What’s up with: The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

Too often had I read Internet forum-posters declaring they’re going back to play The Witcher 2 (TW2) after trying out a new role-playing game (RPG). This is often accompanied with proclamations of how said RPG is shallow with high praises for the complexity of TW2’s combat and story.

I bought TW2 during the Steam summer sale last year and there it sat in my backlog as its retail price continued to drop. I finally gave it a whirl after the game was updated to version 2.0, making it both more accessible and difficult in the same stroke.

It took me a while to get the game set up so it won’t cause my laptop to explode and an even longer while before I could actually feel myself getting into the game (much, much longer in fact). When I finally finished the game (one of the paths anyway),¬† I came away with the feeling of how some gamers seem to be confusing a hardcore RPG with a complex story to be one which is inaccessible that is utterly confusing, the understanding for the laud bestowed upon TW2 and its failure to reach above 90 for its Metacritic rating despite all the support and hype that surrounds it.

[Disclaimer: I completed The Witcher 2 post-v2.0 in 34 hours, taking Ioverth’s path and on easy difficulty; it was a mostly completionist playthrough where I attempted all side-quests and completed those that didn’t fail due to some of my actions. I’ve not played The Witcher: Enhanced Edition beyond the half-way mark and have not read any of the prose that forms the Witcher-verse. The follow passage might contain spoilers if you haven’t played the game but I avoid them as much as possible.]

Story

Considering how it is the pivotal part of any RPG, it’s only apt that I kick this off with story; and the story in TW2 is a tale of two ends of the spectrum. By the time I finished the game, I’ve grown to agree with most of the fans that TW2 has a great story, however I only realize that in the last 3-5 hours of a 35-hour playthrough due to its terrible narrative.

A story is only as great as it’s story-telling and George RR Martin realized that, resulting in a Dance with Dragons being delayed while he puzzled out the Point of Views (POVs) required to tell the story he wanted to tell. In novels, there is the luxury of changing POVs and authors usually choose the best to serve their purposes. Imagine for a moment that Little Red Riding Hood was told from the perspective of the hunter that arrived to save the day and everything else was told retrospectively, that wouldn’t make as good a story. The same luxury usually isn’t afforded to games; the story of TW2 is clearly Letho’s story but unfortunately our POV is Geralt. The need to have an NPC, at the end of the game, explain to me through a dozen recorded lines everything that transpired is an indicator of the serious narrative issues in this game.

The poor narrative isn’t helped by dropping the players in the middle of a plot by assuming they possess knowledge both from the previous game and the universe the games are based on. The first Witcher game had the advantage of the plot device where Geralt was suffering from amnesia and that allowed the player to be in-sync with Geralt’s discovery of the world. Most games that form franchises provide NPCs that rapidly paint broad strokes of the universe’s lore for players through interactive dialogue, my experience with TW2 was one in which Geralt always possessed more knowledge of the world and characters than I do. The onus is on the players to get themselves to the same level of knowledge as Geralt or they risk disassociation from the very character they’re controlling and the inability to emphathize with the motivations behind his decisions.

I personally feel that games, including those which are part of franchises, should be self-contained like a movie with a proper prologue, followed by a conflict, the climax and finally the resolution. Of course, all these will be for naught if you merely play a passive bystander that tells a poor story of the event.

Aesthetics

Something I know for sure: it was no empty boast when CD Projekt RED said they’re making the most beautiful RPG of 2011. They have come a long way from the first game that runs on a modified Aurora Engine with their own RED Engine.

RED Engine’s illumination model is one of the most complex I’ve seen in RPGs. Accurate soft shadows even on distant surfaces, mobile light sources that illuminate their environment, dynamic high dynamic range rendering that washes out the scene if the camera faces a bright light source, dynamic environment mapping on reflective surfaces and cloud-cover simulation that casts passing shadow are just some that I noticed.

