God damn, the massive Kayran is ugly; big as a four story building, swinging its massive tentacles around. I'm fascinated and grossed out at the same time - it might be terribly ugly, but it looks great at the same time. It's been terrorizing the village of Flotsam for weeks and thus it has got to die. That's just the way life is for a Witcher, a monster killer for hire, and while I'd rather run back to the woods, I got a job to do.
Geralt, the protagonist, doesn't have an easy time - not only does he have to take on any monsters that gets in his way, he's also being chased by a whole bunch of bounty hunters since he's been accused of a terrible crime. I won't go into much details about the story, since I don't want to spoil anything, but I can at least say that it's filled with political drama, war, heirs to the throne and assassinations of kings. That last part is in the title, damnit, so it really shouldn't come as much of a surprise. And the story managed to grab me straight away.
The world of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is, as fans of the first game and the books already know, not your typical fantasy world. Sure, there are dwarves and elves, but not as we usually see them - here they are oppressed by the humans and most of them live in ghettos. There's also a lot more drinking and dirty language than in most fantasy worlds, which is refreshing and everything taken together makes the world of The Witcher much more exciting and interesting.
Often you're faced with choices and you'll have to decide how to solve a certain problem, how to approach a situation or who to ally yourself with and more often than not it's hard to know what the outcome of those choices will be. That's a good thing. Many times during my play-through of The Witcher 2 I had to think hard on what I should do, and often you don't see the effects of your decisions until much later in the game.
That goes for both small and big things. I played through a preview version of the game, that included the prologue and the first chapter, before I got my hands on the full version and made completely different decisions during my second time through the introduction. A soldier that I didn't even care about the first time asked me for advice, which turned out to help me later on. An important choice about the fate of another character led to a later scene ending up completely different than the first time. Man, it's impressive.
If you have to criticize the story for anything it's that it simply assumes that you played the first game (which of course is only a problem for new players). Many characters are introduced like you already know them, and there's a lot of references to things that happened in The Witcher. It's not a huge problem, and it shouldn't scare you away, and you can always read up on the more important details. It could have been handled more elegantly, though.
The world of The Witcher 2 might be an ugly and treacherous place, filled with hatred, monsters and tyrants. But the game itself is beautiful. I often stop myself in the middle of nowhere, just to enjoy the view. The lighting is fantastic, everything is covered with details and all the environments truly show how much love the graphical artists have put into them.
There are some glitches though, especially when the game's engine needs to load textures after entering a village gate for example and the world looks washed out and flat. But it happens just for a moment and you're not torn out of your immersion for more than a second or two.
The longer dialogue scenes, and there's a lot of them, offer up some really nice directing, animation and voice acting. Most of the time they are a lot of fun to watch, even if there's a couple of strange movements or an odd clip here and there - nothing that spoils the overall impression. The Witcher 2 is, simply put, one of the best looking roleplaying games ever made.
It also demands a pretty good rig to run smoothly. My Core i5 2500K and Radeon 6850 can hardly handle the game on Ultra graphics, the facial animations alone lag so much they go out of sync with the dialogue, but on High it runs perfectly and still looks amazing.
As mentioned above, the voice acting holds a very high standard. Most of the characters have a thick British accent, that is much more Cockney than the Queen's English, and it fits the low fantasy perfectly. Some characters, like Geralt himself and especially the witch Triss Merigold, speak with an obvious American accent though, and early on that doesn't really fit in, but you get used to it rather quickly. Mostly because of the dialogue - the script is engaging, the dialogues flow naturally and there's a couple of comments that had me smiling and laughing. At the same time the humour never gets too much, so the more serious atmosphere is never threatened and it never feels misplaced.
A big change from the first to the second game is the combat system. The old system has been completely replaced by a new one and when it comes to the fighting, The Witcher 2 is essentially an action game. Some of the damage you do is calculated while you fight, but other than that there are no invisible die being cast in the background. It's about positioning, about attacking when your opponent lets down his guard and blocking when he attacks.
You've also got a whole bunch of magical abilities, so-called signs, that allow you to throw fireballs, push your enemies to the ground or cover yourself with a magical shield. The talent trees are huge, filled with skills and abilities in fighting, magic or alchemy and there's no way you're going to be able to learn everything there is to learn. The fights can also be quite challening and even on the easiest difficulty setting you better get used to dying quite a lot - at least until you figure out how to fight the most effectively and get some nice gear upgrades for Geralt (all of which are actually shown on the character, which should make all you loot-crazies happy).
The action-filled fights don't mean that The Witcher 2 is a dedicated action-RPG, though. You will spend just as much time talking, exploring and solving quests as you do cutting the arms off bandits or slaying monsters. The tempo is generally good and varied all through the game.
There's almost no aspect of The Witcher 2 that doesn't come with some minor flaws, but that's almost to be expected with a game of this scope. You can, on average, get 30-40 hours of playtime out of it, even more if you dig into the many sidequests. And the minor flaws are exactly that - minor. Overall, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is an impressive piece of work.
It looks great, it sounds great and the story and the universe are both well crafted. It should appeal to all fans of the genre. It's a game with some huge ambitions, and CD Projekt RED has managed to pull them all off. This is roleplaying games at their best.
Watch our GRTV video review of The Witcher 2 right here.