The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings - Enhanced Edition Preview

I need a hero.

I think for the most part we get a bit of a raw deal in the hero stakes these days. At one end of the spectrum, you have the likes of the wordy John Shepard, a man who's always struck me as more of a council mediator working through a series of lengthy noisy-neighbour disputes than a saviour of the universe. At the other end, there are the quieter meat-heads who let their guns do their talking, backed up with the kind of crotch-enhancing space armour all too reminiscent of those horrifyingly tight, shiny suits that Jamie Redknapp's fond of wearing on Sky Sports.

And as I grow older and fartier with what seems like every passing second, it's characters like Geralt of Rivia I find myself growing closer to - the more life-like middle ground where pleasantly brutal violence goes hand-in-hand with believable characters, convincing relationships and repercussions.

In reality it's simply not the done thing to deal with life's infinite array of petty irritations by tracking down the instigator and planting a silver sword in their anus before winding down with a nice cup of coffee and a pancake. This makes me sad.

The universe of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowki's Witcher series on the other hand provides the perfect escape from both reality, and the often rather adolescently mature games of today. This is adult fantasy fiction created for fiction's sake, rather than the needs of a removed outside agent.

Geralt's intricately detailed tale of intrigue, debauchery and violence - grand fantasy over high fantasy - arrives on the Xbox 360 next month, and at a recent event we had the chance to get hands-on with the game to see how it holds up against its PC predecessor.

At the event itself we didn't get to see an awful lot more of actual new game than has been made available to PC players since the release of the game on that platform last year. But the critical point is that 360 gamers are getting everything the PC players have thus far enjoyed, from the off, and at no extra charge in the form of DLC packages or scurrilous Online Pass strategies.

This includes the new tutorial section that serves to introduce newcomers to the crafting, inventory management and tools of Geralt's trade - as well as an arena in which to hone combat skills and the delicate switches from traps to swords to magical offense that each battle demands.

The controls for this console version are as predictably slick as they were intriguing when I saw the control pad layout on display at a preview of the original PC version last April - back before a console port had been confirmed. On the 360 controller there's a place for everything - just - and while it's a snug fit for all of the parries, blocks, and spell-casting so critical to Geralt's flowing combat, it's also a highly intuitive one, drawing on established standards to maintain familiarity.

A distinctly mouse-friendly interface on the PC has also undergone significant revision to sit well with the cruder controls of the gamepad. 

And this of course is the first console outing for a notoriously perfectionist developer who revisited the original Witcher game a year after release in order to deliver the version they'd always envisaged.

Likewise, the PC version of the Witcher 2 has been polished and reiterated upon since release. As well as incorporating these refinements into the upcoming release, the game has made a technically remarkable transition to the console, adhering to the 'PC on medium settings' goal that the team had established early on, and running locked at a solid 30 frames per second.

It's late in the life-cycle of the current generation of hardware for a studio to bring a technically demanding title to market as their first console project though. So is it an advantage, or a disadvantage for CD Projekt to be in this position?

"I think we achieved some great stuff. We managed to create a game that's massive and looks really good so I think we pushed the limit a bit further," explains CD Projekts Level Artist Marek Ziemak when I ask him about the technical challenges. "On the other hand, sure it's already a bit late for Xbox 360, so it's not as powerful as PC - that's pretty obvious! But it has some other pluses and it's really pleasant to play the game on Xbox also."

"From the developer's point of view, you always want to explore new stuff, so we would probably be more excited about creating something for next-generation consoles. On the other hand, from the business point of view, I think it's an advantage because a lot of players have the console already - you know what their expectations are.

"You can see what other games look like already, where they pushed the limit and how they did some very technical stuff, so I think it's easier to develop a game later on in the process definitely. But it's probably more fun to do it at the beginning. You get to learn and explore and be the first one to achieve something that's impressive."

The console release will span two DVDs, and when I asked Ziemak about the usefulness of installing the game to the hard drive - rather than running off individual disks - he explained just how critical that advantage is.

"Yes, definitely. That's a thing we want to stress, that if it's possible to install the game [then do so], because the streams will be faster, you'll experience some better visual quality, because the hard drive is much faster than any media. It will improve loading times, it will improve the quality of meshes, probably also because we have faster streaming means faster movement between memory and hard drives, so you'd be able to load the good chunks and then just change them directly from your hard drive."

As well as all of the content released for the PC to date, the game will also ship with an additional storyline quest that will be new to both PC and console gamers alike. Brigida Papebrock, lady-in-waiting of King Foltest's Court and witness to the disappearance of the heir to the throne, is in hiding. As escort during her quiet escape from the city, Geralt accompanies her on a journey that offers optional, branching pathways through caves and forest glens, while the storyline of her situation is unveiled and teleporting mages - along with their more melee-orientated associates - assault from all around.

It was only the briefest of teasers before we were moved away from this hands-on demonstration but it was enough time to confirm that there's still plenty of life left in Geralt's tale yet. As with the rest of the game, the themes are strong and mature, with treachery and underlying sexual tensions mingling unmistakably beneath the surface. When it comes to our tabloid media's famously twitchy approach to videogames, CD Projekt is dismissive and relaxed about any possible negative reception as the game makes the transition into our living-rooms.

No fears then that Father will peer over his newspaper to see little Johnny gazing with wide-eyed astonishment at - gasp - a lady's bush?

"It's not like we're mature under cover, all of the players know what they should expect as an 18 game. It's one of our features, we're creating a game for a mature audience - for people who can actually understand it and enjoy it, so we're not afraid of it, " says Ziemak.

"There's a huge amount of players who are looking for an experience like that, and I would think it's going to be OK with them. They are watching movies with all the violence and reading books with violence, so why make games differently? Sure we've got the cinematics and there are two different types of sex you can have in the game. There are whores which are an integral part of the reality in this world but on the other hand, there are relationships with women like Triss or Vess and that's a totally different case.

"We are creating these relationships that sometimes end with a sex scene but it doesn't have to be very explicit. It's just to underline there's something connecting these people and I think that's our approach - we don't want to create a porn game! It's just like in books or on TV, sometimes it just shows an aspect of people's lives."

Regardless of mainstream taste and sensibilities, what can't be denied is the fortuitous timing of The Witcher 2's transition from the bedroom to the living room. As the concept of the sprawling RPG enjoys a renaissance period buoyed by the success of Skyrim - and even the chart-topping Kingdoms of Amalur - there's a wider audience willing to invest in these worlds. As believable as it is brutal, The Witcher 2 is a natural evolution in the genre's history.

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About the author

John Bedford

John Bedford


John is a freelance writer based in West Sussex.


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