"[The Witcher 2] is definitely an incredibly well crafted and polished game with a few flaws that only rarely hinder the overall experience."
Having only recently come into possession of a gaming-worthy PC, I was unable to indulge in the Witcher series, since it was the exclusive property of PC gaming until recently. Last year saw the release of the second entry in the series, to critical acclaim and commercial success. As console owners looked on with envy at this evidently incredible game, CDProjekt soon answered their hopes with the announcement of a port to the Xbox 360. The Witcher 2 will be released on the 360 almost a full year after the PC version, and the wait was ultimately worth it.
The player takes the role of Geralt of Rivia, an individual who is part of the eponymous Witchers, magically enhanced warriors recruited into the order to kill monsters of magical origins. Geralt is plagued with nightmares of fleeing from an unknown enemy, and he's currently held as the prime suspect of the killing of one King Foltest, a monarch whom Geralt had been serving under. Geralt recounts to the king's right-hand man, Vernon Roche, the events leading up to the king's assassination – the latest in a series of regicides perpetrated by an unknown party. These events have plunged the state of Temeria into interregnum, and a wave of chaos and brutality ripples through the land as a result. In order to clear his name as well as bring the kingslayer to justice, Geralt agrees to cooperate with Vernon Roche, who engineers Geralt's escape. At the same time, Geralt slowly pieces together memories that have been lost to him, which may lead to an inextricable link between himself and the parties responsible for this plot.
The Witcher 2 tells its tale masterfully, being more Game of Thrones than Lord of the Rings. While many fantasy tropes and stereotypes are employed in the game, these elements are used in new and innovative ways instead of tried-and-true fashions. What makes all the story elements work is the fact that Geralt, being a Witcher by trade, is required not to meddle in political conflicts; Geralt is a peaceful man who abhors overt violence and sees his profession as a necessary element in a land torn by chaos. Despite this, Geralt is forced to suffer the whims of kings and noblemen throughout the story, as well as all of the accompanying ugliness and cruelty such people are capable of.
The aesthetic presentation, both visually and aurally, have a very visceral quality to them, making the imagery more effective; deaths are grisly and violent, the aftermaths of armies' raping and pillaging can be clearly beheld, and the music and accompanying sound effects do well to establish the tone of each particular scene. The art style is also very unique – the armor and uniform designs remain distinct and aesthetically interesting while still having the appearance of practicality – female soldiers are not clothed in scraps that leave little to the imagination, while male characters are not wearing the latest hip threads that would feel more at home in a Prada advertisement than a war-torn battlefield. The game's environments are incredibly well-designed and meticulously detailed, as well as large enough to promote exploring without being so massive that the player gets lost too easily.
The aesthetics fare incredibly well on a technical level, as well. Some accommodations had to be made in order for the game to be properly ported to the 360, but the result is nothing short of amazing – despite the Xbox 360 hardware going on seven years since its release, CDProjekt has certainly created some immensely impressive visuals out of the aging console. The level of visual fidelity comes at a small price, however; small amounts of texture pop-in can be witnessed, and the loading times can be a bit long. Fortunately, both of these problems can be mostly rectified by installing the game on the 360's hard drive, though even without it the problems are minor, at worst. The music is also incredibly well composed, with some truly stunning pieces by sound designer and composer Adam Skorupa.
The grim and serious air of the game's narrative and aesthetic direction doesn't mean that the game can't come up with some moments of levity, however; there's plenty of humor for players who know where to look, such as a quest where Geralt wakes up after a night of drunken debauchery, stripped of his equipment and a lewd tattoo imprinted in a conspicuous area. Unless removed through magic, this tattoo remains visible on Geralt until the end of the game, an everlasting reminder to Geralt that he is plainly unable to hold his liquor. Small touches like these give life to the game's world.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for CDProjekt while porting The Witcher 2 is the fact that a gameplay system designed for the PC can't easily transition to a console controller without some major retooling. The results are quite impressive, however, and they work quite well on the 360's controller. The Witcher 2 plays like an action RPG, with utilization of a vast array of weapons to make combat interesting and visceral.
