The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Xbox 360 review

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Developer(s): CD Projekt RED
Publisher(s): Atari, Namco Bandai Games, Warner Bros. Interactive
Platform(s): Microsoft Windows, Xbox 360
Release Date: April 17, 2012

While president Obama was touring Europe, he received a rather unique gift after meeting the Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk.  You see, the Polish fantasy writer Andrzej Sapkowski is somewhat of a literary rockstar overseas, and The Witcher Novels are jewels of Poland’s fantasy lore.  So what better way to greet the president of the United States than with a gift of the Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Special Edition video game?  This gesture alone should tell you something about the title right away:  it’s respected, damn well received, and mature enough to be taken seriously by a Prime Minister.  Let’s put a lot of emphasis on the mature part, because this is one of the most adult RPGs you’ll ever play.  It’s not just the nudity and sex that earns The Witcher 2 an M rating; it’s the complex storyline that touches on racism, political machinations, and genocide; it’s the game’s reliance on players’ intelligence that makes it exceptionally “grown-up."  The Witcher 2 gives you a lot to work with, but it also asks you to become heavily invested in its history and traditions in order to get the most out of it.  

The Good
- A truly adult RPG experience
- Breathtaking environments
- Spectacular voice acting and dialogue
- Strategic approach to combat
- Very Challenging

The Bad
- The controls feel oftentimes clumsy and unresponsive
- Extremely overwhelming at first (might turn off casual gamers)
- Quest tracking is a complete mess
- Stealth portions of the game are awful
- The Map is useless

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is a 2012 console port of a 2011 PC game.  To be fair to console gamers, I won’t compare the Xbox 360 version to the PC counterpart too much, nor will I go into details about the first Witcher game.  Since this is the only Witcher game on consoles, I’ll try to review it as a standalone title, so newcomers to the series know what to expect. 


You play as Geralt of Rivia, one of the few remaining Witchers.  Witchers are genetically enhanced humans that have been trained to fight monsters since childhood, and they possess special powers like alchemy and magic.  It’s not necessary to have played the original Witcher title since everything you need to know about the universe is explained throughout the adventure.  However, those unfamiliar with the franchise might feel slightly lost and overwhelmed during the prologue.  You begin the game in kingdom Temeria’s prison interrogation room.  Vernon Roche, commander of a Special Forces group called the Blue Stripes, questions Geralt in regards to the assassination of the king of Temeria, King Foltest.  Geralt recounts the events leading up to the assassination and we find out that another Witcher, who’s disguised as a blind monk, is responsible for the murder.  Up until the last moments of the assassination, both Vernon and Triss Merigold (a sorceress and the Witcher’s “companion”) accompany Geralt and King Foltest during battle.  When Geralt is found over the king’s dead body after taking him to see his children, he’s mistaken for the killer and thrown into jail by Temerian forces.  The prologue goes back and forth between the interrogation and the battle, and you’re pretty much thrown straight into the battlefield surrounded by dozens of enemy soldiers.  I should also mention that Geralt suffers from amnesia, which is a nice narrative mechanic that ties the original Witcher to the sequel and introduces Geralt's past to newcomers of the franchise.  Eventually, Geralt convinces Vernon that he will hunt down the king slayer and our adventure begins.


Before the prologue, you spend a few minutes in an arena environment where you’re briefly introduced to the game’s controls.  Unfortunately, the game throws everything at you right away, giving you little time to become comfortable with the button layout before you’re asked to slay your first horde of enemies.  If the general mechanics followed your typical control scheme, it wouldn’t be an issue, but the gameplay in The Witcher 2 takes a long time to get used to – it literally feels like the developers tried to cram the entire keyboard into the limited Xbox 360 controller.

Of course things get significantly better once you spend enough time on the battlefield, but moving around with Geralt never feels precise.  When you’re opening doors and chests, or even climbing certain areas, Geralt has to line up with the object accordingly before you’re prompted to press “A”.  Oftentimes, you feel like you are re-aligning yourself awkwardly just to walk through a door.  What’s worse is the buttons don’t respond consistently.  In many instances, I found myself walking up to a door, pressing “A”, repositioning myself, pressing “A” again, then waiting a full second for Geralt to perform the action.  It’s even more frustrating when you need to draw your sword.  You press left on the D-pad for the long sword and right for Geralt’s silver sword.  The Xbox 360 D-pad is notorious for input lag and it’s exasperating in The Witcher 2.  Another major problem is Geralt’s default walking speed.  When you push the analog stick lightly, Geralt walks very slowly.  Nudge it just a bit forward and he’ll start running.  Considering that Geralt has to disarm traps when he’s out and about, it’s very toilsome to move with caution.  It’s a shame that the simple act of navigating the world takes you out of the immersion.    


Luckily, the sword fighting feels barbarous and fast.  The sword mechanics handle quite nicely once you figure out how to single out foes, target them properly, and use your block/roll to dodge incoming attacks. The “X” button is used for strong attacks and the “A” button for quick strikes.  Learning which attacks are necessary for the various enemy types is key to survival - it’s just too bad that the targeting is so loose.  You can assign “signs” (magic spells) to the “Y” button and even throw bombs, throwing-knives, and set traps with a click of the right shoulder button.  Combat calls for a lot of strategy in later stages since each enemy requires different offensive maneuvers. 

