THE WITCHER 2 / Atari / PC
Alright, first important bit of info about the Witcher 2 - don't play it if you haven't played the 1st game yet. The story jumps in right where the previous game left off without a lot of explanation, and aside from spoiling a bunch of that game, it's also one of those stories with complex "political intrigue" and a shit ton of characters. Many of these characters were established in the first game, and are casually introduced/referenced here as if you are expected to already know them. I just played the first game less than a year ago and I was still lost half the time when the game started name-dropping or talking about various countries. So if you haven't done the first one yet, it's frequently on sale at various digital download places like Steam and for $2.50. Plus you can import your save into this game once you finish that one, and it has all sorts of effects here plus starts you off on better footing with better weapons and some more money. We'll see you in 40 or 50 hours when you get done with that.

Second important bit of info - a lot of people complained about the game's tutorial being too rough, dropping you into scenarios where it's too easy to die before you're familiar with the controls. The Enhanced Edition adds a new Tutorial Tutorial bit at the very beginning, where you learn all the combat commands in an arena where it's much more difficult to die, before you go onto the game's Prologue that pissed everyone off so much. It must have helped a lot, because I only died a couple of times at the Prologue, and those were "insta-kill" points where I just got confused about what was going on and walked too far in the wrong direction into a "zone" I wasn't supposed to or something. Dying twice is probably still too much for a Prologue, but oh well - the game does ease up once you get into the first chapter proper.

Third and final important bit of info, exclusive to the PC version - I tried the WASD/mouse control scheme at first, but no matter how I fiddled with the settings, the mouse lag/imprecision was too horrendous to play with. I'm not sure if that's just my non-optimal lappy, but if it applies across all (or even most) systems then I would consider the game unplayable without an Xbox 360 pad. Fortunately, if you do have one already, the natural mapping of the buttons for it is really comfy and well-thought-out.

Alright, review proper. The first Witcher ran on what was essentially a very ambitious hack of the Neverwinter Nights 2 engine. For this entry, developer CD Projekt Red rolls up their own engine ... and now it plays a lot more like Ass Creed, though trying to retain the "complexity" that attracted hardcore CRPGers to the series in the first place. The view is now entirely from behind your character Geralt in third-person. Combat has actually been simplified a bit, even though it's harder on the whole. It's simplified in the sense that you no longer have to switch "stances", or worry about clicking at the right time to rattle off a combo; it really plays more like a mash-up between a recent Zelda game and Batman: Arkham Asylum now. But it's harder by simply being way less forgiving - you're forever getting ambushed and surrounded by four or five enemies at a time, their stats are usually simply way higher than yours, and (at least initially) getting hit in the back does 200% damage (there's an upgrade to bring it down to 150% and then 100%.)

The game really pushes hard for you to role-play and take your role as a "Witcher" seriously. Witchers are superhuman mutants whose strength and reflexes exceed nearly all normal people ... but that's still not enough to go in cold against six heavily armed men, or a powerful mage, or a giant monster and hope to win. The Witcher's prime advantage in these situations comes from their use of basic magic to do things like controlling an enemy or trapping someone temporarily, combined with their mastery of alchemy to create pre-battle potions that enhance various characteristics. The first boss battle is the effective chokepoint to see if you're "getting it" or not. If you don't go in with at least a couple of key potions prepared, you aren't familiar with dodging, and you don't use traps, you're all done. With only finite experience available (you max out at level 35, which still puts you nowhere near filling out the skill trees), Geralt has to effectively use his whole bag of tricks to make it through the game.

