"The thing that struck me the most during my time with [The Witcher 2], however, was the detail of the world and the tightness of its design."
In the Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, Geralt of Rivia is back, and he is more witchery than ever.
If for some inexplicable reason that isn't enough for you to secure a solid PC and pre-order the game, if for some ploughing reason you want actual details concerning gameplay, continue reading.
Like all great epics, TW2 opens in medias res, with a prologue full of flashbacks to explain how Geralt ended up imprisoned (probably unjustifiably so). The truth of the matter comes only on May 17th, but this plot design ensures players will want to progress through the game for story as well as gameplay. The events leading up to Geralt's imprisonment occur not long after the final cutscene from the first Witcher title. Those who haven't played that game may be lost; TW2 doesn't pander to its audience. There's still time to catch up, however, and passing up the original title also means passing up a great RPG.
Geralt's world retains the unique European feel it had in the first game, which lends it more credibility and verisimilitude than the setting of some American-made games (i.e. Dragon Age II). The world of TW2 is a dark and gritty one, but not mature for the sake of being mature. People do swear in the real world, they do have sex, and they do die on a daily basis – even more so in a less modern world. TW2 is simply reporting, not exaggerating.
One might expect a drab color palette for such a setting, but TW2's newly constructed graphics engine boasts a stunning array of colors and lighting effects, not to mention beautiful vistas, great character models, and high levels of detail. The first major area is an amazing set piece, and one could get lost staring into the horizon from atop a castle turret. The care and detail that went into the environments is astonishing at times, seen no better than when Geralt stands beneath a wooden tunnel as it quickly burns around him. Wood planks fall from above, and the wood slowly exhibits more and more glowing cinders. Upgrade your PC today; it will be worthwhile.
As I mentioned before, Geralt returns, and he's a witcher more than ever before. Although the prologue has him taking a bit of a secondary role (he's in royal company after all), he still dons his trademark personality when given the opportunity, and he eventually steals the show. Neutrality and wisdom are Geralt's primary virtues, but how he applies them is up to the player. From what I've seen, there are ample opportunities for roleplaying everyone's favorite anti-hero, all without the shackles of a morality system. Geralt isn't punished by some unseen gamey god with an eye for charity every time he acts like a bit of an ass. Instead, TW2 promises consequences. Thankfully, whether players shape Geralt into a reward-demanding tyrant or an ascetic saint, all will get a taste of the character's lovely swearing.
Geralt aside, characters seem lively and authentic, with the necessary motives and personalities to make them feel like individuals. The screen is often populated with many NPCs, and even if they don't say much to Geralt, they help make the world seem real. The writing and localization are also competent to excellent, and I suspect there will be few mishaps in that regard. The dialogue has a unique flavor and keeps away from that strange anachronistic mix seen in some fantasy RPGs today. Side quests seem readily available, as do choices. I found myself in combat with a swordsman at one point whom I couldn't overcome after a couple tries. I decided to switch dialogue choices (there were only two), and after a few more selections, the enemy disarmed and surrendered. What I thought was a fixed battle became a hidden choice, and it felt difficult to pull off. There were multiple dialogue options where I felt I could botch the parlay. If this situation is any indication, TW2 is an RPG force to be reckoned with.
Of course, Geralt doesn't just stand around looking pretty and spouting wisdom like a milky-haired sage; that's only half his credibility. The other half is being an amazing swordsman and fighter in general. Combat in the first game was criticized by many. I enjoyed the timing mechanic myself, but for many, how TW2 changes combat is paramount to its success. The tutorial box would have players think that combat is extremely simple: left click for a light attack and right click for a heavy attack that sometimes leaves you open for a parry; roll to avoid attacks with the space bar. What it doesn't tell you is that running into combat clicking either mouse button doesn't quite work if your goal is to live.
There seems to be a hidden timing mechanic still in place, but one that feels natural. I found that at times Geralt's attacks would be stilted and stop-and-go. Other times, he attacked smoothly, one strike after another, even jumping between enemies if I looked around with the mouse. I felt like I was playing Assassin's Creed II or Batman: Arkham Asylum. Geralt can also block, parry, roll away, throw daggers, throw bombs, and use signs (magic). Combining all these things is the path to victory, and different enemies require different techniques. I came across easily dispatched crossbowmen, but soldiers with tower shields required the use of one of the signs. Players decide which of Geralt's skill areas to focus on: swordplay, signs, or alchemy. Alchemy might seem like the weakest route, but quaffing a potion before battle can secure a victory, much like in the first title. Overall, combat promises depth, challenge, the use of skill, and great fun.
The thing that struck me the most during my time with TW2, however, was the detail of the world and the tightness of its design. TW2 may be one of those few games with an element of unpredictability. I never knew what the game would ask me to do next. I had to look through a spyglass to help aim a ballista. I had to find a secret passage and blow down a door with one of the signs. I had to fight off soldiers. I had to convince soldiers to reign in their brutality. The situations and scenarios seem amazingly varied while remaining cohesive and true to the story and world. Other small details bring the world to life: environmental objects that can be scattered and thrown about by magic, plenty of loot, collectable herbs, crafting, mini-games, and more equipment than the original title. Level design is fantastic, and I found myself happily exploring empty houses to seek out what treasure I could find.
One of my favorite moments occurred as Geralt walked about a burning city under siege. The area had been secured by the "good" side, but there were many citizens left in the area who had to be detained for living under the "bad" side's regime. The "good" soldiers abused some "bad" citizens and outright killed others. After convincing a soldier to stop being hateful, I heard muffled pounding and shouting, as if from behind a door. In any other game, this would be a sound effect, but in The Witcher 2, this was real people trapped inside a house. Geralt entered and told them it was safe to leave, but not before cruelly demanding a reward by punching their leader in the face. The intimidation failed, and he got nothing from his childish bullying.
This is only a small taste of Geralt's next adventure, and not for a long time have I wanted to play a game so badly. Secure a PC today because The Witcher 2 is coming, and you better be ready.