Tuesday, May 09, 2023

First Play Review - The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings [2011]

In 2011, Polish prime minister Donald Tusk gifted US president Barack Obama a copy of The Witcher 2. It’s that big of a deal there. I don't know if Obama played The Witcher 2 but if he did, he'd have undoubtedly been impressed with the quality game that CD Projekt Red delivered to further the adventures of Geralt of Rivia based on the novels of Andrzej Sapkowski.

I really want to play The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt now it has a 'next gen' upgrade worthy of my rig. However as I mentioned back in 2018 when I reviewed The Witcher,  you play the one character throughout all three games and some of your choices are recorded and used from the final save of the previous games. So before I can ever play The Witcher 3, I need to establish my own canon by playing the previous entries. It would have been better to play The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings on the event of it's 10th Anniversary in 2021 in order to be prepared for The Witcher 3's upgrade before Christmas last year, but that did not happen. Nevertheless the situation is rectified and I'm able to now deliver my thoughts on this, the second chapter of the franchise.

While The Witcher 2 did not release in as sorry a state as did it's predecessor, the sequel did get a free post launch upgrade a year later to The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings - Enhanced Edition which from what I read, enhanced both the narrative with some additions and corrections, fixes to the gameplay and interface, new tutorials and cinematic as well as a high quality graphics enhancement. 

Gameplay wise, I quickly saw that there were vast changes to combat and abilities over it's predecessor. While my thoughts on The Witcher's combat was that it was interesting because of it's uniqueness, for the sequel it was decidedly more complex and it's difficulty, even in the early game, felt like Dark Souls all over again (even on easy mode). I would later read that the developers were influenced by Dark Souls' progenitor Demon Souls. It would seem CD Projekt employ a reverse difficulty curve where combat at the beginning of the game is more difficult than the endgame when you've upgraded your abilities, magic and equipment. They also added ranged weapons and trap laying and a skill tree of complexity not found in most MMOs. Thankfully many on the Interwebs noticed as I did and have been crafting some "fixes" for the past 10 years that make the whole combat situation better and would allow me to progress faster by removing the need for about 75% of the bloated RPG mechanics that take hours to master and even detract from the main event, the story.

After Geralt's original adventure, he still has amnesia but has thwarted an attempt on King Faltest's life by another Witcher. Alas he was unsuccessful in preventing a second attack, is framed and is forced to flee to both apprehend the assassin and clear his name. Now the whole power fantasy of saving the world and all is fine, it's why we play, but it does get somewhat repetitive. What I really like about this tale that much like Dragon Age II, the middle chapter of that saga (for now) is that you (as Geralt) are not saving the world per se but just nudging it in a path. It's a relatively short contained story of social intrigue (with magic creatures) where your actions and choices change the flow of the story and the political landscape dramatically (from what I've read about choices I didn't take) and eventually put you on course for what is assumed to be the final and far more epic third game.

So, once you modify out the combat awkwardness and get to grips with the story, there's a lot to like about The Witcher 2, Sapkowski's world is as gritty here as in the first instalment and populated with some colourful characters who display various levels of bigotry against you - you're no "chosen one" revered hero here! Geralt is a monster hunter, a good one who kills monsters because that's his job - and he does it well. Rather than just getting a command to kill 10 rats or what have you, you have to research your quarry to find weaknesses and exploit them to vanquish your foes efficiently. Yes there's a lot of story and dialogue, but it does pale in comparison to the amount of combat you have to undertake in this game. Thankfully you have your trusty swords, which can be enhanced and upgraded as you find exotic materials once you take the time to explore and Geralt has access to a plethora of  skill and combat enhancements to make certain tasks easier.

CDProjekt ditched Bioware's Aurora engine used in The Witcher and created their own REDengine, the second iteration of which powered this game. I cant speak for the original version of the game but the Enhanced Edition available now is a genuinely beautiful game with regards to it's characters and environments which, while not as varied as most RPGs, are impressive considering the game's age. It certainly doesn't look as dated now as do the original release of say Skyrim (before the 2016 remaster) or Dragon Age II does today. 

Final Verdict: The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings was a genuinely wonderful experience on PC today for a decade old game. While the combat is still a bit dated and janky, this was easily "fixed" on PC and one can experience the true value of the game: it's incredibly complex but compelling and rewarding story that seems to branch wildly at several points. This is one game I know will be quite different when replayed, maybe after it's own inevitable remake in 2030 or so.

Technicals: 30 hours playtime through GOG. No UW implementation so Forced 1440p @ 175Hz. Highest graphical settings used with RTX3070Ti. Win 11 HDR provided brightness enhancement.

Availability: The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is available from both Steam and GOG for €19.99. Review copy purchased for  €2.89 in May 2015 from GOG.

The Witcher Franchise:

  • The Witcher [2007]
  • The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings [2011]
  • The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt [2015]
  • - The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – Hearts of Stone [2015]
  • - The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – Blood and Wine [2016]
  • The Witcher Remake [?]
  • The Witcher IV [?]

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