witchban_editedIt says something about the The Witcher 2 that it’s one of the best RPGs I’ve ever played, despite the fact I’ve only experienced about half of it.

These days, many games offer choice to their players, yet how far-reaching these decisions are depends on the game; your choices in the Mass Effect series may dictate who lives and who dies for instance, but many decisions tend to be rather binary choices that descend into “if this, then that” scenarios that don’t tend to have a wider impact on the game world than who you take on a mission with you.

But The Witcher 2 goes a step further, one major choice effectively changing the entire course of the game. After a scene-setting prologue in which Geralt of Rivia (the titular Witcher) witnesses, and is subsequently framed for, the death of a king, he sets off with Vernon Roche, head of the deceased monarch’s special forces, to prove his innocence and hunt down the man responsible. His first lead takes him to the dreary riverside town of Flotsam, where he’s tracked down Iorveth, leader of a band of renegade elves that he suspects have helped the true kingslayer to flee.

Of course, this being a world made of numerous shades of grey, things aren’t quite that simple. Iorveth leads a group of Scoia’tael, bands of elven and dwarven guerrillas in a world where non-humans are persecuted, and to many he’s nothing more than a terrorist. As the saying goes: “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”, and so the man you initially set out to hunt down becomes a potential ally. By the end of the first chapter we’re forced to make a quick decision: do we stick with Roche and tend to matters in Flotsam, or do we set off with Iorveth on the trail of the assassin?

iorveth

This single choice leads to two wildly different outcomes. With Iorveth, we end up in the Dwarven town of Vergen, supporting a young warrior facing off an expansionist king’s army while she strives to establish a multi-racial state. If we decide to travel with Roche, we’re on the opposite side of that same conflict, in a completely separate area with different quests, objectives and new characters that you’d otherwise never come across.

Portioning off masses of content like this is great for replayability (I still need to run the Roche path in a second playthrough), but is also somewhat risky; there are plenty of people out there who will only play the game once through and not even know what they’re missing, after all. It shows great confidence in their fiction that CD Projekt RED would offer such differing paths through the storyline of The Witcher 2, and even better is the somewhat-delayed nature of the branching paths in the game. Often, you’ll make a decision and think it’s had very little effect on your adventure at all. It’s only hours later that you’ll see the full repercussions of your actions, and this forces you to own your choices; you can’t reload and try out the other path (unless you want to lose hours of progress), so you just have to accept the fallout and move on, knowing that next time you’ll stop to consider your actions, conscious of the path you want to take through the game’s narrative.

And what a story it is, tackling mature themes such as racism, terrorism and political maneuvering, all through a dark fantasy lens. Following on from the first game’s excellent final cinematic, Geralt finds himself in the employ of King Foltest of Temeria as he attempts to put down a revolt, and later carves a path through the Northern Kingdoms in an attempt to uncover the machinations of a lodge of magicians, the disappearance of his one-time lover and the memories he has lost since he apparently returned from death. It’s an epic tale that plays out in a somewhat-muted manner, lending the tale a very grounded, human feel despite the dragons, the sorceresses and the mythical creatures Geralt earns his coin by slaying. It’s the perfect tone for the game to take, eschewing the usual AAA Hollywood-style theatrics in favour of something that better serves the multi-layered, mature story.

Combat has been overhauled from the first game. Just as in The Witcher, Geralt carries two swords – a silver blade for use against monsters and a steel one for more earthly foes – but here you have either a fast or a heavy attack rather than the previous game’s three stances. Replacing Geralt’s spins and pirouettes is a handy dodge-roll for getting out of trouble, and the first game’s magical Signs make a reappearance here as well. Combat certainly feels more tactile and involving than the previous game’s mouse-clicks-and-die-rolls system, and you really need to know how and when to use each element of the system to your advantage; risk a slow, heavy strike at the wrong time and you could be in trouble. Similarly, you don’t want to allow yourself to get surrounded, as this will lead to Geralt being bounced around like a pinball as all of your enemies take their shot at you, knocking you out of your attack animation.

If this sounds punishing, well… it is. Or rather, it can be. The best thing to do in The Witcher 2 is to play defensively, sussing out the enemy’s weaknesses, finding an opening and then exploiting it mercilessly. It’s exhilarating when you work your way through a group of enemies by sheer skill and quick thinking, because if you just try to hack and slash, you won’t last long at all.

There are a couple of minor irritations in combat, however. I mentioned enemies knocking you out of attack animations, and that’s a symptom of probably the most potentially frustrating niggle in the game – when you make a move, take a swipe or prepare a sign, you have to commit to it. You can’t bail out part-way through the animation to dodge-roll or block, so you really need to know how and when to move. Secondly, you can only use potions (concoctions that confer buffs on Geralt) before you enter combat, meaning you generally have to know (or at least suspect) a battle is coming up ahead of time. This is a change from the first game, where you could down a potion if you could manage to create a bit of space in a fight.

These minor issues wouldn’t really matter if the combat wasn’t occasionally uneven – there are some brutal difficulty spikes in the game, though generally you can get through them by thinking about the situation and trying a different strategy. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised to see both these issues either tweaked or changed entirely in the upcoming sequel.

flotsam3

Visually, The Witcher 2 is a beautiful game, even on 360 (the version I played, which seems to be roughly on-par with PC on medium). This is partly thanks to CD Projekt’s impressive tech and partly down to their excellent art direction. I mentioned Flotsam earlier, but it’s the surrounding forest that really steals the show in this early section of the game; dark, foreboding and densely multi-layered, it’s straight out of a Brothers Grimm folktale, with the canopies of huge trees blotting out the light, branches twisted into gnarled curlicues. It’s a fabulously atmospheric setting in a game that’s absolutely rammed with them – just wait until you first spy the quarry near Vergen.

And I haven’t even mentioned the characters, all of whom are well-defined and uniformly deliver excellent dialogue. It’s certainly a clear step up from the first game in that regard, even returning characters like Zoltan and Dandelion seemingly infused with more character. The absolute stand-out for me is the mysterious Letho, a man whose appearance belies his intelligence. In fact, I enjoyed his character so much that I made a decision near the game’s end that I wouldn’t have thought likely at the tale’s start. I really hope we see him again in The Witcher 3.

And speaking of The Witcher 3, it’s probably my most anticipated next-gen title on the horizon right now. All I need to do is play through Geralt’s first two adventures again beforehand, experiencing those paths less trodden along the way. CD Projekt have made it clear that the upcoming third game will bring Geralt’s tale to a close and, looking as impressive as it currently does, I think they’re going to leave us with one of the best trilogies in all of gaming.

Previous entries in Games of the Generation:
Dead Space 2
Tales of Vesperia
Halo 3
Theatrhythm Final Fantasy
To the Moon

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