It's going to be an incredible year for RPGs: this much is clear. After a year in the relative wilderness with only the dry bones of Dragon Age II to gnaw on, the remaining months of 2011 now promise us the excitements of Skyrim, Mass Effect 3 and a lesser-known game that we're now sure can stand tall amongst such towering names: The Witcher 2.
The first Witcher was a quiet hit, a Polish RPG which came out of nowhere and swiftly built up a loyal following, yet turned off a fair few folk with its dodgy dialogue and divisive presentation of rumpy-pumpy. The second Witcher, based on a good 10 hours fiddling happily with preview code containing its Prologue and first major chapter, is looking entirely likely to unite the tribes.
A huge step upwards in terms of presentation, writing and roleplaying complexity, The Witcher 2 takes the RPG fight right to the big boys. Assassins of Kings? If the kings are BioWare and Bethesda, that sounds about right.
While commenting on a game's graphics can become a one-way ticket to dreary SuperlativeVille, it would be a critical disservice not to nod at just how great The Witcher 2 looks. Sporting the developers' custom engine, it's one of those now all-too-rare games that are designed explicitly for those honking great graphics cards inside a gaming PC.
Arrestingly good-looking even at the lower settings, when whacked up all the way to Ultra it's an explosion of detail and colour, a long way distant from the blurry textures and depressing browns we've perhaps come to expect of late.
Characters are robust and distinctive, high-tech and careful design working in harmony. If you've thought, even for a second, that 'Polish' must mean 'cheap', you've got it all wrong. This looks nothing short of spectacular, whether it's facing off against vast monsters such as dragons and kraken or simply wandering a forest at sunset and cooing at the pretty lighting.
Right, enough doe-eyed blather about how the thing looks. What manner of RPG is it? It's action-orientated, but backed up by a confident line in grey-area moral decisions and multiple approaches to quest-solving.
To give specific examples would be to risk spoiling a game that, so far, excels even in the more minor details, but a trend appears to be the choice between a quicker, lazier route that likely involves increased brutality and a slower, more fiendish path more likely to soothe your conscience and potentially lead to greater long-term reward.
Or occasionally the opposite is true; in one quest where I let my determination to do the right thing lead the way, I was deceived by an NPC and almost got a bunch of guys killed as a result. Nice guys don't necessarily finish last, but they sure can look like simpering, gullible idiots.
Without having access to the entire game, the full scope and scale of possible consequence can't yet be determined, but so far I've had a good sense of building my own road through The Witcher 2, even if (as I suspect) that road will be broadly similar for most other players.
It's a semi-linear game, analogous to the BioWare/Dragon Age model of having core quests to tackle in approximate order but plenty of optional distraction to busy yourself with as and when you please.
After a spectacular but strictly on-rails prologue setting up the key beats of the plot (wolf-faced, Clint Eastwood-esque magic mutant Geralt is on the run for a crime he didn't commit, while also trying to unravel his own forgotten history), the speeding car of exposition slows down to let you out in a small town bounded by a sprawling forest. If you've ever played an RPG before, you know full well what a sprawling forest means. Quests!
Geralt is locked to specific paths within the forest (alas, he's still denied a jump function) but there are enough of them and the forest is labyrinthine enough that this doesn't feel especially limiting. A good old explore will turn up plenty of gruesome spidery things, murderous water-goblins and tunnelling horrors to fight, as well as a raft of alchemical ingredients to collect for the brewing of potions, bombs and traps.
Quests and bounties picked up from town tie into assorted adventuring and beast-slaying here, or you can simply carve your way through purely for fun and profit.
Back in town, matters are perhaps a little less traditional. The Witcher is not a family-friendly game, to say the least. It is proud of its maturity, and that means its characters sport thoroughly uncensored language, a prevalence for sex, violence and ugly prejudice and the active encouragement of such things in Geralt.
While the first game may have been guilty of being paradoxically puerile in its attempts to be mature, this time around it's a whole lot more grown-up. A few slight losses in translation aside, the dialogue is for the most part sharp and smart, with the swearing clearly a part of the world rather than just painted on top, and it's all acted out by a remarkably confident voice cast.
In terms of sex, it may be nowhere near as enthusiastic in its depiction of man-flesh as it is of lady-flesh, but it's come a long way from the sniggering-at-the-back-the-class nudey cards approach of the first Witcher, where almost every female character was fair game.
Entirely optional encounters with prostitutes aside, the (also optional) lone sex scene in the preview code is with a woman Geralt is already in something like a relationship with, and while he's often flirting with others he's now more a silver-tongued old dog than a creepy predator.
The softcore humping shown is fully animated and lavishly 'shot', perhaps a little more convincing and lot more naked than the Dragon Age efforts, but we're not entirely out of Team America's woods yet. A little schlong might go a long way to offsetting the game's fondness for lingering looks at gravity-defying breasts, but the game's clear interest is in being taken seriously as a smart game for smart adults, not in crudely yelling "get 'em out for the lads".
So the naughty stuff's there and it's not horrible, but crucially it doesn't at all get in the way of the game. It's a thoughtful and evolved RPG first and foremost, from the sprawl of interesting and layered quests to the vast skill tree, so dense in swordfighting, magic and alchemy upgrade options that it seems impossible anyone could ever have the same Geralt.
On top of this is a meaty weapon and armour crafting system, which often involves a hunt for rare materials with the promise of tangibly effective reward, and the remarkably subtle use of quick-time events for occasional fist-fighting sequences and evasion from certain death in a couple of set-piece encounters.
Aside from making the rookie error of presuming every player will be so familiar with the original game that they can plunge right into what's immediately a too-complex back-story (really, it needs an additional intro sequence to clear things up for newbies), it's clever and subtle yet big and brash – a breath of fresh air in an age where other role-players are obsessed with accessibility first and foremost.
Too often, melding RPG complexity with action game gloss has apparently proven an impossible challenge for developers, with one or the other element left licking its wounds from the attempt. If The Witcher 2 can maintain its first chapter accomplishments throughout its duration, it will have deftly proved that there needn't be any compromise from either side of the equation.
From humble roots, we have our king-slayer.