The review about one of the most critically-acclaimed RPGs in PC gaming history. But is it worth the hype?
This is a partly experimental review for the sheer reason that it’s the longest, most difficult and yet most favorite review I’ve done. Despite its 4,000+ word count, it’s only 1,000 words longer than my reviews of FTL or A Valley Without Wind 2. Not that I want to constantly set a new record, I want the reviews length to be appropriate to the game itself. I think this review is. Feedback is very welcome because I want to continue to grow and improve. It was a long journey for this review and I feel like I’ve only just begun. I want to thank all of you that take the time out of your day to read what I say and hope you get something out of it.
A Paladin’s Review: The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings: Enhanced Edition: It’s A Fun Time But….Plough The Lilies. Err, I Mean The Combat.
- Genre: 3rd Person Western RPG, In-Depth Conversation System with Combat.
- Developed & Published by: CD Projekt RED
- Platform Support: Windows, Mac, Linux and Consoles.
- Business Model: Base Game
- Copy purchased by myself
Preamble and Disclosure
RPGs are a difficult genre of game to review. With their vast worlds to explore, hours of gameplay that measure into the 50s or 100s for a single run through and each experience guaranteed to be different, well, it can be challenging to say the least. Laying my cards on the table, I played The Witcher 2 at hard difficulty for one playthrough. I did another playthrough at normal difficulty but only got part way through. I believe those two campaigns have given me enough experience to create my thoughts for this review. The Witcher 2 was purchased on Steam by myself, two years ago. Yeah, it has been that long. So, without further ado, I present A Paladin’s Thoughts and Review of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings: Enhanced Edition. 3rd person RPG for Windows, Mac, Linux and Consoles.
Overall Gameplay Thoughts
The Witcher 2 is a lengthy RPG, one that you aren’t going to finish in one sitting, much in a single week. You play as Geralt of Rivia, a Witcher trained and mutated to fight against monsters. Armed with two swords, signs and other weaponry he can find or craft, Geralt is on a quest to clear his name and uncover the plot of the Kingslayers. They are assassins who have begun axing off Kings of the North left, right and center. Additionally, TW2 looks to uncover the secret past of Geralt and recovery his missing memories. As such, you don’t get to play as anyone else, exempting some short quests. Customization of Geralt is limited to which skill tree you choose (there are three trees you can train into) and what armor & weapons you equip. You can also change his hairstyle if you want but it has no impact on the game. The Witcher’s universe plays out like a traditional RPG with fantastical creatures and the typical races you come to expect. Magic, wizards & witches, Elves, Humans, Dwarves and other typical beings exist here. Everything, however, is tinted with a gritty and cynical look at the world. It also tries to subvert expectations and tropes that many have come to expect. Elves are less fair-folk and more vicious fighters. Trolls have human-levels of intelligence. Mages are politically-savvy and not aloof hermits. TW2 even uses modern-day terms rather than the expected thous and thinest.
One half of the game is having a lot of long conversations with multiple NPCs. Participating in said conversations allows for world building, acquiring side-quests, trading and/or participate in….distractions. These are generally well fleshed out conversations and you can skip a lot of lore if you want. There’s also different conversation options that can influence the responses you’ll get. It’s not as black and white as say Mass Effect’s paragon/renegade system. Instead, it generally influences how diplomatically Geralt will approach a situation. You can also use signs or intimidation to influence the conversation to your liking, provided you’ve leveled them up enough. The other half of the game is looting materials & personal possessions from every house, building, cave and castle Geralt can get into. Right from under peoples’ noses and it’s insane how often those are nobles or kings. Hehe ok, the actual other half is the combat system. It’s a fast paced hack-and-slash system that tries to encourage tactical and quick thinking as well as planning ahead. While it is possible to avoid some fights, usually by choosing the right response or avoiding a quest altogether, it’s not possible to avoid the majority of it.
