The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

I was thrilled when this game (hereafter TW2) appeared, yet it took me two years to finally play it from start to finish. And even after doing so, I can’t say for sure why it failed to lure me in the way its predecessor (hereafter TW), one of my all time favorites, did in 2008. A mystery by anyone’s standards, because TW2 has it all: the story, the visuals, the combat, the humor. It’s rare that I have so few (next to no) objections to a game. Yet if I was to choose one to replay, I’d still rather go to TW than to TW2.

The best thing about TW2 is certainly its story. Contrary to the omnipresent trends of simplification, melodramatization and catering to the lowest common denominator, TW2 engages the player in a complex, treacherous and ultimately unfair struggle of power – none of which really rests in the player’s hands. In keeping with the spirit of Sapkowski’s books, Geralt the witcher can’t do a damn thing about the roiling political mess that he finds himself hopelessly entangled in – other than survive, and if the player so choses, save the ones he cares about. He can’t save the world, and for a welcome change, nobody expects him to. What’s expected, though, is doing the dirty work for people in power, hiding and trading in their secrets, and, of course, slaughtering monsters.

Like in the TW, the fact that Geralt is a professional monster slayer lays an incredibly believable foundation for the drudgery of combat and fetch-quests that make up most of the gameplay in almost every computer RPG. What could be more natural than asking around for monster-killing work since that’s your primary source of income, crafting and alchemical ingredients, and even knowledge? TW2 goes even farther than TW in this direction, with quests aimed to exterminate overgrown populations of local monsters for good by crafting and setting specialized bombs or traps that you first need to learn about by reading books. What I’d give for a contraption that ends the cursed drowners in the swamps around Vizima from TW! Well, in TW2 you can do that. It doesn’t mean you’ll never see a monster of a given type ever again after you’ve gotten rid of its nests, but at least they won’t jump on you behind every corner. It does wonders for us gamers who’d actually like to have a ‘skip combat’ button.

Not that combat is bad. Most of the things I liked about it in TW are still here – the speed, the perceived virtuosity, eye-candy choreographies. I missed the combos, though. To be fair, of all things I missed a familiar control system the most, but that’s not to blame on the game – I played TW2 using an xbox controller instead of the mouse and keyboard, and I was only half aware of what I’m doing at least half the time. After a very frustrating beginning, I toned the difficulty down to the easiest available, and then it became a challenge to get killed instead of the other way around. Playing the game this way had several important effects that undoubtedly colored my experiences: 1) the entire skill tree seemed to make little sense, and new talents and perks mostly went unnoticed; 2) crafting or otherwise getting better equipment was totally unnecessary (though I did a few rounds of it out of habit anyway); 3) similarly, I only took potions once or twice during the whole game, and mostly used alchemy just so as to sell oils and potions; 4) the boss encounters didn’t even manage to elevate my heart-rate, and some seemed barely interactive.

Because of that, I’ll rather keep my thoughts on the inventory management, the crafting system and even the leveling system, to myself: I can’t claim I really sampled the best (or any) of what TW2 has to offer in these aspects. I did find myself wishing back the minimal inventory from TW, mostly on account of the infuriatingly counterintuitive interface, and the crafting seemed a bit overly detailed given that Geralt himself can’t craft a thing, only gather components, but it wasn’t a big deal. I imagine this comes quite useful on harder difficulties. Doubt I’ll ever be tempted to try, though.

There is, however, a good reason one might want to go back the TW2 for another go: the branching story. At the end of the first chapter, the choice you make will situate the second chapter in one of the two areas, and you’ll only get a superficial glance of the other. It’s a bold move, taking another step in the direction TW has set. I wholeheartedly approve, and the only reason I won’t go back to check the alternative storyline is that I already know everything about it from a friend who played both.

Another important, both content- and end-determining choice occurs near the end of the third chapter, but that one I wasn’t so happy about. The third chapter is somewhat poorly designed in comparison to the first two: it’s much shorter, unstructured, and the atmosphere of pending doom doesn’t support carefree exploration. This is the one serious objection I have for TW2 (in comparison, I had a dozen related to TW). It’s not unfinished the way Dragon Age 2 is unfinished, but it didn’t manage to escape the famous decline of quality over gameplay time all RPGs (except those that are terrible from the beginning, like Skyrim) seem to suffer from.

But the epilogue is epic in an unexpected way. Other than Torment, TW2 is the first game I know of where you can opt out of fighting in the end, and terminate the adventure through civilized discourse. It made for such an enjoyable experience, especially with the wealth of information that’s finally disclosed. Which is another thing I very much approve of. Geralt’s amnesia, while a mere plot device in TW, is resolved almost completely by the end of TW2, leaving me with high hopes for the announced third game of the series.

