The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings – Enhanced Edition, besides having one mouthful of a title, takes a lot for granted. There is an expectation of familiarity with both RPG conventions, the series itself and a level of gaming competency immediately apparent with the steep learning curve. It doesn’t pull its punches. For veterans of the genre this is just par for the course and many will relish the challenge, but for those not bound by blood to the RPG and the hundreds upon hundreds of hours of finicky gameplay, the jump can be jarring and frustrating. Make no mistake, if you’re a newcomer to the genre you’re throwing yourself in the deep end with The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings.
Now that I’ve knocked the pesky disclaimers out of the way it’s time to break down the nitty-gritty. Just under a year ago developer CD Projekt Red released the second title in its PC only series based on the best selling fantasy novels featuring the same central character by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski (you can find Kostas’ thoroughly entertaining review of the original PC version here
). Extremely well received, many of us console types felt slighted getting the short end of the stick again with yet another stellar PC exclusive. Little did we know that CD Projekt Red had our back.
Eleven months on, with added content and tweaks designed specifically for consoles, the “Enhanced Edition” has dropped on Xbox 360 but how well does it fare against the more recent offerings of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning and Mass Effect 3? A year can make a hell of a difference in terms of development and while it does shine for the most part there are a few missteps along the way.
You take up the mantle of famed witcher Geralt of Rivia, also known as The White Wolf (insert Game of Thrones “Ghost” reference here). Witchers are feared and revered monster hunters by profession blessed with supernatural abilities and combat proficiency. Geralt has lost his memory and as he wanders the land trying to piece together the shattered fragments of his past he manages to ingratiate himself to a local king and finds himself in his service.
In the midst of a petty squabble between the monarch and his estranged queen (also known as war) the entitled royal pain in the arse manages to get himself perished with Geralt only footsteps away. The assassin taking the form of a pious monk was actually a rogue witcher, Letho, in disguise who has taken it upon himself to relieve those with a crown of the burden of life and exits the scene of the crime in dramatic fashion leaving Geralt to explain the dead royal at his feet. Incarcerated for a murder he did not commit the stage is now set as Geralt looks to clear his name, recover his memories and avenge the king’s death.
Right off the bat there’s a lot to like about this set up. It’s a refreshing change of pace from the “save the world from impending doom/disaster/annihilation/big bad” formula. There’s a grittier, more down to earth feeling (if that’s possible) to this fantastic adventure due to the adult themed concepts (no, I don’t mean boobies) and branching mission structure. Overtones of racism with most non-humans herded into slum-like ghettos feel eerily real reflecting modern era struggles for equality and add significantly more weight to your decisions. Things aren’t always black and white with your role as a witcher to distinguish between the two and choose your own shades of grey.
A prime example appears in the first chapter where a troublesome troll has destroyed the local village of Flotsam’s bridge under his care and begun extorting the populace. You can tackle this mission several ways with the easiest summary execution of said beastie with most of the villagers calling for its death. Doing so gives you a tough mini boss battle with the troll no cakewalk. However, mid-fight a dialogue option opens up appealing to the less bloodthirsty witchers out there and takes this simple quest in a whole new direction.
It seems some monster intolerant ruffians have killed the troll’s partner and the loss of his missus has driven the poor bastard to drink. After getting the 4-1-1 on the troll from some of the more open-minded villagers I decided to lighten up my inventory via a local tradesman. Whether it was fate, karma or just pure dumb luck I noticed he had a troll head mounted in his hut. On closer inspection I realised it was said troll’s lady friend and after quizzing the tradesman on its history he led me to a crew of bandits who were responsible, cuing up a graveyard showdown with the culprits.
After introducing them the pointy end of my sword all up close and personal like, I was about to head back to the troll and realised he might want the head back as a memento of his lost love. This opened up another mini-quest as the only way the owner would part with the trophy was if I could beat him in a dice game, but he doesn’t just play with anyone. I had to seek out and defeat four other dicemen before showing this guy what time it was. Sure, I could have just killed the troll and been done with it, but sheathing my weapon and using my mind for a moment opened up an hour or so of side-questing that was extremely satisfying, surprising and more in keeping with my own moral compass. It is in this flowing sort of mission structure that The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings breaks from convention and really stands out from the crowd.
Geralt is the hero you want him to be. You can advance conversation trees with subtle magical manipulation, persuasion or straight out intimidation as you gaining competency in each strain with a successful attempt. Completing side missions also garner their own rewards beyond the usual XP windfall. Clearing out a local notice/bounty board can net you some gold coins for the purse but also yields designs for more powerful weapons that can make a significant difference in upcoming battles. Given the extremely linear nature of your path, as opposed to the open world template most other RPGs now follow, it is in your best interests to suck the marrow from The Witcher 2’s bones and get everything out of it you possible can.
Those thinking they can approach enemies with a hacky-slashy mentality and hope for the best will be in for a rude awakening. Early on enemies will make you their bitch with each battle, regardless of the opponent, feeling very much like a fight for your very life. There are very few pushovers. Enemies have a tendency to swarm and you’ll need to be both nimble on your feet and measured with your attacks. Strategy is key and it gives the combat significantly more depth you’d think at first glance.
A well-rounded assault package utilising all your witcher’s talents is the key to success. Swordplay only gets you so far. Blocking and parrying is essential as well as formulating a game plan. You’ll need to use a combination of potions for momentary buffs, enhance your weapons with rune-stones and poisons, and reinforce your armour, set traps and craft bombs to vary up your attacks. Opponents will do their best to back you into corners or push your back up against the wall so situational awareness is paramount if you want to survive.
Spells are layered and upgradeable offering protection, magical traps, the ability to turn foes against one another or are capable of unleashing powerful kinetic blasts (super fun during skirmishes on any structure with a drop), though I was partial to anything incendiary. Combining a specific bomb known as Dragon’s Breath that does gas damage on its own with a flambé blast yielded devastating results and became one of my go-to options time and time again. Choosing to focus on a few specific spells on your skill-tree is a much better option than slowly rounding out them all and does leave the door open for multiple playthroughs offering different magical options.
So now that I’ve shined a light on everything that works beautifully, it’s time to look at the dank dark corners. Without the game installed there are light texture pop ins as well as characters appearing and disappearing in cut scenes as well as some combat anomalies. Occasionally enemies will magically teleport mid fight (not part of their skill set), which can become frustrating. Some of these do dissipate once the game is installed, but it is worth mentioning. Also hit recognition can be sporadic and button presses slow to respond which is a real issue in the heat of battle. It momentarily soured an overall satisfying experience and considering how tough the combat is in general, it really should have been more closely addressed.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings – Enhanced Edition is an unconventional and layered RPG with a steep learning curve that is not for the uninitiated or faint of heart. Baring a few faltering steps it is a well rounded and thought provoking tale offering far more than its linear progression should allow. Given the success of the PC sequel and the strides forward taken by the Enhanced Edition from a console perspective I’m looking forward to a third outing covering all platforms equally to see where Geralt of Rivia’s epic journey takes him next.