The best comparison I’ve ever heard regarding The Witcher went like this: if you consider The Elder Scrolls games to be analogous to The Lord of the Rings, then The Witcher games are gaming’s very own Game of Thrones. And just as The Elder Scrolls games are the embodiment of the spirit of high fantasy that epitomizes Tolkien’s masterpieces, CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher 2 is the video games equivalent of George RR Martin’s visceral fantasy series, complete with political intrigue, morally dubious decisions, and self motivated characters, all willing to further their own interests at the expense of others.
The first Witcher game was somewhat of a breath of fresh air when it hit the PC a few years ago- all RPGs offer fantasy settings, and promise choices with impact and consequence, and quite a few modern ones promise to deliver ‘mature’ experiences. But other RPGs falter, offering only simple, dichotomous black and white choices, with little to no visible impact on how you play the game. Their idea of maturity is restricted to copious amounts of blood and gore, swearing and lewd jokes, all of which more often than not betrays the game’s immaturity by catering to the idea of what an adult storyline should be rather than what it is. Not so with the original Witcher, however.. Its choices fundamentally changed the story you got to experience. Its setting was dark, gritty, and mature in a very understated manner, with disturbing machinations and undertones, and no attempt made to hide the ugly interior hiding beneath the game’s well realized world. Its protagonist was a man who fell right in the grey zone of the moral spectrum, and who was forced to make similarly morally disturbing choices with distressing implications. In other words, The Witcher was a game that delivered on all the promises that all RPGs make, but few ever make good on.
Coming from a small Polish developer, it was a revelation, and when the sequel was announced, everybody awaited with bated breath. Its release brought to the masses what is possibly the truest RPG we’d seen in years, and one that upped the ante on every single one of its predecessor’s considerable accomplishments. And while the original game was possibly one of the best released last year, now, less than a year after the game first released, the developers have taken it upon themselves to release an enhanced edition of the game on the as a free update that all PC owners of this game will be getting, and this new edition represents the most complete and thoroughly realized edition of the game yet.
The Witcher 2 follows the story of Geralt of Rivia, the titular Witcher- think of Witchers as analogous to witches in medieval Europe, and you kind of get the idea. Suffering from amnesia, and branded a regicide, Geralt is on the run as he attempts to clear his name, and track down the true kingslayer. The story of The Witcher 2 is breathtaking and full of incredible locations, well developed, if not always likeable, characters, each with their own selfish motivations, and a flood of twists and turns that always keep you guessing as to what might happen next. To give any of it away would be to do the reader a disservice. The Witcher 2 is best experienced first hand, and its story is best when you go in blind.
What I can tell you about its story is how it differs from other games with fantasy settings. Yes, there are elves. No, they aren’t happy and mysterious supernatural folk who live in the woods, isolated from the world of humans. Rather, they are a suppressed group that has taken to insurgency to lash back at humans. Yes, there are dwarves, but again, they aren’t the busy smith and stoneworkers that we find in every other story. The dwarves in this game represent a nation in decay, a society rife with lethargy and corruption even as it rests on the laurels of its past accomplishments.
There are kingdoms, and they are all at war. Each kingdom led by a monarch who doesn’t care at all about diplomacy and statesmanship, and instead is more hell bent on carrying out his or her selfish motivations on the battlefields. Thousands may die because a king and his wife can’t agree on the succession to the throne, and have gone to war. Who cares? Not these two. They just see everything as a complex political game, and everybody under them, their civilians and their armies, are just pieces on the board for them.
There is magic, lots of magic, and yet those who use magic are are looked upon with suspicious eyes, and openly frowned down on behind their backs. There are various cities, and forests, and all the locales that you would expect in a fantasy tale- and yet in each city, corruption runs rampant, with prostitution, petty justice, roadside brawls, drunken gambling. And against the backdrop of this all, the citizens and people of this world toil away, continuing with their lives.
CD Projekt Red’s greatest accomplishment is in how well realized this world and this story is. The gritty, dirty cities of the game are presented as a real place, that would exist in spite of the player, and not just because of him. As you walk through the cobbling streets of Flotsam, you hear snippets of conversation among the people. And all of these are meaningful, all of these worth stopping and listening to, none of them just the disembodied and meaningless chatter that so often characterizes NPCs in other expansive games like Elder Scrolls and Grand Theft Auto. Stopping and responding to someone who hails you down is almost always worth it, and not just because of the traditional RPG convention of being offered a sidequest that might yield good rewards- the people will always have something worth listening to, and you will come away from each conversation more knowledgeable about this world you have been dropped in, and as a result, you will find yourself caring that much more about what happens to it, a hive of villainy though it may be.
Your personal connection and attachment to the story is further enhanced by the fact that you have an impact on how it all plays out. Every RPG promises choice, but what all of them end up offering is multiple dialog choices that might look different, but always end up offering a few variations of the same one, at most two, alternatives. Not so in The Witcher 2. The very first dialog choice you are presented with in the game has a major impact on your game experience- depending on how you answer it, in fact, you might end up locking yourself out of certain quests and portions of the game entirely. Everything you say and everything you do all adds up. A character you might have chosen to help at the beginning of the game will turn up later and help you escape. As he helps you escape, he makes it clear that if the other guards see you, he will be forced to fight you by their side- and if you end up killing him, then you alter the flow of the story again.