Oh yes – I may not be into playing TW2 again, but I’m eager for the next game. In the meantime, there are the books, some of which I’ve already read, but not all. So, ahem, stay tuned for reviews. :P

6 thoughts on “The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings”

  1. Was a good enough review, some strange accusations on the battlesystem, when you chose to put the difficulty down instead of getting to know it. So can’t say the review was fair in that regard, but you didn’t delve into it too much. Overall you argument well for everything in this review, but the whole thign just fell apart and went into the “what the hell” department whith your strange comment about Skyrim.
    Excuse me, but how in the world is Skyrim a bad game from beginning? Or even a bad game at all? There’s more talent put in that game’s art department alone, than there is in most rpg nowadays. I suppose its just a cry for attention, becuase really? You need to give some arguments, or it’s only there to make people think you are unique for your special and harsh opinions. Too easy to see through, put in an argument if you’re going to go for a statement like that for comparison ;)

    1. Hello! Thanks for leaving a comment and sorry I didn’t reply to it sooner.

      The reason I supply no arguments for my claim that Skyrim is a bad game is that I haven’t finished it yet. I tried to play it, twice, but each time I lost interest within a couple of days. It would take a whole review to explain why, but in short, I found the characters, their dialog, and almost all the quests ridiculous. For the record, I’m a fan of TES games; nothing in Skyrim was completely new and alien. It was just… not enough. Not when there are games like The Witcher, Dragon Age and Mass Effect. It would probably be fair to ascribe this comment to my growing affinity to storytelling over other aspects of a RPG.

    2. Hm, in that case, I think it says enough about you. You can play hours upon hours of grinding in ME3MP (which is the most repetetive online game I have ever been forced to play), but a beautiful and immersive world, with several memorable characters and a wonderful design and an amazing artwork of a soundtrack, is deemed boring. Then you lack the ability to be amazed by a worlds beauty, and that’s a bit sad.
      I haven’t played Witcher, but Mass Effect series was amazing, though ended in failure, even though it’s a story and character driven game. Dragon Age: Origins is an interesting game, story wise and character wise, but it has too many “hallways”, places you just walk forward in a line and get attacked by mobs. It got extreemly repetetive, and I constantly longed to get to the fun and immersive plot parts.The world there was not nearly as fleshed out as Skyrim, nor as beautiful, but I enjoyed the story. Dragon Age 2 was unfinished, bland and ugly, had some of the most boring environments I have seen in recent games, though it had a few interesting characters I enjoyed. But the whole game ended in a plot hole that made little sense, seeing the characters had been established to think a certain way, and then they acted against that for no good reason. It was sad, since it was a character driven game, and not a story driven one.
      Oh well, anyway. There is one thing you must understand though. Even though you are bored by a game, that does not make it objectively bad. It made you subjectively dislike it. And that is absolutely entierly okay, not everyone can like the same thing. But saying something is bad just because you disliked it, is extreemly narrow minded, and rather self centric. As a reviewer, try to put yourself out of your own place for a little while, and into an objective mindset. Use reason instead of feelings to deduce wheather it’s good or bad, and top the review off with your subjective feelings about the matter. But writing what you wrote there, is like condemning a whole resturaunt becuase you don’t like strawberries, and they dared to serve you something that contained it.
      P.S.: Next time you play Skyrim, take your horse out at night, far up to the north, and walk slowly along the stone roads where there are dunes of snow. The sounds from the hooves as the snow whips around you, while Jeremy Souls music plays softly in the background. The view of the stars and moons while an aurora casts a green veil over the sky. That is the essence of Skyrim. And if you fail to be amazed by that, then I am not surprised you dislike the game.

    3. Everything I write in these reviews and anywhere on this site is obviously my opinion unless it’s a quote or something that can be proven externally (e.g. claiming that a game sold some number of copies). There are no objective criteria that make a game (or anything else, for that matter) good or bad; there’s only one’s own perspective. You’re being no more objective when you say that Skyrim is beautiful then I am when I say it’s not.

      That said, it’s exactly my ability to be amazed by the beauty of an invented world that allows me to enjoy ME MP. Before I played the MP, I played all three campaigns, and found in them characters I can care about, questions I can ponder on, challenging tasks and imaginative environments. Whereas next to nothing in Skyrim left lasting impressions. In fact, the only character I cared about in all of TES games was Martin from Oblivion, and the only artistically compelling world was that of Morrowind. Now, I’m not saying that there is nothing good or praise-worthy in Skyrim; there just isn’t enough to keep me playing. TW2 barely just made it despite all the things I like about it.

