Game Review: The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

Less monsters, more men

Developer: CD Project Red
Publisher: CD Project Red
Platforms: Microsoft Windows (reviewed), OS X, Linux
Available on: Steam, GOG

Whenever someone wants to critique an entry in a series, comparisons between it and the previous ones are inevitable. And while I too will be formatting my opinion of this game around these comparisons, I’ll also try to critique it on its own merits. So with that out of the way, the obligatory TL:DR for people who aren’t willing to spend 20 minutes reading this wall of text.

Superficially it’s a massive improvement over the first game. Almost every system available to the player has been somewhat redesigned with playability at its core. But while these improvements are quite extensive, compared to what it actually wants to achieve, I’d still have to say that it falls markedly short of its lofty goal. It’s definitely well worth playing and on the surface looks and feels like a truly great game, though underneath it hides a tremendous amount of little annoyances and other imperfections. And now, for the details:

The gameplay

I think the first reaction I could reasonably see people having to booting up this game for the first time and experiencing the first couple of hours after playing the original would be sheer bewilderment and confusion. First and foremost, this lies with the atrocious tutorial at the start. Almost nothing you’ve learned about playing the original is still applicable, so a heavily front-loaded tutorial is presented to the player with tons of new mechanics. And while I played this tutorial, I had a sneaking suspicion that with all of the new gameplay elements that are available to me, I’d somehow probably end up ignoring most of them. And I was right. I never used parrying, riposting or throwing daggers and even bombs rarely saw use even though the tutorial makes a big deal out of it. But before you can even properly use these mechanics, you need to unlock them in your upgrade tree, which already tells me that these moves are not at the core of my engagement with this combat system. I simply wailed on enemies while making sure I wasn’t being flanked or backstabbed by other enemies and when fights got too crowded, I just dodged out of the way constantly and contented myself with getting in a few blows before needing to evade again. And this served me quite well.

While the combat mechanics are an enormous improvement over the original, there are also a ton of issues with them. Most glaringly is that this new combat system is basically lifted wholesale from the Batman Arkham games with a sprinkling of Dark Souls on top of it. But it’s simply not tight enough to work as either. The Batman half with fluid jumps between enemies is hampered by what feels like dealing out inconsequential blows to multiple enemies in short succession. And this usually only leads to opportunities for the enemies to backstab you, something which at the start of the game takes off twice as much health as a regular hit, at least until you get the specific upgrade that lets you negate this handicap. So the best strategy for group fights is to simply focus on one enemy at a time, since that’s the only way to effectively diminish the amount of damage the group can dish out.

But even this approach is hindered with the omission of an element that’s absolutely vital for this type of combat to work with the intended finesse borrowed from the Souls games: Camera lock-on. Locking on to an enemy is an entirely automatic process and is done via line of sight of your character. But this lock-on is simply an indicator of which enemy is the current focus of Geralt’s attacks. Because the camera still stays completely at your whim, so there’s no sidestepping or dodging perpendicular to the relative position of your current enemy. It’s incredibly frustrating when you have a group of enemies standing close to each other and you want to pick out priority targets, because the game simply refuses to let you do so. And that’s a real shame. So much work has obviously gone into making this game more engaging on the gameplay front that it’s just that much more unfortunate for it to miss the mark. Sure, the combat in the original was boring and repetitive, but at least it wasn’t a constant annoyance. Because there’s no challenge to this. It’s not like Dark Souls, where you have to learn the patterns of any given enemy. You just wait for an opening, wail on things and get out of the way again and if you get hit, it’s no big deal. It reduces on the complexity of the three fighting styles down to either a fast, weak hit or a slow, heavy hit, only to increase the complexity of what you’re actually able to do alongside these two attacks, but as stated above, most of what you’re able to do is entirely superfluous because hitting stuff with a sharpened stick and dodging enemies are simply more effective than anything else.

Preparation

A part that obviously needed to be included in this game is the standout feature from the previous one. And while the alchemy itself hasn’t changed much from the previous game, the way potions work is radically different and kind of paradox.

Potions and oils in the first game used to have long lasting effects. When you drank a HP restoration potion in the original, that one would restore HP at an accelerated rate for 2 hours. Granted, most of the time you’d never need it for this long, because for a variety of quests and story developments, you’d also need to rest in order to complete them during specific times of the day and as such, the effects of your potions would wear off while you were meditating. Not to mention that brewing potions and even distributing talent points also required you to rest a minimum amount of an hour. But in this game, the potion lasts for 10 minutes, with others having significantly less favorable timers. That would generally be fine, since from the outset, Geralt has retained a lot of knowledge from the previous game and can brew the potion right from the start and basically anywhere since you’re no longer tied to resting at a fire or house. And you run into so many herbs to harvest so you can basically deck yourself in all the potions you’ll ever need since you don’t even need alcohol as a base to make them, just the ingredients found in plants and enemies.

