. This run however, it finally clicked: don't try to play this game like Devil May Cry or another hack and slash, you'll get absolutely thrashed early on. It takes a much more deliberative approach to combat (although it remains third person and real time) involving a attack/block/parry/position mechanic. Dodge and roll like crazy, hit and run, and make clever use of your signs (magical abilities), and get behind the enemy to backstab to turn the tide of battle. Having tried to use the KB+M in prior runs, I found using a controller really suited this game well and felt much more natural to use.

Unlike many of the game's ilk, the potion system is also a bit unique. With regard to potions, you need to consume them prior to entering a fight (potions can have you deal additional damage, or increase you health regen, or even have you see in the dark) and which only have a limited duration (usualy 5-10 minutes). This can be a bit frustrating if you're just strolling around and suddenly get jumped by a horde of monsters. All the same, i actually kind of enjoyed the minute or two of prepwork involved in getting together a mix of potions to consume prior to descending into some horrible place where there be monsters.

In a somewhat frustrating nod to the RPG elements of the game, some very useful game mechanics are hidden behind the leveling/skill system. You cannot use throwing knives until you unlock the skill. You cannot parry attacks until you unlock the skill. Eneregy recharges almost pointlessly slow until you get some skill upgrades. Enemies backstabbing you will eat through your health in one or two hits until you get some skill upgrades. You cannot attack groups of enemies at once until... well you get it. After you've acquired these skills, and gotten some better gear, the game substantially eases up in difficulty and plays more like the hack n' slash you expected than something like Dark Souls.

Technically speaking, the game is an absolute gem. This is basically DX9 taken as far as it could reasonably be expected to go. The game is beautiful, full stop. The art direction is gorgeous. The environments, the characters, everything is richly detailed and an joy to drink in with the senses. The music, sound design, and voice acting are all generally top notch. The game was well ahead of its time, and easily stands the test of time in a way many games do not.

Occasionally, the environments did become a bit confusing to navigate. The gameworld is deceptively small, and to make the game look larger the devs clearly implemented some tricks to make sure that your view distance is always fairly limited (but they were smart enough to do it in a natural way). I also always felt that the game had us linger a bit too long in each of the environments given their relatively modest size, but never for too long. At the end of each chapter, I was always ready to move on with the scenery but was never completely burnt out on it thanks to the art direction and clever level design.

Performance on modern systems is great. Played between my laptop (Mobile i7 processor and mobile GTX 1050; 1080p/60hz) and my desktop (signature rig; 1440p/144hz). Laptop handled high settings fine with some minor slowdowns, while my desktop was able to crank up to Ultra no problems, buttery smooth. I did encounter some crash to desktop issues on my desktop rig in during some very specific segments of the game (very end of the first chapter and very end of the second chapter) where there were substantially more characters/action on the screen.

So to reitterate: If you like the Witcher Universe, if you've been looking for another "cinematic RPG" in the vein of Bioware's Mass Effect in a fantasy setting, if you just want a good game to play and you don't have a bunch of money in your pocket, The Witcher 2 is right here, waiting to be played. By all accounts it has been overshadowed by the mountains of praise the third installment of the game has received, but it is a great pseudo open world game in its own right with a tight story, entertaining characters, and gorgeous graphics.
 
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