The story centers on the main protagonist, Geralt of Rivia. He’s a Witcher, one of the infamous monster hunters of the game’s universe. The main portion of the campaign is spent on uncovering Geralt’s mysterious past and piercing through his amnesia. Restoring the memories of what happened to Geralt prior to his arrival in the first Witcher game. Luckily for us, his memories are starting to come back even as we start TW2. Throughout the campaign, Geralt will continue to remember more as he encounters certain people and events. I found this part of the story to be pretty good, as I was curious about Geralt’s missing memories and what caused him to disappear. The end actually goes into detail on what happened…mostly. Though I would have liked details on what happened in the five years he disappeared from Rivia. It’s a bit vague. As for the other portions of the campaign, there are two main story paths Geralt can take. Largely, these paths have Geralt joining forces with Iorveth of the Scoia’tael or Venon Roche of Temeria. It largely boils down to a choice between a rebel elf commander trying to restore his race’s future or a special forces commander trying to keep his kingdom alive and avenge the death of his king.
These two paths aren’t as strict as many other titles that used branching paths. TW2 does give you quite a bit of flexibility in how you affect the story. Your actions having some impact on the game in the long run, even though a lot of those impacts are mostly just notes in your journal. Often times, the story will try to involve the other path as much as possible so you don’t miss any content. Not a terribly big fan of how they handle it as it often feels forced. There’s also another story-related issue that I feel the need to mention. Despite it being a dark & gritty tale, it rarely feels like Geralt’s friends are in any danger. This wouldn’t have been an issue if the game didn’t try repeatedly to get them into dangerous situations. Which backfires in the game’s face as I was rarely concerned about them. I knew once I killed a few people and threatened the rest, they’d be ok. Surprise surprise, they always were.
Many of the characters are an unlikable lot. There are very few good guys and Geralt isn’t one of them. It feels like a lot of attention was given to Geralt, Iorveth and Vernon and the rest were mostly regulated to side arcs or doomed to two-dimensionality. Despite TW2’s attempts to subvert tropes, many characters still follow many traditional tropes and stereotypes. After all, it’s kind of hard to find characters surprising when they’re given such obvious names like Dandelion, Triss Merigold or worse: Deathmold. I mean, really? Deathmold was the best name you could up with for an evil villain? Why not just have him give us an over the top laugh when we meet him? It would have been more subtle. Everyone else is pretty easy to figure out once you meet them. They rarely stray from their outward appearance and are largely predictable. There was little attempt to justify some of the heinous acts committed by evil people. They just did it because that’s what the universe expected.
Overall the story is a reasonable adventure. Geralt’s interactions with either Iorveth or Vernon gives them a lot interesting moments. The journey from a backwater town, to a military base to a conclave of mages was an overall interesting trek through the Witcher universe. It’s also nice to see many of Geralt’s friends from the first one play a slightly more active role in this game. Even if it never really feels like they get as much attention as I think they deserve. The campaign as a whole is, at times, forgettable. But somehow, it always managed to keep me invested. Even as I write this out, I’m not really sure how it did that. My best guess is that it had something to do with the world building, the grittier take on a fantasy world and my unquenchable need for lore. Darn thing knew how to keep me here.
The Chapter Structure
There’s a formula that I began to notice pretty quickly with TW2. It goes something like this: get involved in protecting an NPC(s) from a horde of humanoid NPCS and protect them until a certain point. Then, make a deal(s) with the morally questionable leader of the area you’re in. Said deal is usually to destroy the big boss/supernatural problem of the area that just so happens to be stopping Geralt’s journey forward. Geralt will then travel around the area, finding out what he needs to beat the obstacle and solving a lengthy preparation quest to get all the tools he’ll need. All the while, he has the option to complete monster contracts, fight in arm wrestling, fist fighting tournaments, dice poker challenges and side quests. Big bad boss is either a QTE event or a really difficult/bullet-spongy enemy. And pray for mercy when it’s QTE event bosses because they’re janky. Once you’ve beaten boss, you’ll find out how much of a jackass the local leader is, decide if he should live or die, then go on your merry way to the next level. Rinse and repeat for all three chapters.
