DISCLAIMER: Before this review begins, I would like to admit upfront that this site has never reviewed a The Witcher title prior to this one. We certainly would have reviewed the original, but never got a chance to do so. With that being said, we have no experience with the series, so this title is being reviewed with fresh eyes.
Alright, with the formalities out of the way, let's talk The Witcher 2.
Epic is a good word to use when discussing the storyline of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. You can tell that CDProjekt has spent a considerable amount of time formulating a deep, movie-esque storyline that commands your attention and emotions. The lead hero, Geralt of Rivia, is the main witcher in the game that has been framed for the murder of King Foltest. Geralt's adventure begins with the ending of the king's life, and takes him through the unrelenting task of tracking down the real murderer of the king. Geralt's adventures find him not only finding the murderer, but also uncovering gigantic plot that could change the land he resides in forever.
The story is just phenomenal, and the strongest part of the game. That's not a bad thing, right? Of course not. I've always preached that if you're going to have a memorable game, especially an RPG, then you have to create a story that your players can invest their emotions and time into; The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings certainly fits that criteria. It's got plenty of peaks and valleys, and most of them are controlled by the gamer.
There are points in the story where you're asked to respond to questions posed by other characters. If you have played a Bioware or LucasArts game, then you understand. What's fascinating about the dialogue is that it controls the direction of Geralt's story. So, if you're cooperative with a powerful character, then it benefits you within the storyline. If you're snide to an enemy, then they can dispose of you quickly (there's nothing like dying because you're an ass to an enemy). The game forces you to choose your responses carefully, and think through possible consequences. I know the concept isn't new, but it really seems to be thought out and not frivolous in any way, shape or form for this game.
Your responses shape the way Geralt adventures. It can either make it difficult or easy. Again, really good stuff that complements the story.
What's also 'epic' about this game is the way it looks.
While I fully understand they're cutscenes, the video is really nice during these scenes. The intro of the game is something to behold. It's done with intricate detail and plenty of good thought. It really sets the tone of the story and gets the game going. It's very much related to the content, as well, so it's just not eye candy to get you in the mood. I won't ruin it for you, but don't skip past it on the way to start the game. It's worth your time.
As for the 'actual' gameplay, while the PC version will always reign supreme over a six-year old console, it's impressive what the Xbox 360 displays depth and scope with The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. While you won't see it necessarily in the characters, though they are incredibly detailed, the real visual beef of this game comes with the expansive environments that draw you into this world that CDProjekt has created.
For example, when you play the Flotsam mission, you'll be put into a heavy forest environment. While it's not exactly going Crytek on you, the lighting shining down on the trees, the shadows cast by the characters and monsters is nothing short of breathtaking. When you climb a hill and look across a vast landscape, you'll find yourself in awe of what this game/system is pushing out. Having seen the PC side, it's amazing what could be successfully ported over without a hitch on the 360 side of things. It's just simply gorgeous. The RED Engine does one helluva job.
Before we move on, I have to give props to the acting and audio. The audio is fantastic in the game, as you get all the wonderful sounds coming delightfully through your speakers. Going back to Flotsam, you'll hear a variety of animals, echoes and whatnot in the forest. It's just pure joy for the ears. Lots of nice things to help reinforce that you're in a particular environment.
The acting should be given major kudos as well. While the story certainly was constructed properly, it couldn't be delivered without some solid actors playing the parts. You won't be disappointed in the voice acting. Lots of drama, snide remarks and just solid performances.
Alright, let's get to the beef of this game.
PC to 360 -- not as easy as you might think
Again, while I can't on good authority tell you the major differences between the PC version and 360, I can see what they had some issues with. And let me just say, I'm whining about the following because I'm a 100% console gamer by nature. I need things to work for a console, and not feel like it was a rough port from PC. PC games and console games are oil and water, as are their followers.
The controls were really stiff in The Witcher 2. There will be times where you will have to position Geralt directly over an object to have an 'option' pop-up. For example, and not to call prostitutes 'objects, you have to save some brothel women from a fire near the middle of the game (actually, you don't have to save them, but any morally sound person would do this). When you finally get to the women, you have to turn Geralt directly on them (no pun intended), move him close and then he'll begin to untie them. Now, this may not seem like a big deal, but you're running on borrowed time when you're trying to save them. If you don't untie them in time then you will die in the fire with them. You get absolutely no leeway on this at all.
You will find this stiff, need-to-be-accurate control scheme a bit of a burden. It certainly won't ruin the game, but it will impede your progress as you move forward. By hour 20 of the game, I was use to the controls, but still not completely satisfied.
