The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Review (PC)

Frustrating. Buggy. Irritating. Incomplete. These are just some of the words that describes The Witcher 2, arguably our most anticipated game of the year. But there’s more. Epic. Stunning. Gorgeous. Thrilling. Classic. CD Projekt have definitely crafted a masterpiece, but it’s by no means a perfect one.

The story goes like this: someone’s killing kings, and titular Witcher Geralt has been framed. He (meaning you) must clear his (your) name, catch the kingslayer, and figure out who would do such a thing and why. Anyone who hasn’t played the first game doesn’t need to worry too much (as I’d forgotten most of it but got along fine), but it certainly adds to the experience if you already know characters such as sorceress/love interest Triss, drunken bard Dandelion and similarly drunken dwarf Zoltan.

I think that's known as "overkill"

Saves from The Witcher are used to tailor the story a little, but I don’t know how important they are to the story. You only get hints of the action in Vizima, and the choices you made there aren’t quite as crucial as they are here. For god’s sake make sure you keep your saves for Witcher 3. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Ask anyone what they thought the best aspect of The Witcher was and they’ll probably say “choice and consequence”. Unlike any other game (even the mighty Deus Ex) your actions can drastically affect the story, and a choice made early in the game could help or hinder you hours later. CD Projekt takes this even further with Witcher 2, with major decisions made as early as Act 1 radically changing the rest of the game and story.

Why haven’t any other games offered this degree of choice? Because it’s f**king hard to develop. CD Projekt have in essence made several games in one, with every decision bouncing off every character and quest, affecting them in ways the majority of players won’t ever see. Thinking back on the choices I made over the course of the game I was astonished when I realised how different things could’ve gone, and how completely different the rest of the game would’ve felt. It’s a form of player freedom that beats the huge worlds of Bethesda and the comparatively simplistic actions of Bioware, at least for me.

Which is great, because the rest of the game doesn’t quite offer players the same amount of choice. You have to play Geralt, you have to fight with a sword and a few simple magic spells, and except when a quest demands it you’re not allowed companions. Don’t expect the customization options of either Dragon Age or Oblivion. If you’re cool with this, excellent, because it’s allowed CD Projekt to concentrate on making the rest of the game superb… barring a few problems.

Combat involves battling multiple enemies with quick and heavy attacks that can be chained together, along with the occasional spell, trap, bomb, dagger etc. It can be great fun, especially when you’ve levelled-up enough to afford the Adrenaline bar and finishing moves.

Trouble is it can also be incredibly frustrating. Block inexplicably uses the same energy pool as magic and takes ages to refill even on higher levels, meaning if you’re out of energy you have no way of stopping enemy attacks. The Quen shield spell is utterly essential, often to the point where if I didn’t have it on I’d die quickly. And you will, since there’s little on-screen warning that Geralt’s health is low and even the most basic enemies can kill you in seconds.

My favourite character in the game, an alcoholic troll

Just to add to the frustration, sometimes the auto-lock on function won’t work and Geralt will swing at air despite his target being right in front of him (even if that target’s a huge dragon that fills the screen). I’m not going to complain about bugs too much since CD Projekt are exceptionally good at tracking them down (remember the Enhanced Edition they gave away free?), but they are there. This isn’t a 100% polished game.

Frustration comes in at far too many moments. Some of the boss battles are just utterly unfair, but there’s such a massive gulf between Easy and Normal it feels like cheating to reduce the difficulty. One fight against the kingslayer saw him spam magic attacks and block often (which was impossible for me) which I really struggled with, but on Easy he didn’t fight back at all and I just quick-attacked him to death. I can’t even imagine doing it on Hard, let alone Insane.

Then there’s the beginning. The Prologue, set during the attack on La Vallette castle, both utterly fails to tell you everything you need to know and is far too difficult. I previewed the game, knew the combat well, and still died several times during the “tutorial” fight. It also never says that Block drains energy, potions can only be taken in Meditation (which can’t always been done) through the quick-bar, or how rear attacks cause 200% damage, all of which are crucial facts. Oh, and in the dungeon make sure to choose your dialogue options in the correct order or you might find yourself in a huge battle before you’ve even learned how to fight.

