The Witcher 2 was many people’s first introduction to the series, including my own. Developed by Polish team CD Projekt Red, The Witcher 2 originally came out in 2011 for PC. About a year later, The Witcher 2: Enhanced Edition arrived for Xbox 360 and as a free update for PC.
I’m playing The Witcher 2: Enhanced Edition on the Xbox One via backwards compatibility. The enhanced edition added a decent amount of content, containing a couple of new quests and tons of patches and tweaks to the base game.
An Ambitious Sequel
Originally, The Witcher 2 was being developed using Bioware’s Aurora Engine, but the project became too ambitious and hopes of releasing on console quickly died. To counter this, CDPR developed its own REDengine practically alongside the game. This put The Witcher 2 in a unique position, allowing CDPR to experiment and make exactly the game they wanted. If you want to know more detail about how the Witcher 2 came to be, there’s a great article by Eurogamer you can check out here.
As I mentioned in my review of The Witcher, the differences between The Witcher 2 and its predecessor are evident right from the outset. The Witcher had its hands full establishing Andrzej Sapkowski’s world, leaving less room to introduce its own set of stories and characters, which is a big part of why the first game is much easier to appreciate with some knowledge of the novels it’s based on. Now it feels like CDPR is much more confident in picking up where the books left off, with major characters being killed off left right and center, as well as a major shift in the political state of The Nothern Kingdoms. This serves to make for a more intense, emotional, and overall engaging narrative.
Opening With a Bang
The Witcher 2 kicks off with a pretty flashy looking CG cinematic that was added in the Enhanced Edition. The cinematic shows the assassination of King Demavend of Aedirn, the ruler of one of the four major countries that makes up the Northern Kingdoms. I remember watching this cinematic over and over when the game first came out, the level of detail like the archer’s arrows bending in the air and the way the music matches the action was always awesome to me. It’s also a great way to set up the story for newcomers to the series, as the previous game ended with our hero Geralt thwarting an assassination attempt on King Foltest of Temeria.
If it seems like I’m throwing a lot of names around so far, that’s because politics are very important to The Witcher 2’s story. The main goal of our Witcher Geralt of Rivia is to clear his name after being caught with a dead King Foltest at the end of the game’s prologue.
Speaking of the prologue, this one opens with a bang. Now temporary bodyguard to King Foltest, Geralt gets caught up in a battle that sees players getting into a slight tussle with a dragon, among other things. While it’s easy to see why CDPR have opened the sequel with a big battle and plenty of action, I wouldn’t say it’s a good representation for what’s in store. The rest of the game is more grounded, where most of your playtime will involve interacting with the varied cast of characters. The prologue does drag on a little too, which makes for a minor annoyance on subsequent playthroughs. This is somewhat remedied by the ability to skip some parts of the opening, but if I was a first-time player I might be worried this isn’t the game I expected.
“Do Witchers Know How To Plough?”
The main thing that makes The Witcher 2 stand out is the choice you have to make at the end of Act 1. You can choose to move on to the next act with either Vernon Roche– your companion so far and the one who helped you break out of prison in the prologue, or Iorveth– the leader of a band of Scoia’tael (non-humans who fight to live equally to humans). As is the theme in The Witcher, neither side is strictly the good or bad choice. Except this time, unlike in the first installment, your choice here completely changes what’s to follow. Choose Iorveth and you’ll travel to the Dwarven city of Vergen for Act 2, choose Roche and you end up in a military camp across the valley from Vergen.
The Witcher 2’s narrative has a lot of moving parts, and the side you choose determines what you learn and about who. Because of this, it’s pretty essential to play through both sides, quests and events differ completely depending on where you go with the exception of a few key events. It seems CDPR intended players to experience both sides, The Witcher 2 is quite short for an RPG of its kind, but this is remedied with a plethora of new things to learn on a second playthrough.
