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RPGWatch Forums » Games » The Witcher Games » The Witcher 2 » Kalniel's The Witcher 2 user review (spoiler free)

Default Kalniel's The Witcher 2 user review (spoiler free)

May 27th, 2011, 10:34
I remember some of my earliest PC game purchases with great fondness. Games werenít cheap back then, even before adjusting for inflation, and after a slightly guilty purchase I would sit on the bus with a great sense of anticipation. Inevitably I would give in, bring the box out of my bag and start unravelling the contents on the bus seat. The smell of freshly printed manuals would greet me as a reverently plucked each extra goody out of the box. The game itself would just be on a bunch (often tens) of floppies, but already on the journey home I could start savouring extra materials like historic lore guides or imaginary ships magazines.

The move to plastic DVD cases for games made sense from a packaging and costs perspective, but it heralded the end of thick manuals and cloth maps. ďYour game should be well designed enough to enjoy without a thick manual!Ē I can hear market experts proclaiming. They might have a point, but Iíve always felt most PC games have been lacking ever since.

It seems Iím not alone. Polish publisher CDProjekt understands PC gamers. They have always set out to add value to the games they published in Eastern Europe - through excellent and thorough localisations to providing decent game materials. In 2002 they went a step further and created a development studio (CDProjekt RED) to make the kind of games they understood PC gamers wanted. That game was The Witcher, which four years ago brilliantly brought alive the universe of Polish author Sapkowski in a dark and gritty RPG that broke straight into Ďmust-haveí lists previously the domain of Bioware or Bethesda Softworks.

I donít have to ride the bus home from town anymore, but in May 2011 a package arrived that for the first time since, brought about similar levels of anticipation. Like then, I couldnít quite wait either, so I brought the parcel to work, and during breaks slowly unravelled it. It was, of course, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings.

Printing inks have moved on since those days, so I wasnít quite assaulted by the array of solvents like I used to be, but the box contents - even of the standard, relatively cheap, version that I bought - are impressive. The game, on two DVDs and a manual, naturally. And a soundtrack CD, special features DVD, a map (paper, but at least thatís more readable than cloth!), two foldable card figurines, a game guide, and just like RPGs of old, a pointless coin trinket. Not bad, although I question why they included a game guide - a history or lore book would have been much more welcome especially as the setting (and events of the previous game) might be unfamiliar to many. I couldnít wait to get home to try it.



The Witcher 2 begins only a month after the conclusion of the previous game, which makes the starting scene of Geralt, our hero, languishing in a prison all the more surprising. Thankfully this is all explained rapidly, with events in that month played out by the player as Geralt recounts his experiences. Itís a tactic that is also used in a few other places through the game, sometimes involving the control of other characters. It works well enough but isnít much to my personal liking. Player choices in the previous game (whoís saves can be imported) have a noticeable, though relatively minor and non-influencing, effect storywise, and items are carried over which can provide a little starting boost - though they are quickly outdated. Choices in Geraltís recounting however have considerably larger effects, both immediately and in the longer term. This again sets the tone for the rest of the game, making choice-consequence one of the defining features of The Witcher series. Choices are more obvious in the sequel, and tend to be a clear either/or. Thankfully there is less of the Ďdamned if you do, damned if you donítí which the original was guilty of - not in pre-determined outcomes but that it rather overplayed the negative connotations of your particular choice. The consequences in the sequel are less damning and rather more predictable making it less of an exercise in blind trial and error, although there is the rare circling back round to a pre-determined outcome, which I guess is pretty necessary when youíre trying to tell a story.

