Sunday, 6 January 2013

Now Playing: The Witcher 2

I began The Witcher 2 having played, yet not completed, its predecessor. Although there were many aspects of The Witcher that intrigued me - the characters, story, setting and combat - the game itself felt horribly paced, and ten or so hours in, I was left increasingly frustrated by what seemed like an endless series of irritating fetch quests and point A to B to C to back to A backtracking with little in the way of plot development.

Essentially, I gave up because I got bored. I said I’d go back and slog my way through it one day. I’d asked around and been told that the game does pick up significantly during its later chapters - providing you have the patience to reach them.

So I was naturally wary of The Witcher 2. There was a lot I liked about the first game, the question was if the developers could take those elements, improve upon them and discard the fluff. When the game in its ‘Enhanced Edition’ form went on sale, I decided to give it a shot, and I discovered the answer was an emphatic YES!

Across the board, The Witcher 2 excels in all areas, leaving not only its predecessor in the shade, but most other games too - hence why I proclaimed it the best game I played in 2012 (although it was originally released on PC in 2011) Graphically, The Witcher 2 is an incredibly good looking game, featuring a variety of lush environments, highly detailed character and creature models and a set of fluid, exciting combat animations.

It has a wonderful soundtrack combined with a great range of in game atmospheric sounds – from swords clashing on the battlefield, to the banter in a village market. On top of this you also have some of the most consistently excellent VA I’ve seen in a game, especially considering its wide cast and variety of characters.

The story avoids the typical ‘an ancient evil rises’ trope that so many other fantasy based games fall into. Instead, it expertly and maturely presents us with a story that features world changing events and the resulting political machinations, but interwoven with a more personal story - a search for truth, friends and justice. And unlike the first game, the story this time is much better paced, keeping you engaged and progressing at a steady rate.

The story also features a branching narrative which can result in the player visiting different locations, interacting with different characters or characters in a new manner, seeing things from an alternative perspective, and even determine the outcome of the game - it’s a trick many games claim, yet few create the sense of importance and impact that decisions in The Witcher 2 manage - many of them weighing upon the player with no clear ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ solution.

The story begins with the assassination of a King, and very quickly Geralt (a Witcher - a professional monster slayer) finds himself drawn into a conflict that will determine the fate of the northern kingdoms, all the while attempting to uncover the mysteries of his own past. The story unfolds over the course of a prologue campaign (which serves as a tutorial section), three large chapters, each set in a new location with new enemies to face (and the second of which can play out very differently depending on your choices in Chapter 1) and a final, satisfying epilogue to wrap things up, but just enough to leave you wanting more - take note, Mass Effect 3.

Alongside the main story quests are many side and optional missions providing a depth and wealth of varied content. There are also enjoyable mini games to take part in - fist fighting, dice and arm wrestling. These quests, as you would expect, come with rewards such as money and gear which can be used to enhance Geralt. Even some seemingly minor, unimportant fetch quests can lead to larger, more complex encounters that would put the ‘main quest’ missions in other games to shame - take note, Skyrim.

As in other RPGs, Geralt levels up and has a skill tree enabling him to enhance his abilities in three distinct areas - combat, magic and alchemy. Experience points are plentiful enough to encourage experimentation, but not enough to simply flood every tree and acquire every ability. Certain abilities can then be further enhanced with the use of mutagens found in the world to further tailor Geralt’s abilities to your liking.

Although I didn’t mind the almost ‘rhythm game’ nature of the combat system in The Witcher, the fighting mechanics in its sequel far surpass it. Even on lower difficulty settings, fights cannot be won through mindless clicking, but through timing, skill and tactics. As you often find yourself facing multiple attackers, you must quickly learn to use every tool at your disposal - there are fast and slow attack types, parries, ripostes and dodges.

Combine those with a variety of bomb types, blade oils and traps, each with varying effects - and even further with the variety of performance enhancing potions you can brew and consume - and you have an engaging, tactical combat system that STILL manages to look bloody cool on top - take note, Assassin’s Creed.

So yeah, it looks, sounds and plays fantastic, with a wealth and depth of content, a strong story and great characterisation. Oh, and some memorable and challenging ‘boss’ fights too. So what are the negatives? Well, Chapter 2 feels a little bloated, with some unnecessary padding and backtracking - although I only played through one of the story paths in Chapter 2, so I’m unsure how well paced the alternative is. Potions feel largely redundant, as you can only use these out of combat - so unless you know what’s around the next corner, you may not use them very often.

This also applies to traps, which take a small moment to lay in a fight and usually aren’t worth the risk. I played through on the default Normal setting, so perhaps on higher difficulties these tools become more important, but in my experience, neither was ever as useful as the simple blade oils. Chapter Three feels rather restrictive and more linear than the previous two, but that’s to be expected. Visiting more locations would have also been nice, because this is a world with a lot of history and detail, and it’s a shame we don’t get to see more of it.

Overall, I couldn’t recommend The Witcher 2 any higher. It’s an incredibly polished and exemplary title. It is rich in detail, deep in content, varied, engaging, comfortably on the right side of challenging and above all else, extremely enjoyable and rewarding to play.


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