The Witcher 2: Enhanced Edition Review
The Witcher 2: Enhanced Edition is a rough-cut diamond—captivatingly beautiful, but so unpredictably pain-inducing at times that some will lament that very beauty. Many of its facets are spit-shined to a kind of perfection few in gaming history have managed, but others are so unpolished and broken that they’ll drive you to madness (and profanity-laced rants that conjugate four-letter words in ways they were never meant to be conjugated). The net result of all of this is that the quality of the game varies wildly throughout, constantly teetering between perfection and frustration like some kind of demonic gaming see-saw. What you look for and expect to get out of the games you play will be the determining factors that dictate which end of that see-saw you’ll be faced with once all is said and done.
Stories are great for campfires, long car rides, and explaining to your loved ones why you came home at 2 AM covered in lipstick, but they rarely make a significant appearance in modern games. Old games were much different in this regard because they had to work within certain limitations, both musical and graphical. That meant that the story was one of the few means developers could use to shape the individual identity of their game and stand out from the pack. As graphics in general became more detailed, however, this was largely abandoned, leading to the gaming equivalent of “telling with graphics rather than showing with intricate narrative.” The main draw of The Witcher 2 isn’t the shiny graphics, but rather the deep, complex plot that returns to this tradition of strong narrative. Everything that happens in this game has a reason behind it rather than just being thrown into the story as cheap device to move things along, and you’re quickly and credibly thrust into a world of which you’re not the center; for all of the things that you can accomplish in-game and all of the many people whose fates you hold in your hand, you’re still just one person of many whose ambitions are capable of reshaping the world.
Many role-playing games offer freedom through the choices they allow us to make, but those choices are often simplistic and without consequence, quickly pushed to the side so that their impact on the overall story is virtually nonexistent. That way, developers can make one or two endings while offering the illusion of choice throughout the rest of the game. It’s not like every choice you make in The Witcher 2 will impact the entire world, and to proclaim it a beacon of hope for choice in gaming would be a step too far, but some of the many choices you’ll make will have very real consequences for the world at large in a way that’s largely unheard of in games. It’s akin to a choose-your-own-adventure book at times, the story paths branching in dramatic ways depending on certain decisions without ever compromising the pace or narrative strength of the story. Those decisions that have a large impact on how the story branches aren’t always completely obvious on a first run through the game, being especially subtle compared to the “save the kitten or toss the kitten into lava” kinds of choices that many games sport, but by the time you reach those large choices you’ll be so immersed in the characters and their motivations that your decisions will be natural and informed by your opinions of said characters rather than being completely random. Ultimately, The Witcher 2 manages to tell a linear, cohesive story along many non-linear paths, never sacrificing its greatest strengths—the story and characters—in the pursuit of that non-linearity.
The characters are simultaneously recognizable and foreign, striking a chord between familiar fantasy archetypes and gritty realism in a way that never comes across as forced or artificial. Geralt, the playable character and amnesia aficionado, has shared experience with many characters you’ll meet throughout your adventures, and that shared experience is revealed both in short bursts through cutscenes and organically through dialogue. While it can be overwhelming at times to have so many characters acting like you should know them, you’ll quickly grow to like them for who they are rather than who they’ve been, and from there you’ll easily absorb the little details they’re wont to offer up about your shared past.
This may be surprising to some, but the single most likable thing about the characters in The Witcher 2 is that they don’t strive to be likable. They don’t fit into the molds of “perfect heroes” and “perfect villains,” nor do those you encounter always go along with everything you say; this is a game where everyone has their own agendas, and you’re not the center of everyone’s world. You’re Geralt the witcher, slayer of monsters, not their personal messiah, and just because they’re your friends doesn’t mean that they don’t have their own stuff going on. Each character has flaws that become more and more apparent as the situations you face with them become more desperate, and rather than focusing all of the character development on Geralt, a huge amount of focus is put on supporting characters and what your journey means to them. To see the flaws of those you’re traveling with and recognize the role those shortcomings play throughout both your story and theirs is a more endearing thing than one would probably think.
