When the original Witcher RPG released a few years ago, it took the world by storm, and stirred up quite a bit of controversy. Geralt of Rivia was based on a series of graphic novels, and while a lot of sexy stuff can occur between the pages in that format, computer games are still kind of prudes when it comes to adult situations. As such, in the United States, a lot of Geralt’s sexy exploits were censored.
Throw that idea out the window with The Witcher 2. I think we get to see our first fully frontal nude girl in the opening cut scene, and it’s Triss Marigold no less. I suppose with digital distribution being all the rage, the ban-hammer wielded by Wal-Mart isn’t quite as powerful as it once was. But something else changed (well a lot has, but just talking about the sex stuff) form the first to the second game. Sex kind of grew up alongside the rest of the material. In the first title, sex was almost a mini-game of sorts. You said something pithy to a milkmaid, had sex with her in the barn and collected a funny playing card for your trouble. Collect them all! That’s not the case in The Witcher 2. Geralt is still pretty randy, but the sexual situations are more in line with the overall plot of the story. And no more sex cards either.
In fact, so much has changed that it’s almost like the first game didn’t exist. Just naming a few items that are different, we have a new combat system, a new inventory system, a new crafting engine, a more open world, tons of optional side missions, gorgeous new sounds and eye-popping graphics.
The Witcher 2 takes place shortly after the first game ends. Geralt stops an assassination attempt on King Foltest at the end of that game but we never saw what happened next. Now we know he was pressed into service as a sort of personal bodyguard for his trouble. His days involve following the king around, having sex with the sorceress royal advisor Triss Marigold, and generally living a life of luxury, which of course Geralt hates. But Foltest is not so bad a guy, for a king anyway. However, during the prologue something happens to Foltest, and Geralt gets blamed. So you need to prove your innocence, find the real guilty party, get involved in world-changing events, and find allies and enemies in surprising places.
The Witcher 2 isn’t a truly open world in the same way as Oblivion. You won’t be able to pop over to a town you like because it has a great tavern or a favorite whore. But it’s a lot more open world-like than it predecessor. You are taken to various locations as you follow the main plot, but once there are able to explore the environment as much as you like. And you will be rewarded for your efforts. I’ve found countless dungeons, hidden treasure stashes, monster lairs and grand vistas just by walking around towns and their connecting forests and swamps. If you ignore the main plot when you arrive at a new place (there is almost never a penalty for doing so) then you can add hours of enjoyment into the game. Some of the side and optional quests ended up being my favorite moments of the game, so do yourself a favor and look around for them.
In fact, the openness of the world can be a little daunting at first. In the first town after the prologue, I wandered into the forest even though I was warned to stay away. I picked up so many quests and found so much to do, that I had to go back and read my journal to recall why I was there in the first place.
And it really helps that the world is beautiful. The developers do a perfect job of blending the distant backgrounds into the part of the world you can actually explore. Even though you are technically closed into an area, it feels like you could wander forever through the beautiful vistas. Water is particularly stunning. Some of the landscape looked just like the creeks and streams that I grew up exploring in real life. These are not realistically cartoon-like graphics. These are almost photo-realistic when run at even medium detail on a PC that can handle it. I don’t think I’ve been more visually impressed by an RPG before, and that is saying a lot given how fake the world of the first game looked. Plus there are lots of little touches of polish. When you change your armor or your weapon, it will change your character. That may be a minor detail, but it helps to make the world feel complete.
The graphics are backed up by great sound. There is a stunningly good musical soundtrack to accompany the epic story. When it begins to fade in, you can be pretty sure that something is about to happen in the game. When I hear it start to roll up, I pull one of my swords. But the environmental noises are great as well. If you close your eyes, you will think you are actually inside a dungeon or a bustling marketplace or a forest. With headphones or other quality audio devices, it’s particularly good.
As with any RPG, it will live and die on its story, and The Witcher 2 offers up a good one. While pursuing the main plot, you will have choices to make that will sometimes be painful, and become involved in political maneuvering, wars and all varieties of intrigue. If you like games where you really feel like your efforts are affecting the world, then this one fits that bill nicely.
Gameplay itself has been simplified greatly. Some hardcore Witcher fans may say it slides too far to the easy part of the scale, but I disagree. I want to fight monsters, not the interface of a game. The original game had Geralt go into an acrobatic fit of sword twirling and you had to hit the attack key at the right times to perform good combat moves. This was so hard to do that if you set the game on easy, it prompted you when to swing, which was doubly silly. Forget all that. Now you hit the left mouse button for a light swing and the right for a heavy one. You can string combos with repeated hits, dodge by hitting the spacebar, and cast spells with a keyboard shortcut. It’s easy to get used to, yet challenging as you are often faced with multiple opponents and have to keep an eye on the field of battle.
Crafting has also been simplified. You still collect ingredients and still meditate to turn them into potions, which are Geralts best tools. But substituting one ingredient for another with similar properties is as simple as picking it from a color-coded list. Potions have also been given a big upgrade, with some like Cat giving you a cool X-ray vision even in really dark areas. Your inventory follows the same type of format as crafting, with every item going into a tab based on what it is, be it armor or a weapon or a book or a plant.
There are a few negatives with the game, depending on your preferences. There are a lot of mini-games in The Witcher 2, and some are implemented better than others. Boxing was a lot of fun, and requires you to hit the right key on the keyboard when it flashed on screen. Arm wrestling is very hard, because you have to keep your mouse cursor in the middle of a moving slide bar, and it’s not the most responsive in terms of control. Dice games are back and while they work fine with a nice 3D interface, I preferred the simpler game of the first title. The rules are identical, but it played better before. I can’t even get my dice to roll right now. They just kind of drop onto the board no matter how hard I shake the cup. Some people won’t like the mini-games, but most of them are avoidable or at least optional, so it’s not that big a deal.
Also, the controls in general at times were less responsive than I would have liked. Sometimes my mouse seemed sluggish, while other times it spun my character around way too quickly. You can adjust the controls to your liking, but even then, there were moments when they seemed just a bit off.
Overall, The Witcher 2 is a great RPG, and is really good looking to boot. If you like an RPG where you can really lose yourself in a beautiful world (well, some of the world is a stink-hole but it looks pretty darn realistic nonetheless) and really immerse yourself in the politics and plots of a living, breathing, somewhat dark tinted kingdom, The Witcher 2 should be on your list.
Our copy was downloaded from Gog.com and we were surprised to find some funny extras inside the game world, like a mysterious monk who challenged us to a game of dice. When we beat him, he offered us real-world discounts on some other titles from the same Website.
The Witcher 2 earns a well-deserved 4.5 GiN Gems. It builds upon an already good-but-flawed title and really ups the ante in a big way. There is still Skyrim to show up later this year, but The Witcher 2 could prove a spoiler for the RPG Game of the Year crown. If it wins, it will certainly deserve to be there.