And the story is worth telling. In the original, Geralt started the game suffering from amnesia, this was then hardly addressed, leaving one to question if it was just a convenient gameplay mechanic. The Witcher 2 proves that wasnít the case, with a gradual exposition of the events prior to the original game and efforts to help Geralt restore his memory. Itís a shame then, that this interesting story is presented as more of a side show to the political events that dominate most of the main game, and in fact as welcome as they are, for most of the game the expositions donít really seem connected to the gameplay or what Geralt is doing, appearing more like rewards for finishing a chapter. Not that this political story isnít also interesting - it is, but it doesnít have the same draw as the stories surrounding Geralt and the other characters close to him. It may also be a little confusing coming into the game fresh - many characters and events are mentioned in passing without explaining their significance to the player. Some of these can be picked up from the first game, some from Sapkowskiís books (though few are translated into English). Itís not vital, but the sense of missing something is slightly annoying, and makes the case for the inclusion of more lore (even a glossary of characters) in book form rather than the game guide. The journal system might have been a place to correct this, but although excellent again, and rather humorous, it doesnít contain quite as much historical or character information as it needs to to bring players up to speed on events and people mentioned in the game. Despite this, the gameís setting is as intriguing as ever, although the first gameís references to ancient real world myths (the fisher king for example) have been updated with more modern references which go just a bit too far - itís fine to include the odd easter egg for players about contemporary games like Assassins Creed as long as characters in the game donít react to it, but when two main characters have a discussion about the events in The Lord of the Rings it does jar the immersion somewhat.



Actually playing out the main quest is more interesting than before - there is far less progression via just running around and talking to people, and more genuinely interesting gameplay scenarios that require you to make use of Geraltís various abilities to progress - for example tracking trails of blood to find someone who is injured - you can do it visually, although it gets very hard especially when the trail crosses a stream or is confused by other blood trails, or you can drink a potion that highlights such marks and makes the job in dense undergrowth much easier. Outside the main quest lines the side quests are also much improved from the original and no longer are monster contracts a simple matter of going somewhere and killing x monsters. They now each require gathering of information - to find out about a weakness perhaps, or to investigate a deeper route cause, and it is now much more work, and more satisfying, to complete them.

While Geraltís story choices and consequences require less trial and error than before, the same canít be said for combat. This has been overhauled for the sequel and now consists of a more action-like hack as often as you like with different types of attacks - light or strong. Weapon choice (steel or silver blades, or other weapons which are now useful at last) is important, as are the correct preparations for example oils or potions. This isnít a bad thing at all when it comes to using your intelligence to prepare or inform tactics for a fight - information can often be discovered to help, but there are unfortunately many moments that will require a several reloads. Itís not just that the combat is tough, especially at the start of the game, but one of the changes for the sequel is that potions can now only be drunk while meditating, which you can only do in a non-combat situation. What tends to happen is that you are watching some series of cutscenes or dialogues, and then at the end of them you have a tough combat situation. You then discover that you need a potion or three to give you a decent chance of surviving the fight, but you didnít get a chance to quaff one. So you have to reload and get to a point, or even change your conversation options to allow you to get to a point where you can then meditate and drink the right potions for the up-coming fight.

Worse is yet to come however. QTEs, or quick time events, abound in The Witcher 2. Fistfights, boss scenes and various mechanics require you to watch for instructions appearing on screen and hit buttons or keys quickly in response, sometimes mashing them. On one hand itís a way of getting the player a little more involved in whatís going on rather than having a magical one-click awesome button, but on the other hand it gets amazingly boring when you have to reload the same bit time after time because you donít quite understand what the game is asking or itís not seeming to register your right click properly in the right time frame. Unless you (by trial and error) memorise the up-coming instructions itís also rather easy to focus on them rather than whatever is happening in the background.



Thatís a pity, because the background is stunning - the new game engine created for The Witcher 2 is probably on par with any other PC game at the moment, again straining DX9 to the limits and leading you to question why we need later technologies. HDR lighting, god-rays, shadows, amazing textures and techniques that make stone structures look like theyíre using tessellation, an SSAO implementation that actually works, great weather and spell effectsÖ the list goes on. If thereís some payback for using DX9 itís possibly in the very high CPU requirements of the game as all these effects seem to require hefty amounts of calculations to be performed outside the GPU. Itís proven in practise as well - a powerful CPU paired with an old GPU performs far better in the game than a less powerful CPU and modern GPU. With a mildly overclocked i7 950, 6gb RAM and a HD4870 512mb the game suggests the Ďhighí preset, which runs fine and looks amazing.

This engine is also put to work with the very lush gameworld. Rather than striding on top of an environment like many games seem to, you feel completely enveloped in The Witcher 2 - buildings tower around you with a proper sense of scale, and forests stretch upwards in dense and detailed canopies, the thickness properly making initial exploration bewildering. In fact these are the best forests Iíve seen in any game. Game areas are also far larger than the original, although there are fewer of them to go with the fewer chapters.