The tech that drives the pretties was accompanied with top-notch lip-sycned voice-acting that didn’t require CD Projekt RED to release an Enhanced Edition to rectify this time. There is also an insane attention to detail where each piece of armor and weapon is reflected in unique and intricately designed models, each important NPC has a unique look and is instantly recognizable, every rune applied is reflected accurately on blades that sit in their own scabbards and each ornament that hangs from characters is simulated with jiggle physics. All these come together in delicious real-time cut scenes that always shows off my uniquely equipped Geralt.

This high production value however made the decision for an important and virtuous female NPC to use the same walk-cycle as the prostitutes a jarring contrast to the rest of the game, especially since another female NPC is seen using a more conservative walk-cycle. Red Engine is a heavy-lifting but resource-hungry monster with confusing settings that do not affect the looks but helps the frame rates and some which makes the game look better with little effect on frame rates; it requires a decent machine for it to be even playable mostly. I’m interested to see how well the PC graphical fidelity is translated into the upcoming Xbox 360 release.

Design

I’m not going to talk about the combat for a few reasons: firstly, pretty much everyone (including myself, somewhat) agree that it’s good, moreover I played the game on easy and lastly but chiefly because I need to discuss everything else which is sub-par.

The User Interface (UI) refers to menus and text that provide feedback to the players and even the controls that allows them to interact with the game. The UI in TW2 is ungainly at best and questionable at its worst. The decision to ditch a grid-based inventory system for one that uses lists of weighted items is strange considering TW2 is primarily a PC release. My attempt at using a gamepad did not ease the usage of the inventory either. Most players will be stumped when presented with the shopping interface for the first time as the annotation for each panel is tucked inconspicuously at the bottom. Conspicuous by its absence though is the ability to compare shop items to current equipment.

The following few UI complaints might simply be my personal preference. Moving Geralt forward in his default speed triggers a 2-step walk-cycle which more often than not result in him taking the extra step after releasing the key. This became frustrating when I needed to loot the countless containers that litter the environment (I’d come back to this later) but I learnt to walk with the Shift key when I needed precise movement. The playing of the entire ladder-climbing sequence on a single mouse-click and NPCs opening doors and then shutting them in my face are 2 of the other issues that irk me.

The weirdest systems for me is the entire character progression. While the game started very challenging, I got a grasp of things by the half-way mark but got my last 3/4 levels in quick succession via 2 quests completions. By then, Geralt is almost unstoppable. TW2 features a crafting system that is mostly useless except for those available in the final chapter. I spent a lot of time looking into crates and chests to gather enough coins to buy crafting diagrams and then back through the same containers to look for materials to craft the items only to have them made obsolete by some quest reward (that often appears without notification). The world is littered with items which are useless to Geralt with their only purposes being to provide flavour and to be sold for money. Unfortunately anything of decent worth weighs a lot. The fact that some crafting ingredients go by 2 different names, solid cloth and robust cloth comes to mind, did not help matters either.

Summary

I can’t help but feel TW2 is stuck between the trappings of old-school RPGs and its own desire to be a realistic, serious RPG. Above are just the main issues I would like to highlight. There are some other concepts which I enjoyed like the poker-dice and arm-wrestling mini-games and the gathering of materials to concoct potions and preparation before combat (though I never really used any); similarly there are other issues which I did not delve into like the introduction of a handful of new briefly-featured characters every chapter and the entire category of lures which wasn’t explained in the game (unless I missed it).

TW2 might have became the media and fan darling that is is now because its release followed the critical failure of Dragon Age II (a game which was decent if it wasn’t part of the franchise and without the horrible illusion of choice). TW2 is a great improvement over the first game of the series, at least I finished this one, had great potential and evidently successfully carved itself a niche market. The gaming community is generally able to forgive flaws if the game is great (see Skyrim) but TW2’s flaws prevented it from achieving universal acclaim and resulted in it being overlooked for Game of The Year, with the committee favouring another RPG, which I also completed recently, Deus Ex: Human Revolution. It’s nominated, however, for Best Narrative but there is probably no distinction between story and narrative for the GDC award.

TW2 is one of those strange games I might enjoy more on my second playthrough compared to the first, mostly due to how everything didn’t make sense until end of chapter 2. I was hooked then but also knew that the game is coming to an end. At the end of the short third chapter and the game, I was simply left longing for more…

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