Epic Fantasy served with a side order of Politics, Racism and full frontal polygon nudity
Reviewed on the Xbox 360 by Alex Trotter-Fernandez
The Witcher 2 isn’t your friendly neighborhood swords and magic game, nor does it subscribe to the rules of fantasy as we know them. If anything it’s the Anti-Lord of the Rings, that whimsical sense of wonder and magic sucked out and replaced with agony, despair and plenty of fornication. Ever see a Hobbit sodomize a level 8 mage? It’s subversive in its depictions of potential stereotypes that we would come to expect; the Elves don’t sing gaily whilst skipping in the morning dew, they’re terrorists that slaughter humans for their own political agendas. The Trolls are not fearsome creatures that will tear you apart, they’re sad beings that suffer from alcoholism and marital problems. All the while the world you inhabit is being torn apart by petty kings, treating their armies like lawyers waging wars on the family court battlefield.
In this anti-fantasy you inhabit Geralt, an anti-hero monster hunter with retrograde amnesia. After several regicides and inconveniently being in the wrong place and the wrong time, he is incarcerated then embroiled in a heavy political plot with pointy daggers flying in every direction. The plot gets progressively thicker and thicker, so much so that you may wander lost and confused like an dementia inpatient for the first few hours. Ploughing and CGI lady-parts aside, The Witcher 2 treats you like an intelligent adult, and expects you to care about what’s going on in the world. There’s no atypical hand holding here, and those unprepared may be in for a shock…
Beneath the sprawling story and subplots is a finely realized combat system, one which offers challenge and variation. It’s quite impossible to play through The Witcher 2 as a slash and hack, the combat requires both strategy and thought over button bashing. A combination of spells and traps is needed to destroy health bars, particularly with some incredibly difficult bosses. A similar radial menu to Mass Effect is used in mid combat to select spells and equipped weapons, however rather than freezing time the action dips into slow motion allowing a split second to make a decision.
At first controlling Geralt to be a bit of a chore, initializing the radial wheel whilst focusing on an enemy can be a difficult task at first. However a few hours into the game these problems subside and you’ll never find yourself secretly praying for a mouse and a keyboard. Despite being shipped with quite possibly the thickest guide ever, containing every single detail of every quest including where to go and who to meet, little information is given about how to actually play the game. This can prove to be both frustrating and liberating at the same time, and although tasks like crafting and alchemy can take a while to figure out on your own, the interface itself is quite intuitive and easy to learn.
The same can be said for combat preparation, one must be ready like a scout with the correct potions for the occasion. At first this can appear to be a poor design choice, how do you know exactly which enemies to expect? The answer is exploration and knowing thy enemy, the game won’t tell you what you’ll find nor will it reveal how to defeat those foes. For the most part common sense is needed, that and the will to read within the game universe. Books can be found or bought from the many shops and homes in each stronghold, reading these will unlock clues and answer questions to puzzles and runes littered throughout the game. Everything you need can be found within the actual world, and it takes initiative and foresight to think where to look.
The Witcher 2 contains some of the best designed quests you’ll find in a modern RPG, from a convoluted twisting plot to excellent side quests that feel just as deep as the main story. Everything feels intertwined and filled with purpose, and you’ll rarely come across an errand that feels like an absolute grind. Quests can start of small, say with a simple game of poker or a fight, but slowly they become more complex as you progress. Choices are to be made here, and every one you make subtlety evolves the narrative in a way that never feels as black and white, or as obvious, as other similar titles. There is no absolute morality per say, no renegade or paragon meters to fill. Instead difficult decisions are made and you have to live with the consequences. Rarely have I played a game that actually feels like your making an impact on the narrative and the world around you.
An example of this can be found at a crossroad within the story. A simple decision can lead to a completely different experience and an entirely different location, meaning it has to be played at least twice in order to get the most out of it. The environments in the second chapter of the game are radically different, as are the quests, showing two different sides to the political and racial ramifications of the main story. Quests are lost or failed as well due to picking a side, which leads on to a slight irritant. They’re difficult to follow, so much so that you’ll be picking up the phone book sized manual quite a bit. It really falls down to the tracking, while I admire the lack of hand holding and outright “this is how you do it” instructions, quests can be failed very easily and it’s hard to see what triggered it and where you went wrong. Getting lost can become an issue as well with a slightly confusing map that never fails to frustrate. Again it falls down to investing your time in the game and making an effort to solve mysteries yourself.
Although The Witcher 2 is one of the better looking games on the Xbox 360, there are some significant problems that can damper the experience. Texture pop-in is constant, particularly noticeable in conversations where facial textures take longer to load than the dialogue. Tearing and some minor frame rate stutters also appear during the game, however this can be significantly improved by installing both discs onto your hard drive. Clearly the limitations of the Xbox 360 have led to a port that is not quite at the same level as the original PC version. Despite this console owners who don’t have a high end PC should be very happy with the end result as The Witcher 2 presents with beautiful graphics, fantastic character models and a rich colorful world to explore.
It may not be the most inviting and accessible game, but investing yourself in its world leads to an ultimately satisfying experience. After being disappointed with Mass Effect 3′s lack of depth, Geralt’s adventures presented a unique twist on the classic RPG with a fully realized world that’s just begging to be explored. If you have a little bit of patience and give this game the time and effort it deserves you won’t regret it.