Ok, ok, I know this is a major simplification of the story’s structure and not 100% accurate but it’s close to accurate that I feel the need to point it out. Once I got to chapter three, well, I was getting pretty tired of the structured sequence of events. I really wanted something to break the mold that TW2 had managed to get itself into. It didn’t really help that questing is ok. Not terrible but also not that exciting. It makes multiple playthroughs more of a chore though I think that has something to do with the combat itself. More on that later. Only a few quests set themselves apart in my mind like the quest to deal with a drunken Troll not keeping a bridge maintained, defending a troll’s missus from soldiers or a more humorous one involving killing lots of harpies. (You’d have to play to get it). Really, the Trolls are the most surprising part of this game. I had a lot of feels when interacting with them as their lot in life isn’t great. Other quests usually involve monster bounties, finding items in a certain place or locating people/bodies. Said monster bounties are often kill number of X for Y amount of Orens (gold). Which you can only do after you’ve learned enough about them (aka kill them) or read about them in a book. Besides side quests, there are other distractions Geralt can involve himself in to break up the routine.
There’s arm wrestling, fist fighting, dice poker and having sex with the local prostitutes. Having sex with prostitutes is pointless and that’s probably a good thing. I should mention that many of women you meet can be had, if you play your cards right. And you do get sex cut-scenes and not those really silly cards from the first game. Arm wrestling and fist fighting is accomplished via really straightforward QTE sequences. Arm wrestling just requires that you keep the mouse cursor in the middle of a moving bar. Fist fighting is pressing the right WASD keys at the right time. Ultimately, it’s almost impossible to lose these QTEs even on “hard” mode and they get really dull, really fast. Dice poker is just throwing dice with the mouse and trying to get the best combination of numbers like in poker. I mostly found it to be lackluster and boring because the most you can bet at any time is 20 Orens. When you’re floating hundreds or thousands of orens, well, there isn’t much excitement to be had.
Preparing to Fight
TW2’s combat system got a major overhaul and one of the main things it encourages is preparing yourself for the fight. Reading books, talking with the locals, crafting the appropriate potions and applying effective oils for the enemies you think you’ll fight is necessary to be the most effective monster hunter possible. At least, that’s what the game tries to encourage. And for the most part, I like the idea, if not the execution. For the most part, it comes off as busy work with limited visible impact on the fight. I’m more than positive it actually works but the game rarely shows that in any meaningful way and I think that’s where it needs to be improved in the future. I guess surviving the fight is proof enough of your deeds. I’d just like to see a more responsive combat system. As you can spend a lot of the game dying over and over again.
The Hack & Slash Combat System
Combat is a mixed bag in this entry. It doesn’t help that the transition was jarring as it switched from the typical sword & spell spam play of its predecessor to a quicker hack-and-slash system. Unfortunately, the tutorials for it are awful, making the transition even more jarring. They are bare-boned explanations of the game’s mechanics, mostly amounting to “press this button for this thing to happen”. It’s like dropping an apprentice-level knight right into the middle of a war and expecting him to survive. Oh, wait, that’s exactly what they do! Which means you get the pleasure of dying a lot as you fumble around with a combat system that doesn’t feel as natural as maybe it should have been.
Geralt has a lot of tools at his disposal to hunt monsters and fend off human enemies. Two swords, signs, throwable or deployable weapons, weapon oils and potions. The difference between his two swords is that one is for killing humans and the other is for killing monsters. Signs are essentially weak magical spells that can be used to affect Geralt or his enemies. There’s telekinetic force, protective shield, fireball projectile, mind-control and a ground trap signs. For the most part, I found myself using the telekinetic force and the protective shield in most of my battles. The rest were a bit tricky to use but you’ll get plenty of chances to use them because you have an unlimited supply of them. Limited only by the amount of vigor Geralt has supplied, which is enough for two signs at one time. Due to bombs, lures and other deployables costing Orens or crafting equipment, I tended to use them less. It didn’t help that I tended to find them more of a hassle to use in battle than a help, with creatures sometimes ignoring them completely.