The Witcher 2 includes every vice one can think of: Profanity, nudity, violence, and worst of all, politics. In fact, a huge amount of the game revolves around politics, but you’re more a consistently-underestimated pawn than an active participant in that process. As such, it’s not as necessary as it may seem to understand who all the political players are early in the game. While the beginning can often make you feel as though you missed something plot-related, those relevant to the story will slowly be explained and fleshed-out in such a way that no knowledge of The Witcher 1 is actually necessary. Even if you find yourself mixing up names and places, there are journal and quest entries ensuring that everything is graspable.
Things begin to get murky when the combat comes up, not because of its inherent difficulty that forces you to think ahead and plan out your strategy, but because of the few occasions where it’s possible to die simply because you weren’t aware of a freak bug or quirk to avoid. Apart from those moments, the difficulty is pleasingly punishing, challenging without ever being sadistic or unfair to such a degree that you often have to rely on a combination of the many bombs, traps, and enhancing potions in the game in order to survive. Once you’re hit by those problems, however, the fairness seems to go out the window. For example, if you stun an enemy and attack them, you’ll get a small “finisher” cutscene that automatically kills them. While the idea behind it is solid, it’s possible for enemies to attack you during these cutscenes that take away control of your character, meaning that it’s possible to lose huge chunks of life (and even die) during a cutscene through no fault of your own. Another problem is that using your medallion to highlight loot stops your movement. In the PC version this is little more than an annoyance, but the Xbox 360 version has your medallion mapped to the movement stick’s button (commonly known as L3), meaning that you’ll occasionally press it by accident and completely halt your movement for 1-2 seconds, especially during particularly stressful moments. While it may not seem like a lot of time, that’s often all it takes for an enemy to finish you off in this game. Another problem that affects both versions is that enemies often feel like brick walls, and it’s possible to get “stuck” on them. For example, I was once successfully hacking apart a group of harpies, but when I went to roll to the side, Geralt merely rolled in place. The harpy next to the one I was attacking was apparently slightly closer than the one I was focused on, and though only a sliver of its body was actually blocking me from rolling to the side, it was enough to stop my movement. Rather than having an impact on that harpy and knocking it back or the game understanding that I was trying to dodge and allowing me to successfully roll to the side, it completely opened me up to a number of attacks that could have easily meant a game over screen. It’s also possible to get stuck like this on terrain in unpredictable ways that can ruin even the best of plans, thwarting all but those who know each area inside and out. Moments like these paint the combat mechanics, otherwise very solid, in a bad light.
Then there are the graphics. The PC version has some of the best graphics on the PC, and the Xbox 360 has some of the best graphics on the Xbox 360, but a direct comparison could be disappointing. While the colors are more vivid on the Xbox, the overall graphic level is quite a bit below the highest settings on the PC version. It doesn’t look bad by any stretch of the imagination, but this is in addition to a significant level of pop-in that plagues both versions, doubly true of the Xbox version. Toward the end there are a number of characters gathered together for an important scene, and each time the camera changes to a new angle or character there’s pop-in, even with both game discs (7.7 gigabytes each) installed. It’s not always that obvious and frequent, but there are several instances where it becomes distracting and detracts from immersion. Unless you have a beastly PC that lifts weights and eats nails for breakfast, however, chances are the Xbox version is your best choice as far as playability goes. After all, lesser PCs are likely to encounter problems with mouse delay and an inability to complete the few quick-time events found in the game, problems that the Xbox version doesn’t suffer from. When all is said and done, those who value art design over shiny little graphical details won’t be disappointed regardless of the version they’re playing on. The overall art design in the game is fantastic.
How you’ll judge The Witcher 2 depends almost entirely on your priorities in games. You’ll find yourself in several intricately-detailed locations and be given the freedom to run around and pursue sidequests, but it’s not an open-world game. If you’re looking for the freedom to run around a bunch of virtual trees and make up your own story, please jump off of a bridge into a pile of nails. Seriously, you’re destroying gaming. If you’re looking for a mindless hack and slash that rewards button-mashing more than thoughtful planning, then I’m going to send the virtual tree-running people after you, because you’re also a part of the problem. If, on the other hand, you value story in gaming above all else and can look past a game’s unpolished aspects, then The Witcher 2: Enhanced Edition is the game you’ve been waiting for.
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