What level are you? It's a question that is brought up often among my friends. Whether it is the latest installment in a popular FPS franchise, an open-world RPG, or a simple dungeon crawler, it betrays a truth about videogames as a medium: it is still very much about the mechanics as far as the pop consciousness is concerned.
The Witcher 2 is a game that opposes that idea. CD Projekt RED have instead focused on bringing clarity and vision to its world. Many RPGs feel as if they were built around the mechanics of the game, as opposed to the game serving the story that developers want to tell. Even CD Projekt's first attempt at the Witcher felt as if it was crammed into an engine ill fit for the story it was telling.
The Witcher 2 is instead built around a world based on Andrzej Sapwoski's fantasy series of the same name. This is a world where non-human races have been confined to ghettos, elven freedom fighters destabilize the region and a war is occuring both between the encroaching Nilfgaardian kingdom and an alliance of northern kingdoms. Beneath the surface are complex political struggles, which fans of the Song of Ice and Fire series will find familiar. Moral ambiguity is king, and the various races hold degrees of disdain for each other, from simple annoyance to open hatred and racism. Narrated journal entries and the included paper map will help you get up to speed, but the details are dense and labyrinthine, so be prepared.
Combat serves to highlight your role as Geralt, one of the last remaining Witchers: humans trained and mutated at a young age to fight hostile monsters. There is an emphasis in combat is on preparation and tactics. Potions cannot be consumed in battle, and must be prepare and consumed before battle, providing various buffs and debuffs. Potions toxicity as well, so only a few can be consumed at a time. Crafted and magical traps allow you to lure groups of enemies into trouble, and bombs and knives help control crowds. Casting various signs will perform a variety of magic feats ranging from simple fire spells to mind control (the mind control spell can be used in dialogue to persuade characters as well). Death will come swiftly to a careless player. Even when kitted out with a larger repertoire of abilities, a moderately sized group can quickly surround and cut down a player in seconds.
Likewise, the game eschews many traditional RPG tropes and mechanics. The moral ambiguity of the world makes its way into the decisions you'll make during the course of the story. Decisions don't have a moral alignment, but consequences for your actions. Some decisions will prove to be far-reaching. Do you side with the commandant of the trading post, who desires to protect his people but is open in his hatred of the other races? Or do you side with the elven freedom fighters, who have been openly slaughtering wanderers in the forest, but desire only a place without prejudice? One decision near the end of the first chapter will see you traveling to a completely different area in the second chapter depending on the side you choose, dramatically altering the story and the tasks you will be put up to.
Sidequests and leveling up also deviate from the norm. While there are still a few quests that will require you to kill x amount of this monster, they feel justified narrative wise and usually end in the extermination of a monster's nest. Other quests will range from exploring sunken ships along the river line for messages and treasure, to helping an alcoholic troll get off of vodka. These will be your primary method of acquiring money, gear, and experience. Killing monsters by itself rewards you with little experience; you won't be grinding your way to success here. As you level up, you'll be able to pick skills from various trees of specialization. While some skills will indue you with an increase in stats, you won't be distributing points into any attributes here. Instead, the skills you earn change the way you approach a situation or enhance existing skills. Specializing in one of the three main trees (combat, magic, alchemy) will allow you to unlock that tree's particular ultimate ability, a massive boon.
CD Projekt bring this same depth to the world as well. While much of this can be credited to the world they draw upon, it should not be understated how artfully they have realized it. The wildernesses are dense with foliage, herbs, and sweeping vistas. Bandits and monsters creep inhabit the corners of these wilds, and traps dot particularly hostile areas, set by a stranger to snare unaware monsters (and witchers, if you aren't careful). Towns are equally as detailed: shops and laborers go about their business as the day breaks, and doze off when night falls. Conversations can be frequently overheard; everything from politics to discussions on what a witcher eats. The mere act of drawing your sword in town will see that you receive a warning from the guards, who will engage you if don't heed it.
This is also where the game starts to reveal it's mechanical breakdowns. Conversations, while frequently well written and amusing, are a bit too frequent. One particular dwarf muses about human desires and marriage (think the bachelor party conversation in Mass Effect 2), beginning each time I'll say it again, humans are weird. Damn right, you'll say it again. And the next fifty times I pass by. The residents of this world also seem to be chronically inconsiderate of each other (well, killing and racism aside), as they'll never hold a door open, forcing each character to open and enter a door one at a time. Even stranger, they all seem to have as much attachment to their valuables as an inhabitant of a JRPG world: walk into their home unannounced and taking valuables yields no response.
Story elements can likewise feel out of place. While part of the original novels, anachronistic terms and knowledge infrequently appear and are sure to raise an eyebrow. Hearing a mage explain that she needs royal blood because the undiluted bloodline has stronger genetics feel out of place. The terms simply aren't integrated frequently or seamlessly enough to make it completely believable. As far as the sex and violence, it is handled for the most part without gratuity. Sex no longer feels like a conquest as in the first game, but an extension of the characters and world. Likewise, blood and gore is present, but dialed back from the norm and saved for particularly brutal scenes. Once again, however, small details present seem to crop up. At one point Geralt walks in on a lesbian BDSM scene, at which point it ends and the characters continue on conversation as if it never happened.
These details are only worth mentioning, of course, because they jar with the stunning detail, polish and craft that CD Projekt RED have put into this world. Overall, they represent a chip in what is one of the most ambitious RPGs to grace any platform. The devs have crafted a world that manages to feel fantastical in an industry that regularly churns new fantasy worlds with every major release. There's a lot to see as well, and those who enjoy it the first time will definitely have to see it through a second to experience the consequences and content they missed in the first playthrough. It won't be a game for everyone: combat suffers a strange difficulty curve, small details trip up the experience, and the interface will sometimes grate. It's a story worth seeing through despite its troubles, made by a team that has put more care into this one game than many others put into an entire franchise. They haven't quite got it right yet, but it's definitely on their horizon. As it stands, the Witcher 2 is a monolithic achievement, one that steps beyond its mechanics and succeeds in breathing life into its world.
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