The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (Enhanced Edition) Review
By Mitsuo Takemoto |
The Witcher 2 is not a normal video game, and it's not a normal fantasy. It subverts the old high-fantasy stereotypes even as it employs them. The elves that you'll meet in Temeria aren't charming, ethereal forest-dwellers, they're guerrilla insurgents raining death on humans from the trees. The dwarves, typically cheerful, hard-working sorts, live in a city of worn rock that runs off the fumes of their former industriousness while its current inhabitants drink, joke and fornicate. The various kingdoms are in the on the precipice of war, led by despotic kings who play their personal vendettas out on the battlefields at the expense of their armies' lives.
And who are you, amongst all this? You're Geralt of Rivia, a stoic and distinctly un-heroic monster hunter with a few memory problems and a faintly inexplicable way with the ladies. Though sworn to impartiality on matters of the state, he is drawn into this complex political maelstrom by a series of regicides that brand him a criminal and pull him back into his own, forgotten past. The Witcher 2 is a game for adults, and not just because of all the sex and violence. It expects you to be intelligent and interested, to care about the political machinations, racial tensions and complex history of its world. Plenty of games shield you from their lore, afraid that it might scare you off. The Witcher 2 drops you right in the thick of it, and expects you to deal with it.
If you already own The Witcher 2 on PC, this Enhanced Edition is available for free via a patch, and offers around 4 hours of new content and 32 minutes of cinematics (including a new intro and outro that provide extra context for the game's fulsome, complex story) alongside an array of small improvements. Developer CD Projekt Red claims to have made over 100 of these minor fixes, improving animations, NPC models, stability and much more. They're discernible in spots of extra graphical and interface polish that make this the definitive edition of The Witcher 2. If, for some reason, you didn't buy The Witcher 2 last year, now is an ideal time to do so. If you did, the extra content might persuade you to revisit it.
Underpinning The Witcher 2's ambitious fantasy is a sword- and magic-based combat system that is one of the best around, delivering challenge and flexibility alongside the straightforwardly violent finishing moves and lethal strikes that are the backbone of all good melee combat. Dipping into stylish slow-motion to select spells, bombs and traps from a radial menu, you chip away at groups of enemies through strategy and smart positioning rather than simply hacking through them with silver or steel. Spells ignite, confuse or trap your foes, where oils and enhancements change the properties of your blades.
It's useful to know that running away is sometimes a better idea than trying to stand and fight. Combat is challenging, and reliant on good preparation; taking the extra time to craft bombs, traps and potions that will help you in specific battles often pays dividends. The Witcher 2 often bookends its quests with nail-biting fights against powerful wraiths or monsters - conveniently, Geralt's Witcher medallion reacts to danger, giving you notice when something dangerous is just around the corner.
The layout of these myriad functions works well on a pad, but the extra flexibility of a keyboard allows you to use number keys for spells, meaning that you don't have to select them from the radial menu. This slightly improves the flow of combat, and encourages you to take advantage of the full variety of magic rather than falling back on a single spell. Menus, though, are definitely best suited to mouse control - the complex layout of The Witcher 2's alchemy, inventory and character menus is easier to navigate with clicks than a d-pad.
It does suffer, as it always did, from a lack of clarity in menu-heavy activities like crafting and alchemy. A comprehensive in-game journal offers a refresher on everything you could need to know about the characters, locations and recent events, but there are some elements of the actual gameplay that could be better explained.
The Witcher 2 is full of excellently-designed quests, from the grand machinations of its central plot to side-quests that deal in ghost stories, missing persons and humorous mysteries. Spend time in taverns and get into a fist-fights or gambling debt, and you might find Geralt led into something bigger. Investigating a single murder might uncover a long trail of cause and effect. These well-written diversions mean that Geralt never feels like an errand boy, and the choices that you make – minor and major –affect the course of the narrative in a way that feels natural and organic. You're never told to choose between good and evil, filling some invisible morality meter. Instead it feels like what you're doing actually means something.
The Enhanced Edition's extra content helps to flesh out this story, and some of the background behind it. The new intro cinematic introducts Letho, the game's main antagonist, colourfully and gorily forwarning you of his regicidal tendencies.
It's in the cities that the contrast between The Witcher 2 and other, cleaner, more aspirational and austere fantasies is most apparent. Games usually create places full of marble palaces and gorgeous architecture, wide streets and bustling town centres. These, meanwhile, are ramshackle, grimy places where the tension between humans and non-humans constantly threatens to bubble up into mob violence. As a witcher – a mutated human, essentially – Geralt finds himself somewhere between these two racial camps, and many of the decisions that you make over the course of the game feed into a much larger racial conflict that goes beyond current monarchs and recent resentments and sometimes feels like it's etched into the very stone that the cities are built from. The Witcher 2's history and lore is built into its world and geography as effectively as it's written into characters' dialogue.
It's been said before, but it's worth emphasising that visually, The Witcher 2 on PC is amongst the most impressive games out there. Played on a medium-to-high-end PC, the level of detail on characters' clothing, buildings and interiors is extraordinary - and the forests surrounding ramshackle Flotsam look almost real. The rock-hewn buildings of the dwarven city of Vergen gleam in moonlight and sparkle in sunlight. Only the facial animation is slightly off, and that's only really noticeable because of the stratospheric graphical standards that the game sets elsewhere.
The Enhanced Edition is more accurately described as an expanded edition of The Witcher 2 rather than a dramatically improved one; it's still very much the same game, with the same minor foibles. The inaccessible nature of The Witcher 2 will still be as much of a problem for some players as it was last year. It needs you to pay attention and be willing to look thinks up, and there are still things about the interface - mutagens, for instance - that don't make much sense, even if the new tutorial goes some way towards addressing them. But CD Projekt Red rewards you for putting in the effort to engage in and understand its world, filling the dialogue and in-game literature with incidental detail that means more and more to you as you invest more time in the fiction.