The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Enhanced Edition Review
- The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings
- Namco Bandai
- CD Projekt RED
Made2Game The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings review score: 10/10
Format reviewed: Xbox 360
Developer: CD Projekt RED
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Reviewer: Mick Fraser
Alchemy is the scientific practice of combining and transforming base ingredients into a final product greater than the sum of its parts. A staple of fantasy RPGs in recent years, alchemy has always been regarded as an impossible science, the stuff of myths and fairytales. But in actual fact, alchemy is perfectly possible – as proved by CD Projekt RED’s action RPG, The Witcher 2: Assassin’s of Kings.
This is true gaming alchemy – harvesting ingredients from a number of contemporary role-playing games and smashing them together to create something that stands out from – and at times towers above – the crowd.
This is Geralt the Riv. He could so easily kill you right now.
The White Wolf
Some gamers might remember a doomed console port of 2007’s PC-exclusive The Witcher, subtitled Rise of the White Wolf, cancelled midway through development due to difficulties between polish-based outfit CD Projekt RED and French developers Widescreen Games. After a short hiatus, CD Projekt RED returned to the franchise and began work on The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, released on PC in 2011 and now ported to the Xbox 360 as the Enhanced Edition, as had originally been planned for the first game.
"Assassins of Kings cuts reagents from the bloated corpses of its peers and grinds them up into a bitter but heady brew..."
Assassins of Kings is a direct sequel to The Witcher, opening with the titular monster-slayer, Geralt of Rivia, standing beside King Foltest at the siege of La Valette Castle, having saved Foltest against an assassination attempt at the climax of the last instalment. Events during the siege soon spiral beyond Geralt’s control and he finds himself in the frame for a heinous crime – and must then set out across the realm of Temeria in pursuit of another Witcher, a mountain of a man with a penchant for collecting crowned heads, in the hope of clearing his name.
That the Witcher games are based on a series of novels (by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski) is evident not only in the writing and characterisations but also in the lore of the world and the rules it follows. Geralt of Rivia is a brilliantly-realised protagonist; lean and scarred, confident and talented, uncompromising and lethal, you find yourself forgiving his serial womanising and mercenary approach to heroics as you carve a bloody, righteous path through the heart of a country at war.
The arena can be an absolute bitch for the unprepared.
The Sum of its Parts
So why the alchemy analogy? Not because of the apothecary’s arts employed by Geralt throughout, but because of the way Assassins of Kings cuts reagents from the bloated corpses of its peers and grinds them up into a bitter-but-heady brew of brutal violence, forceful storytelling and streamlined progression. Not for Geralt the open-world wandering of Skyrim’s Dragonborn, nor the clear moralising of Dragon Age: Origins' Warden; no potion-chugging, combo-based bloodshed as employed by Reckoning’s revenant nor the blind, often hopeless struggle of Dark Souls’ doomed adventurer. Instead, CD Projekt RED have taken the best elements of the genre and synthesized them into a focused, fat-free experience that might well be the best fantasy RPG ever released onto Microsoft’s big black box.
The story is purposeful but flexible, guiding you from hub to hub but giving you a level of freedom within each area to explore, tackle sidequests, hunt monsters and search for alchemy reagents. Though the main plot is linear, your way through it is not, and decisions you make constantly affect the ebb and flow of the narrative in ways that are sometimes obvious (for example, you may choose side with the smarmy but earnest Royal agent, Vernon Roche or the mysterious, human-hating Elven terrorist, Iorveth), but often subtle choices, the fallout out of which you won’t be fully aware of until you take a different path in a subsequent playthrough.
There’s very little signposting or handholding, and while your objectives are always clear, the method of achieving them is not. Accepting contracts to rid an area of monsters to earn some extra coin will require you to either study literature on the fiends or face them to learn their weaknesses; tackling larger enemies may require the creation of a specific potion to negate the effects of its poison; uncovering information from a specific character might necessitate doing favours, greasing palms or employing a little magical manipulation. Again, many quests and objectives can be completed in various ways, but in choosing the obvious option you might not spot the subtly-indicated alternatives.
The Witcher 2 blends cinematic excitement with brutal action. This escape sequence is a great example
Witchering under the influence
Coming back to alchemy (we will stop eventually, honest), it’s not rare to see the picking of herbs and the mixing of potions used in fantasy games as a way to gain the upper hand in a fight or bestow temporary gifts – but it is rare to see a game where alchemy is not simply an optional distraction. In The Witcher 2, alchemy is absolutely integral to survival.
"Maturity is a theme evident in the gruesome combat, graphic sex and political and racial tension shot through the narrative..."
