The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Review

By Matt Keil - Posted May 24, 2011

Geralt of Rivia returns to slay monsters, woo ladies, and play politics in a dark fantasy world of schemers and sorcerers. Framed for the murder of a king, Geralt must track down the real killer to clear his name and discover who wants the royalty of the Northern Kingdoms dead.

The Pros
  • Absolutely gorgeous
  • Well-written, well-acted, adult-oriented storyline
  • Fluid and totally revamped combat
  • Major consequences to big decision
The Cons
  • May be too difficult for casual players
  • Tutorial could use some beefing up

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Review:

When The Witcher was released for the PC in 2007, it was a bit of a revelation in some ways. Based on a series of books and short stories that was wildly popular in its native land of Poland, but fairly unknown elsewhere, the game told the story of Geralt of Rivia, a monster-slaying badass known as a witcher, and his exploits in the land of Temeria. It developed a loyal following due to the mature storyline, Geralt’s general badassery and sexual exploits, and developer CD Projekt RED STUDIO’s almost fanatical devotion to supporting the playerbase with free updates and bonus material.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings picks up where the first left off, but is a tremendous revamp in almost every respect. Instead of using a heavily modified version of the Neverwinter Nights engine, it uses the in-house developed RED engine. Instead of relying on auto-attack combat like Knights of the Old Republic, it features real-time action-based combat. CD Projekt RED has brought Geralt’s world to life in spectacular fashion, resulting in one of the most impressive fantasy titles since. . .well, since The Witcher.

Witcher? I barely. . .

Following the events of the first game, Geralt is shacking up with sorceress Triss Merigold, and is stuck helping lay siege to La Valette Castle. The siege culminates in a tremendous assault that sees Geralt and company facing off against hordes of knights, formidable defensive positions, and even a dragon that shows up out of nowhere. Geralt’s successes in battle are short-lived, as he is quickly framed for the actions of the titular assassin of kings and tossed in a dungeon. With a little help, he escapes and sets off to clear his name and find the true kingslayer. This, of course, is much more complicated than it sounds.

The story of The Witcher 2 is labyrinthine, and delves heavily into the politics of the various Northern Kingdoms. The events depicted in the first game have destabilized Temeria, and its neighbors are jockeying for advantageous positions in the changing political landscape. Geralt quickly finds himself caught up in numerous overlapping agendas and plots, and it’s up to the player to navigate the tangled web of intrigue while still accomplishing the witcher’s goals.

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Walking the Path

Unlike many games that claim your choices have consequences, The Witcher 2 actually makes good on the promise. You can’t keep everyone happy all the time, and at some point Geralt has to make some big decisions that drastically affect the course of the game. It’s fair to say that you’ll only see about two-thirds of the game’s content in a single playthrough due to the branching narrative structure. Luckily the game is only about 40 hours long, so multiple playthroughs are not the huge time commitment they were in the first game.

The “written for adults” approach to the material is refreshing, and it’s an all-too-rare treat to interact with characters who are neither cackling monsters nor squeaky clean saints. Even the “good guys” have glaring flaws and dark sides, and even your most bitter adversaries have reasons for their behavior beyond “the plot needed an antagonist here.” Many of the decisions you’ll make over the course of the game are exceedingly tough, as there is often no obvious “right” answer. They’re judgment calls and ink blot tests, not a question of whether you’d rather strangle a puppy or rescue an orphan.

Steel and silver

Equally tough are the opponents you’ll face, especially early on. Combat is now action-based, and success depends entirely on your twitch gaming skills. This is not a half-assed partial conversion to action combat like Dragon Age 2, this is a full-tilt hack and slash with tactical elements. Think Batman: Arkham Asylum with more stats under the hood and less counterattacking and you’re not far off the mark. It’s a much more appropriate way to control Geralt, and it does take practice. The Witcher 2 is not afraid to kill you in the blink of an eye, especially early on. It’s stingy with autosaving, too, so if you’re not diligent with your quicksave slot, you can easily find yourself redoing an hour of playtime after an unfortunate encounter with a nest of endregas or nekkers.

It’s not unfair, though. Any time you hit a wall in the game’s combat, it’s almost certainly because you’re neglecting an important part of your arsenal. Geralt can cast very useful magic signs to help him in battle, ranging from a simple “force push” to a mind control spell that makes enemies turn on their allies. Of particular use early in the game is Quen, which creates a shield around the witcher that allows you to more easily get the hang of how the combo system works. It’s a godsend against multiple armored opponents. Geralt can also use the extensive crafting system to make traps, bombs and potions to further enhance his offensive and defensive capabilities. This requires meditation, as does actually drinking the potions in question, so the game quickly becomes as much about preparation as it is about execution. It forces the player to think like a hunter, and is really an elegant system.

Once Geralt has racked up some branches on the old skill tree, he becomes much more capable as a fighter. By the end of the game, he’s walking death, and very few opponents can stand up to him. Groups of foes can still pose a threat if you’re sloppy, but for the most part they simply hurl themselves onto your blade. Some may find this late game lack of challenge disappointing, but I found it to be a suitable reward for working my way up the newbie witcher ladder. In peak form, Geralt should be exceptionally dangerous.

The Beauty of Unwashed Streets

The Witcher 2
is a gorgeous game, and one that requires a pretty beefy PC to run at max settings (protip: turn ubersampling off). PC gamers will probably use this game to gauge PC power for some time, or at least until Battlefield 3 comes out. The world is astoundingly detailed, down to the leaves on the trees and embroidery on clothing. Most of the people look like they’re legitimately from the Middle Ages, which is to say they’re not supermodels by any stretch of the imagination. The exceptions tend to be the sorceresses, but since they’re centuries-old magical beings who can apparently control aging and appearance, they probably get a pass.

As stunning as the visuals are, it’s the sound design that sells everything as solid, heavy and real. Booted feet thud on wooden floors, monsters gibber and scream unearthly battle cries, steel scrapes against plate armor. The visuals make you believe in your video card, but the sound is what makes you believe what’s happening in front of you has weight and substance. Play with top quality headphones or speakers to fully appreciate the audio achievement on display here.

The Most Titled Witcher in the World

It’s not often I feel like applauding when the credits roll on a videogame, but this time, I may have put my hands together for the folks at CD Projekt RED Studio. Seemingly out of nowhere, they have produced a game that can easily hang with the multi-million dollar triple-A crowd. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is clearly a labor of love, with tremendous thought put into the story, presentation, and writing. If you have a PC capable of running it, do not hesitate to play it. If you don’t…well, this is one of the best arguments in favor of high-end PC gaming to come along in quite some time. You might want to start pricing video cards.