Based on The Witcher series of books by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, the game continues the story of Geralt of Rivia, one of the last of the Witchers: monster-hunters trained and mutated from an early age, across a land simply known as The Continent.
Within this land are many regions, all with tenuous relationships toward each other which lead to much in-fighting and political wrangling. Add to that racial tensions between humans and non-humans – mainly Dwarves and Elves – and you’re sitting on a powder-keg waving a lit match.
From the intro movie you can see that this is going to be a messy, bloody, affair. And it is. Assassinations ahoy, but then that’s in the title so you’d be annoyed if there weren’t.
Gameplay begins with Geralt working as bodyguard to King Foltest of Temeria as Foltest leads an assault against rebellious noble families who have kidnapped his illegitimate children, and heirs to his throne. Political shenanigans afoot, Foltest himself is assassinated and all fingers point at Geralt. Thus the set-up is complete.
Geralt must clear his name by finding out the identity and motives of the real assassin. The Scoia’tael, a guerrilla “terrorist” faction of Elves and Dwarves, were seen assisting the real assassin to escape so they’re, naturally, the first port of call… but this is just the tip of the iceberg and going down that rabbit-hole opens a whole other can of worms, to squeeze in a few mixed metaphors.
Are the Scoia’tael the real bad-guys of the piece? Are they actually going to help you? Would the guys you fought side-by-side with earlier in the game gut you like a fish as soon as shake your hand? The plot really does twist and turn like a twisty, turny, thing. It took me a while to get to grips with but once I understood it (not saying I do, fully, but run with me here) I was hooked.
The game then runs in sweeping chapter arcs where your actions really do count and affect the direction of later gameplay. Missions can be picked up from lead characters throughout as well as you optionally taking up “side-quests” from notice boards. Geralt is a monster-hunter by profession, after all, so why not do the public a favour by hunting monsters for gold?
This is a game were exploring and getting stuck fighting monsters pays off. The more monsters you kill, the more you learn about them and it’s ok to run away from any fight and have a breather/put away your sword (or try to, at least). A lot of the time, it’s the only way to survive.
Combat is a mix of fairly standard “strong yet slow” and “weak yet fast” attacks combined with parry/riposte defences, magic and thrown object/placed trap moves. I might be getting old but this can be damned tricky to deal with at times, especially when dealing with multiple foes… There is a simple and effective targeting mechanic in place but these guys don’t hold back, whether it’s humans or pointy-teethed, goblin-like, Nekkers that you’re fighting. This is excellent gameplay and shows off some good computer AI but can be bloody frustrating! It’s definitely a game that requires you to save often and get used to seeing the “game over” screen.
It firmly has a place amongst all other RPG games, too. If Kingdoms of Amalur:Reckoning is The Hobbit and Skyrim is Lord of the Rings then The Witcher 2 is most definitely Game of Thrones (even though The Witcher series has it’s own film and TV versions, internationally named The Hexer, I’ll admit to never seeing them so can’t use it as a point of reference here.)
For starters the “18” rating is there for a reason. There is nakedness and swearing from the start, even some C-bombs get in there. However, it’s not over-used… it’s there for a reason and that is to further emphasise how gritty and dark this place is. There’s none of your complaining about taking an arrow to the knee every 5 minutes here, no sir.
This is gritty and dark and no holds barred. It’s the story and setting that hold it all together. And, boy, what a setting! The graphics are extremely good, as we’re used to now, in this current generation of games. It’s a medieval world were the bright, colourful, clothes of the nobles are just as eye catching as the muck on the streets… or the bodies hanging by a noose in the town square.
Life is cheap in this world and pleasures, small and large, are grasped whenever and wherever they can be. This is most likely why the brothel in the town of Flotsam is doing so well!
However, contemporary games may have spoilt us a bit. For example, some folk might bemoan the lack of any form of “fast travel” in The Witcher 2. Important quest locations are not always indicated. The map is good but purely illustrative for the most part. Wandering around, exploring intentionally or otherwise, and picking up everything you can find is key to the nature of the game. Your knowledge of the world around you is increased and added to your journal as you go along. All those things you pick up can be used to make potions, traps, bombs and enhancements to armour and weapons so they can be vital.
I found it took a bit of getting used to but once immersed in the game, The Witcher 2 is dark, gritty, morally ambiguous and, really rather excellent.