Often, when developers decide to radically rethink their sequels, it comes from a dim view of their audience. When a game fails to meet expectations and the publishers demand changes, too often the developers response is to dumb the sequel down; to eliminate those elements that might have been challenging, complicated, or just too different to be accepted by the masses. Dragon Age II, for all its commercial success, has been almost universally criticized by fans - those that actually played and enjoyed the first game - for watering down the core of what made the original so appealing.
For their sophomore effort, the people at CD Projekt RED have made it very clear that they want to rethink a great deal of what they did with their sleeper hit debut, but one thing is certain: CD Projekt knows who their fans are, and they think the world of them. The Witcher 2 takes the criticisms of the first game very seriously, but it never for a second underestimates the player. The sequel may not have any more mainstream appeal than its predecessor, but hot damn is it good.
The Witcher 2 picks up a few months after the end of the first game, continuing the story of Geralt of Rivia, a genetically enhanced monster slayer (and lady killer) known for his staunch neutrality in a war-torn land. The back story and world of The Witcher are deep and complicated, even overwhelming. While new players might feel as if they are missing something from the first game, this was just as true for the original, as it leans heavily on the Polish fantasy novels on which the games are based.
The Witcher 2 may not have any more mainstream appeal than its predecessor, but hot damn is it good.
The Witcher 2 lives up to its reputation as an adult game, not just for its sex, violence, and profanity, but for its nuance and complexity. The northern kingdoms have been plunged into chaos following assassinations, wars of succession, and a rebellion in the north, all leaving the land vulnerable to the Nilfgaardian Empire to the south. This is a world with a sense of history, geography, and tumultuous political dynamics that all tie in to the events of Geralt's story. It's an exceptionally well-crafted story that avoids the usual pitfalls and fantasy clichés about impending Ages of Darkness or the resurrection of some ancient evil.
In fact, there is a great amount of moral ambiguity to many of the characters, and decisions about who to help and who to fight never boil down to anything as trite as good and evil or order and chaos. These decisions have consequences, too. Depending on your actions in Chapter 1, Chapter 2 can play out almost entirely differently, with Geralt fighting on the opposite side of a war, from the other end of the map. Many other decisions have a major impact on the plot, if not the overall quest, making The Witcher 2 easily worth a second play-through.
Much has been made of The Witcher 2's new engine, and rightfully so. The first Witcher was the product of forward-thinking ideas and a dated, old-school engine (Bioware's Aurora Engine) that couldn't adequately realize them. Combat suffered most of all, with an action-based system saddled with a clicky turn-based interface that robbed it of any visceral feel. It did its best to hide the stats-based RPG nuts and bolts from the player, but still kept a tedious drag-and-drop inventory system, further bloated by the fact that much of the game's loot was completely useless.
This time around, every aspect of the game's interface has been rethought. Combat, the backbone of almost any RPG, has been completely overhauled, giving players direct control of Geralt's sword swings and dodges. All of Geralt's magic signs are open from the start this time, giving players an arsenal of defensive and offensive special moves to complement their swordsmanship.
Witcher 2 is very much an action-RPG, even more than the likes of Oblivion, aided further by the game's impressively steep difficulty. Especially early on, before you unlock the ability to damage multiple enemies at once, even minor encounters with groups of random baddies can prove deadly, forcing players to carefully separate individuals from the pack to think their ranks. Boss fights - now far more frequent and epic - rely on recognizing patterns and animations, and waiting for moments of vulnerability, just like a classic hack-and-slash. Some spotty targeting proves to be the new system's Achilles' heel, but more often than not fights are fun, challenging, and visceral. A few in particular are maddeningly difficult in a way that makes them very satisfying to overcome.
It's not surprising that this new system actually plays best with a controller, and the rest of the game has been rethought to be more controller-friendly too. Menus, although still prone to a little clunkiness, have abandoned all drag-and-drop elements for a cleaner system that works perfectly on a pad. Mercifully, the designers have also allowed for meditation - a state used to mix potions, progress time, and heal - to be performed almost anywhere when not in combat, a refreshing break from the process of the first game. Unfortunately, they have also made meditation necessary for consuming potions - stat-boosting power-ups useful in more difficult fights - thus forcing players to either clairvoyantly anticipate the needs of a fight or back up and load an earlier save after losing a tough fight. This is, perhaps, the only way in which the core mechanics have taken a step back.
Of course, half the fun of a new engine is seeing how far it can push the hardware, and The Witcher 2 is astoundingly beautiful. RED Engine is capable of some very fine rendering, outclassing even the latest Unreal Engine 3 games with its soft, subtle lighting, detailed textures, and sprawling environments. Despite some minor niggles with hair and clothing, this is absolutely the most beautiful RPG ever made.
This is owed, in no small part, to the fantastic environments. Unlike the fairly bland villages and city streets of CD Projekt's last game, all of the sets in Witcher 2 are picturesque and exquisitely detailed. From the dense forests around Flotsam, to the rocky Dwarven capitol of Vergen, each area has its own unique look and architecture, which help to lend a sense of a broader world full of diverse cultures and history.
Unlike many of its contemporaries, The Witcher 2 is not an open-world game. While asynchronous loading has allowed for each chapter to occupy a large, continuous area, these maps are still relatively small and can't be revisited once the chapter ends. What these areas lack in size, they make up for in detail. Cities are bustling with life, and large-scale battles are so full of background animation they feel like the classic epics of cinema's golden age.
Not only does The Witcher 2 look and play great, it sports some real, heavy-duty production value of the sort we don't often see from Eastern European games. The English localization is excellent, with a strong voice cast of mostly British actors. The presentation is full of great cinematic moments, both in-game and in the cut scenes. In fact, nothing about it betrays the fact that this was produced by an independently financed Polish developer and not one of the American publishing giants.
Like Geralt of Rivia, CD Projekt has made some tough decisions in The Witcher 2's development, but they've done so with the confidence and style of a world-class developer, and the class and clarity of vision of an independent studio. This is a demanding game that respects the player's skill and intelligence and never holds back. Even its narrative is surprisingly tasteful for the medium, building to a conclusion that lends weight to the player's decisions and tastefully avoids tying things up with a bow just as it avoids a tacky cliffhanger. Its story ends, but the world of The Witcher continues, changed forever because of Geralt's actions. I, for one, can't wait to see where it goes from here.