Platform | Release Date
PC, 360 | April 17, 2012
Developed by CD Projekt
Published by WB Games
The Witcher 2: Assassins Of Kings is a single player Role Playing Game (RPG), and sequel to the critically acclaimed 2007 PC game, The Witcher. Based on the short stories and novels of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, Assassins Of Kings continues the adventures of the Medieval monster hunter for hire, Geralt of Rivia. It is also the first game in The Witcher franchise to be released on Xbox 360. Game features include: hack n’ slash and magical combat, a mature storyline, game development based on choices made during mission play and dialog chains, weapons variety, and graphics quality and control functionality on par with the PC release.
In addition, the Enhanced Edition of The Witcher 2: Assassins Of Kings contains a variety of bonus items.
Much like a mystery novel, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings – Enhanced Edition front-loads the dead bodies. It opens with an absolutely gorgeous pre-rendered cutscene depicting the assassination of King Demavend. One dead body. Within two hours another king dies. Two dead bodies. You know who did it. Except you can’t remember his name. And nearly everyone else thinks it was you.
Ostensibly, the search for the game’s titular assassin of kings – and thus the material to clear Geralt’s name – is the driving force behind the narrative, but that simplifies so much about the story. The death of two kings has sparked a war as everyone fights over the scraps. One heirless realm is rising up against the monarchical structure altogether. Geralt has a role to play in these events but his gradual recovery from amnesia continually puts the events in a new context, forcing tough questions on the player who controls him. Who is really a friend? Who is really an enemy? By the time Geralt gets his final confrontation with the kingslayer that line has muddied to the point that players must take a leap of faith, choosing which person to believe, which to save, and which to punish.
The prologue neatly establishes Geralt’s primary love interest. The circumstances of Chapter 1 have the player brokering an alliance of necessity between an elven terrorist and the spymaster who’s spent his life trying to kill him. All the characters you meet are flawed, existing on a moral compass between racist pseudo-dictator to prostitute-loving but noble bard – and everything in between. You spend most of your time alone, joined on occasion by allies and reluctant enemies; a party RPG this is not, yet I feel like I know all of the major players far deeper than RPGs where you spend 30 hours with the same group.
They feel human, with motivations and history you never completely understand. Characters, like real people, are frequently more than what they initially seem. Someone I’d initially dismissed as little more than a lesbian prostitute successfully ambushes two sorceresses and reveals herself to be an enormously powerful sorceress in the service of the Empire – the one political entity everyone hates. Depending on which path you take, however, you can run into her again and learn about her motivations. In my playthrough, Geralt *ahem* learned about more than that.
The uneasy situation in Chapter 1 only gets more tenuous and the breaking point hours later is a masterfully constructed climax. Pick your side and the next ten or more hours of the game will be drastically different. There are some content overlaps but, if The Witcher 2 sinks its hooks in you, it rewards a second playthrough far more than any other contemporary RPG. Some of the twists towards the end of Chapter 2 had me staring at my TV, jaw agape, for minutes before resuming play. My favorite quest in the entire game is one CD Projekt RED added for the Enhanced Edition in Chapter 3 and it falls right before a series of excruciating choices that greatly affect the ending you will receive.
That ending. Many story-driven games unravel at the end but Geralt’s tale resolves quite well, with the final chapter recapturing the magic of my first playthrough last year. A couple important characters get surprisingly brief stage exits but it didn’t hurt my enjoyment of the last play session. The ending leaves open a story arc for a potential third game while tying a bow on nearly every open plotline or question. Staying through to the end of the credits is also recommended.
The Witcher 2 retains much of what made the previous game’s combat feel unique while simultaneously streamlining it. The broad strokes are here: potions must be taken before combat, battles may require laying traps, alchemy ingredients are various but exist as the source for a small number of elementals. On Normal, crafting is necessary early on; on Hard or Dark modes, potions, traps and bombs take much greater importance. At any difficulty level, however, on or two mistakes – even in fights that last five minutes or more – spells death for Geralt.
CD Projekt RED has spent much of the past year rebalancing and improving the game but a glaring problem remains: for all of the combat mechanics, the hardest fights in the game typically don’t allow for any preparation. They come right after a cutscene or conversation. Worse, the scene is often unskippable, making the frequent reloads a real pain. After the first few hours I never used traps or bombs and found I could power through the game using merely potions and blade oils – when there was time to prepare. If the other crafting systems aren’t necessary, then why are they present? If a third game is made, something I dearly hope happens, I hope CD Projekt RED takes a hard look at where further streamlining could occur.
Some of the game’s difficulty spikes would feel fairer if the developers allowed for some preparation but only a few controller-throwing spots pop up. Several quests fail to provide sufficient in-game documentation, so expect to spend some time with a walkthrough or wiki to get through certain parts. Even with that wiki time, however, I still don’t understand how certain quests failed either mid-progress or before I’d even started them.
The presentation on XBox 360 takes some getting used to after playing on a rather nice gaming PC but I’m impressed with the retained fidelity – particularly the sheer amount of detail in the game’s environments. Also helping with immersion is the game’s excellent sound design. Chapter 1 sees frequent forays into a forest, during which my wife swore there were birds flying inside our house. The heart-wrenching orchestral soundtrack is put to good use both as background music and to punctuate key story developments.
Though a single playthrough clocks in at around 25 hours, I’ve spent close to 50 hours between this 360 release and two half-finished playthroughs on PC. I’m so happy that I’ve finally seen the end of the game and know how many threads resolve, but I wonder what would have happened with different choices. My ending satisfied me but a short epilogue sets the stage for a new adventure, something I eagerly await. For all its remaining rough edges, it’s a must-play for fans of story-driven Western RPGs.