Thereís little to complain about in the sound department either, with suitably meaty effects and a cinematic soundtrack, as well great voice acting with far more variation and quality than the original game. However in becoming so cinematic the soundtrack has lost quite a bit of its individual character, and is inferior in my opinion as a result.

Pacing-wise, the sequel has moments where you simply donít want to put the game down, but overall the pacing isnít as exquisite as the first game, and big sequences can have you stopping out of frustration or boredom. Itís not as long a game either, but branching caused by choices is so much more significant that replays should be factored into total game time.



At the end of the day, The Witcher 2 is a quality game that really shows Bioware et al how RPGs can be designed to appeal to todayís market as well that that of yesteryear. In the whole it has significantly improved over its predecessor in gameplay and visually, however not every new introduction to the game is fully successful and it doesnít quite have the same magical touch as the first game.
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May 27th, 2011, 11:32
Excellent review. Perhaps should become the "official" RPG Watch review of this game. It definitely is one of the best reviews I've read yet (and I've read many), in terms of being comprehensive and informative. I liked how it wasn't a mindless gushing positive review like so many these days, but was balanced giving both pros and cons.
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May 27th, 2011, 11:40
I want to see a score, or it doesn't count.
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May 27th, 2011, 11:57
Originally Posted by Arkadia7 View Post
Excellent review. Perhaps should become the "official" RPG Watch review of this game.
I'm voting for promotion as well. Nicely done, Kalniel. I'd have had more positive things to say about combat (which I adore), but I realize expereices with this system are a bit all over the place.
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May 27th, 2011, 14:56
Originally Posted by JDR13 View Post
I want to see a score, or it doesn't count.
174 stotties (if this site does need a score for use with score aggregation services let me know and I will come up with one in a more common metric/base10 nomenclature )

Originally Posted by GhanBuriGhan View Post
I'm voting for promotion as well. Nicely done, Kalniel. I'd have had more positive things to say about combat (which I adore), but I realize expereices with this system are a bit all over the place.
Thanks.

I certainly don't claim it's a definitive review - there are things I could have gone into more detail with, both positive and negative, but you have to draw the line somewhere or it'd be a dissertation rather than a review

Combat in general isn't a negative, especially when you are given the opportunity to learn information in advance and more importantly have the options available to be able to use different tactics. My comment is more for some specific moments where there's a lack of information early enough to actually do something about it, or where you don't have many options.
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May 27th, 2011, 16:22
Canīt say I agree with everything, but a really good review!
Not overly long and packed with info.

In regards to QTEs, Iīd change "Fistfights, boss scenes" to "Fistfights, some boss scenes" to avoid implication that all boss fights use QTEs.

Originally Posted by kalniel View Post
potions can now only be drunk while meditating
I have to agree about the potions.
The current mechanics does give the game unique flavor, but I think in the end the implementation does hurt gameplay unnecessarily.
The drinking animation is relatively long, cutscenes are sometimes an issue in this regard and, most importantly, thereīs already a mechanism preventing potion spamming - toxicity. Making potions last longer could be one solution, making timer stop during cutscenes could be an other, but I think allowing players to drink potions whenever they want would be for the best. Oils can be applied to weapons at any time already anyway.

Originally Posted by kalniel View Post
In the original, Geralt started the game suffering from amnesia, this was then hardly addressed, leaving one to question if it was just a convenient gameplay mechanic. The Witcher 2 proves that wasn’t the case, with a gradual exposition of the events prior to the original game and efforts to help Geralt restore his memory. It’s a shame then, that this interesting story is presented as more of a side show to the political events that dominate most of the main game, and in fact as welcome as they are, for most of the game the expositions don’t really seem connected to the gameplay or what Geralt is doing, appearing more like rewards for finishing a chapter.
More-or-less agreed. I like it as a story/character element, but as a quest it solves itself. Encouraging players to be more active in this regard (looking for triggers, for example) and making at least some parts optional or mutually exclusive would be better.
While The Witcher may not have addressed the amnesia directly, there was the Identity quest which took advantage of it and even allowed players to "solve" it differently and as such it was a roleplay addition of sorts (that the quest could never be finished was a great touch).
I missed something like that in The Witcher 2.
Last edited by DeepO; May 27th, 2011 at 17:58.
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