But what hinders this more streamlined approach to combat preparation is completely undone by one single fact: You can’t drink potions during combat. You have to meditate, open your potion drinking menu and pick out the potions you’ll want to drink in order to prepare for an upcoming fight. And while I appreciate the fact that you’ll need to drink a potion to see in the dark before entering a monster infested crypt – though you can still totally enter it and just drink once you’re in there –  triggering a cutscene for the first monster boss fight while merely approaching the arena and then dumping me into the fight without giving me the ability to drink the potion I brewed specifically for this battle is just a dick move. This is the paradox nature of the potions in a nutshell: The game wants you to drink them when you anticipate a tough fight and it gives you more tools than ever to actually brew all the potions you need in a convenient manner, but it only gives you the benefits of that potion for a very limited time, without the ability of drinking another potion again as long as enemies are around.

Not to mention that the whole process of drinking potions is just painfully long. Why do I have to enter the meditation menu, enter the potion drinking sub-menu and then pick out the potions I want to drink in order to watch a 10 second unskippable animation of Geralt ingesting the potions? Why can’t the potions just also be part of the ability wheel, where all the signs, bombs and traps are stored? Well, this has to do one simple but drastic change between these two games:

The target audience

The Witcher was a PC RPG through and through. And while a console port of that game was in development at some point, I simply cannot fathom that game working on a console. It’s convoluted control scheme, weird passive combat and general adherence to PC RPG design conventions simply made it ill-suited for anything that didn’t have a mouse and keyboard interface. Add to that that the menus are all either accessed through your mouse cursor or through single key commands.

But The Witcher 2 was built from the ground up with consoles in mind. The gameplay is no longer suited to mouse and keyboard control. It’s much easier to play with a controller, but as such, a lot of compromises had to be made since you now no longer have dozens of buttons at your disposal.

Menu navigation is probably the one thing that suffered the most as a result of this shift in target audience. While the original menus looked terrible, they were at least functional and quick to browse. But the new Scaleform menus employed by this game have all the elements nested inside multiple menus that are cumbersome to navigate on a controller. There are simply way too many steps involved in getting from one menu to another or even finding what you were looking for in the first place. Selecting a quest means you have open the pause menu, go into your journal and select it from there. But when you do that, you aren’t immediately taken to the map screen like in the first game. No, you have to manually go there. But it’s not as simple as backing out of the journal into the pause menu and then switching into the map menu. When you exit any given menu, you always unpause the game completely. You have to pause again and then go into the map screen or the character screen or whatever. It’s phenomenally cumbersome and a massive waste of time. Not to mention that on that map screen you cannot highlight any destinations such as merchants or inns anymore either. The only thing it puts a marker on is your next objective.

When you go into your inventory, the cursor is automatically locked onto what you have equipped and not the stuff that’s actually in your inventory. But the top item in every single category will still look like it’s highlighted, so if you want to select something from those sub-categories like weapons, armor, crafting utensils, etc. and hit the confirm button, it unequips your sword or armor, since that’s what was actually highlighted. It’s just not highlighted enough for it to be readily apparent at first glance. This is only further exacerbated by the genuinely ugly looking UI employed for these menus. It has this murky brown biology theme to it that isn’t present in the game anywhere else. It wants to look clean and modern but is entirely overflowing with meaningless information at any given time. Never mind that when you try to select certain items from your inventory, a generic error message appears, telling you that you cannot use this item in the current menu. But it never tells you where you’d need to go to actually use the bloody thing either.

When you look up stuff in your inventory, everything has a total weight and monetary value next to the name. Except when you actually highlight what you want to be looking at. In that case, these icons disappear and show up below in the description box. But now it only shows weight and value of one individual item, not all combined for how many copies of said item you’re carrying. It’s things like this that drive me up the wall and made me hate having to deal with the menus throughout my experience. Add to that that the journal is filled with tons of written information that made my eyes glaze over. I usually like to read quest progress and character updates or new info on locations and monsters, but the game constantly manages to destroy my enthusiasm for the lore.

