The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Hands-On ImpressionsBy Matt Keil - Posted May 09, 2011
In its home country of Poland, Andrzej Sapkowski’s series of novels and short stories that fall under the collective heading of Wiedzmin are tremendously popular. Think Harry Potter or Twilight popular, but without the tween fanbase. The title translates literally “Hexer,” but generally written in English as “Witcher,” and refers to Geralt of Rivia, member of an elite group of monster hunting mutant humanoids who have borderline superhuman abilities. Chances are, you’ve never heard of the books, let alone read any, but you may have heard of CD Projekt RED’s 2007 PC game continuation of the series, The Witcher.
The original game ran on a tremendously tweaked and modded version of the Aurora engine (the Neverwinter Nights engine…the first one, not the sequel), and is responsible for introducing The Witcher and its characters to a global audience. Gamers responded to the Geralt, the sarcastic badass armed with twin swords – a silver one for monsters and a steel one for humans (“They’re both for monsters,” Geralt protests at one point). The uniquely grim and gritty world, the constant moral grey areas the story explored, and an Enhanced Edition that completely rewrote and revoiced the English script, simply because CD Projekt RED wasn’t happy with how it turned out the first time, were just a few of the elements that made The Witcher stand out. There was a lot of love in that game, and its ambitious sequel, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, continues that tradition.
I was able to play a preview build of The Witcher 2 that covered the Prologue and Chapter 1 of the game, which added up to about five hours of play. From the outset, it’s clear that CD Projekt RED is here to impress us and hang with the AAA crowd. The Prologue features a full-scale castle siege, with all the trimmings. Naturally, you play Geralt of Rivia once again, who is currently working for the guy laying the siege, King Foltest. The attention to detail is amazing even in the king’s warcamp, as you stroll past soldiers drilling in preparation for the assault and huge trebuchets that are actually fired and reloaded by men at their base. I spent time just watching things happen in this area.
The Prologue is actually told as a flashback, so the player chooses the order of the scenes in it. There’s a chronological order that’s pretty easy to figure out, but you’re in no way forced to do them in that order. There’s a storming of the castle itself, fights on the ramparts, an encounter with a dragon, and the final goal reached in the castle’s tower, all of which are action setpieces that also teach you the ins and outs of the new game engine and fighting system.
While The Witcher was clearly a Neverwinter Nights permutation with some twitch-based elements to the point-and-click combat, The Witcher 2 is much more of an action-adventure title in terms of the fighting. Geralt can perform combos with careful button timing, and fire off spells with ease thanks to a new quick-select spell menu. He can change targets at will, dodge-roll away from harm, or block and parry to create openings for counterattacks. The closest comparison in recent memory is probably Batman: Arkham Asylum, which is certainly meant as a compliment. I actually plan to play the final game with a 360 controller. The controls and combat really are that streamlined.
After the castle siege flashbacks of the Prologue, Chapter 1 catches up to the present. Geralt and frequent companion/bedmate Triss Merigold travel to Flotsam, a small dock town that promises to hold some clues to the mystery that cropped up following the events at the castle. In stark contrast to the bright and towering castle environments, Flotsam is a small, run-down, grimy place that exemplifies the strengths of the Witcher franchise. Nothing in the town looks like it’s been washed or cleaned in years. You can practically smell the human waste on the streets.
Everyone in Flotsam has their own selfish reasons for everything, and making deals with them is rarely straightforward. A small ghetto of dwarves and elves eke out a living among the perpetually racist humans. Geralt, neither fully human nor truly non-human, is mistrusted by both sides, so some legwork must be done to earn trust in key places. Aligning with some folks will end up making other folks hate you at times, so none of these decisions should be made lightly. The main story-driven quests in the game are not of the “kill five foozles” type, but quests of that type are available from the job board if you feel like hunting. Make sure you’re equipped for the fight, though. You can’t just hack your way to victory. Even the simpler quests sometimes require a bit of thought. Those giant spiders will just keep coming unless you find a way to lure out the queen.
Events in Flotsam and the surrounding forest area build to a rather large boss confrontation that provides yet more evidence that The Witcher 2 is attempting to be the next great action-RPG. Judging from the preview build, CD Projekt RED is off to a damn fine start.