Geralt possesses a small arsenal with which to dispatch his enemies, including magic spells, long range weapons such as throwing knives and bombs, and two different types of swords, each of which is effective against different types of enemies – silver swords are meant to destroy creatures born of magic, and steel swords are used to fell naturally occurring animals and humans. As Geralt's battle prowess improves, players gain access to special abilities such as counterattacking and finishing strikes. But while battles are incredibly action-based, the Witcher 2 is as much about the preparation and tactics as it is about Geralt decapitating foes with his blades.
While button-mashing can get players through the lower difficulties, on higher difficulties, they need to make ample use of the myriad traps, potions, and weapon effects in order to survive each battle. This is complicated that there's a limit to how much Geralt can carry, and potions are toxic if too many are consumed at once, making the preparation for each battle a balancing act. As Geralt progresses in his adventure, he can learn abilities in three distinct fields. However, ability points are very limited, so the player must choose whether to have Geralt specialize in one area at the expense of the other two, or make him equally proficient in all three, preventing him from learning the more advanced skills each specialty offers. Meticulous planning and skillful use of Geralt's resources is required to come out victorious for higher difficulties, and only the most devoted players will be able to best the hardest modes.
Combat isn't the only way Geralt can achieve his objectives, however; being a Witcher, Geralt has at his disposal a wide range of abilities and magic skills that allow him to intimidate or coerce enemies into surrendering. Geralt's actions throughout the game carry grave consequences on his journey, with each major choice causing changes that don't become apparent until later on in the story, making the game incredibly replayable, despite being 50 to 60 hours long in the first place. The notable lack of a karma meter means that Geralt's actions can't be idolized as being virtuous or condemned as being evil, thus major decisions are rarely an affair of black and white. Geralt can also distract himself with a rather large amount of sidequests and minigames, which include QTE-based fistfights and arm wrestling, among other diversions that allow the player to reap some tidy profits and valuable items.
Unfortunately, some rather glaring problems prevent The Witcher 2 from realizing its full potential. The first is the camera, which is fine most of the time, but becomes unwieldy in the more elaborate areas, such as a building with many support columns. In such places, characters can easily become obscured during battle, causing immense problems since the game relies on visual cues to alert the player when to dodge or counterattack. Switching between swords or different weapons during battle can be an irritating affair because Geralt, while controlling very well when actually fighting, reacts unreasonably slowly when these commands are given, almost always ensuring a free hit for the enemy if Geralt ever needs to fight both magical and natural creatures at the same time. The targeting system is also somewhat unreliable both in and out of battle. It appears to randomly switch between enemies for no apparent reason during battles, which, coupled with the camera problems can lead to many unfair deaths.
Outside battle, the targeting is incredibly finicky, so if Geralt attempts to inspect treasure caches and points of interest that are next to a door, for example, it can become an exercise in frustration when Geralt marches to the door and exits the area instead of examining the desired target. While these problems are nearly unnoticeable on lower difficulties, they can mean the difference between victory and death on higher difficulties. The map system is also poorly conceived. At multiple points in the story, I was left wandering around places that were nowhere near my objective because the quest pointers or the map itself were either misleading or downright wrong. This made for some intensely frustrating moments in which I ran around like a headless chicken to find my next objective, only to happen upon it by sheer chance.
Not having played The Witcher 2 on PC, I have no established standard with which to judge the relative quality of the 360 version. Regardless of the game's quality when put side-by-side with its PC incarnation, however, The Witcher 2 on the 360 is definitely an incredibly well crafted and polished game with a few flaws that only rarely hinder the overall experience and prevent it from achieving perfection. As the ending credits to The Witcher 2 finished rolling, continuance of Geralt's ongoing journey was promised, and personally, I can't wait for the next entry of the series.