Able to find herbs and weeds all over the world and harvest less-common ingredients from the corpses of enemies, Geralt can mix potions to (for example) help him to see in the dark, cast more potent spells or recover his health quicker. Witchers fight in a semi-meditative state, withstanding pain and healing quicker than normal people, and able to employ magic in the form of Signs – what they can’t do, though, is knock back a health potion mid-fight and miraculously recover in moments. Potions must be imbibed before combat, and tonics like Swallow (which speeds vitality regeneration) and Rook (to increase Geralt’s damage output) have a countdown timer to track their effects. The edge afforded by drinking the right combination of potions is essential to surviving The Witcher 2’s unforgiving combat – but beware: a toxicity bar fills with each concoction swallowed and overdoing it will diminish Geralt’s combat effectiveness.
Similarly, a Witcher can create bombs, traps and snares from scavenged ingredients, and a radial dial allows quick-switching between them during combat, but if you run out during a scrap you’ll have to wait until you’re safe and sound again before you can meditate and create more. To begin with, the uninitiated might wonder why they keep getting their arse handed to them by even the smaller enemies, until they realise that The Witcher 2 wants you to think about your next encounter and plan for it. It wants you to mix and drink the right potions before venturing into the wilderness; it wants you to make sure you’re fully armed and ready to tackle whatever the world throws at you because if you’re not, you’re going to die an awful lot.
Once you master mixing Signs with swordplay, combat becomes exceptional
Those who live by the sword
A major complaint against the PC version was the difficulty of combat (a problem later balanced by way of a downloadable patch – the content of which is included in the Xbox 360 Enhanced Edition by default), and it’s not hard to see why. Even with the inclusion of a target lock (which focuses on one enemy at a time but doesn’t lock the direction in which Geralt is facing), finding yourself surrounded by multiple enemies will usually see you dead.
Instead, you must learn to use the space on a battlefield. With a few skill points in the Swordsmanship talent tree, Geralt can perform a reposte – a parry and counter-attack that has a percentage chance to instantly kill the attacker with a brutal but unassailably slick finisher animation. Parrying, combat rolling, applying traps and using daggers and bombs to weaken distant enemies before they close are all part of the deadly ballet of The Witcher 2’s combat system, and once mastered deliver a balanced, beautiful melee element at times reminiscent of From Software’s Dark Souls – especially given the “get good or get dead” approach to combat.
If terrestrial means aren’t enough to best a particularly tough opponent, Geralt can use Signs, five magic abilities that can turn the tide during combat. Available from the very beginning, all five can be upgraded with skill points earned by levelling up, and each has a clear purpose and effect – there are no pointless talents here. The Axii Sign can turn an enemy against his comrades, whilst Aard can stun an opponent or even blast him off the edge of a cliff. Igni casts a fire spell, Quen creates an aegis around Geralt to absorb damage, and Yrden can temporarily trap an enemy on the spot. Learning which to use for a given situation is important, and once you master switching between them while managing your Vigor (the small bar that represents Geralt’s ability to parry, riposte and cast Signs), combat becomes a fluid, cinematic joy.
Triss Merigold, Geralt of Rivia and Vernon Roche stare meaningfully, contemplate meaningful things. Probably
The Butcher of Blaviken
Character progression is handled well, but doesn’t do anything terribly different, utilising the same level-by-experience system seen in every RPG since the dawn of time – though it should be pointed out that the skill trees here contain no “filler” talents; every ability unlocked bestows a clearly-defined improvement. Customisation is minimal, though obviously Geralt’s armour and weapons will change throughout as you discover and craft better gear, and you can change his hairstyle in certain towns if you’re so inclined.
"You can lose yourself for hours just hunting monsters for their organs..."
Geralt’s amnesia helps to create an element of mystery while at the same time allowing for unobtrusive exposition during the main narrative. Interactions with other characters, be they main players or supporting NPCs, are presented as a list of responses – but while they paraphrase Geralt’s actual dialogue, they’re not clearly labelled "red for evil" and "blue for good". Intimidating and persuasive replies are highlighted by corresponding symbols, but often you won’t be sure of the exact effects of your words until you’ve spoken them.
The voice-acting is mostly great (the main cast are excellent), but occasionally the accents grate. As is becoming the norm, the dwarves all speak with a semi-Scottish brogue and the Elves talk like they’re straight from a production by the Royal Shakespeare Company, while the humans sport a hodge-podge of regional accents that all manage to sound out of place. When Geralt is spouting words like “pussies” and “motherf***er” in a broad Middle American accent and the two characters he’s talking to are replying in strong Welsh and present-day Geordie tones, it’s not easy on the ears. It’s time RPG developers realise that regional accents are regional, and although people travel around a lot not every group of commoners you see standing together are likely to be from completely different parts of the country. The odd juxtaposition of modern-day slang and swearing beside Game of Thrones-y dialogue is also occasionally jarring as opposed to immersive.
