Thursday, 30 June 2011

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings [One sword for monsters, one for reviews]

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is an uncompromising beast. You'd be forgiven for expecting the prologue, split into several playable flashbacks, to involve Geralt carrying out the traditionally patronising tutorial quests – fetch my belt, comb my mother's hair, drink my tears – to gently but tediously break you into the game.

Having scraped through several uneven encounters with a garrison of soldiers and then barely surviving an encounter with a fully-grown dragon, you'll swiftly arrive at the conclusion that CD Projekt Red are just as tired of that genre hallmark as we are. With many fans feeling disenchanted with the direction of modern RPGs, it's the absence of hand-holding concessions that will spark those first feelings of empathy with the developer.

With the prologue bringing us up to speed on events since The Witcher, things unsurprisingly kick off with the assassination of a king. Geralt, beloved amnesiac and medieval version of Peter Stringfellow, is found in a somewhat incriminating position stooped over the freshly murdered monarch, and the plot takes shape as Geralt seeks to clear his name and track down the real kingslayer by striking a deal with Commander of the Temerian Special Forces, Vernon Roche.

Pursuit of the real perpetrator leads this newly formed duo, accompanied by the familiar face of Triss Merigold, to the port-town of Flotsam. If you hadn't noticed how good-looking a game this is, then Flotsam really drives it home. The immensely capable visuals are expertly utilised to drench the surroundings in character and atmosphere; you can practically smell spilt beer soaking into timber at the inn, and traversing the dense, beautiful forests is an organic joy that defies their synthetic origins.

Characters too are similarly well presented, and from the wince-inducing wounds on Geralt's torso to Sile de Tancarville's Disney-villain hair, there's a refreshing variety and distinction to the cast. This is just as well, as you'll meet a significant number of key individuals in Flotsam alone as the plot inevitably thickens. A vastly detailed in-game journal means that even as the political intrigue deepens, those who tend to lose track of names and locations are well catered for. If you're like me, you'll also have the exquisite map positioned on the wall above the screen for reference (Along with all the other fictional maps).

Whilst the narrative and setting of the original were already considered feathers in The Witcher's cap, the combat was always going to be one of the biggest improvements people were looking for here. Blending the perfect amount of tactical consideration and action into RPG combat is tantamount to unlocking the secret to eternal youth, and whilst The Witcher 2 hasn't quite cracked the formula, it's nonetheless made some extremely satisfying strides forward.

Martial encounters now take a more 'Stop, drop and roll' approach than the frenzied clicking of old, and using the dodge to manoeuvre yourself into momentarily advantageous positions is essential against the often overwhelming numbers. Vigour is expended in order to either parry a blow or cast a sign, ensuring that early encounters don't descend into Jedi-like massacres, although the unusual difficulty curve eventually struggles to keep up with the influx of lethal abilities and certain combos.

Such boons are still acquired through the spending of talents, although Geralt's disciplines have been organised more neatly into three distinct trees of progression. The swordsmanship path largely incorporates the 'styles' favoured in The Witcher, and offers the most straightforward option with its numerous bonuses to base damage and near-essential augmentations to the dodge ability.

Fortunately, this reorganisation and clarification of skills doesn't mean that ploughing all of your talents into one tree will cut off your access to the other two, as Geralt is naturally proficient in all three disciplines. Those of a particularly alchemical persuasion are free to fully enjoy the finely distilled perks, without having to deal with being the Tim Henman of swordsmanship. Not only does this play out well, with even the base level signs remaining functional throughout the campaign, but it also ties neatly into the tone set out by an opening that refuses to have Geralt re-learn his abilities.

As one of the more unique aspects of the franchise, alchemy has undergone a few changes - potions can now only be imbibed prior to events via meditation, rather than the mostly reactionary role they formally played. Whilst this suits the preparatory nature of the Witcher profession, it ultimately makes potions less of a consideration until after you've died. There's a few unanticipated occasions where you'll reload, and like Amy Winehouse at a festival, simply consume anything bottled in your vicinity before another attempt.

Similar decisions to carefully overhaul and refine The Witcher experience run deep throughout the game, and are perhaps evident nowhere more than with the quests. Make no mistake, this is a gourmet dish with little to no undesirable excess to be found; there's no chaff in the form of running back and forth across the same plains to harvest legs and testicles for needy townsfolk, and only the choicest cuts of traditional Witcher 'hunt and kill' meat have been selected for your pleasure.

Frankly, I require very little in the way of reasons to run off gallivanting in the attractive forests and caves, but CDPR have gone and provided me with a multitude anyway. The process of hunting down and slaying beasts has a pleasant variety to it on each occasion, resulting in a smaller number of much more satisfying quests overall. What's more, almost all of the NPCs feel like legitimate characters, and are generally well voiced and riddled with the customary black humour of Temeria.

If there's anything left hanging awkwardly in the air for The Witcher 2 to deal with, it's the way in which the original tackled romance. I've always maintained that there wasn't a problem with the portrayal of relationships in the game, but the presentation of a saucy playing card upon the natural culmination of such a union was always going to be at odds with the material – especially as they didn't even provide us with a game to play with said cards.

There were probably two ways of tackling the issue, and the moment Geralt wakes up next to a very visibly undressed mage is unlikely to leave anyone in any doubt as to which of them has been chosen. You could argue that the playing card approach was a way of implying that graphically speaking, The Witcher wasn't ready to take its top off, as the sublime new engine is put to use here to display some quite tastefully directed scenes in the vein of HBOs output.

There's still something about having a controller in my hands during such scenes that I'm not quite sure about; as a plot device they're essential to a mature, dramatic narrative, but I'm still left sat there thinking 'Should I... press a button to help out?' That is, however, what The Witcher 2 is all about – it's unashamedly mature and it's charging you with the responsibility of seeing it for what is.

The game is doing this on many levels. It's trusting you with Geralt, the fully fleshed out creation of Andrzej Sapkowski, and encouraging you to engage with him and make tough, lasting decisions in the face of an unrelenting and often complex plot. True, it's also asking if you'd like to sleep with all of the whores, to see how many sex scenes have been made, but that's all part of the bargain in this refusal to bow down to both traditional boundaries and modern trends in design.

Ultimately, it's an unmissable love letter to RPGs. It's written to fans of the infamous Infinity Engine games and anything similar to have emerged from that rich spring of Western roleplaying, to fans who are crying out for something that speaks to them, and not to a supposedly untapped market. In the genuine hope that CDPR continue to produce work of this calibre, I can offer but one response:


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