Neither side feels out of character for Geralt, his tendency to stay neutral in most situations remains intact. The Witcher 2 spins this by giving our white-haired hero his own personal reasons for choosing Iorveth or Roche. One serves to help him regain his memory more quickly, and the other is more likely to clear his name.
There is a lot to digest plot-wise here, luckily it’s served with great voice acting and dialogue. Conversations in this game always held my interest, characters feel alive, and each with their own motivations and reasons for doing what they do. Iorveth is a character I particularly enjoyed, it’s easy to forget about the fact he is a brutal murderer/massive racist when he’s jokingly referencing Lord of the Rings. Geralt’s no exception, his penchant for saying things how they are and his dry wit are present in most interactions. Accents vary, NPCs can be heard in the streets chatting away humorously, sometimes pondering what Witchers eat or if they enjoy a good romp (which as we know, Geralt does). It’s impossible to go into every little plot and character detail, suffice it to say I wasn’t bored with The Witcher 2’s colorful cast for a single moment.
Beauty In a Bleak World
The Witcher 2 explores a larger variety of environments than its predecessor, embracing the fantasy elements of its world more openly, while still keeping its basis in reality. The Dwarven city of Vergen is a highlight for me. Inhabited almost entirely by Dwarves, the city’s buildings are all carved out of the mountain it rests on, resulting in an interconnected settlement that takes the color of dull grey. It might seem rather drab at first, but the careful mixture of stone-carved houses and hastily erected wooden market stalls make it feel lived in. The low-ceilinged, open plan nature of each domicile, as well as the labyrinthine corridors, cement the fact you are roaming a place that wasn’t made by humans. Other locations in The Witcher 2 stick mainly to its influences from medieval Europe, with a splash of fantasy. The first act has Flotsam, a small, wooden hamlet centered in a sprawling forest. The forest with its massive trees and stony ruins is where Geralt does most of his early monster slaying. Act 2 has the aforementioned Vergen, or the Kaedweni military camp depending on who you journey with. Act 3 takes the Witcher and pals to Loc Muinne, a ruined Elven city. Unfortunately, you don’t spend much time there.
There are quite a few rough textures in this game, oftentimes popping in during fights or dialogue which can be a little jarring. This combined with its stiff animations can make The Witcher 2 look quite rough during the action, especially during unique kill animations that can occur when enemies are stunned. In tighter spots, the camera has a tendency to betray you as you weave away from incoming attacks, sometimes resulting in death. Geralt’s fancy way of fighting makes for quite a challenge when implemented into a video game, and the new combat system can make Geralt and his opposition look rather stiff at times. There are fewer monsters than in the first game, but The Witcher 2 makes up for it with a much higher level of detail on monster design and behavior. From exploding corpse-eaters called Rotfiends to the tortured souls of dead soldiers: the bleak and dim art-style shown in the game’s environments remains intact in its inhabitants. Every foe you face also comes with its own unique execution, allowing Geralt to dispose of his stunned enemies in brutal fashion. When the camera plays nice these look pretty good, getting to see Geralt cut down his opponent with both steel and silver sword or set them alight with Igni helps make the combat more entertaining.
Dodge, Attack, Rinse and Repeat
Sadly, the combat is rather lacking. Geralt has a strong attack and a light attack, as well as his Witcher signs. He can dodge out of the way and also parry with his sword, at the cost of a little health. It’s a pretty simplistic system, most of the intended depth lies in the potion crafting as well as traps, bombs and throwing knives. It’s nice to have all these options but encounters never provide enough of a challenge to warrant using them. In my first playthrough, I went out of my way to take various potions, throw bombs, and really prepare for larger encounters, but eventually, I learned it doesn’t really matter, because you can just dodge behind enemies, heavy attack, then rinse and repeat.
