The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Review

By Matt Keil - Posted Apr 25, 2012

The PC masterpiece makes the leap to the Xbox 360 with stunning results. Slay monsters, woo ladies, and play politics in a dark fantasy world of schemers and sorcerers.

The Pros
  • Well-written, well-acted, adult-oriented storyline
  • Fluid combat with tons of strategy at higher difficulties
  • Major consequences to big decisions
  • Upgrades and additions make it a greatly improved game
The Cons
  • Some clipping and pop-in issues on the 360

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Xbox 360 Review:

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings was one of the best games released in 2011. The mature and complex action RPG wowed all who played it, but there was one small problem: If you didn’t have a superpowered gaming PC, you probably didn’t get to play it. Now, developer CD Projekt RED has performed a minor miracle and squeezed this visual marvel of a game onto the Xbox 360. Whatever black magic they used must put that used in the actual game’s fiction to shame, because The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Enhanced Edition is possibly the finest PC-to-console port ever produced.

Based on a series of books and short stories that was wildly popular in its native land of Poland, but fairly unknown elsewhere, The Witcher 2 continues the story of Geralt of Rivia, a monster-slaying badass known as a witcher. It developed a loyal following on the PC 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.

 

 

Witcher? I barely…

It’s really not necessary to have played the first game to understand or enjoy this one, and in fact it may have been wiser to drop the numeral “2” from the title for the 360 release. As the game opens, Geralt 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. 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 a huge time commitment as RPGs go.

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.

The Witcher 2

Steel and silver

Equally tough are the opponents you’ll face, especially early on. Combat is 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 City with more stats under the hood and less counterattacking and you’re not far off the mark. Be warned, though. 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 saving manually on a regular basis, 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.

The Witcher 2

Zoom. Enhance.

Numerous enhancements to the vanilla version of The Witcher 2 give this new edition its name. Some of them are additions made to the PC version over the last year, such as storage chests, bonus DLC items, Arena Mode, a beefier tutorial, and the super-hard Dark Mode difficulty setting. Brand new to the Enhanced Edition is an intro cinematic that introduces the kingslayer far more effectively, a new ending cinema that nicely teases the possibilities for the inevitable The Witcher 3, bridging cinematics that smooth the transition between chapters, and new sidequests for Chapter 3. The original third chapter was a bit sparse, so these new quests flesh out the conspiracy and add a lot more character to the final location.

All of this adds up to a greatly improved game, which is pretty impressive considering how great the game was to begin with. Best of all, PC players who already own The Witcher 2 can upgrade to the Enhanced Edition completely free of charge. CD Projekt RED takes care of its customers like almost no other company in the game industry.

The Witcher 2

The Beauty of Unwashed Streets

The Witcher 2 was a gorgeous game on PC, and many (including myself) were skeptical that it could be crammed onto the six-year old 360 hardware without major compromises. While the 360 version obviously doesn’t match the game running on Ultra settings on a monster gaming rig, it looks shockingly good, particularly compared to other 360 titles. The detail level hovers somewhere around the Medium setting on the PC version, and the lush forest around Flotsam, rocky canyons near Vergen and other locations retain their strikingly real feel. Occasional texture and geometry pop-in can mar the scenery at times, but overall this is one of the most visually impressive titles on the system.

As with the PC version, the sound design 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. This new Enhanced Edition boasts a new surround mix, but I found the mix to be strangely uneven, with some voices overly loud and some very quiet, and the music turned up way too high by default. Messing with the audio sliders in the options solved this problem well enough, so if you find yourself straining to hear dialogue or overwhelmed by tavern music, tweak the settings until you’re happy with it.

The Witcher 2

The Most Titled Witcher in the World

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is clearly a labor of love, with tremendous thought put into the story, presentation, writing, and now the Xbox 360 port. The PC version can be upgraded to the Enhanced Edition completely free of charge, and remains the version of choice if you have the option, but you are not in any way shortchanging the experience by playing it on the 360. This is simply one of the most singular and enthralling RPG experiences in years, and it should be played by pretty much anyone willing to hold a controller.