In May of 2011, Polish developer CD Projekt RED released The Witcher 2: Assassins Of Kings on the Windows PC platform. It was a critical hit, but the game was arguably overshadowed by EA’s Dragon Age II and other, more high-profile roleplaying titles. Those who played the game’s predecessor know that this is a travesty, but these days the PC just doesn’t offer the same level of exposure that a developer might see on a console. Fortunately, The Witcher 2 was successful enough to convince CD Projekt to port the game to the Xbox 360, and thus we have The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Enhanced Edition.
You play as Geralt of Rivia, the titular Witcher. He’s equal parts adept swordsman and magic-user in a world that both fears him and is full of people seeking to exploit his talents. A lot like Marvel Comics’ fan-favorite Wolverine, actually. Both are gruff antiheroes, both are a hit with the ladies, and both apparently smell like wild animals. A more accurate approximation for Geralt however would be Christopher Lambert’s Highlander, if he was somehow crossbred with an inexplicably magical bobcat.
As with all good antiheroes, Geralt is a harsh man, as defined by his gruff, violent nature as his willingness to stick up for the oppressed — even if that means slitting the throats of those he’s officially allied with. Video games, often (accurately) stereotyped as the power fantasies of teenaged boys are riddled with characters who aspire to this kind of trope, and it should be seen as a great compliment to the game’s writers that Geralt is both immediately likable and a total bastard. How else would you describe a protagonist who within the span of the game’s first hour beds a stunning (and surprisingly naked) woman, threatens to kill a group of his closest ally’s soldiers, and single-handedly leads the raid of a heavily fortified castle, slaying scores of soldiers unfortunate enough to get in his way?
That praise offered to the people responsible for this game should also fall on the man originally responsible for Geralt. The Witcher universe was created by Polish fantasy author Andrzej Sapkowski, and in addition to the depth and scope this lends the game, it also gives it a feel unlike the vast majority of other titles in the roleplaying epic subgenre. Though largely unknown here in The States, Sapkowski’s Witcher books are a hit in their native land and have been translated into a number of foreign languages — an indicator, I believe, that the man has a knack for crafting engrossing adventures and meticulously detailed realms. This shines through in The Witcher 2, not only in Geralt, but also in his surroundings which are intensely detailed — occasionally to the detriment of the game.
As you may know, The Witcher 2 was originally created for the PC as a follow-up to 2007’s critically-beloved The Witcher. Unfortunately, though this gives the series a pedigree of excellence and frankly gorgeous aesthetics, it’s also responsible for many of the flaws found in this expanded Xbox 360 iteration of The Witcher 2. Combat is a key component of the series, but from the moment you start stabbing jerks in the tutorial, it’s quite apparent that the entire system was designed with a mouse and keyboard in mind. Most frustrating is the way the camera seems to zoom in at really inopportune times. There you are, fighting off four heavily armed soldiers in close quarters, and the game’s viewpoint decides to perch three feet behind Geralt’s head, obscuring all but the fellow directly in front of you. Granted, this becomes far less problematic as you gain levels and are better able to control groups of foes during combat, but for the initial stages of the game it can be an exercise in frustration just trying to keep track of which steel-clad knight is most likely to jam a sword into your spine.
Equally problematic are the game’s fine controls. It’s apparent that CD Projekt did the best they could with the PC-centric system originally designed for the game, but short of overhauling the whole thing, it seems impossible to completely remove some of the niggling issues. Standing in small rooms full of treasure for instance is a total pain, as you find yourself accidentally walking out the door when you meant to grab a bauble off a nightstand, just because the two prompts were located too closely for the Xbox 360 controller to accurately detect which action you wanted to perform.
Then there’s the baffling problem of menu navigation. Now, before continuing I would like to point out that after we discovered this particular problem, I asked a few of our colleagues who were also reviewing the game if they had experienced this weird glitch, and none of them had. Yet, every other time I tapped down on the Xbox 360’s left analog stick in an effort to navigate to the next menu option, the highlight cursor would jump three or four entries down the list. Even more oddly, this never happens if I used the directional pad instead of the stick, and it doesn’t seem to have any effect on gameplay outside of the title’s various menu screens. And before you ask, yes, I tested the game with multiple Xbox 360 controllers, both wired and wireless, and restarted the game multiple times, yet the issue kept cropping up.
The last few hundred words of this review actually do a pretty solid job of encapsulating the game as a whole: The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Enhanced Edition offers an interesting, vibrant world with an engaging, dark fantasy story line, yet the experience as a whole is marred by a handful of minor technical issues that give an overall impression of a game that could have benefitted from a bit more polish. Again, I feel this is more the result of the game’s jump from the PC to the Xbox 360 as opposed to any real negligence by the developer, but as critics we get paid to pick the nits.
That said, I also truly enjoyed my time with The Witcher 2. In a genre crowded with cliches and me-too high fantasy titles, Geralt’s tale stands apart as a unique, often gory, dark-as-pitch experience. There are no real heroes in this world, and even the most noble of men are moral shades of grey, looking out for number one as often as they aid their fellow man. Geralt is the game’s protagonist and is generally on the side of the angels, but even he is primarily motivated by cash (or occasionally busty maidens). Plus, the game offers a lot of choice in how to react to its various plot points and conversations, so it’s entirely possible to play through the entire thing as an unrepentant jerk.
Though I’ve mostly focused on the negative aspects of The Witcher 2’s leap to the Xbox 360, CD Projekt made sure to add a pretty sizable amount of new content for this iteration, not only to entice owners of the PC version to shell out another $60 for a game they basically already own, but also to make a fine first impression on those gamers who refuse to go near a keyboard. This begins the moment you tear off the cellophane wrapping and notice that packed in alongside the game discs are a large printed world map, a soundtrack CD, an impressively thick instruction manual (which is doubly impressive in an era where publishers are trimming such things left and right in an effort to maximize profitability) and an in-depth “Quest Guide” that functions both as a strategy guide and an addendum to the vast amount of Witcher lore found in the game itself. Yes, it offers hints on how to proceed in the game, but it also functions quite well as a work of pure literary fiction.
Of course, those are just trinkets. The main addition to The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Enhanced Edition comes in the form of an immense four-hour-long new quest. Given that the original version of The Witcher 2 could, without hyperbole, very easily suck away 100-plus hours of a player’s life, it’s quite impressive that the developers could find this much more content to add to the game. This is likely the result of the series’ origins as a line of novels and short stories, and indicates that with the appropriate amount of fan (read: financial) support, games based on Geralt’s world could continue to see release for years to come. It’s also nice to see a developer offer this kind of content within the game itself, instead of withholding it for later release as paid downloadable content. It wouldn’t have been hugely surprising to see CD Projekt port the PC version of The Witcher 2 to Microsoft’s console as is, then drop the extra hours of gameplay in the form of a $10 post-launch DLC pack, but we’re glad to see the company take the route that allows fans to get the most bang for their buck.
In the end though, it’s the game’s main plot that will attract players, and as a roleplaying experience, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Enhanced Edition is just brilliant. It should speak to the strengths of the development team and Sapkowski’s lore that despite its minor technical issues and comparative lack of polish that I often spent days doing nothing but eating and playing the game. Sure, my girlfriend’s not happy with things, but I think those looking for an engrossing alternative to the Skyrim’s and Dragon Age’s of the world will find CD Projekt’s latest to be exactly what they’ve been seeking.
Score: 8.5 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment)