I unabashedly love The Witcher 2 (and, as the tagline shows yet again, playing with the word “witcher”). It has a well-defined world, which – through fairy tale and folklore influences – manages to feel rather different to the traditional medieval fantasy. Trolls live under bridges, ghosts haunt those they feel wronged them, and everything is more morally complex than it first appears. It has decent characters; genuine choice; consequences; tactical but fast-paced combat; and the usual RPG trappings of quests, equipment management, and character development.
It all revolves around Geralt of Rivia, amnesiac witcher (a mutated, highly-trained monster-slayer for hire), who – in the game’s opening – stands falsely accused of murdering a king. From there you’re off on the hunt, both to prove your innocence and to reclaim the memories Geralt lost prior to the start of the first game. Along the way, the choices you make will vastly impact the way the game plays out, right up to seeing kingdoms changing hands because of what you did.
And this is a horrible, racist world. Generally, humans loathe dwarves and elves, who – in turn – hate humans, and most people also hate and fear witchers, with a whole load of local folklore about these strange, awful mutants. Not that everyone’s like this, of course, but it’s a pretty good guideline; before you’re three hours in you’ll have heard humans muttering in hushed tones about what witchers could possibly eat, and fought bandits proclaiming that you can’t hurt them because they have a turtle stone, which they seem to think will repel you like garlic to a vampire.
The actual characters, too, are flawed individuals, and everything’s a murky moral grey. For instance: depending on who you ask, the elf Iorveth is either a noble warrior doing the best he can for his downtrodden people, or he’s a filthy terrorist who commits atrocities against the innocent. Both of these descriptions are entirely accurate, and choosing where your allegiances lie – if with anyone other than yourself – is a tricky, tricky thing.
enerally good voice acting and solid writing helps craft characters who are genuinely likeable in spite of their foibles, as well as a fair few who are enjoyably hateable no matter what. In terms of being a grim fantasy world with characters that somehow straddle the line between being complete monsters and likeable people with understandable motivations, The Witcher 2 is a bit reminiscent of A Game of Thrones, and that’s no small compliment.
Quests are also a little different from the norm with most of them almost telling a mini-story of their own. You’ll be lied to by merchants, investigate spooky goings-on in a haunted building, and take up the usual witcher work of monster hunting (which tends to rely on investigation and a little planning before you get to wander out with a sword and hack at things).
That sword-based hacking plays out in tried-and-tested action-RPG fashion: you have quick attacks and strong attacks which you can chain together, you can parry (and eventually riposte, if you choose to focus on swords when levelling), and you can roll out of the way of incoming blows. Timing and positioning is everything: hitting a shielded enemy from the front will get you a counter-attack to the face, and Geralt can’t take too many hits.
He has some tricks of his own, though. During combat you can hurl bombs, place traps, or throw daggers, and magic (roughly equating to Force Push, Fireball, Charm, Shield, and, er, a trap) can be used through Witcher signs. Preparation factors into things, too – you can blend herbs to make potions, and while you can’t drink them in combat, you can certainly give yourself a few nifty buffs by drinking appropriate ones before battle begins.
The PC version’s primary faults were in terms of the engine, which had some interesting problems relating to doors, and in terms of the difficulty, with no tutorial whatsoever and an interesting difficulty curve that meant the game got much easier as you got further in. The difficulty was fixed in a patch which added in a harder difficulty mode, a tutorial, and an arena battle mode, and as this 360 version is the Enhanced Edition all of these are in the game from the start (you can see the arena for yourself in the video below). The game feels a little easier from the off, too, although whether this is down to past experience or whether you start with slightly superior gear (which I suspect), I’m not entirely certain.
The engine remains the same, and while it naturally looks a little rougher here than on a super-powered PC this is still a beautiful, beautiful game. Gorgeous lighting effects dapple onto the leaves of swaying branches, while thick undergrowth crunches underfoot; the presentation, in general, is faultless. Install it to hard drive and it all runs along nicely with few frame-rate drops, and loading times that are well within bearable limits (although there’s some serious artifacting whenever a video starts).
In fact, there are only really two areas in which this port falls down, and those are in the controls and the bugs. For the most part, admittedly, the controls are fine, with both exploration and combat mapping smoothly to a gamepad. You may have some issues with the combat camera, though – left trigger locks the camera onto enemies and the right stick flicks between your targets, but it can be a little tricky trying to order the game pick a particular enemy out of a throng.
The menus, on the other hand, are clearly PC-oriented – you’d think that the “inspect” option could be mapped to a button rather than being in a sub-menu, for instance – but it’s a fairly minor issue. Selecting and hurling spells or daggers in the heat of battle and rolling to one side before launching a vicious counter-attack all feel natural on a gamepad, and if you’ve played any other third-person action game with a melee focus you’ll feel right at home.
The bugs are a little trickier. While they’re not quite Skyrim level, and while I didn’t hit any crashes or severely handicapped quests, there was some rather odd behaviour. One type of enemy had a habit of running ten feet away from me and then vanishing into thin air, for instance, and others would regularly stand stock still and ignore me (with my sword making no sound as it hit them) until they dropped dead. It’s also incredibly disappointing to see that a load of typos have carried over from the PC version of the game; I noticed two or three three in the first hour alone. And yes, the crappy (but mercifully skippable) stealth sections are still in, and the game occasionally devolves into quick-time events when big things happen.
But to some extent that’s sort of like complaining about the roof on a convertible sports car. Yes, okay, it’s a genuine problem, but it’s still a sports car, and despite some bugs and camera issues this is still the best linear RPG that’s been released in years.
I gave The Witcher 2 a 9 back when I, and after most of the problems were fixed with patches I’d be half-tempted to say it’s now worth a 10. The outstanding issues mean that the console version falls just shy of that golden mark, but it’s still one of the best RPGs available, with choices and consequences that hugely affect the way the game plays out (and not just in terms of story), well-designed combat, and a dark and fascinating world.