The Witcher 2 tries to be very realistic in that it forces you to prepare for battles.  Rather then relying on health potions during fights, Geralt has to ready himself with sword enhancing oils, vigor enhancing potions and other elixirs before venturing out.  This seems odd at first, since you might walk into an ambush with only a fraction of your health, but once you wise up on the dangers of your surroundings, it adds a whole new layer of strategy to combat.  You get a greater sense of danger when walking into a forest and you need to constantly ready yourself for unexpected encounters.  This kind of tension is truly unique and it makes you feel like you’re learning to adapt to your environment, the longer you play.

As you accumulate experience points, you upgrade your skill tree, which consists of five categories: Training Tree, Magic Tree, Alchemy Tree, and Swordsmanship Tree - each consisting of fifteen talents.  The various talent upgrades have a significant impact on character development and playing style.  I mainly focused on the Swordsmanship talents since the parrying and dodge maneuvers come in handy during heated battles.  In order to upgrade your skills, drink and create potions, and even rest, you have to go into a meditative state.  The tricky part is that you can only meditate when no enemies are around.  Meditation allows you to craft necessary potions for battle and it’s important to regularly refill your inventory.  It’s certainly strange at first, but I have to applaud the developers for trying something original.   


Pressing the left analog stick also activates Geralt’s medallion.  The medallion does a quick scan of the environment, revealing traps, hidden treasures and even upcoming enemies.  It’s similar to the scanning function found in Prototype 2 or Infamous.  Then there are the occasional stealth segments, which are the worst gameplay elements in the entire game.  They are clumsy and feel completely out of place.  It’s a good thing they only occur occasionally.

The voice acting, music and overall presentation is exceptional.  The characters feel convincingly real and every location radiates with history.  All of the performances are extraordinary and I felt invested in every conversation.  Every character has something interesting to say and the game’s expansive lore is deeply immersive. 

The game has a unique quest structure that insists on your commitment to read journal entries and memorize names.  Certain quests will ask you to defeat some creatures in nearby forests – but before you can do that, you need to talk to the townsfolk and learn about the monsters before you can slay them.  It requires some legwork since nothing is marked on your map and you need to pay close attention to what the villagers are saying.  This might frustrate gamers that are used to simply following quest markers on the map, but it ads an incomparable sense or realism to your missions.  Of course, other quests fit into your typical template of following the marked waypoint, but that’s when the game goes completely kaput.  In my playthrough, the quest markers were wrong eighty percent of the time, especially in chapter 2.  I spent three hours on a particular quest because the marker kept repositioning itself all over the map.  This is unacceptable and affects the overall enjoyment of the game.  But to the game’s credit, when things work, they work beautifully.  You feel like every decision impacts the story drastically and things are never simply black and white.  Certain decisions will alter the progression of an entire chapter and this ads an immense level of replayability to the game.


The Witcher 2 looks fantastic! The environments are stunning and the game boasts some of the most detailed forests I’ve ever seen.  The developers recommend installing the game to Xbox’s HDD and I can see why. Meshes are significantly better and the textures load much faster.  Character models look great, although lip-syncing is somewhat robotic and unnatural.  The animations in combat are extremely fluid, but they seem to lack the same finesse during cut-scenes.  Texture pop-in still occurs even after the install, and while it’s not a game breaker, it’s clearly noticeable.  It’s not so much the graphics engine that’s impressive; it’s the awe-inspiring art style.  The villages and towns are meticulously designed and there’s an incredible amount of environmental variety throughout the game.  Venturing out during nighttime feels legitimately scary and watching the sunrise paints the entire screen in vibrant colors.    

The Witcher 2 is not for everyone.  Geralt can sleep with whores around every corner and the game shows quite a bit of the “action."  Racism plays a huge role in the game’s story and if you’re not paying attention, you might get lost in the game’s politics.  But it’s all these things that make the game truly unique.  The Witcher 2 treats you like an adult and refuses to hold your hand.  The game has several different endings and certain decisions will affect large portions of your playthrough, so you have plenty reasons to go back.  In the gameplay department, The Witcher 2 shines conceptually, but fails to deliver in the most fundamental areas, such as opening doors and moving around.  While the combat has some solid sword mechanics and nice touches of strategic planning, it ultimately feels imprecise and wonky, making it the game’s weakest area.  Regardless of the shortcomings, this is a game that must be experienced by any serious RPG fan.  There aren’t many games like it and I surely hope to see more of Geralt’s dark Witcher universe.

Review by Tin Salamunic

Final Score “A Must for RPG Fans” 8.5
Graphics
Stunningly detailed environments with occasional pop in, even after the install.
8.5
Gameplay
Opening doors and interacting with objects is a pain, but the sword fighting is fast, brutal and fun.
7.5
Value
A dark storyline that makes you feel deeply immersed and gives you plenty of choices to shape the narrative.
9.0
Sound
Some of the best voice acting and dialogue around.
9.0

What are your thoughts? Have you guys played the original Witcher yet and are you excited for this franchise to finally make its way to consoles?  What are your favorite open world RPGs of the past few years? Leave your comments below!

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