By anyone’s standards, The Witcher 2 is the best fantasy RPG of the last few years. It is more polished than Dragon Age, more expansive than Dragon Age 2 and in a different league to Risen, Two Worlds II and Gothic 4. It has a strong story, a fascinating world, exceptional graphics and superb production values. If you like fantasy RPGs, it’s a must-buy.
A shame, then, that The Witcher 2 can seem hell bent on putting you off. By accident or design it’s a divisive game, separating those who are willing to spend time studying the in-game journal, learning the various game systems and putting up with a fearsome difficulty level from those who would, frankly, like a good story while chopping monsters into bits. Like the equally challenging Demon’s Souls, The Witcher 2 demands and rewards commitment. If you’re not prepared to put in the time and the energy, don’t bother picking it up.
While some will tell you that this is a good thing - that it’s about time RPGs focused back on the hardcore fanbase - we’re not sure we fully agree. The opening “prologue” section is a nightmare, shoving the hero, the titular Witcher, in the middle of a siege battle sequence without bothering to break you gently into the combat systems or the core game mechanics. All you get are some blink-and-you’ll-miss-em tip boxes. Playing on the normal difficulty level, your humble reviewer died multiple times in battle with overwhelming numbers before working out that the best way to survive was to scuttle around the initial area, engaging single soldiers by finding the points at which their AI routines triggered then, erm, boldly scurrying away. This is not the stuff of which heroic tales are made. A subsequent encounter with a grumpy dragon involved doing the same stretch of action some 20 times before we somehow fluked an escape. Mucho swearing and sulking ensued.
This is where the commitment comes in. Combat as a whole in The Witcher 2 is on the tough side, and you’ll need a solid grasp of your signs (effectively spells), traps and crowd control tactics to survive. You’ll need to research monsters and their weak points, get to grips with crafting and potions and - most of all - check your journal all the time. Constant usage of the quick-save and quick-load keys won’t hurt either. Some of you might get through the game without consulting an FAQ at any point, but we suspect you’ll be in the minority. If you’re not looking for a serious challenge, do yourself a favour and dial the difficulty down to “easy”. There’s no shame if it means you’ll enjoy the game.
And it’s a game worth enjoying. The tale begins with Geralt, our white-haired witcher (or magically-endowed monster-slayer for hire) stitched-up for the murder of his king, Having escaped his captors, he sets out to clear his name. Of course, there’s more to it than that. Geralt has gaps in his memories and the killer seems to know him. What is their connection, and how does it tie in to the fate of the world? The story has a nice, epic sweep, but it’s closer to gritty heroic fantasy than the high fantasy of Tolkien. As with Dragon Age and its sequel, much is made of man’s inhumanity to man, and man’s even worse inhumanity to non-humans.
It’s dark, thrilling stuff, with a strong cast of characters, and very well told through cinematic cutscenes and in-game dialogue. Maybe we could have done without the dubious, cleavage-obsessed approach to women’s clothing and the even more dubious sex scenes - CGI fantasy soft-porn isn’t really our style - but we’re sure that millions of you will disagree. If you like your fantasy heavy on blood, boobs and bad language, The Witcher 2 delivers.
The Witcher 2 is also a beautiful game. Played on a half-decent gaming rig, it easily knocks Bioware’s slightly uninspired efforts on Dragon Age 2 for six with detailed medieval architecture, lush forests, creepy, mist-covered glades and dingy caverns. While Heavy Rain and L.A. Noire have spoilt us with their realistic, motion-captured character animation, The Witcher 2 does the best it can with more conventional, artist-animated faces, and the models look reasonably convincing. The lighting and texturing is so good that even a quick walk through the woods will yield a few scenes of photogenic wonder, until you bump into the local, highly aggressive fauna. We haven’t been so impressed by the graphics of a fantasy RPG since Oblivion, and The Witcher 2 sets a high mark for the upcoming Elder Scrolls: Skyrim to pass.
Most importantly, once you’ve adjusted to the gameplay, The Witcher 2 is a deeply satisfying RPG. The combat is heavy on the action, but too tactically demanding to ever turn into a button-masher, and each area comes packed with main quests, side-quests and monster-hunting bonus missions that, by the time a chapter comes to a close, you’ll feel like you’ve really explored your surroundings. Each chapter also has choices to be made, often through a fine dialogue system that has you adopting an ethic and a way of doing things, so that you change the world and the direction the game will take from there on in without feeling like you’re making hard black and white choices.
The character upgrade system can’t match the one in Mass Effect 2 or Dragon Age 2 for simplicity, but then it doesn’t really try. Here it’s all about depth, about working out which traits you want to emphasise, which items and weapons you’ll need to conquer, and about gathering the recipes and the raw materials you’ll need to get them manufactured. It is - unquestionably - geeky, but when you combine the action with the strong story, incredibly compelling. Like the best RPGs, The Witcher 2 gives you a world you can get stuck into, and plenty of reason to get stuck into it, and that’s exactly what you’ll do.
In a way, the Witcher 2 leaves us wishing there was a middle ground between the dumbing down of the RPG and this slightly wilful “rtfm” (or “rtfj” with “j” for journal) approach. The game could do with a more forgiving start and some more obvious ways of filtering in advice, and without irritations like swarming, respawning critters and unskippable cutscenes placed before a boss battle. Overall, though, it’s a game that more than gives back whatever you put in. The longer you play it and the more you think about how you play it, the more absorbing and incredible it gets.
At times, The Witcher 2 seems to take a perverse delight in scaring off more casual gamers, but the story, the tone and the visual style are so strong that anyone with an interest in fantasy adventure should persevere. It’s a stronger game than Dragon Age 2, and a serious contender for RPG of the year.