The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings 2-Years Later Review
Reviewed by: Guest_Jim_*
Reviewed on: December 17, 2013
With the upcoming release of The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, and the occasional sale, we are taking a look at the already released games in the CD Projekt RED franchise. The Witcher franchise is based on the literary works of Andrzej Sapkowski and the first two games are also the first two games developed by CD Projekt RED.
Witchers are highly trained and mutated warriors with the singular purpose of hunting monsters to protect humanity. Over time their numbers have dwindled due to war and a growing hatred for non-humans, which makes life hard for those who still survive. The main character, Geralt of Rivia, also called the White Wolf, has an even harder time though, as he has risen from the dead for an unknown purpose and lost all of his memory from before his resurrection.
Despite his amnesia, Geralt is still a powerful warrior who has found himself near the center of a plot to murder kings. Accused of one of the assassinations, Geralt and his friends must hunt down the true killer, and survive the turmoil that death and despots cause. To understand the events around him though, he not only has to catch the conspirators, but recover his memories.
Like the game before it, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is a complex role-playing game with characters and storylines to match. It has received a Mature rating for blood and gore, intense violence, nudity, strong sexual content, and strong language. It deserves this rating, so if you should not be exposed to such content, then you should probably not be reading this review either.
Should we help Geralt recover his memory, or should he be happy with his amnesia? Read on to decide.
When released, The Witcher 2 was one of the most brutal games for modern systems to try running at maximum settings (and sometimes a bit less than that). Special effects include blur effects, depth of field, SSAO, wet surfaces rain effect, dangling-objects physics, and Ubersampling. According to the readme files for the game, Ubersampling renders scenes multiple times to provide the best appearance. As the readme also points out, this is not an easy process for computers to do.
With all of these options enabled, the game is still one of the best looking experiences you can find for the PC. You may be able to find some hard edges that a newer game could tessellate away, but that will require careful examination of screenshots, as active gameplay will make them nearly impossible to see. The models were simply designed that well, and the textures match that quality.
Leather and cloth textures look like the real materials, with visible fibers and cracks. Metals are equally detailed and are, when appropriate, reflective. Hair, fur, and feathers are, again, well made. There may be some trickery in the bulk of the material, but at the edges you can see individual strands of fiber, making it all look that much more realistic. Short facial hair, such as Geralt's stubble, does appear to be part of the texture, but skin textures are so detailed that the hair looks natural. The marks, wrinkles, freckles, pores, and scars of the skin textures also look very natural, even under some close examination.
The environments of the game are quite varied, as you will find yourself traipsing through forests, castles, towns, dungeons, battlefields, and more. No matter where you are, though, the quality of these environments are consistently high. In the forest, for example, you will see lush trees, tall grass, and other flora everywhere, leading you to believe this world actually exists. The enemies found in these environments are equally detailed, and, despite their intent to kill you, can actually be somewhat beautiful. (Admire at your own risk though.) Outside of the forest, you will find yourself in areas you would expect from the Middle Ages of Europe, with muddy towns, wooden forts, and stone castles, along with some objects that are only fantasy in origin.
I think it is about time to talk about water and fire. Water is not a particularly common element in the game (at least during my playthrough), but is reactive to your presence and motion through it. Most of the time though, the waters’ surfaces are just rough from ripples and small waves being permanently generated somewhere. The disturbances you cause are short lived compared to them.
Fire, which is far more present in the game, is probably among the best I have seen in video games. It has curling wisps and tendrils that flow so smoothly that it looks like a real, living flame. The particles fires throw off also help add to the realism. The flames are not particularly thick however, allowing you to see through them and to the objects caught by the conflagration. With the distortion and lighting effects the fire adds, this transparency further adds to its natural appearance.
Time for system specs and performance:
- Processor: AMD A10-5800K @ 4.40 GHz (44.0x100)
- Cooling: Corsair H110
- Motherboard: ASUS F2A85-M PRO
- GPU: EVGA GTX 770 2 GB
- PhysX: EVGA GTX 570 1280 MB
- Memory: G.Skill Ripjaws 4x8 GB (32 GB total) at 1866 MHz 10-10-10-27
- PSU: OCZ Fata1ty 750 W
- OS: Windows 7- Professional 64-bit
Thankfully the years have been good to the hardware market and I was able to play the entire game at maximum settings, with two exceptions. The first being motion blur, because I personally prefer to have that turned off, and the other is the limit on dangling objects. I did not pay close enough attention to the description of that setting, so I had the limit enabled, when ‘disabled’ is actually the higher quality setting.
