Crowned Heads Will Roll
HIGH: The death of an NPC I'd wanted to kill since the moment I met him.
LOW: The boss checkpoint that didn't give me a chance to use any potions when I died and respawned.
WTF: The absolute orgy of exposition at the end of the game.
Imagine being invited to a party and upon arrival, you're told to serve drinks and make sure the burgers aren't overcooked. Then, adding insult to injury, you're asked to clean the bathroom before being allowed to mingle and have some fun. In such a situation, one could hardly be blamed for just going home, right? That theoretical party is kind of what The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is like—a confusing, rough start and an incredibly brutal introduction to combat, followed by flashes of brilliance that come only after much tribulation. Unfortunately, those flashes never quite add up to a sustained shine.
Let's start at the beginning. Compared to most other role-playing games (RPGs), Witcher 2 is not user friendly. In fact, it does an absolute piss-poor job of explaining itself, leading to a lot of the frustration in the game's opening scenes.
There are in-game tutorials, but they have a knack for popping up at times when I have more important things to deal with, like being incinerated by a dragon. During these times, I could picture the game staring at me with a disapproving gaze as I died again and again....and again and again and again and again.
Even after I had gotten the hang of things and had become able to deal with most challenges, I was still constantly faced with bafflingly bad design elements like the complete lack of camera zoom capability, or an incredibly frustrating (read: easy to get lost in) series of caves. It became clear that the game was not here to impress me, I was here to impress it.
Beyond the muddled, unclear opening, another major problem presents itself in the combat system. The complex system from the original Witcher has been replaced by a simpler hack n' slash setup that appears to be geared towards the recently-announced console release. This actually represents progress over the old system, but combat is still woefully undercut by flaws serious enough to cause me to turn the difficulty down—something I don't normally do.
Fighting in Witcher 2 is centered around battle preparation in the form of potions. Witchers—magically-enhanced monster hunters—are capable fighters to begin with, but they need a little extra edge in battle. With his alchemy skills, main character Geralt can fashion potions, bombs, mutagens, and other enhancements give him that edge. Problem is, alchemy can only be done outside of battle. If I ran into an unexpected fight, I was just out of luck. While a "try and die" situation isn't necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, every single time I found myself in need of a potion I had to wonder why I couldn't just chug it right then and there. This was especially bad during one particular boss fight, and very few things get under my skin more than a bad boss.
Then there's the actual combat, which is even more problematic than the potion-chugging prep work. Even with the simplified controls, Geralt's actions are extremely sluggish, and there's often a slight delay between when I press a button and when he actually does something. Such a delay can be a massive headache when being attacked from behind does 200% damage, or when I need to throw a bomb to stop an incoming group of Rotfiends.
Worse still, the game has a nasty habit of spiking the difficulty, especially when facing multiple enemies. When up against a large group, there will inevitably be a ton of running around in circles using ranged attacks and bombs (a practice commonly known as kiting), which gets old very fast. I am generally a fan of games that challenge me as opposed to holding my hand, but Witcher 2 was one of the few games where I simply got too aggravated to continue on the Normal setting.
A correctly-made "hard game" has to have mechanics that are smooth and easy to use, so that it can present a challenge to the player by asking him to master those mechanics. For example, I am an unabashed Mega Man fan, and when I die or mess something up playing one, it is because I failed, not because the game failed me. My experience playing Witcher 2 was the exact opposite.
I can't count the number of times I died because the camera was shaking so badly I couldn't see where I was going, or that I pressed the block button only to have Geralt stand there looking confused, or that the auto-targeting decided that I wanted to roll into a horde of lethal Nekkers instead of away from them. Despite some major efforts to make things more palatable, Witcher 2 still suffers from a severe case of Deadly Premonition syndrome, in that playtesting and balance was apparently a huge afterthought. Some may say that Witcher 2 is just a hard game and I need to adapt, but that isn't the case. It's just hard to play.
Of course, there is the matter of those flashes of brilliance I mentioned earlier.
The calling card of the Witcher 2 is the unique way in which it handles player choice. In stark contrast to the usually-transparent Boy Scout/Evil Psychopath choices of its contemporaries, the developers present a giant moral gray area with no NPC approvals or karma meters. Geralt has to navigate a complex landscape rife with intrigue, and there is always more than one facet to any given situation. More often than not, there is no "right" or "wrong" choice -- or if there is, it's deftly hidden in a way that requires the player to pay attention and closely analyze the situation. Rather than simply earning new swords or other shining doodads, the consequences of the player's choices are the results within the game world; results which are woven with superb detail into the overall narrative.
However, that narrative just isn't very good.
The story of the Witcher 2 is a sleepy, tired, Tolkien-esque fantasy slog with some softcore porn thrown in. I had a hard time keeping an interest in the game's world (yes, including the porny bits), and it didn't help that the writers assumed a lot of familiarity on my part regarding its details. Based on a popular series of fantasy novels, Witcher 2 presents a lot of people and places that a player won't necessarily be familiar with, and then doesn't do much to introduce them or provide illuminating context. I'm certainly the kind of player that loves digging into a game's lore, but even that didn't help much since the available lore doesn't shed much light on anything. It still feels like there's a lot of stuff that I'm just "supposed" to know. The massive gaps in exposition sapped most of the Witcher's potential dramatic weight, leaving me scratching my head far too often.
I really wanted this game to be better than it actually was. It has the kind of vision that should make it great, but it has far too many problems to overlook. The most frustrating thing is that I could forgive all of those flaws if the game had an engrossing story or rich world to show me, but it fails in that regard as well. The sophisticated ideas here are wasted on such a sloppy product. While it does indeed take a few steps in the right direction, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings doesn't live up to its own ambition.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via Steam purchase and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 32 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 1 time) and there are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood and gore, intense violence, nudity, strong language, strong sexual content, and use of drugs. Absolutely no punches are pulled here folks. It's bloody, cursing is abundant, and there are several scenes of full-frontal nudity. Adults only.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: All spoken lines in conversations are subtitled, although you will probably have problems with the ambient dialogue, since sometimes the subtitles for them don't show. Also, the beginning/ending of combat is signaled by music changes, so that may be problematic as well.