This might sound like I just got lazy and didn’t want to keep using the flawed crafting system (I’ll get to that shortly), which is partly true, but it mostly happened by accident. I found the best tactic for pretty much every encounter in the game to be this one because most enemies behave in the same way. With the addition of some wonky hitboxes and Geralt feeling pretty stiff even after improving his dodge, fighting is a lower point in the game. I won’t say it doesn’t have its ups, striking true with Geralt’s blade feels chunky and the Aard sign can be incredibly fun. Aard allows you to hit enemies with a wave of kinetic force, sometimes stunning them and allowing for one of those special kill animations I mentioned earlier. It also serves as a friend when trying to stick behind enemies to heavy attack them, giving them a blast of Aard prevents them from turning around.
The Witcher 2 features a crafting system, which is pretty pointless for the most part. Once again, I put a decent amount of time into gathering materials and crafting the best weapons and armor I could the first time I played. There are a few reasons why crafting becomes tedious quickly – Item weight is very harsh in this game, some crafting items are really heavy meaning you have to visit an innkeeper to take them out of storage every time you want to craft something. You tend to find a better diagram or piece of equipment shortly after you spent all that time crafting the one you have on. If armor and weapons had more interesting attributes, this wouldn’t be so bad, but since I found better equipment shortly after, I realized crafting was pretty pointless. Fortunately, brewing potions has its own separate menu, and most alchemy items don’t weigh anything, so it’s easy to make them on the fly.
A Highly Improved Soundtrack
Sidequests in The Witcher 2 are crafted with care. Each one has an interesting story to tell, like solving logic puzzles in a wizard’s tower or using your best friend as bait for a Succubus. There are brief moments when you play as other characters, one quest has Geralt inhabiting the bodies of different spirits on a cursed battlefield. You can also play dice-poker, something that was present in the first game. Now the dice have their own physics and can go flying off the board if you roll them too hard, a fun little addition. Geralt can arm wrestle and get into fistfights for some extra cash as well, meeting the occasional steroid-taking nutjob or disgruntled noble along the way.
The Witcher 2 has a great soundtrack, one that I’ve listened to a few times. It has its own identity now, battle themes are a mixture of heavy guitar along with vocal chanting with influences of Polish folk music to be found all over. It’s much more memorable, taking a step into the foreground after the first game’s quieter ensemble. As soon as you boot up the game you’re met with the awesome CG cutscene, complete with a dramatic track that matches the action. Then you go straight to the main menu, where another one of the game’s best songs waits. There’s a consistent theme, its slower tracks widely feature soft string instruments like the lute accompanied by plenty of woodwind. When battle comes around the lute transforms into an electric guitar, the woodwind gets faster and higher-pitched, and the soft female vocals become violent and chaotic. It’s an abrupt transition but it works thanks to the music’s unique themes.
Setting Up For Something Bigger
This isn’t the first time I’ve played the Witcher 2, I originally played it back when it first came out. I’d say I probably like it less now than I did the first time around. It tells a great story, my favorite parts were easily the ones spent with characters like Iorveth and Philippa Eilhart. Its themes of war and hatred are at their best, showing nothing is black and white. Some people might find it a little convoluted at times, but I thought it was a great setup to The Witcher 3. That’s what this game is in a lot of ways, CDPR experimented with characters and mechanics while moving things on in the world. The Witcher 2 and 3 were being worked on at the same time, as such it’s hard not to feel that many aspects of this game were rushed, mainly the final act of the game, which is incredibly short and seems pretty undercooked.
I enjoyed my time with The Witcher 2 overall. Its departure from The Witcher’s engine and mechanics is bold but doesn’t always pay off. The stiff combat and constant running back and forth between locations seems to elongate a game that could have possibly been even shorter. The length isn’t an issue per se, the game has replay value for at least one more run. Does the charming voice acting and well-written dialogue make up for its flaws? Maybe. Don’t get me wrong, the battle system can still be satisfying, it’s definitely not going to ruin the game for you. If you love the characters, world and overall atmosphere of The Witcher like I do, it’s definitely worth your time.
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