Framerate does change depending on the environment, as some areas have considerably more objects to render. Dungeons with tight corridors are not very difficult to draw, but a marsh filled with plants, going as far as the eye can see is going to require more resources. This did cause the occasional drop in FPS, but nothing too severe, and it was still playable.
Framerates were smooth throughout, although there were some occasional drops. Those drops never seemed to last long for me, possibly because it was only a specific area in the region that had so much to render.
I never noticed any true graphical glitches worth mentioning here. There were some small issues that occurred, but they were not readily reproducible, as simply replaying a section may or may not have them. Intermittency combined with minimal impact makes it something I believe is worth overlooking for a review. (That is where forum threads can come in handy.)
Although I never experienced any graphical glitches, I do have some complaints concerning certain geometries, but that is more gameplay than graphics, so that is section they will be discussed in.
Overall, the graphics of The Witcher 2 are superb, in my opinion, and two years after release still compete with the best you can find today. It may have some rough spots, but you have to look for them. I just wish I had an even better rig so I could really push some pixels.
The central plot of the game is that the kings of different kingdoms are being assassinated, causing great turmoil in the realms. As Geralt was present at one of the assassinations, but unable to prevent it, he has been blamed for at least that one. Luckily not everyone believes he is guilty, so he is able to escape imprisonment in order to hunt down the real murderer. Of course many do believe he is guilty, so you can expect the occasional fight with bandits and more animosity than another mutant would receive.
This hunt takes Geralt to many places with old friends like Triss Merigold, a sorceress; Zoltan Chivay, a dwarf; and Dandelion, a minstel. As they have known you for years, they are more than willing to help you clear your name and find the real assassin, in what ways they can. Geralt also makes some new friends along the way, but this can depend strongly on the choices you make.
Like the game before it, The Witcher 2 features a complex story with choices that can completely change your experience. We are not talking about just different endings here (though the game does have those), but quests and significant events are dependent on your choices. One choice changes where the majority of the second chapter takes place and another greatly impacts how the game ends. Also some choices from the previous game can impact this one, assuming you load in a save from it.
One change I have noticed is the apparent lack of a middle ground for ethical choices. One of the more interesting and enjoyable aspects (for me at least) of the previous game was making choices to either sway the political situation or leave it alone. There was almost always a middle option, so you would not aid any political side, but in The Witcher 2 this middle option does not exist. At times you can state that the Witcher's role is to just slay monsters, and not to be involved with politics, but this does not really amount to anything, besides a dialogue response. Expect yourself to take a side at some point, like the end of Chapter 1.
A very major plot point for the game is Geralt recovering his memories from before his death. These memories impact how you interpret the events of the game, as different relationships are revealed. I want to avoid spoilers, so just understand that Geralt was not alone during his forgotten past.
One thing I notice now as I think back on the experience is the almost complete lack of monster killing. In the previous game, you would receive multiple contracts to kill a number of beasts and have to return with proof of your work. Though such side quests are still available, they are much fewer. Instead you see more missions concerned with rescuing people than actually removing a threat. This is not a significant change, but it does seem to dilute the 'monster hunter' role from the Witcher character.
With so much story to the game, I hate leaving this section so short, but I do want to avoid spoilers. It is a deep story as almost every mentionable character has their own history, from kings to trolls. If you give the game the time to explore and meet the different beings, you will find yourself in another world, and not just a game.
Definitely an exceptionally well presented and intricate story, which I look forward to playing through at least once more. If only more games featured as impressive of stories as this.
The previous game featured some uncommon mechanics that are not present in any other game I can think of. In many cases, those mechanics have been changed or removed from The Witcher 2, creating an experience more in-line with modern RPGs. Possibly the most unusual mechanic of the first game was its combat system, which prevented a player from button-mashing. That has been changed this time around, so you can now click enemies to death all you want… until they kill you because you will want to dodge.
The fighting stances of the first game are gone as well, as light, quick attacks are now one mouse button, and heavy, slow attacks another. Attacking multiple enemies at once is now part of a skill to be unlocked. Before you would have to swap to the appropriate stance for the enemy or enemies you are fighting. While I am sure many people would say this is a change for the better, personally I kind of liked the previous system. It forced a greater awareness of your enemy(ies) as some attacks just would not be effective against some enemies. Now you can use whichever attack you want against your enemies, and just have to pay attention to timing. Some enemies can strike quickly during the swing of your heavy attack, so they can interrupt you. This is a more common design, which makes it easier for the average player to pick up and play, and can allow for some faster-paced fights, as a mouse click can be faster than a key press. I was simply happy before and did not need the change.
