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PREVIEW

THE WITCHER 2: ASSASSINS OF KINGS

"OK, so I basically have until Mass Effect 3 comes out to beat Skyrim then."

"Then until Witcher 2 comes out to finish Mass Effect 3..."

"Jesus wept."

So goes the brief Twitter conversation with a friend a few weeks back.

Unbeknownst to him I was returning homeward after a Namco Bandai event about that very game. Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings - Enhanced Edition, to give it its full weighty title, is another engrossing action-RPG likely to swallow your time come release in April.

Even PC owners who've had eleven months in the company of monster hunter Geralt as he quests to clear his name as a royal assassin have reason to return - CD Projekt releasing a free PC update come the Xbox 360 version launch that'll roll the four extra hours of content and gameplay tweaks to create a new adaptation of the critically-acclaimed sequel.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings
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Indeed the developer uses the word 'adaptation' rather than 'port' frequently during the presentation, such is the extent of the improvements. For players accustomed to the game's narrative, the two new adventures, locales and characters are introduced come Act 3. For Xbox 360 players, that introduction will seem seamless as you're approached and asked to aid in an escort mission by faces at that point familiar to you.

The Enhanced Edition is a great bonus for PC players, but for Xbox 360 owners it's good going into the game knowing that there's no outstanding DLC that'll cost extra HD space or money.

The studio talk about this being a "hardcore, true-blooded RPG", perhaps in response to those fearful other notable series receding from elements that dilute their claim to the genre. There's customisation, multiple skill trees, alchemy for bombs and potions, spoils to loot, XP-enhancing garments, branching stories and plenty of combat options.

CD Projekt tinkered with the targeting system, and mapped the controller method accordingly. It's introduced via an arena-based tutorial that, in all honesty, completely overwhelms us when we're tasked to chain everything we've learnt together to tackle endless waves of enemies the score of which will decide our difficulty setting.

Separately it's fine. Two swords, choice of which mapped to D-Pad. One for human foes, the other for monsters. Two attacks, quick and strong, A and X. Pan the camera with the right-stick, hover over any enemy and hold LT to lock on to them, let go to disengage. RT to block.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

Magic? Press Y to use one of multiple magic signs that grant character buffs or ranged strikes. A symbol for each for quick association - that takes some time coming. The bumper buttons for secondary weapons, such as daggers, traps and bomb, and a quick sub-menu to flick between those and magic spells.

(It's the latter, where we have to zero in our shot, plus later on trying to stand at the appropriate spot to pick up loot, that makes us realise the default camera and character controls are a mite over-sensitive.)

So come the end waves, we're slaughtered. But what it does show is the great variation in combatants we're to face during the adventure; mages, monsters, armoured shield-hugging knights...a host of strategies needed simultaneously to win through.

Our time with the game stretches the entirety of the opening prologue, split into multiple time frames and bookended by Geralt regaling the story of a castle siege to his captor, and the opening of his quest to clear his name.

From the off it's immersive stuff. Rich fantasy fair with a bitter, mature taste bristling with dialogue more Game of Thrones sharpness than Lord of the Rings poetical, and principal characters etched so vividly any one could be the lead.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of KingsThe Witcher 2: Assassins of KingsThe Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings
The Witcher 2: Assassins of KingsThe Witcher 2: Assassins of KingsThe Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

There's a cruel edginess to elves, and borderline racism towards them from humans. In a prison cell we watch two figures vie for political advantage, and we can hear the dice roll and the death toll rise as they deftly decide countries destinies. Elsewhere a captured band of adventurers talk quests and secrets, heroes of their own epic story that you've only grazed against. Curses and sex fly with abandon. Yet it all feels engrossingly real and unique - a massive feat for a genre well-worn in its beats.

From opening castle siege to prison escape, there's a multitude of events and decisions to be made throughout. While the action remains manageable, with a few clothed soldiers and the odd heavily-armoured knight letting us slowly gain confidence in our combination attacks, it's the narrative choices that really enrich the experience.

The game heartedly grapples with shifting story lines and repercussions more immediate than some vague idea of influencing an ending to come.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

In the presentation the studio takes out both the nobleman Aryan La Vette and his men atop one of the castle's towers in the prologue. In our play through we convince Vette to save his troop's lives and fight us solo, which also ends in his death. Yet we spot the royal joining the later prison escape in someone else's play through. However, they're forced to kill an inexperienced brawler befriended before the siege, while our earlier advice to him was enough to win his loyalty, causing him to distract the guards as we make good our escape.

All these story variants, and we're scantly two hours into the game.

The conversations aren't clear cut either, showing an adult level of storytelling that pushes Witcher 2 into Mass Effect and Deus Ex territory...though there is occasionally the odd glaring stumble. Pre-battle, as we march through the standing army's tents, groups' loud whispers of disgust at our presence amusingly transfer into warm greetings and ample conversation come touch of the "talk" button.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

It seems like CD Projekt has crammed every detail from the PC original onto console, but visually the Enhanced Edition can't match the PC splendour; after being assailed with screenshots, trailers and our own hands-on for the computer powerhouse, Witcher 2's format shift disappoints. Colours seem cold rather than colourful, the game lacking the glow and warmth that delighted the eye and caused appreciative camera pans round each new area. There's also a degree of screen tear we haven't seen on the system in a while.

But there's more than enough to intrigue, and keep us playing. We close our time with the game by entering a large town, and walking right into the middle of a hanging. It circles us right back round to our first glimpse of the title in PC previews years back, and we end things while cracking up at the delivery of NPC lines by voice-actors brilliantly aping regional accents from the UK isles.

It's looking like another game you're going to live in, and after journeying into the far-flung future and to the edges of the galaxy on suicide missions over the coming weeks, it'll be good to come back to something that feels a bit closer to home.

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