The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Enhanced Edition - Staff Review  

Killing Kings and Witching Women
by Michael A. Cunningham

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Enhanced Edition
Xbox 360
20-40 Hours
+ Real characters with motivations
+ Wonderful voice acting and music
+ Tough decisions with real impact
- Controls are slow, sluggish
- Map is almost useless
- Item management is a pain
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   There is often talk about how video games need to mature, and there is some truth to that, especially in RPGs. Very often games come down to saving the world from an ancient evil or challenging the leader of an evil empire. Characters are often shallow, with little motivation for what they do. Thankfully, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings does its best to break out of this stereotype by being a game with a setting and characters that actually feel real.

   The game begins with the main character Geralt helping Temerian King Foltest put down a rebellion in his land. Geralt has been at the king's side since saving him from an assassination attempt that took place at the end of the first game. Even though he's not an official part of Foltest's guard, Geralt is a trusted advisor and useful tool for the ruler. During this series of events that serves as the prologue, things go all to Hell and Geralt winds up in prison for a crime he did not commit, thus beginning his quest to clear his name.

   It's a tale filled with political intrigue, characters with real and understandable motivations, murder, and sex. The game has a very mature setting, and not simply because it contains nudity, sex scenes, foul language, and violence. It's more that the way things are handled within the game are done so in an adult manner befitting its dark fantasy setting. The nudity and sex scenes are for the most part handled in a manner that doesn't make them feel gratuitous. The foul language is rarely thrown out there just to be colorful, but instead fits the world and the characters within, especially the dwarves who are more vocal than most. Even the violence is weaved in appropriately. Never is the content tossed at the player solely to be juvenile entertainment; it has its reason and place.

   There is more to The Witcher 2 than just its mature setting, as storyline choices are a major aspect of the game. These are not black and white decisions, but are instead more about choosing sides. Partway through the game, the player must make a major choice that will take Geralt down one of two completely different paths. This means not only does the story change, but so does the setting, quests, and characters. Along with this decision there are tons of tiny ones that also force the player to think and truly roleplay as Geralt. While these choices are not as frequent as other games that do this, they're often tougher, making players really think about the consequences of their actions.

Plough em all. The world is yours to plough.

   While clearly a sequel, The Witcher 2 does a good job of telling a self-contained story within the shadow of a larger overarching plot. It wraps things up quite nicely while clearly paving the way for the series to continue. However, without having a good background from the first game or having read the books, it often feels like something's not been explained fully. I believe this is more a design choice, as the scenes between acts are narrated by a third party, so thankfully it is never really a major detraction.

   While the setting and characters are impressive, the gameplay is not for everyone. Geralt has the standard gamut of weapons and armor, all of which he can enhance before combat. These enhancements give a time-limited bonus to equipment that can mean the difference between life and death in battle. Geralt can also imbibe potions before combat, though not during, so there is no using a healing potion in the midst of battle. These potions each have a toxicity rating, so there is a limit to the amount that can be taken at a time. It's a fair balance that adds an extra layer of strategy to combat. Despite that, it can easily get frustrating to not be able to heal during encounters or to add a boost from an enhancement potion when things aren't going well. Often, though, simply applying a different tactic will make more of a difference in the end. Losing a battle feels more like a challenge to do better than a cheap and annoying experience, though this isn't always true. It will force players to think before getting into combat, though, as preparation is often more important that reflexes.

   In combat, players will fight enemies in real-time, though it's got a bit of a tactical element to it. Geralt will be cut to pieces if players simply try to hack-and-slash their way through. Instead, gamers will be dodging, parrying, and darting in to get an attack off while there is an opening. Getting overzealous in combat or getting cornered are two surefire ways to die. Geralt is not limited to melee combat, as he has powers in the form of magical signs. These signs include such skills as a fire attack, a magical trap that binds foes, and a defensive shield just to name a few. Selecting a sign slows down combat so that Geralt doesn't get butchered while navigating the menu. Only a certain number of these signs can be used before they need to be recharged, which happens simply by waiting. Signs can all be enhanced via the talent tree, which is available upon leveling up. It's not only signs that can be enhanced, as Geralt's swordsmanship and alchemy skills can be upgraded as well, granting the game a fairly robust character progression system.

   While combat might turn some away due to its challenging nature, the awkward and cumbersome controls do the game an even greater disservice. For a game that focuses on strategic combat, it can be a problem when Geralt doesn't move as fast or as accurately as desired, often due to input lag. During heated fights it can feel as if the player is battling the interface more than the enemies themselves. Part of the issue is the lengthy attack animations that cannot be cancelled, but sometimes the game just doesn't detect input selection on the first press. Even when things are going smoothly with the controls, the game can still be tough. Even on easy it offers a fairly steep difficulty, so ramping the challenge level up higher is only recommended for those wanting a more intense experience.

Watch it burn Some men just like to watch the world burn.

   Not only are the controls awkward: the world map is as well. While the map does highlight the next location to visit for an active quest, it's often difficult to see where that is or how to get there. The map does not zoom in far, and when zooming out it will often move too far away to where it shows the entire world map including places that cannot be visited. Scrolling around the map is also really slow, so it's an annoyance to get the map centered on the desired point, only to zoom a little too far out and have to start over. Not only that, but sometimes the on-screen mini-map and the world map are at odds with each other about where the next location is. All of that combined with a lack of quick travel just makes the whole setup an irritation.

   Item management is also a pain. If the large font option is on, when looting items there is no way to see what will be picked up beforehand. This is something that's not made clear at the start, so if this option is used, players will have to blindly pick up everything or avoid loot. Due to this, it's easy to end up with an inventory full of useless junk to have to sort through later or be forced to toss if there is no vendor nearby. The item management interface is set up serviceably, but that also feels sluggish in use. A few minor tweaks to the user interface, and a better description of the options, could have gone a long way toward making this a better experience.

   The presentation of The Witcher 2 is a highlight for the most part. At times this is one of the best looking games on the Xbox 360, but at others the draw distance is so bad that mountains almost appear out of thin air. That aside, most character models, enemies, and locales have made a fantastic transition over to the console environment and fit perfectly within the dark, gritty environments of the game. The game runs very smoothly when installed to the hard drive. The voice acting is also impressive, as each character's personality really shines through via their spoken dialogue. The soundtrack does great justice to the game and its dark setting, blending perfectly with what's going on in game while never overshadowing.

   As the credits rolled, I found myself looking back fondly on all of the characters I'd interacted with and wondering how my decisions were going to shape the world to come. While I clearly had issues with the actual gameplay parts of The Witcher 2, the story and characters were memorable enough to make it worthwhile, mostly because of how real they felt. While it starts off rough, has a steep learning curve, and offers a lot of places where it can get frustrating, in the end the experience was worth the effort. With a little more polish on the controls and interface, this series can continue to mature into something truly outstanding.

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