One thing that has not changed is the use of steel and silver swords. Steel swords are best against humanoid enemies, such as humans, elves, and dwarfs, while silver swords are highly effective against monsters of any kind. Using the wrong sword on an enemy will not prevent you from damaging them, but it will reduce the amount of damage you can do, significantly. You definitely need to pay attention to what sword you have equipped, as it takes a brief animation to switch blades. By the way, these are your only weapons, besides traps and ranged weapons. The additional weapon slots of the previous game have been removed.
The potion mechanic has changed and in a way I do not like. An important aspect of how Witchers fight is that they prepare beforehand. They will drink useful potions and apply powerful oils before combat to be as deadly and resilient as possible. Encouraging players to prepare for battles prior to initiation, instead of just letting them run in, sword swinging, is not a bad idea. However, The Witcher 2 forces you to prepare beforehand as you cannot use potions during combat. Even though the potions are shown in slots on Geralt's person, he has no ability to grab them and take a swig, as he could in the previous game. This makes saving often very important, so if you get caught in a fight you were not expecting, you can reload far enough before it to do what you have to do.
Do not go too far back though, because potions are only effective for a certain amount of time, and that timer does not stop counting down. You could be trapped in a cutscene or dialogue tree, and the time will still tick away. You also have to be able to meditate to drink a potion now, but at least you can meditate anywhere (if not whenever) and do not require a fire.
Wondering what those complaints were that I mentioned in the graphics section? They have to do with the geometry of certain arenas. You see, some boss fights take place in arenas, and some of these arenas are somewhat small. This means there is a very good chance you will run into the walls eventually, and potentially discover that the walls are not smooth. I found myself getting stuck against the walls because of how their geometry suddenly stuck out. This made it very easy for many enemies to just have at me, which is most infuriating as the reason is not something a player can really do anything about. You cannot avoid the geometry in such small arenas.
To be fair though, this is an issue I have with many games and is not limited to The Witcher 2. That does not reduce the frustration it causes, it just shows that issue is not limited to this game, in general. Although there was one arena where it was the floor that had the awkward geometry, making it impossible to run, walk, or dodge over a raised stone that I would put at about an inch high. At least that was only one arena Geralt could stub his toes in.
Coincidentally, the two bosses associated with those small arenas I just mentioned (Letho and the Operator, to be specific) are rather overpowered on Normal difficulty. By rather overpowered I mean they have attacks and defenses you can do next to nothing about, but hope you can dodge away fast enough or outlive their effect. I know that for the Letho fight, the next time I play The Witcher 2 I am going to unlock skills specifically in preparation of that fight so I will not have to drop the difficulty to Easy temporarily, like I did for this playthrough. (On Easy, he was a push-over. Not true with the Operator, though.)
Altogether, I spent just over 29 hours in The Witcher 2, playing the Prologue, Chapters 1, 2, and 3, and the Epilogue; completing each available side quest but one (I forgot about it until it was too late to complete). While thirty hours may seem like a nice amount of time for an RPG like this, you can double that time to get what it takes to have the full experience. Many side quests are locked behind the choices you make, so if you truly want to do everything, you will need at least two playthroughs. Some gear is also difficulty-dependent, so that could add playtime as well.
Personally I found this gameplay experience to be very solid in its mechanics and deep in its design, with its web of choice-dependent side quests. Yes, The Witcher 2 has some gameplay flaws, but these can be overcome with enough time and patience, and are either not common or serious enough to be real issues.
Additional Gameplay Images:
Is The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings a game to remember, or one best left forgotten? In my opinion, this is one memory you want to remember. The graphics, story, and gameplay are of high quality and I cannot think of another game that outmatches this excellent combination. Indeed it leaves me in an awkward position as the only thing preventing me from saying, "The Witcher 2 is a great game," is that I cannot think of another game that borrows from this one to make itself better. If I had reviewed this game when The Witcher 2 was still a new release though, you can be certain I would laud it as a great game for its genre and potentially the game industry (Editor's Note: Still is!). It has left me that impressed.
If you have any interest in role-playing-games, I am compelled to recommend The Witcher 2 to you. It is simply too good a game to not recommend to anyone at risk of enjoying it.