The combat system seems to be designed for tactical and lethal swordplay. It rewards prepared Witchers and punishes mistakes and overconfidence. Getting yourself surrounded by the enemy will lead to a quick death while setting up traps and oils will result in a lot of dead enemies. It doesn’t help that Geralt is often outnumbered by enemies. So, he’ll need to use all of his kit in each encounter to survive. 1v1 fights are very rare in this game. Though I wish they hadn’t been. While every fight has different enemies and somewhat different attacks, I found that I had to deal with them all in basically the same way. With lots of dancing, rolling and quick poking into enemies when you can. Occasionally using a sign or bomb, hoping all the while that Geralt’s health doesn’t get nicked to death. It’s too repetitive to be ignored and towards the end of the game, well, it’s just a tiresome chore.
It’s a really rough and tumble difficulty curve, even if you ignore the harsh learning curve. It fluctuates all over the place with little rhyme or reason. TW2 is very unforgiving, even on Normal difficulty. Even if you are doing the right thing of dodging and rolling, you’ll often take hits that guarantee you’re not going to win, because you don’t recover health very quickly. You can go from slaughtering hundreds of murderous harpies and to being one-shot by a couple of armored dudes because…reasons. This was the source of much irritation as I repeated fights multiple times. Often five to ten times if I was truly unlucky. Every time I saw that You Died screen, I got a little bit angrier. If for no other reason than the death screen takes a long time to transition in. My biggest issue with the combat system? The boss battles. Some of those are nothing more than annoying QTE events. Often killing you because you didn’t press a button quickly enough.
The frantic pace of the combat is certainly refreshing but I can’t help and feel like it was a secondary priority. I did initially want to praise this game for keeping the combat lethal throughout most of the game. Power creep is often a problem in this genre and it seems that TW2 tried to keep it at bay. But the problem is that it often leads to frustrating fights and multiple retries because you didn’t do something just right. Sometimes there was something you missed and now you’re screwed. Sometimes, winning just requires luck. Which only makes the victory more frustrating as you really don’t feel like your skill was the reason for winning.
PC Settings & Graphical Fidelity
Right out the gate, I can safely say that my biggest gripe with the Witcher 2’s settings menu is that it’s in the pre-game launcher. I cannot count how many times I’ve wanted to change keybindings or tweak graphical settings and been reminded I have to restart the game over entirely just to do that. Please for the love of all put the keybindings menu in the game next time. I can deal with graphics being outside of it, but not keybindings as well. At least don’t do that if you’re going to have multiple intro videos. At least the game’s optimization is very well done. Getting a great looking experience at 60 FPS is very doable and framerate drops were minimal all things considered. This is in regards to the Windows version. The game didn’t launch perfectly but the enhanced edition makes a lot of efforts of cleaning it up and there doesn’t seem to be too many problems now. TW2 never crashed or had serious bugs when I played. So, let’s talk about the ability to customize your game experience.
Everything from audio sliders, keybindings and every graphical option you can think of can be changed. So, expect to fiddle with the settings and restart multiple times to get everything in the optimal state for you. The following settings have enabled/disabled switches: Bloom, Light Shafts, Anti-aliasing, Blur Effects, Depth of Field Gameplay, Cinematic & Cutscenes, Vignette, Wet Surfaces, SSAO (which can be stressful on systems), Motion Blur, Dangling Objects Limit, UberSampling (this is extremely taxing), V-Sync and Decals. Blur Effects, Depth of Field – Gameplay, Cinematic and Cutscenes will create a more “realistic” motion blur to your movements but many find it disorienting or unnecessary. Vignette is an odd setting that adds a old filmic filter to everything. I disabled it because it pulls me out of the experience. LOD Distance has minimal, very near, near, normal and far. Set this to far, otherwise the pop-in will be extremely noticeable. There’s texture downscaling and Texture Memory Size, which you should set memory size according to what your GPU can handle. Just remember that Downscaling low & high setting makes the textures worse, not better. Shadow Quality & Number of Shadowed Lights should be set to what your GPU can handle. I was running High and Ultra on these two though I probably should have set them a little lower to improve the framerate.