This is the dwarven town of Vergen. They have a problem with harpies, as well as a mysterious fog raising the dead as wraiths. It never rains, but it pours...
Questing amidst distraction
Maturity is a theme in The Witcher 2, and it’s evident everywhere in the gruesome combat, graphic sex and political and racial tension shot through the narrative. Arguably, the sex is unnecessary – and Assassins of Kings is yet another example of men wearing full armour to go to war, while the women wear platemail with a plunging neckline or leather trousers that hug all the right curves. At times it’s downright provocative in a way that doesn’t really make sense, and highlights the apparent belief amongst developers that gamers will only care about rescuing an NPC if they’re stunningly attractive or semi-naked.
Occasionally, Assassins of Kings will ask that you briefly control a different character, either in a conversation vital to the plot or during a short fight sequence. Quite why is a mystery, as it’s almost completely pointless – it would be better to have these events affected by Geralt’s actions prior to them, as opposed to player actions within them. There’s rarely a real need to take you out of Geralt’s head, and when it happens it threatens to break the illusion that it’s your actions as Geralt that are shaping the story.
Similarly to Skyrim, the day/night cycle is completely irrelevant to the progression of the story. You might be required to achieve an objective within a couple of days, but repeatedly “waiting” for 24 hours at a time has no negative effect on the plot. It’s a tool to speed up the respawning of monsters, rather than to progress the narrative. Likewise, minigames like dice poker, arm-wrestling and fist-fighting are an amusing distraction and a great way to make a little extra coin, but they’re not necessary to the story and seem largely superfluous when you’re supposed to be saving the country from the brink of destruction.
The tattooed fellow is Iorveth, leader of Elven terrorist cell, the Scoia'tael. He's one of the best characters in the game
Beauty among the beasts
Graphically-speaking, The Witcher 2 might be the best-looking game on the 360, including a certain dragon-slaying epic. The level of detail in characters and enemies is exceptional, and the environments are without equal. Sun-dappled forest paths, dense, forbidding woods and dusty market squares look remarkable in the day, but at night they take on a completely different atmosphere – testament to CD Projekt RED’s ability to create a believable, living world.
"There are a score of reasons why The Witcher 2 earned so many awards on the PC, and each one is cast-iron..."
The ambient sound is incredible, too. Traversing a shadow-draped forest in the dead of night is as atmospheric as anything we’ve played – even rivalling Dark Souls for tension-building. Animals twitter in the distance, trees creak in the wind, howls echo eerily through the shadows and the sudden growl of an approaching beast always sets you immediately on edge. The musical direction is inspired and perfectly balanced, subtly altering your mood without ever becoming repetitive or irritating.
Additions to the Enhanced Edition include the new Dark Mode, an extra difficulty level that will have even seasoned players tearing out clumps of hair in frustration, and all the content from the nine PC DLC packs, including the comprehensive tutorial. There’s also an Arena Mode, a side-game that sees you face off against hordes of increasingly-difficult enemies to earn money and points, levelling up and improving gear between bouts in an effort to climb up the online leaderboards. It’s a great way to practice and an action-packed aside, but because you can’t save your progress it threatens to become somewhat repetitive after a while. There’s also a stunning new CGI intro, and an ending sequence that attempts (and, admittedly, largely fails) to flesh out a rather abrupt end to an otherwise exceptional narrative.
The backdrop of civil war, political intrigue and racial hatred creates a world that is vibrant and colourful -and yet on the brink of self-destruction
A monster undertaking
With all the extra content Assassins of Kings should take around 30 hours to complete, but warrants at least a second or third playthrough if you want to see everything and experience the repercussions of various decisions. You can lose yourself for hours crafting equipment and brewing potions, or engaging in fist-fighting tournaments and hunting monsters for their organs.
There’s simply so much depth to The Witcher 2’s focused gameworld that you simply have to get lost within it. Supporting characters you can’t help but care about, a story that adapts itself to your actions but still manages to deliver unexpected twists and sudden digressions, a crafting system that makes a real difference to how you play and a world that feels alive and reactive despite the occasional questionable design choice churn together to ensure that Assassin’s of Kings stands out, even amongst the recent AAA offerings from Bethesda and BioWare.
There’s a reason The Witcher 2 earned so many accolades upon its PC release – in fact that are a score of reasons and each one is cast-iron. This is a game that deserves to be played by every fan of action, adventure, fantasy and role-playing, and might just have torn the crowned head from atop Skyrim’s mighty neck.
This is true gaming alchemy – close your eyes, take a swallow of its unique brew, and allow The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings to completely intoxicate you. We guarantee you won’t experience a moment of regret.
Words by Mick Fraser (Twitter: @Jedi_Beats_Tank)
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