Part of it has to do with the fact that all the journal entries are written from the point of view of a bard. I usually appreciate something like this, since the first game wrote everything from Geralt’s point of view. But he was actually concise and managed to tell the most important stuff quickly. Add to that that quests were broken up into phases and earlier phases were hidden in the menu, only showing you relevant information for the current objective with the option of looking at all of it if you wanted. But the Witcher 2 keeps everything on the same page and without any highlights or indicators of what pieces of content are actually new to the increasingly long wall of text, since we all know bards and brevity don’t go hand in hand.

But another problem I personally have is that a lot of what I’m presented with simply clashes with what I’m there for. This is a fantasy RPG ostensibly set in pseudo-medieval times. But the UI looks like a Call of Duty game with its clean, small sans-serif font and texts are written in a weirdly modern way that sort of take me out of the experience. And maybe I’ll need new glasses but all that text on an unpleasant background meant I had to concentrate way too hard on not losing track.

And I know that all of this might seem petty, but in a game that takes 26 hours to beat, it would’ve shaved off so much time if the interface weren’t as convoluted as it is because a large percentage of that time spend with the game is wasted in its menus.

The world

First things first, this is a gorgeous game. Even now, 5 years later it’s still a great looking game, with mountains of details and a tremendous amount of variety in scenery and character models. However, there are certain downsides to this fact. Similar to my complaint about the menus being way too detailed and ambushing the player with tons of visual stimuli, the game proper also suffers from this problem. Character models are detailed to the point of meaninglessness, with belts and cords and patterns on their clothing with tons of contrasting colors. Similarly, buildings and environments as well as general objects placed in the world are also extremely detailed so it becomes hard to focus your eyes on anything, especially whenever the hint pops up that you can harvest plants or steal something out of a house, since the indicator for that completely blends into the background at first glance and is also tied to line of sight so it can become a chore when you’re running past some collectible and you have no idea which direction you should be facing for the prompt to show up again. Why does this indicator only appear when I’m closer than 3 feet to any given collectible and looking straight at it?

This is only exacerbated by the fact that for some reason the game has an insane amount of color contrast and what I assume extremely high levels of ambient occlusion. Sure, it looks absolutely amazing in still image form, but actually walking through this world can be quite a daunting task since you can never clearly make out anything on the screen. Harsh contrasts with high dynamic range lighting overstimulated my eyes when I played the game. And yet for some reason, in a dark and moody forest in Chapter one, everything beyond the first 50 feet of viewing distance disappears in this bright glowing haze, so I think the tradeoff of farther visibility for less details in the foreground would’ve been preferable. That way, the pop-in could’ve also been reduced. But I guess that comes with the tradeoff of trying to make a graphical powerhouse of a game. This also explains the number of doorways you have to pass through while walking through any given town or cave, since they neatly lower the viewing distance as well as providing a small window of loading time whenever you transition from one place to another. Heck, the actual highest quality view distance is probably 10 feet around Geralt, since you can clearly see foliage still fading in and increasing resolution when you’re running around. Sure, the game managed to run incredibly smooth on my machine with all the settings cranked to the maximum except for supersampling, but I feel a tradeoff in detail for farther visibility would’ve helped both on the visual front as well as omitting these annoying doorways.

But I think the biggest contrast between this game and the original is actually the exotic nature of the world that’s lacking here that also draw from European fairytales. Granted, there is a troll under a bridge that demands a toll from you, but it’s one of the few instances where this kind of flavor is still present. No longer are we confronted with Arthurian legends or Lovecraftian horror. It’s mostly a straightforward fantasy world with elves and dwarves. There aren’t even that many monsters to kill and in a game where that’s ostensibly your job and title and that’s quite a disappointment. It doesn’t even have the variety of the first game. During the last chapter, you literally fight the same monsters in a cave that you fought in the first chapter in a forest hundreds of miles away and the total amount of different monsters is about a dozen, give or take a few. It’s unfortunate that all the flavor has been sucked out of this world to make place for a big fancy political drama.

The quests

Not much has changed with the quest design in this title, but I guess this is typical for an RPG in order to wring out the most of the few levels that were designed for it. You’re still running around between the same 5 or 10 places on the map to gather stuff or talk to people in order to run across the map again to the next objective in the same quest. The only thing that I can say makes this more bearable must come off as a backhanded insult, because the only reason it isn’t as infuriating as in the first game is because the maps are significantly smaller. The Witcher 2 presents you with 4 locations, one for the prologue and one for each chapter and all of the quests are contained on very few maps. At least it allows you somewhat to consolidate efforts in order to only having to trek through the any given part once in order to fulfill all of the objectives in that particular area. At least in theory, because you’ll never end up doing that since if you’re anything like me, you don’t start a quest, do the first 2 phases, switch over to another quest and hope that that one will also send you towards the same region on the map. The only way you’ll ever speed up your progress is in the few instances where you need to collection a specific item and you do that before you know you’ll have to because you like exploring stuff and picking up everything that isn’t nailed down.

