Outside the MMO Box: The Witcher 2
Every so often here at MMORPG.com we are allowed to stray from our genre specific tasks. Dodging the allures of Azeroth, and sneaking by our editor-in-chief Jon Wood (he prefers the moniker Grand Overlord) we the ever-cheerful writers stay up long into the night tasting the forbidden fruits of gaming. One title that has whipped us into a storm of excitement and frenzy is the newly released sequel to 2007's The Witcher: our places in the taverns of Bree are vacant; our ships in Eve Online float lazily through space, and we are devoured by Polish fantasy.
I was a huge fan of CD Projekt's debut RPG - the world was rich with lore and yet unflinchingly mature, the like I had never seen before in gaming. The choices which our protagonist Geralt of Rivia had to make were also astonishingly long reaching. A simple task such as passing a few weapons to a band of Elven rebels would see you take a massive detour numerous hours after the fact. It was an impressive piece of gaming legacy, and if it weren't for a few unfortunate bugs and loading screens, it would have been a masterpiece.
For those of you unaware of The Witcher, it is based upon a series of Polish fantasy novels. Geralt belongs to a fraternity of monster a slayers (named Witchers) that enhance themselves with mutagens and potions - the white haired protagonist just happens to be one of the best beast botherers around. Instead of inhabiting the usual humdrum worlds of elves and goblins, the Witcher series focuses upon the grey areas of morality - there is no right and wrong and Geralt definitely is not the paragon of hope that other series would portray their heroes as. With racism, constant violent tension, and a volatile atmosphere that threatens to erupt with opposing beliefs, politics, and ideologies, the world of the game is truly inspired.
So we are back in the imagination of Andrzej Sapkowski once more in Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings - a game which has been so long coming that I have burst with anticipation several times already. From the moment that the game is booted up, you know you are in for something special. The opening intro introduces the story a little - our hero Geralt has done something wrong, mightily wrong, but we don't know yet - cue a flashback sequence that feels staggeringly like Dragon Age 2's opening gambit (but of course a lot more interesting with more than one city - don't get me started).
Through conversation, players can choose to relive a castle siege which landed the White Wolf in prison, or they can simply skip to the end, possibly in a nod to second playthroughs. While on a purely tutorial basis these past events are fairly redundant, for the rich storyline and to be simply impressed, they are spectacular.
Before you can say "let's start at the beginning" players are treated to a glimpse of sorceress boob, and further the delights of the in-game engine. The Witcher 2 is easily one of the best looking games to be released thus far; the landscapes are vibrant with colour, characters wander about their daily activities with startlingly animation, and for the simply nuances such as the gathering crows that litter tent-tops, it all looks too good to behold. Of course this all has its drawbacks, the graphical requirements can be fairly demanding, optimization is something best left to the "special edition" and most people will play this without all of the bells and whistles - but still, it does look impressive none the less.
So without giving too much storyline away, Geralt makes his way through castle siege and priest slapping activities and before long we are introduced to one of the titular king assassins - thus begins the plot. In terms of originality, Witcher 2 isn't exactly high up on the chart, it is a case of mistaken identity, our beloved monster-slayer is framed for murdering a monarch and what follows is a quest to prove his innocence. It is fairly standard, but the real genius comes in the depth and complexity of it all.
The various sub-quests and sub-plots of RPG games make and break the experience, and this is no different in this title. While there is an overarching "main quest" the various stories and tales around it make up the bulk of the gameplay. One of the outstanding achievements is that you will never feel like a certain path or route will take you out of freedom and into progression; there are so many things to do and achieve and the completion of the main plot is determined by how many tasks you accomplish - not doing a certain thing or picking to help a certain faction in one minor quest can influence the outcome of the overriding objective. It's ingenious really and the gut-churning feeling that you are about the miss out never happens because within the ensemble there is just so much to do and lose yourself within.
The journal feature also is brilliantly told in the form of Geralt's friend Dandelion the bard. Entries on inconsequential characters brilliantly colourises the world with interest and intrigue, and for those not aware of the Witcher novels can fill themselves in on the lore of the land or main characters. Everything within the game feels deliciously old school while having enough progression to feel like an advancement. The game is as expansive and never do you get the feeling that it is "refined" but expanded with ambition. Most of the details from the original game still remain but they are better, more developed, even easier to grapple with and enjoy.
Other activities such as crafting also come into play. Alchemy is central to the story, it gives the Witchers there famous powers, and is also refined and yet more expansive. When journeying through the game the vast open areas are bustling with many herbs and ingredients, and the potion formulas are made from these. Before an intense battle or foreboding catacomb, Geralt can enter the "meditation mode" and slurp down one or two toxic concoctions, which give buffs and enhancements - it is an addition that adds strategy but also works extremely well. Crafting weapons and armour also makes an appearance in similar fashion to making potions. Formulas and materials can collected so that Geralt can forge unique swords and clothing. The only drawback to this is that you can spend hours gathering materials to find something better than what you have toiled for, but the addition is nice.
Of course with such blustering praise comes the obvious negatives, and aside from being an absolute RPG masterpiece, Witcher 2 has one major downfall, incidentally its predecessors main fault, the combat system. While the original game was isometric with click and counter actions for combat, this game features a system more akin to Arkham Asylum. Left clicks will swipe lightly and right clicks will doll out heavy blows. For the most part, and when it works, it is brilliant and gives credence to Geralt being an ultimate badass - but when it falls you become a human beach ball bounced between surrounding enemies, constantly stumbling about the floor and slipping easily into death.
The first few hours of the game, while rich and immersion, are marred by the fact that Geralt is a wimp. At the start of the game combat is a deep annoyance as the White Wolf is batted from enemy to enemy, but as you progress you unlock skills and become the Witcher you were meant to become. The game gets a lot easier at this point: and this is the games major downfall, the balance between difficulty and combat are interlinked and yet woefully under-developed, possibly another few playtests would have outlined this to CD Projekt, but while it is aggravating to start it does become easier.
So what can I say of my recent foray into the offline world of gaming? The Witcher 2 is simply sublime and outlines that the RPG genre is alive and well. The story is magnificent, the choices that span away from the black and white morality of other titles are astounding - the game boasts 16 different end states with so many details and paths that most people will never play the same game. To put it simply Witcher 2 is something that everyone with a passing interest in fantasy should own, and the developer deserves the recognition for producing something with ambition, flare, and courage in the way that we have seen developers slip from to attract a wider audience. Brilliance in its truest form, MMORPG.com adores the White Wolf.