Controls aside, and I'm sure I'll get massive amounts of hateful comments for this complaint, but the save feature needs improving -- severely. I had autosaved turned on from the get-go, and I thought that everything was fine. Well, apparently somewhere along the way, my ethernet cable on my Xbox 360 became unseated and I dropped from Live. Having lacked sleep, I never noticed. I never noticed until I died during the game, after making a snide remark to an enemy which led to arrows beautifully placed in the chest of Geralt (sorry, bro). The game asked if I wanted to load the last saved game and I agreed. It loaded up the very beginning of the game when I was storming the castles with King Foltest. It never autosaved, and I can only assume that it was because I wasn't hooked up to Xbox Live. It was incredibly irritating. Even worse, the option to 'load the last save' was thwarted because my saves were reading earlier dates from LAST YEAR that somehow got attached to them. It would only recognize the most recent 'autosave' as the most recent save. That irritated the holy piss out of me.
The save/load function needed some major reworking. It simply failed.
Another little quirk about this game, that may or may not be PC to 360 related, is some unevenness in gameplay. While the initial gameplay was pretty straightforward and simple, hack/slash and what not during fights, some end results were inconsistent of already established rules. For example, something I do in games like this, and like Skyrim, is try to see how far I can push things until I die. There was a moment where I tried to fight my way onto a prison barge in Flotsam, no need because I wasn't quite to that point in the story, but I just wanted to see if I could get on it. I started a fight with the guards, killed six in total then I ran into the head guard. The head guard began dialogue with me and gave me the choice of paying for my crimes (literally, like in Skyrim) or fighting. Being the absolute badass that I thought Gerald was (he killed six guards prior to this conversation) I chose to fight. Well, instead of actually fighting, the game changed to a cutscene and Geralt was killed by arrows. No fighting, no control, nothing. This isn't the only time this occurs in the game, and it harkens back to what I said previously -- you must watch what you say. That's not the point, though. The point is that the game doesn't even give you, the gamer, a fighting chance. It simply kills you. That's not conducive to prior fighting in the game, and it makes no sense considering I just killed six of the guards with ease. It isn't logical.
My final complaint is how the explore/combat areas are pretty much segmented from each other. When you're in one, the other turns off. For example, in the Flotsam story (yes, I referenced this a lot because it exposed some pretty obvious issues), you are assigned to go kill a giant beast known as the Kayran. It's blocking a trading port and it refuses to move. You have to travel up and then down a mountain to get to its lair. When you get to the lair, first to collect mucus from the beast because you need to know how to kill it, their is a ledge you jump down from. Before you trigger the enemies in this area, you have the ability to jump back on the ledge. I'm a bit passive-aggressive when it comes to fighting things in action RPGs. I always choose the high-ground to retreat to and then kill things from that safety. Well, as soon as I triggered the seven enemies to pop out of the surrounding water and run to attack me, the ledge option was taken away. I couldn't jump back on it, I was simply trapped in an area that I shouldn't have been restricted to. I do understand that 'action RPG' means I have to actually commit to 'action'. I like having the best odds, but the game completely took that out of the equation. This is irritating and unnecessary, and quite frankly it's poor coding. You should never have options taken away from you. I know it happens a lot in games, but if you can access an area and then instantly it is unaccessible, that's just bad.
Anyway, these are my biggest complaints about The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. I felt like it was a rough outing for CDProjekt when it came to moving a PC game to console. They should have refined things a bit, as most of the game is just fun as hell. These road bumps will be felt by gamers.
Shifting gears, let's talk more about the 'fun' this title emits.
Upgrades, weapons, armor, etc.
One of the beautiful draws to the Oblivion, Skyrim and Dragon Ages of the world is how you can mix, match and upgrade your characters. Having a healthy system that isn't too complicated for the gamer, but still adds more value to the character is a beautiful draw in any game. For example, in Dragon Age, Bioware took their Knights of the Old Republic upgrade system and refined it for a medieval type of environment. You can upgrade attributes, add powers and make your character something 'new' by defeating enemies and earning XP. The same can be said with Skyrim and Oblivion. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings takes that concept and develops a system of its own, and it works really well. You can subtly add sword moves, defenses, magic and what not to Geralt's being. The system is easy to learn and the leveling comes in appropriately small waves. You're not constantly looking, or even needing to upgrade Geralt, but it happens when it needs to happen. I like the variety and I like the consistency.
As for weapons and armor, it's what you are use to by now with action RPGs such as this. You can build, upgrade and improve things. You can also dabble with alchemy, make potions, traps and what not, if you are so inclined to do so. And also with the tradition of making potions and traps, you will find a plethora of things to pick up and carry around with you. So, you will have no shortage of material on your adventure through Geralt's story.
Besides these things, you will also have the option of using magic during your adventure. You will learn spells, be able to meditate and you will find both incredibly useful on your way through the story. When I say 'useful', what I really mean is necessary. Learn your magic, find out what it means and then make sure you have it at the ready.
I like the system that CDProjekt built into The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. It's easy to understand, not confusing at all and it works.