Though to its credit, there is this one quest in chapter III that was apparently added with the enhanced edition that truly shakes up the formula and really showcases what a good RPG quest should look like.

The story

I think another big gripe I have with this game is actually the main quest. At the very end of chapter 1 there’s a big decision you have to make that changes where you’ll end up going for the second act and who your contacts and quest-givers are. But here’s the thing: Neither of the two options made sense to me because none of the two people I was supposed to be siding with were in the least likable.

Iorveth, the elven leader of the freedom fighters, is a murdering, racist bastard who even at the end cannot convince himself to admit that harmony is better than constant conflict. It even clashes with what he’s ostensibly fighting for. A part of the central conflict in the game is the so called Pontar Valley, which is a disputed land by 1. the prince and heir apparent of the country of Aedirn, 2. the king of a neighboring country, since those lands used to be parts of the kingdom of his ancestors and 3. the dwarves and peasants who live there, riled up under a charismatic Joan of Arc-type warrior. And Iorveth is on the side of the latter, the people who want to fight for independence, freedom and equality, where all the races are welcome. Doesn’t sound like the human hating Iorveth would agree with that very much.

But I still chose him over Vernon Roche, because he’s just a violent bastard and his cause is just not in line with the way I interpret Geralt. Allegiance to a human kingdom is not what I feel a Witcher should do. And finally, and this might be the pettiest thing I’ll write here, I just couldn’t stand looking at the guy anymore. Anyone who wears a scarf like that on his head like a fucking medieval hipster deserves to be shunned.

Though overall it’s not that bad of a story. It at least tries to present a fantasy world in a more grounded manner, where politics, bribery and influence are important factors. Though the amount of twists and double-crosses the story features does tend to get rather silly by the end. Speaking of which, I chose the anticlimactic end, sparing the dude who we were supposedly hunting all along, because in the end, in my role-playing as Geralt of Rivia, I simply couldn’t harm the guy since he didn’t specifically do anything to me in particular. The entire conflict between Geralt and him was a matter of an unfortunate circumstance. The dude is still probably a selfish bastard, but that’s not enough reason for me to kill him.

Thankfully, I started reading the books this series is based on and at time of writing I’ve finished the first two consisting of collections of short stories. Now a lot of stuff even from the first game makes a lot more sense to me and even here, certain information was nice to have such as knowing who Tailles or the Crinfrid Reavers are, because the dialogue is extremely exposition heavy and steeped in lore not presented to people who’ve only played the games. It’s not like in the first game where characters were having natural conversations, all of it is either background information, explanations of stuff that happened off-screen or straight up orders on what you’re supposed to be doing next. There’s very little of the friendship maintaining going on that made the first game so endearing. Which is a shame, since the writing and voice acting have improved so dramatically. Speaking of which:

The characters

While the relationships with these characters are nowhere near as deep as they were in the first game, the way they’re written still upholds the bar of quality set by the original. New characters are introduces with as much detail as the older ones have and you’ll see different outcomes with different conversations depending on how you act earlier in the game, which is always nice to see. I like a more reactive world filled with individual characters more than a more static one where reactions of NPC are dictated by faction alliances.

Sex is also still a big part of character interaction, since Geralt can again initiate intercourse with pretty much every female in the plot. Though now CD Project Red finally grew some balls and just show us naked skin, as long as it’s tits. It tries to emulate the maturity the original showcased with characters who were in a permanent state of undress, such as the succubus, but often times it just felt kinda juvenile, such as the spanking scene between two sorceresses. Not to mention that I wouldn’t have wanted to be the guy who posed Triss for those “playboy shoot” pictures included in the material you get with the game, because that’s just sad.

Conclusion

While this critique might read like an overly nitpicky condemnation of the game, I don’t regret having played it. It’s not bad by any stretch of the imagination. But I feel it didn’t live up to the potential it had. I can’t strictly say that it’s a definite improvement on the original. The gameplay, visuals, voice-acting and writing have certainly improved, but a few of the new additions have also brought annoyances of their own. And unfortunately the more exotic feeling of the original just isn’t there anymore. But it’s still a decent game and it doesn’t outstay its welcome, because at under 30 hours, it barely earns the title of “RPG”.

Advertisements

Leave a comment...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s