It’s the little things like these that make you realize how variable The Witcher 2 really is, and just how much control you have over the story, but the true realization will probably come after multiple playthrough. Innocuous choices that you make end up altering the game and the story entirely- the middle third of the game is completely different based on some choices you made over the course of the first third of the story.
The Witcher 2 therefore convinces us that our decisions and choices really matter, and from more than just a gameplay and story standpoint. Some of the choices in the game are morally disturbing, with no correct answer. Most of the times, the player will end up choosing based on the lesser of two evils, but he will always hate himself for it. The Witcher 2’s world is a grim one, and his actions are adding more distress to a world that hardly needs more of it.
And yet, you will continue. You will go on, even as you find yourself despairing at everything that is going wrong. The story is captivating, and you have your own personal attachment to the game world, yes, but from a mechanical standpoint too, The Witcher 2 is compelling, and urges you to play on. Whether it be the combat, which plays out much more differently than other RPGs- it is a lot more tactical, slow paced, strategic. Button mashing is frowned upon, and heavily punished, and more often than not, you’re forced to use every last ability at your disposal to emerge victorious- to the game’s fully realized weapons and abilities system, to its items and equipments, enhancements, augmentation, alchemy, meditation, The Witcher 2 is the truest RPG we have had in years, and unlike other recent RPGs, like Skyrim, which attempted to streamline the RPG elements to remain appealing to the mainstream market, The Witcher 2 makes no bones about the fact, and it makes no compromises.
The result is a game that, coupled with its high difficulty, and its slower and more deliberately paced (and placed) combat, is alienating to most. Make no mistakes, just because you liked Skyrim or Dragon Age or Mass Effect 3 is unlikely to mean you will like The Witcher 2. In fact, chances are you won’t. The game is made for an entirely different type of audience, one which appreciates the sheer flexibility and wealth of options that old school RPGs once provided.
The Witcher 2 is a game made for PCs. While the Xbox conversion was surprisingly faithful, it struggles to translate the complex mechanics of the game to the Xbox’s much more limited gamepad. On the PC, however, with the infinitely more flexible keyboard and mouse combo, th game shines. It can take a while to get used to the game’s controls, particularly if you aren’t used to RPGs beyond consoles. Once you finally do get the hang of everything, however, you will be rewarded with the most mechanically satisfying experience possibly ever on a console. Recent RPGs like Dark Souls have been lauded for their difficulty, but those are games that are difficult on brute force, limiting what the protagonist can do, and throwing him up against overpowered enemies. In The Witcher 2, you will be fully equipped, a character who the story mandates is powerful, and yet find yourself overwhelmed. It’s a different kind of difficulty, one that will leave you frustrated, but that will never appear unfair, and no matter how many times you die, you will keep on trying, because you know there’s a way out, just that you can’t find it.
The one place, in addition to the game’s controls, which were clearly hamstrung by the Xbox controller, where the PC version of the game is clearly superior is when it comes to the graphics. The Xbox version of the game is no slouch, visually speaking; it looks great, and might just be one of the most visually impressive games to have released on this batch of consoles so far. However, it is limited by the technology it appears on, and the Xbox 360 is, at this point, seven years old, something that shows.
And so, in the PC version, players will find a substantially better looking game. It’s not something that’s immediately obvious – it’s down to the subtler, finer details. like the richer color saturation, the lack of blur, the complete absence of the frame rate drops and pop ins that troubled the Xbox version in the lack of installs, the smoother edges on everything, and more. It’s hard to quite place a finger on it, but the PC version of the game just somehow looks better.
What else is there to talk about? The game’s soundtrack, which is incredible. Not like the wide, sweeping orchestral scores of Dragon Age, Zelda, or Skyrim, but rather a much more subdued and grim score that adds to and enhances the atmosphere of the game. The well done voice acting, which is without exception memorable. The dialog, which is sharp, crisp, and never redundant. The Witcher 2 is just a well made game all around, and it’s a game that makes no bones about what it is- a true, hardcore RPG, telling a grim, adult story about real people moved by real motivations, all inhabiting a very real world. The sex and gore is copious, and would, at first sight, attract the mainstream gamer, but a few minutes will almost certainly turn the mainstream gamer away as he returns to play Skyrim or Call of Duty. The Witcher 2 is a game that means business, and it brings its A game. It is unyielding, and makes no exceptions and compromises. If you are to play it, you better bring your A game along too. If you do, however, prepare to be rewarded with what is undoubtedly a supremely well made RPG that remains a pinnacle of its genre.
This game was reviewed on the PC
Great graphics, excellent soundtrack, voice acting and dialog is surprisingly well done, a fully realized game world with real characters with real motives, all of whom you care about; deep and expansive gameplay mechanics that represent the truest RPG we have had in years; true player choice that always matters and significantly alters the flow of your game
The game's controls can take getting used to; inaccessible, and not for everyone
One of the best RPG in years remains as stellar as ever.