The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Review

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Enhanced Edition

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is a macrocosm of its meditation function, distilled ambition and control. Before slicing through nests of drowners (wet goblins) or trapping the hulking bullvore (horny bears), Geralt of Rivia (The Witcher) sits cross-legged on the bare ground to focus on his combat approach. He drinks potions for temporary buffs. He watches time pass its shades around him, saving the memory. He meditates sitting on the floor of a tavern or on a crumbling rampart surrounded by medieval siege warfare. While the rich, fantasy universe collapses around him, Geralt explores his potential.

The Witcher 2‘s epic, lengthy, pummeling, medieval story arc (based on Andrzej Sapkowski’s fantasy book series The Witcher) is as lilting as it is breathless. Most immediately disarming is the plausibility of its fleshed-out fantasy world – one that will find players actually reading its in-game texts to sponge out just a detail more. During the three meaty chapters, prologue, and epilogue, a nation’s monarchy rises and falls at the edge of a mutant’s silver blade, and distrust governs each move like chess.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

The player successfully becomes warrior and strategist – a rare feat in the genre – by assuming responsibility for Geralt’s upkeep as a fighter, his preparation for battle, the navigation of dialogue trees, and the execution of robust optional and mandatory missions. To call The Witcher 2 a “deep” action-RPG experience would be superficial and accurate.

Geralt’s story begins in the middle of the beginning – the first indication that this fantasy epic will prove unorthodox. From a dungeon, he leaps back to the events of the battle that led him there, then the circumstances that lead him out as a marked king-slayer. He’s a genetic mutant: a witcher, one of the few scattered monster-hunting humanoids imbued with magic and a touch of Eastern mysticism. His curt, distanced tone detaches him from political and relational investment as a character, while his role as avatar finds the player’ virtual fingers in loads of NPC problem pies.

CD Projekt RED, the development studio behind The Witcher 2, was deliberately rogue in its quest design. Simple fetch quests are far afield, supplanted by longer fetch quest chains ending in giant-scale monster battles. It checks all the boxes for a traditional fantasy action-RPG, then takes it a step further.

The first mission ends in failure. Female leads are sexually active on screen. Elves are vengeful, rural paupers. Chapters (mind you, whole thirds of the game) can be circumvented. Consequences are permanent. Combat actually tests the player’s skill, before and during battle. Dwarves are drunk jesters. Boss fights range from intentionally impossible to seemingly impossible. Everyone (straight-up every character) is a racist.

Perhaps the assumption here is that I’ll herald any game for siding with Hobbes’ dismal take on human nature, which isn’t the case. In fact, I’d be far more impressed by a fantasy universe filled with contented lords and ladies if the details, the motivations, the lore made sense. When describing Andrew Ryan, the primary antagonist from BioShock, Irrational Games’ Creative Director Ken Levine says he’s intrigued by “these characters that struggle between their view of the world and their realities of the world. There’s that dissonance that turns them into an antagonist for the player. It’s not just because they want to be.”

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

This philosophy expanded to NPCs, world-building, and narrative forms a key pillar in constructing successful fantasy. The Witcher 2 nails this tenet (with thanks due to the source material) and sticks to the “adult” nature of its Polish roots to retain its authenticity. Dialogue trees dominate the game’s decision-making landscape, for which the localization of most lines still seems just foreign enough to be believable without confusion. The concept of sixteen alternate game paths also shakes naturally out of the narrative tree but conflicts with game design conventions that strive to put all the developer’s hard work in front of the player before the credits roll. There’s a real, unmistakable confidence to the way CD Projekt RED adapted The Witcher novel series to this game. Confidence, as they say, is sexy.

Preparing to battle the wild men and creatures of Temeria and its warring neighbors takes more time than actually battling them – another stroke of patient design wisdom. By focusing on how players will outfit and buff Geralt (shops, armor, weapons, sword oils, bombs, traps, and especially potions), an issue forced by the erratic difficulty spikes, the action-oriented combat retains the tactical feel of an RPG. Players tare able to slow down time between delivering and parrying strikes to choose which item to equip and which Sign, or magical ability, to use. Mind control works well leading into a battle, for example, but needs to be changed on the fly to a force-push ability to create distance between the heavy and light enemies and carve through each.

Discovering which tactics suit which enemies and environmental scenarios is often a matter of trail-and-error (saving often quickly becomes the most valuable strategy), though strokes of flashing inspiration reward the player’s time and ego. Also, leveling up Geralt with a four-section skill tree implements the permanency of tactical decisions, while relying on the temporary boosts from potions and poultices (crafted, salvaged, or purchased) for stat swings gives the player some wiggle room to make mistakes. Again, the controlled design choices in The Witcher 2 impress, and the persistence of lengthy side quests and far-reaching main quests continues to drive rhythmically forward.

If it weren’t for the PC version’s failure to meet the demands of an action game that controls well during rapidly alternating combat and inventory management segments (not an issue in the Xbox 360’s Enhanced Edition), and some wasted moments in broken minigames here and there, The Witcher 2 would stand as the new gold standard for action RPGs. Its confident storytelling veneer may also turn off players looking for a less “authored” experience, despite the breathing world and characters. Consider, however, the rarity of high-quality dialogue, meaningful decisions, and rewarding combat in the action-RPG genre, and then uncross those legs to explore The Witcher 2‘s fresh universe of traditional components.


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Author: Dan Crabtree View all posts by
Dan is Managing Editor for GamerNode and a freelance gaming writer. His dog is pretty great. Check him out on Twitter @DanRCrabtree.

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