‘The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings’

There’s something decidedly raw about CD Projekt RED’s second game, “The Witcher 2.” It’s in the unforgiving combat that punishes the player for every mistake. It’s in the story that forces players to make tough moral choices. It’s the feeling that the game wasn’t engineered to be a crowd-pleasing blockbuster, but that it was handcrafted to provide an experience that can’t be found anywhere else. With handcrafting comes some rough edges, but despite its flaws, “The Witcher 2” stands as one of the best role-playing games (RPG) in recent memory.

The game follows the story of the white-haired, yellow-eyed Geralt, a mutant who makes a living as a professional monster slayer—a witcher. As the subtitle might give away, kings are assassinated, and our hero is soon embroiled in the conflict that follows. Unlike in many games, there is no relentless, primordial evil; instead, the conflict is grounded in human motivations and political intrigue. It’s an absorbing, well-paced story told in shades of gray. There’s no shortage of memorable characters, and the writing is appropriately sharp. In particular, it’s a pleasure to play as Geralt, who strikes just the right balance between dashing hero and calculating mercenary, with a bit of sarcastic jerk thrown in for good measure.

Although plenty of games offer branching quests, the implementation in “The Witcher 2” is especially impressive. There’s no morality system and no glowing orange scars, but nearly every quest plays out differently based on your decisions. In fact, there’s a branch so massive it determines which town Geralt visits for the entire middle portion of the game. The sheer amount of content you can’t see in one playthrough is remarkable for a game of its size.

CD Projekt RED has also paid special attention to the side quests, with some unfolding across different chapters, and new phases popping up when you least expect them. The very first side quest, given in the opening minutes of the game, is left untouched until you meet the right character ten hours into Geralt’s journey. It’s not world-changing, but it’s a nice touch that shows off the developer’s attention to detail.

Even the best RPGs are often guilty of having fantastic worlds, yet painfully dull combat. “The Witcher 2” manages to sidestep that category with a combat system that’s constantly engaging. Combat is a completely real-time system that resembles a hack-and-slash with light and heavy strikes, blocking and so on. As a witcher, Geralt also has access to spells and traps, and can prepare for fights by drinking potions or coating his sword with oils.

However, even with a helpful tutorial, combat is extremely punishing in the earlier stages. In addition to Geralt being staggered by most enemy attacks, animations are lengthy and positioning is crucial, as backstabs initially do double damage. Enemies don’t conform to the “Assassin’s Creed” school of attacking one at a time, meaning an errant slash or missed block could result in three swords slicing Geralt in rapid succession.

The end product is a system that requires preparation, patience and dexterity in equal parts. But if you take your time and play more carefully, the combat becomes something to relish. Drinking just the right potions, laying traps around the battleground, then waiting for the exact moment to attack doesn’t simply feel fun—it feels like the work of a witcher.

Quests and combat are brought together by the game’s lavish presentation. Some graphical trimmings were made in the transition from PC to Xbox 360, but the engine is still capable of producing sweeping vistas, detailed character models, and the best fabric textures known to man. Best of all, CD Projekt RED included the native Polish voice acting, which instantly makes Geralt sound manlier and his sorceress companion, Triss, sound sexier. Seriously, all foreign games should have this option, and its inclusion is unequivocally awesome.

But for all the superlatives I’ve heaped upon it, “The Witcher 2” still has its fair share of flaws. Geralt isn’t always agile enough to keep up with the pace of combat, as he’s slow to get up and sometimes get snagged on environmental objects. The camera and targeting system didn’t always respond as expected, and these factors combine to make fighting in smaller areas a chore. The inventory system is a mess, and it often takes too many button presses and too much scrolling to do a small task. Finally, the cutscenes are fond of haphazardly throwing out tons of new names and locations, often leaving me to pore over numerous journal entries to get my bearings.

Aside from these reservations, “The Witcher 2” is a stellar game, and one that wholeheartedly deserves your time. In an era when games are becomingly increasingly homogenous, CD Projekt RED has put out a title that adheres to its own ambitious visions of what an RPG should be. If nothing else, buy it for the Polish voice acting. It’s that good.

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