The Witcher 2 Assassins of Kings Enhanced Edition (XBOX 360)
Back in the 1990s a Polish author, Andrzej Sapkowski, released the first in a series of books which were fictional tales of The Witcher. Witchers were humans who had been taken from an early age and modified/enhanced/trained to provide them with special powers which would serve them well when hunting down and fighting various monsters. That initial story, The Sword of Destiny, was popular enough to warrant a sequel and that began a saga which now has a number of books in it.
The Witcher concept inspired a TV Series, graphic novels and then in 2007 a video game from Polish studio CD Projekt. The Witcher was released for Windows and was a complex RPG and focused, like the books, on Geralt of Rivira one of a few remaining Witchers.
The original Witcher game never quite made it to consoles but its 2011 sequel, Assassins of Kings is just about to be released on Xbox 360. This is the enhanced edition which features content not in the original release and an interface suited to the platform but can it live up to the original PC version?
As noted above The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Focuses on Geralt of Rivia and the game begins with an optional tutorial which is essentially a mini-mission in its self. Players would be wise to play through this tutorial, which lasts well over 30 minutes, as it explains many of the key gameplay mechanics in a short space of time, allowing us to concentrate on the story and enjoyment when the story really kicks off. Speaking of which, when the game proper begins we find ourselves waking on the morning of our Kings assault on an enemy castle. The game universe is in the middle of a war between numerous factions with plenty of political intrigue and double crossing to be had.
While many class The Witcher 2 as an action-RPG the truth is that the game is very much split into different modes. The first mode is very much dialogue based and see's us watch conversations between key characters in the game. At points in these scripted sections we are given choices on how to direct the conversation and our answers then see the game play out in different ways. The main plot still runs throughout, searching for an Assassin (the basic explanation so as not to spoil the story), but our route to the end will vary from other players due to the decisions made.
Once out of the conversations we are free to roam about the game, exploring, collecting and talking however there is always a goal to head for which sets in action the next part of the story. The main aim of these free roaming sections is to allow us time for collecting items which can be used to make potions, etc which will come in handy later to use as weapons or defence items. Side quests can also be picked up, allowing us to make money or enhance our XP, and as a result we level up which takes us to assigning skill points to build up the power of our character.
Geralt of Rivia is actually a rather powerful character from the get go and right from the prologue we have access to a number of spells (executed by Y) and two swords (chosen with the Dpad, fast swing A, power/slow swing X) in the action portions of the game. These weapons and spells are combined with quick items and each of those assigned to a selection of slots with one active at any time, including items which act as traps, bombs and long range items. Combat is a mix of attack and defence with various rules applying, such as the type of sword we use being more effective against different enemies, differing approaches working better against particular characters than others and we can of course defend, dodge, etc during fights to protect ourselves. We also have other characters with us for a significant portion of the game, often assisting us in quests and combat and each is controlled by the console.
Further taking the game into the realm of RPG rather than action adventure is the standard inventory system which has us collect and equip items to enhance our character. This can mean gathering items which offer more protection, coating our blades with poison and using magic, our talisman, to find nearby items of interest whether they be out in the open or in a building or chest waiting to be opened and explored. The use of our talisman, like our magic is limited though and takes time to charge between use with various items/skills along the way affecting how often and how quickly we can use each.
Also peppering the three main gameplay modes are quick time events, or action sequences which see us essentially take part in mini games. These vary in style with many available and some based on hand to hand combat and others running from a creature trying not to get caught/killed. Speaking of getting killed, when we do die, and that will happen to every player, the game offers to let us re-start from the most recent save point.
Rounding off the gameplay within The Witcher 2: Enhanced Edition we have achievements which are awarded along the way, though far less frequently than most games, and a separate mini-game which is accessed from the main menu allowing us to take part in a mode which focuses specifically on Combat, a gladiatorial competition levelling up a separate version of Geralt and practicing our combat in the process.
Graphics and Audio
When it was launched on PC The Witcher 2 was a real system killer. Put it to the maximum detail levels and it would bring systems to their knees, though look fantastic while doing so. There were of course various levels of detail which allowed people to tailor the game to their system but for the Xbox 360 CD Projekt have tried to cram as much detail as possible into the single level of visual quality which is available, while recommending for the best performance users install the game to drive rather than run from the two discs it fills. This approach has two results, firstly there are some areas of the game which look stunning, lighting for example is first class, view distance is great and some of the video sequences, in particular the introduction video are movie quality. On the other hand the now quite old 360 is being pushed to its limits and textures often take a second or two longer to load than they should which results in pop-up and load times are reasonably frequent, as is the use of the same, repeated hit animation/cut scenes.
On the whole though it is an impressive visual experience, if not matching what a modern PC can do.
The audio is also decent in this game, voice acting can be a little robotic at times, essentially lacking in expression or emotion, but some of the character do stand out with Triss and the King being particularly full of expression in their performances. There is also a decent amount of dialogue from NPCs to read/listen to and the orchestral score works well. Sound effects are also good and fit in well with the tone and setting of the game, though on occasion they do feel a little loud as important quest aspects are often increased beyond what is natural to highlight their presence to us.
As we noted earlier in the review the game begins with a movie quality cut scene and it really raises the players expectations of the game significantly as well as setting the scene well. That said, some further background on the events of the first game would be an added bonus to bring players into the game universe further... here are the basics packed into 5minutes for those who are interested.
While the tutorial which follows does stop the story in its tracks a little going though it works exceptionally well at introducing the action gameplay elements as well as spell/potion use. As a result we are well versed in combat when the main plot kicks in and in terms of quality it is top notch. The Witcher 2 has one of the most enjoyable RPG storylines we have experienced in some time and although it is paced reasonably slowly there is always a new task taking us on through the game and a desire to find out what happens next.
Despite the great pacing and storyline there are some minor aspects which could have done with tweaking. Firstly the game does throw a lot of names and locations at the player in fast bursts and it can be a little hard to keep track of who each person is, what there relation is to other characters or factions and where we might be heading etc. Additionally the dialogue can be a touch over the top and not quite to the point, though there is a huge amount of scope for variation on subsequent play throughs.
The Witcher 2 is also a very adult focused game and although this will give it more appeal to many with the copious amounts of swearing, plenty of gore and more than a little nudity, sometimes it does feel like the characters are swearing for the sake of it rather than it adding anything to the conversation... and they do love the word ploughing.
Those minor issues aside there are plenty of other positives to outweigh them. As with the graphics CD Projekt are also very much pushing the boundaries of the 360 with their control options. A huge amount of button assignments and combinations have been included in the game but they are always easy to remember and give us huge flexibility. As a nice touch they also interface well with the actual gameplay.
One fine example is that of selecting our spell; we can head for an enemy, press X to begin a slow/powerful attack then hit the spell selector button which moves us into a slow motion mode giving us time to assign it while our last action completes with plenty of slomo gore and impact, at which point we exit the selector and fire our spell. It makes for some impressive attacks which complement standard combat well. On that standard combat, the game is a little bit of a button masher in places however with a wide range of attacks and basic defences it never gets boring or tedious.
One of the finest RPG games on Xbox 360. At 30+ hours of gameplay with a great plot and enjoyable gameplay The Witcher 2 hugely impresses... even if it is pushing the system to, and sometimes beyond its limits.