All of which is annoying, including the game’s total inability to save when you want it to (like before a major boss fight perhaps, and after the unskippable cutscene). I’ll admit the game pissed me off on many occasions. Any other game and I might’ve rage-uninstalled at several points. The Witcher 2 though is special. The world is alive, overgrown, and beautiful. What, you thought I wasn’t going to mention graphics? Not on your life, not when CD Projekt have easily created the most incredible looking RPG available. That’s what you get when you go PC exclusive. Just look at the shots, you don’t need anything else.

The world is also full of people that aren’t clear-cut bad or good, just ordinary folk in trying circumstances. Civilians can describe a character as a hero or a monster, but talk to those characters and it’s never that simple (even with actual monsters – the lovely and deadly trolls are a perfect example). The world is also packed with fascinating and beautiful locations, like the haunted ruins of a mental hospital or an ancient elven garden filled with roses. Witcher 2 can be infuriating, but it is never less than wondrous to explore and continue through.

Quests are always interesting, and rarely end the way you’d expect. What I thought was a simple grinding mission finished with an entirely different kind of grinding, let me tell you. Best mention at this point that the game’s extremely adult in places, with lots of nudity and plenty of swearing. This makes the whole thing a lot more relatable, although fortunately the writing doesn’t rely on swearing to be memorable – for example my favourite line “debauchery’s one of my favourite pastimes!”. The writing and acting is generally excellent, exceptionally well adapted from the original Polish.

One of the smaller enemies in the game

It will be the story that keeps you going as much as the quests, taking in some truly epic encounters and some exceptionally tough choices. It’s almost a Choose Your Own Adventure story come to proper life. Despite me loving every minute though, it has to be said that Act 3 and the finale are really short and don’t wrap up the storyline at all. The much vaunted “sixteen endings” don’t mean that much when they only last a minute each and don’t end anything. Still, this isn’t KOTOR2, we’ll definitely get a sequel that finishes these threads.

You may have seen the score already. It’s a 9.0, which puts The Witcher 2 in classic must-buy territory, but I’ll admit that it’s slightly grudgingly so. I’ve never come across a game that I wanted to berate as much as sing its praises. I felt like I was grumbling to myself or my friends every few minutes, like about the map being useless or a boss fight being tedious, but would I consider stopping playing? Never. The Witcher 2 can be frustrating, but it’s also a game that will suck you in and keep you talking about it for years to come.

Frankly, it’s the best game ever just for the giant chicken in the forest of penises. Stick that as our quote, Metacritic.

Top Game Moment: Tough one. Watching your decisions completely alter the game perhaps? For me though it was unlocking the Adrenaline moves that allow Geralt to take out groups of opponents at once. Messily.

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By herodotus (SI Herodotus) on May 24, 2011
I can't comment on "The Witcher 2" as I've only started the "The Witcher EE DC", but I know that one had it's fair chair of glitches, bugs and crashes when first released. The combat can be challenging for those unfamiliar with the style in this series (and has been complained about endlessly), but I look forward to completing the original, and by then the sequel should be patched-up quite nicely.
So I cannot comment on the review itself, but judging by others I have read it is pretty well balanced. Comparing it with Bioware and Bethesda titles is a bit unfair, as this series was developed without those referenced. Took a while to gain the appeal of the Western gaming audience, but it's here to stay.
By Longsword (SI Core Member) on May 24, 2011
I'm in the same boat as Herodotus. I've been going through the Wticher Enhanced Edition: Director's Cut and been enjoying it despite some of it's bugs and complications. From what I can tell, I think the Witcher 2 will be a fine gaming experience for sure.
By nocutius (SI Elite) on May 24, 2011
It was the same with Stalker when it comes to bugs, it had a few but they werent game braking and the game was simply to briliant to stop playing. So a game with (non game braking) bugs can still be heaps more fun than 95% of all other games.
By JustCommunication (SI Core) on May 24, 2011
Well, talking to our reviewer, he did complete the game, and he's played the first one extensively as well, so there's few people more competent that could have written this particular review.

