If there’s one big problem I have with games journalism (and, indeed, the games industry in general) it’s that we’re always focused on the Next Big Thing. It’s always about now, and about what’s next. If something’s a week old then – sales figures aside – who cares?
It’s a genuine shame, and it’s why I actually like Game of the Year stuff. Not because I think ranking the year’s games is of desperate importance, but because – other than giving us a chance to look back at the year on the whole – we get to take a second look at games that have been improved since launch. Games like, ooh, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings.
On launch, The Witcher 2 was a fine game. A superb character-driven RPG, players followed Geralt of Rivia – the titular witcher, or monster hunter – as he tried to uncover both the memories he lost between the end of the books and the start of the first game, and the mysteries surrounding a series of political assassinations that appeared to be committed by witchers themselves.
And it did a lot right. Good voice acting and good characters occupied a well-designed and fascinating world, while a complex and intriguing plot slowly unravelled. The game’s combat system – a sort of tactical-action mishmash, with everything happening in real-time but requiring careful thought – was superb; fights were, for the most part, fun but fair. Rushing in and clicking rapidly would get you killed, but making the most of your traps, weapons, magical signs, and pre-battle potions, and dodging and parrying as needed, would give you the edge required. In short, it was bloody marvellous.
The Witcher 2 suffered from a few… teething problems, however. There were a few engine quirks (only one person could traverse a door at once, for instance, leading to unintentionally amusing queues if you had to follow a group), and the start of the game was far, far harder than the rest of it due to two factors.
First: the further in you got, the more skills you unlocked and the more powerful you were. This meant that the game had the reverse of the usual difficulty curve, with the end game actually being far easier than the prologue. Not a major problem because the game was so damnably enjoyable anyway.
Secondly, the game’s “tutorial” was awful. Next to nothing was explained (if you didn’t know what an Axii or Yrden sign did, for instance, you were screwed) and pop-up hints didn’t pause the action so even the assistance offered would often get you killed. The first hour of The Witcher 2 was a trial by fire – almost literally, when that bloody dragon turned up – but perseverance was rewarded with one of the best RPG experiences in recent memory.
Then along came patch 2.0.
Suddenly, there was a new, decent, stand-alone tutorial that actually, properly, genuinely explained how to play the game and how everything worked. Suddenly, there was an Arena mode that let you battle through increasingly hard waves of foes, upgrading your equipment and abilities and hiring mercenaries between battles, and giving you a chance to practice your combat skills away from the main game (and frankly, this could’ve easily been sold as a £3-£5 stand-alone product). Suddenly, there was the aptly-titled “Dark” difficulty, which is as hard as the game’s highest difficulty but removed the stringent “if you die, your saves are deleted” restriction that meant the game’s greatest challenges were reserved for those as fearless as they were skilled.
In short, The Witcher 2 had made itself more accessible to newcomers, more fun for the experts, and generally fixed some of its few problems.
But focusing too much on patch 2.0 is giving short shrift to the rest of the game and, much as that patch resolved a load of issues, The Witcher 2 was always a game of the year contender. I could wax lyrical about it being the game that’s done the best “morally grey” choices that I can think of, or the fact that it is – for the most part – one of the most genuinely mature games I’ve played in a long time (and that’s in terms of themes rather than sophomoric nudity and violence). I could also mention that it’s got some of the most impactful choices in any title of this length yet, with almost half of the game varying wildly based on certain decisions, and the ending chapter being heavily affected by prior choices.
I joked in the tagline of the original review that The Witcher 2 was possibly going to be the witchest game of the year, and I can now confidently state that not only is it indeed the witchest game of the year, but it’s even witcher than ever before. Less nonsensically, it’s also one of the best plot-and-character-driven RPGs of the year, with that plot and those characters joined by meaningful choices and sterling combat. Now more than ever, it absolutely deserves its place towards the top of any game of the year list.