It's tough to eclipse a sleeper hit like The Witcher, the 2007 RPG of the Year which introduced gamers to the brutal world of Andrzej Sapkowski and his most famous creation - Geralt of Rivia: monster-slayer extraordinaire. A sequel to an ambitious title like that is normally extremely difficult to pull off, but luckily RPG fans are in for a treat.
The sequel picks up right where the first game left off, with Geralt now in the employ of King Foltest as his personal bodyguard whilst the good king lays siege to his ex-lover's fortress in a bid to recover his bastard children. Yep, just your typical day in Temeria. It's impossible to reveal anything substantial about the sweeping storyline without giving away spoilers, so I'll simply say that if you enjoy grand conspiracies, cloak and dagger politics, brutal battles and exotic locales then this is right up your alley. The main storyline is exceptionally strong, driven forward by inch-perfect pacing and plenty of twists along the way. But perhaps the most impressive achievement is the ability for the player to truly shape the narrative of the story around their actions in a meaningful manner. Unlike the typical good, bad, and neutral dialogue choices present in conventional RPG's, the world of Geralt is a distinctly bleak shade of grey. Here, morality is a concept looser than a Temerian hooker's panties, and the player is frequently presented with choices that involve deciding between the lesser of two evils. Furthermore, interaction with key NPCs often lead to repercussions a few hours down the storyline, and I'm not just talking about simple choices like deciding to spare their lives or not. Complex, mature storytelling is the order of the day here, and as crude as it sounds, the world is made much more believable by the ample usage of taboo themes like rape, incest, and torture. Witcher 2 makes Dragon Age 2 look like a kindergarten painting session in comparison. NPCs regularly spout profanities, signifying the rough savagery of the world and its inhabitants, and the sex scenes are done tastefully, pushing the boundaries of conventional computer game character development. Sex is no longer treated as a card-collecting minigame ala the original Witcher, instead serving to strengthen the storyline or, ahem - flesh out characters. Indeed, the assorted NPCs are varied and diverse this time around, thanks to modular character design that randomizes clothing and ensures that no two people look the same. Although successful in making characters believable there aren't really any standout performances in terms of voice acting, which is a shame as it could have pushed the dramatic aspects to a higher level. It's impossible not to recognize the superb technical achievement that is the 'RED Engine' under the Witcher 2's hood. CDProjekt have undoubtedly created one of the finest graphical engines ever seen in videogaming, and as a result the game looks absolutely fantastic. The ability to customize the graphical settings to enable even low-end systems to run the game fluidly is worthy of praise itself, but only when you crank up the goodness to a higher level does the stunning art direction and environment design hit you full on like the charge of a Bullvore. For an RPG to give you visuals that rival and eclipse games like Crysis is mightily impressive, and at times I simply just stopped and panned the camera around to admire the scenery. Depth of field is used especially well in conjunction with dynamic lighting, superb textures and HDR to bring the world of Sapkowski to life. Animations are fluidly executed and I didn't encounter a single graphical glitch, with the only detriment being framerate hiccups during elaborate cutscenes, and this was only when I decided to be cocky and push the settings farther than what my system could handle. The foliage and the real-time day and night cycles look especially good, and the Havok physics, although responsible for some goofy corpse placements, does its job well in lending weight to the environment. Sound design is equally impressive, and you can immediately tell that the presentation aspect is taken very seriously by our Polish friends at CDProjekt. The musical score combines simple Eastern European folk tunes with booming orchestral compositions and even the occasional power guitar riff that amalgamate into something just as good as the first game's epic effort. I'll be very surprised if it doesn't sweep the original music score categories at the end of the year awards.
The game skimps on the quantity of sidequests this time around, opting instead to go for quality - reflected in the care and attention given to even the mundane monster hunting quests. For instance the simple bounty of killing the goblin-like Nekkers involves Geralt first fighting a dozen or so of the beasts in the wild to observe their tendencies, after which he can identify their nesting grounds, and finally using a selection of craftable bombs to close the nesting tunnels for good and rid the area of the menace. It has to be noted however that the quest notes were unhelpful on many occasions, and some players may be frustrated by the lack of a pointer on certain quests telling you where to go. It certainly left me perplexed and having to use a guide on one or two occasions during the game to finish quests where very little guidance was given. Although the combat system is somewhat improved from the first game, it still felt clunky, especially in tight spaces. The combat also suffers from being very difficult early on whilst Geralt is under-leveled, and too trivial later on when he gets 'group finisher' abilities which allow you to slaughter multiple enemies at the touch of a button. Despite being extremely cool looking, they take tactical considerations away from combat. More emphasis also needed to be placed on the newly revamped arsenal of bombs and potions. Whilst they are certainly beneficial, on normal difficulty they are hardly necessary to get through the game. On Harder settings though I felt that they were more of a necessity, although I found myself resorting to 'trap cheesing' more often than not, and by that I mean stacking traps around me as they seemed to inflict the most damage. A bit more polish on the combat system would have been nice, but luckily it does not detract from the overall game experience too much. Furthermore, I felt that the final Act in the game reached crescendo far too quickly. This may be because the preceding two Acts were of such a high standard, it left me craving for more, but there was a noticeable dearth of sidequests and stuff to do, culminating in an underwhelming ending. However I can understand the design decision behind this, as the story was reaching its boiling point and the narrative needed to be focused. The last thing the player should be doing is hunting for some missing maiden whilst the assembled powers of the Northern Kingdoms are waiting to resolve the kingdom's situation. Despite the complexities of the game and the amount of storyline variables, no inconsistencies were noted, and the saved file from the first Witcher integrated well and characters from the previous installment reacted accordingly to my choices. Only one crash to desktop was encountered over the course of the game, and that was mainly down to my incessant alt-tabbing tendencies.
There's a lot to love about Witcher 2. For starters, you can't argue with the pricing and the amount of goodies you get in both the premium and the collector's packs. Whilst a normal play through would net you about 20-30 hours of gameplay, the sheer amount of variables and endings, not to mention a completely different Act 2 depending on the choices you made in Act 1 ensure that the game has tremendous replay-ability. The storyline alone is worth the price of admission, but the numerous enhancements from the first game, such as the addition of customizable equipment like boots and gloves, to the wonderfully written journal entries and a stronger cast of female supporting characters this time around serve to reinforce the fact that CDProjekt are no one-hit wonders. Adam Badowski and his team deserve a lot of credit for creating an immersive and atmospheric world that is a pleasure to adventure in. Despite a few hitches Witcher 2 is a tremendous achievement in the field of computer gaming and a monster of a sequel, one that isn't likely to be slain for some time.