We stand by his words and his score, but you guys are of course free to disagree with him. Just don't make it personal, please.

I can't wait to play this for myself though - need to build myself another PC!
By FoolWolf (SI Elite) on May 24, 2011
This seems to fall in the same line as many others have it at - a great game great ideas - but still suffering from several bugs and some poorly designed choices. But all in all - I can believe that score. I really liked the first Witcher and I do like the more "dirty" social realism in the setting. Also, it kicks Dragon Age butt easily! So far, I have halted my play since I'm one of those that hate that I can't invert the mouse and I plainly won't go another step without the mouse behaving as I need it to! To me, they have put a bit too much thought into the controller availability as well as a possible console launch... But then again - that could be totally wrong once you get to know the game.
By The_Tingler (SI Core) on May 24, 2011
Hey guys, thanks for your comments. I just want to make two things clear if they weren't already: I didn't knock anything off the score for bugs (as I know CD Projekt will definitely fix them if they haven't already), and Witcher 2 is far, far superior to Dragon Age II. I would've given DA2 in the low 70s, at best. I also would not give any game a 10, because I'm just that sort of reviewer. A 9.0 is an utterly fantastic score and everyone should play this game at some point (even if you didn't like the first). The main things that put the score down to "just" a 9.0 is a) it had far too many moments, particularly a few boss fights, where I stopped having fun and just got angry, and not through any mistake I'd made, and b) the entirety of Act 3 (the last bit barring the very brief epilogue) feels like it wants to finish as quickly as possible, and does. After spending days in Acts 1 and 2, I finished 3 in the same evening I started it. As for "incomplete" I'm not necessarily talking about bugs. I'm talking about the story, which leaves so much open for the sequel it's not funny. Still, my complaints are merely warnings. If you're not considering buying this game, you either don't like RPGs, don't have the money right now, or don't have a PC that'll run it. When those last two change, get it. You really will not regret it.
By FoolWolf (SI Elite) on May 24, 2011
I think your review was good. One question -have you read the books? If you have how does the game follow the books - are they far off (i.e they follow the Polish releases and not the far slower and behind in editions English versions...)
If you haven't read the books - go get them!
By humorguy (SI Newbie) on May 24, 2011
Remember with old school, hardcore cRPG's like The Witcher series, you need to ask yourself a question with every review you see, where a negative has been mentioned: And the question is: "What skills did he choose, what potions did he take and what signs did he use?"!!
By Thibby (SI Core Veteran) on May 24, 2011
This game is just soo epic, The Witcher was really cool but I fear that I can't run this one on full quality on my PC.
By FoolWolf (SI Elite) on May 25, 2011
@humorguy - wow you are referring to the dark lovely ages of gaming when a gamer actually had to possess not only skills - but knowledge ;)
I hope that time willcome again and tactics will be discussed about how to clear/sneak through a room in Deus Ex.. ;)
I think that The Witcher is one of those games -and I'm patiently waiting for patches...
By The_Tingler (SI Core) on May 25, 2011
@FoolWolf: Yes, I've read both the English-translated books anyway and I'm eagerly awaiting the third (I don't know what the hell they're playing at, why wouldn't they release it alongside the game, the only major landmark on the Witcher calendar?). I'd say they're more likely to follow the original books since CD Projekt themselves are Polish.
By FoolWolf (SI Elite) on Jun 18, 2011
@The_Tingler I hope that is true and so far the games have held many characters and scenes from the books. I hope that the games still stay a bit away from the books so we who aren't polish can catch up on the books without being spoiled by the games ;)
By Kres (SI Elite) on Jan 28, 2012
I've played the game and found it moderately fun. So guys live with it not being perfect :p at least not to everyone.

@mastorofpuppetz: I came to this page cause I just deleted one of your offensive posts. I see you're making other offensive posts. So let's keep things simple, if you post anything offensive toward anyone on SI in the future we will ban your account.