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!