Keybindings aka “Input Settings” lets you customize all but seven controls. Those seven are the character screen, inventory, journal aka quest log, map, quicksave, quickload and exit. No idea why these seven controls are hard-bound but they are. The game’s popups will change if you change keys. The gamepad can also be similarly customized although movement and exit are hard bound. It’s strange that the unchangeable keys are different, I have no idea why. Audio, Brightness and Contrast sliders are handled in-game and not in the config tool. The audio sliders allow you to adjust music, dialogue and effects. The game supports surround sound. What glorious surround sound music too. While TW2’s OST isn’t immediately recognizable, it’s still fun to listen to and very technically impressive. If only it didn’t repeat some of the tracks a few too many times, I think I’d like it more. Between the combat music and minor NPCs constant quipping whenever you pass them, it can get old roaming listening to the audio.
The Witcher 2 still looks impressive after all these years. There’s a decent amount of variety in locations, character models, rich weapon & armor designs, flora, buildings, you get my point. The realistic style TW2 went for is consistent with nothing looking out of place. However, the cracks are beginning to show and I can’t ignore them. Texture quality is all over the place. Geralt and other main characters can have impressive looking armor or clothing. Take a glancing look at some other people though and you start to see some gnarly texture quality. Heck, there were some textures not far off the beaten path that looked incomplete, missing or bugged out entirely. They seemed to have a hard time keeping a consistent quality at any point, which can pull you out of the world. Worse still is the view-distance. Even at max settings, pop-in is a constant problem. Foliage being the worst offender of popping in right in front of you. Combined with character models sometimes being a bit old looking and I suspect this will lead to problems in the future. That’s if we ignore a number of animation glitches, visual clipping and others. I think that TW2 will start to age just as poorly as the first Witcher has in the coming years. It’s still not a bad looking experience for now, and a lot of these issues aren’t major, but it will add up over time.
The Linux port’s performance is absolute rubbish. I tried playing it at a similar graphical setting to my Windows partition and it was awful by comparison. I was lucky if it stayed at 60FPS for more than than a minute. Any heavily detailed scene, lots of effects or a handful of characters guaranteed that it would drop to 30FPS. Even if that didn’t happen, it would bounce between 15 and 50 FPS depending on where you were located. It never stayed consistent and that wasn’t even the worst problem. No, the worse problem was the constant loading and/or skipping around like it was running on a really slow hard drive. All this, on a solid state drive that handled itself before, now threatening to be crushed by incompetent coding. The problems mostly seem to stem from the non-native porting of The Witcher 2. Despite multiple attempts to update it, the port is an unacceptable state. I can only hope that The Witcher 3 will be built natively for Linux because this level of performance is simply inexcusable. While I don’t have the ability to test it on Mac, I can guess the issues are same, if not worse.
If you’re up for a fantasy story with a solid adventure, political intrigue and interesting conversations, The Witcher 2 is certainly good for it. However, it comes with some major problems that are hard to ignore. Character’s are often two dimensional. The combat system is overly difficult and punishing even on Normal mode. Not to mention, the difficulty curve can swing wildly from fight-to-fight, especially if you install the combat overhaul mod. I’m finding it harder and harder to recommend story-based games with poor combat systems. I think it’s long overdue that devs pay equal attention to both the story & combat so that each are enjoyable to experience. I give this a very hesitant recommendation. It gets that for what the devs attempted. The Witcher 2 tried to go big and very nearly succeeded. Given more time for polish, I think this truly would have been a remarkable game. For now, it is what it is. Perhaps its sequel will be what The Witcher 2 couldn’t be.
Thanks for reading!