Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

I really liked a lot of what The Witcher did, but some issues with its pacing and technical prowess prevented me from loving the game. This year's sequel isn't flawless, but it does address some of those problems, and really cements the series as one of the premiere action RPG franchises in gaming. Not every change was welcome, but I think overall Assassins of Kings is a better game than the original.

The game begins not long after the first ends, with Geralt protecting the king of Temeria during the siege of a castle. The game introduces you to its systems without much hand-holding, before things take a bad turn and you're more or less on your own again in a backwater town with not much equipment and even fewer friends. You can use a save file from the first game when you start off, though its greatest effect appears to be just giving you the nice equipment you had when you finished, with the actual consequences of your decisions being subtle if even present at all. I sort of like the way the game just throws you right into the thick of it, but they might have taken it too far by limiting the information on how you play it to small dialogue boxes on the side of the screen that disappear quickly and are easily missed in the thick of the exciting prologue. Thankfully the team added a proper, separate tutorial mode as part of a big free update last month, which I waited for and made the game's new systems a lot clearer.

The combat will be somewhat familiar to people who played the first game, though it's different enough that the tutorial is useful even for experienced players. You still have two swords; a steel one for men and a silver one for monsters, and you still have the five magic signs from before, with slightly altered mechanics. The different stances for different types of enemies are gone, replaced with a more action-oriented control style that lets you mix and match quick and strong attacks and move around much more freely. You also can equip various throwing knives, bombs, and traps, and use them more easily in combat than before. It definitely increases the skill required to play the game, especially since Geralt seemed kind of gimped early on until you unlock some abilities, such as ones that allow you to block attacks from any direction and do actual counter-attacks. I mostly stuck with the combat path as I leveled, though there are also the magic and alchemy paths if those interest you, which might require more forethought but are still viable. Changing the combat from basically a button-timing game to a system that requires more thought and twitch skill might not be welcome to everyone, but I thought it worked.

How much the game feels like a real RPG sort of depends on how much you want it to. I mostly stuck to the main path and focused on improving my sword skill, which made the game sort of like a Mass Effect 2-style action game that happens to have a long story and a lot of decisions to make. There are lots of side quests to pursue though that I only pursued when I ran across them, and there's also a lot of crafting and upgrading options that I mostly ignored. The decisions were the main thing that reminded me of the type of game I was playing though, especially because of how deeply they impact the course of the story. Few games really even attempt dynamic plotting like this, and the game would be remarkable for its ambition even if it didn't work. Some games of this type are content to keep the main critical path of the game the same for everyone, with the major changes being events that might have a different outcome in the moment and a slight consequence later on. Other games focus on giving you freedom and let you approach the story at your own pace, but when you do approach it it's basically the same. The Witcher 2 is very linear, but there are a number of points where a decision you make affects events not only in the short term, but how the rest of the story might play out. The flow of time will remain constant, but the players involved and their motivations could be totally changed. It's not handled perfectly, but when it works it's impressive.

And it's an interesting story too, if not the best told one. I often felt like I was supposed to know kingdoms and nobles even when I didn't get a proper introduction, and I don't know if the game was expecting me to read up on these people in the journal or be familiar with the books the series is based on or if they were just throwing me into the middle of a complicated conflict on purpose. It's easy to get lost in the family trees and the history the game is always throwing at you, but if you strip that away, there is a plot there that's a pretty decent little fantasy tale, combining elements of political intrigue and powerful sorcery in a way that pulls you into its dark and unusual world. I've genuinely come to care about the characters that carried over the first game, and I'm invested in Geralt's attempt to regain his memory, and I'm intrigued by this grand new conflict that he's gotten caught up in, even if like him, I don't understand all of it. The presentation really helps, too. The game looks pretty outstanding even though my PC isn't top of the line, combining a nice, gritty, distinctly European fantasy aesthetic with an impressive graphics engine. The voice acting is good, especially when you consider it's being translated from the original Polish, and the original score (which I'm listening to right now) is well executed if a bit safe.

As I mentioned before, the game isn't perfect. I didn't have the same problem with the ending having trouble getting on with it; in fact it's about as perfectly paced an RPG I've played. You have two nice, lengthy acts with plenty of opportunity for screwing around, before the plot reaches its climax and resolves itself with proper speed. The problems are more mundane technical ones, and they're unfortunate when so much else of the game is put together very well. The first game is difficult at times, but I never got angry at it, because I always was able to find the right combination of techniques and equipment to get through it. There were moments in the sequel though that just seemed way out of line with the rest of the game. There's challenge, and then there's enemies that are just too difficult to damage or come in groups that are too large. I was also kind of disappointed in the enemy variety; you'd think a game about a monster hunter by trade would have a few more kinds of monsters. Maybe there were more in the various hunting contracts you can pick up, but if you focus on the main plot like I did, you see a lot of the same ones. The game also failed to use the Steam overlay for reasons I could not ascertain even though I bought the game through Steam, and the scripting in the stealth sections seemed to break when I actually tried to play them. Early on there's an objective to sneak somewhere, but if you get spotted you get brought somewhere else and the story changes. That's fine, and actually interesting. But later, getting caught means you die, which means I have to reload. And every time I did, enemies would fail to act the way they should, and there would be some glitch with the sound, causing most of the effects to disappear until I went to the main menu and reloaded the save. This occurred on a couple other occasions as well.

It seems like these are the kinds of problems that would be easily noticed in play testing and should be addressed, which is what makes them seem worse than regular glitches. Ultimately they didn't hurt the game too much for me though, which is good, because I wanted to like it as much as I did. It's clear from the course of the story as it draws to a close, and also from the solid sales numbers for a game like this, that there will be a third game at some point, and it's only a matter of when. I look forward to its inevitable release, though if I wanted more right away, I could always go back and try the other half of the game that I missed.

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