GDC 2012: Hands-on with the Xbox 360 version of the eagerly anticipated title, The Witcher 2

If you have had any interest at all, even just read the odd PC gaming website over the last year, then it is almost impossible to have avoided at least hearing a little bit about The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. If, however, you have managed to avoid any mention of it, then here’s the score: the game was a hit on PC last year. A huge hit. A whopping huge hit. It was an award black hole, trapping any and all relevant accolades in its prestigious gravity, and dragging them in.

From PC game of the year to the RPG of the year, the game was an award-winning mega hit from the moment it was released in May of 2011—at least until November, when a small, indie hit by the name of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was released. That was sarcasm. Just if that wasn’t clear.

Skyrim was and is an amazing game, and it deserves all the accolades and credit that it has received, but before it came along, the PC game everyone was talking about was The Witcher 2.

But since its release, the game has remained firmly under the jurisdiction of PC gaming fans, leaving console players to wonder what all the fuss was about. That will all change on April 17 when the game is re-released as a console title. Or at least it will change for console fans that own an Xbox 360. Sorry PS3 owners.

You may wonder why the game has taken 11 months to leave the confines of the PC world and venture forth to the Xbox 360, and the answer is that Polish developer CD Projekt RED wanted to make it as good as possible. It would have been much faster, simpler, and cheaper to simply port the PC version onto a console, but that would have required the developers to simply dumb down the graphics. It could easily have been done, but doing it well was more important.

So for the last year the developer has been essentially remaking the graphics of the game from the bottom up. The Witcher 2 on the 360 is not exactly the same game as on the PC, but it shares the same skeleton. So with a month and change to go before the release, I had the opportunity to sit down with The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Enhanced Edition at GDC.

For those that aren’t up on the story, the franchise began its life as a series of books from Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski before becoming a game. And while many may be scared off by the “2” attached to the name, the game is a standalone story that continues the adventures of Geralt of Rivia, one of the world’s last witchers. While knowing the story of the original game may help enhance the overall narrative, not knowing it won’t take away from the overall experience.

For the uninitiated, witchers are monster slayers, created at a young age by exposure to a specific combination of poisons. Most don’t survive the process, but those that do are left with genetically enhanced abilities, including the ability to use alchemy and magic.

Geralt finds himself embroiled in political intrigue after an assassination attempt from a man that appears to have witcher-like abilities. Describing the story is actually a difficult prospect, as the choices you make have a direct impact on the way the plot unfolds. You hear that a lot with games these days, but The Witcher 2 takes that idea and runs with it. In fact, if you just play through once, you will see less than 50-percent of the game. Play through twice and you will still just hit around 90-percent.

It isn’t just a matter of something like taking the left path and saving a character that will give you a weapon later, the choices you make are major, and reshape the entire world around you with far reaching consequences that you can’t possibly prepare for. In total, there are 16 possible endings.

When The Witcher 2 hits the Xbox 360, it will include content that earns it the name “Enhanced Edition,” including all the DLC released. Along with the original story and DLC, the Enhanced Edition on the 360 features two new story lines, which add over four hours to the game. With that new content comes new locations, three new characters, a new difficulty mode, and a new tutorial.

The demo shown at GDC highlighted two of the new characters and began with a story of a lady in waiting narrowly escaping an assassination that was meant to eliminate two noble children.

After Geralt is brought in to investigate, he is tasked with escorting the lady through a dangerous section of forest that is infested with enemies that want her dead, as well as monsters that roam the land.

The combat has been redefined for the console experience. The controller offers two attacks–a strong and light sword attack–a combat roll, and a magic command—the magic menu can be brought up by holding the left bumper and selecting the spell you want to use. Geralt also carries two swords—a steel sword for humans and a silver sword for monsters. These swords can be changed using the D-pad. A lock on feature also makes the combat easy to jump from enemy to enemy.

Once the combat was concluded, Geralt returned to the city and immediately became involved in a political feud with the city’s ruling factions. The player then has the option of who to side with, and how they want to proceed. The option of combat is always available, but so is the choice to use the clues offered to solve the problem at hand.

The game already has enough awards and accolades to make put it on the radar of all Xbox 360 gamers that aren’t also PC gamers. The changes made to the Enhanced Edition are a nice touch, but just add to what was already one of the best games of 2011. There are still a few weeks until the game is released, but there is more than enough for you to be excited about, when The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Enhanced Edition is finally released for the Xbox 360 on April 17.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Enhanced Edition also comes with a brand new CGI trailer from BAFTA winner and Academy Award nominee Tomasz Baginski, which you can check out below.  

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