    4. There are no objective criteria? Are you serious? Let me list a couple:
      -Bad coding
      -Plot holes
      -Unusable fight engine
      -Game breaking glitches
      -Shallow, meaningless characters
      -Hurried, unfinished plot threads or sidequests

      And these are only a couple of the objective things that makes a game bad. Also I think you mean to say that I am being “no more subjective” than you are. Either way, that’s beside the point. And also, that is a whole other argument, weather beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or it is universal. I would say a bit of both, though of course you can disagree there if you’re so inclined. But i often find myself saying “he/she/it is indeed beautiful, but not quite my taste.”

      Hm.. I am not quite sure what to make of this other argument you present here, that ME3 MP somehow proves your ability to be amazed at a world. ME3MP is grinding for gear, in a never ending horde mode. Strategic play is out the window there, I played most of it without other idiots, so I just stood in a corner spammign fire at the endless hordes, so i could collect points faster. It was mind numbingly repeating, and it had nothing to do with the main campaign of the game. It recycled some of the maps, and was forced into the storyline in a really strange way. Either way, what I mean to say is: that argument is entierly without meaning. This is not how you prove a point, you have to present an argument as to WHY me3mp proves your capability to be amazed at world. You cant just say “becuase i like it it proves it because reasons.” Try to present me with some sort of reasoning here, please. :)

      Oh well, at the end of my rant here, there is one more thing I want you to understand. You said you gave up on skyrim after a couple of hours of playing it. And then you say there are no characters in the game, nor any plots in the game, that is interesting. How can you possibly know that? Skyrim is a 100 hours + game, and that just for the main 5 storylines. You have no knowledge of Parthurnaax, Odahviing, the werewolfs, Magnus’ eye, the mystery of the sudden disappearance of the dwemer of old (which you have to explore on your own device), the tragedy of the Falmer, the devestation of the Dunmer land, and the great injustice the immigrant dunmer face in Skyrim. You judge skyrim, without having seen what it has to offer. You judge skyrim, the way you judge a book you gave up on, while reading those first 50-100 pages that are so boring, and so heavy to get through. It is like saying Ulysses is a bad book, becuase you couldnt get into it becuase of the style, it was too heavy, it was too boring in the first pages. But when you give up in the first stage, where the words are heavy to read and nothing has quite caught your fancy yet, then you have no idea what content is really there. You cant judge a book by the first 100 pages. You can say it was too heavy, or the style wasnt something you liked. But you cannot say the book was bad, becuase you have simply not experienced it in full.

      And that, that is the point I want you to think a bit about. :)

    5. -Bad coding
      If by that you mean ‘lots of bugs’ – sure. It’s always better to play a bug-free game. I’m yet to find an example, even among AAA titles. But I did play some games that I thought were utterly amazing regardless of vast numbers of bugs, like Vampire: The Bloodlines and Gothic 3.

      -Plot holes
      Alright, I won’t argue with that. But I bet we could argue quite a bit on what constitutes a plot hole. (Let’s not, though; we’re far off topic as it is.)

      -Unusable fight engine
      Same as with ‘bad coding’. Torment, for example, had terrible combat. Does that make it a bad game? Not in my book.

      -Game breaking glitches
      More ‘bad coding’. Both V:TB and Torment had these. I still think they’re among the most awesome games ever.

      -Shallow, meaningless characters
      Yes. Like pretty much every single character Bethesda ever created.

      -Hurried, unfinished plot threads or sidequests
      Agreed; nobody enjoys having a sense that parts of a game are rushed. But again, I have an example of a game that I loved despite a lot of unfinished elements: Dragon Age 2.

      Conclusion: these are indeed objective criteria for something, but they don’t not measure nor determine how much I’ll enjoy a game.

      As for Skyrim… I said I played it in two several-days-long sessions. It amounts to at least 20 hours, and I did traverse what felt like 1/4 of the main plot. I was bored and couldn’t go on. I dropped it exactly like I’d drop a boring book. Why would I make myself do something I don’t enjoy? It’s not like playing Skyrim will help me find a job or send my kids to college. But yeah, I still might try to play it some more when I have time. Perhaps with one of those mods that turn off the main quest. If I do, I’ll write a post with detailed explanations of everything I disliked, and we can continue this discussion there.

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