Not that I'm hanging it entirely on the player if the game kicks your ass. It could be a hell of a lot more helpful in certain areas. The menus and inventory screen, for example, are needlessly squinty, and harder to navigate than they could be. Brewing potions is about as simple as it gets once you get the basic idea behind it, but the interface is really not helpful. The game also gives you a finite carrying capacity, but encourages you to hoard everything you come across compulsively, as needs for obscure monster bits and whatnot suddenly crop up down the line. Fortunately there's a storage that is universal across the game's three chapters ... but finding the person that administers it can be a pain in the ass at the outset of each new area, as they aren't marked on your map. The game's quest marker system can also be frustrating in tandem with how mazelike and samey-looking the environments tend to be, particularly when you have to find a certain character or spot that it doesn't bother to mark. The game also sometimes ambushes you with its "points of no return", which cut off all previous side-quests unexpectedly. And the game also hands you a bunch of mutagens and weapon upgrades long before you actually have weapons or skill slots that can use them, which is confusing as hell as initially it just seems like there's no possible way to use them.

So what's good about the game then? Well, aside from the fact that it looks beautiful ... I guess you could sum it up as that "complexity" alluded to before. The Witcher world is "low" fantasy, a fairly dark place with monsters of all stripes running about, a giant conflict between largely racist humans and the militant non-humans they've oppressed and wronged in various ways, and a feudal system headed up by rulers and court members that are nearly all a bunch of raging dicks. The game presents you with constant choices that have far-reaching ramifications, often unseen until hours and hours of gameplay later (many of which potentially unseen until you import your save to the Witcher 3 in 2015 or so.) The "morality" system in this setting is often a case of "figure out which is the lesser evil, because all available options really kind of suck", and you're often working with incomplete information to boot and won't get the whole picture until you've commited to one choice or another. None of this leads to a "failure" state, but you might have inadvertently fucked someone over with what initially seems like a reasonable idea, and have to live with the consequences. At the outset of my review of the first Witcher, I talked about how basically what constitutes "great writing" in the video game world is a case of extreme relatives since the bar (to this point) has been set so low; what's considered "great" in this medium would often be considered mediocre at best in literature, maybe even in film. So it is with the "morality system" as well. It's refreshing simply to not be pandered to and babied constantly, to not feel the presence of some Marketing Department hovering over the narrative scared to death that Joe Budweiser or Jane DisneySuperFan might be confused or upset for even a second. Not only that, but your choices actually have significant impact on the gameplay and story direction.
         Standard cobbled-in mandatory stealth sequence with bonus invisible walls

The writing is actually quite good, though I'm a bit dismayed by the "Game Of Thrones" turn the plot takes with this installment. I personally enjoyed hanging out with the peasants and spending most of the game's focus on Geralt, his friends and the recovering of his lost memories in the first game, just being a sort of wandering Witcher amongst the common folk. Character development and memory plotlines haven't been entirely abandoned here, but they firmly take a backseat to rather generic Ye Olde Political Intrigue. I think I've expressed my distaste for this stuff in other reviews and it really isn't any more interesting to me here. I actually wished there was an option to join the Kingslayers up until the end of the game, too often I felt the game devolves into The Witcher 2: Walking Behind Kings as you slowly traipse along in some asshole's retinue while they projectile-vomit exposition at you, usually dropping a bunch of names of people and places that are only tangetially related to the game or don't even appear at all. Like most games that rely on Ye Olde Politicking, the game simply gives you no real reason to care about the fortunes of these various Kingdoms and Lords or whatever, since they're all repressive assholes anyway. Your mileage may vary, I know some people really get into the Machiavellian scheming and all that, apparently for its own sake. To me ... I think Dr. Zoidberg summed up these types of stories best.

Kind of a negative tone for a 4/5 rating and a game that I actually reccomend buying (on sale), yeah, but I desperately want to see these things improve, because on the whole I really enjoy the Witcher universe and central characters and am still looking forward to Witcher 3. There's a whole ream of little problems with this game that need ironed out, but on the whole it's what I want to see in gaming - a strong narrative married to branching paths / a reasonable amount of emergent elements that give the player agency in how the game plays out, combined with overall a pretty good combat system and gameplay and a nice-looking world.
                    "E're now! Are yoo givin' 'im 81 golds for THAT old thing?!"
C. M0use's experience with pretty much every woman since he moved to California.
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