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The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (PC) artwork

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (PC) review

"They've got all of this lore and no place to put it."

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (PC) image

Heaven help me – I just can't see what everyone else sees in these damn Witcher games. I played the first title a couple of years ago and found it to be a generic and torturously slow WRPG with just enough late-game narrative intrigue to prevent the playthrough from being a waste of time. Its sequel flaunts higher production values, a wider scope and a shorter completion time, yet I walk away feeling similarly unmoved. Both games feel like a thesis statement for what developer CD Projekt RED would like to accomplish in the next entry. They've got all of this lore and no place to put it.

And yes, I am aware that the Witcher games are based on a series of novels, and that said novels predate George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, to which it is now impossible not to compare any modern interpretation of dark, political fantasy. I have not read the books, and I should not need to. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings doesn't entrap players within a single town for most of its campaign as its predecessor did, but still adheres to the tactic of telling rather than showing, with most of its biggest events happening while we're not there to witness them and characters relaying bizarre proper nouns like "Nilfgaard" and "Aedirn" and assuming that we're privy. I only just now feel like I'm able to wrap my mind around the workings of this world, and it shouldn't have taken 80+ hours of game time to get to this point.

So after saving the charismatic King Foltest from a would-be assassin at end of the previous game, Geralt, the titular monster hunter, is named the monarch's personal bodyguard until – whoops! – another assassin comes along and finishes the job. Framed for regicide, Geralt pursues the real killer mainly to clear his own name, though naturally he gets all entangled in a far-reaching political scheme involving a shadowy organization with other major rulers in their crosshairs. In true Witcher fashion, unraveling the conspiracy means dawdling about in small villages for the first two-thirds of the game until the plot finally gets interesting in its final act.

The Witcher 2 is shorter than the first game, with only three chapters, yet it's alarming how much of it still feels disposable. After a solid prologue – Foltest's death is particularly well-staged – we're dropped into the small port of Flotsam to deal with local squabbles and a giant tentacled monster while major characters are introduced and then promptly flee the scene to show up again during the more exciting bits. When we're finally transplanted to the next major area, the hunt for the kingslayer is yet again brought to a halt by an extensive nearby kerfuffle, this time involving some weird battle between a bunch of specters. The story finally gets moving at the end of the second chapter, enough to make me wonder why we couldn't have just skipped to that part.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (PC) image

And thus The Witcher 2 retains the biggest flaw of its predecessor: uneven pacing. In your quest to uncover the mysteries surrounding Foltest's assassination, you spend a couple dozen hours with nothing more than a name and a face, only to be greeted during the finale with an exposition dump more worthy of the term than anything I've ever seen. 90% of what I know about the regicide conspiracy I learned minutes before the credits, directly from the main villain, who's kind enough to just stand there and answer any and all of Geralt's questions as the two are prepared to fight to the death. The story itself probably sounds great in a Wikipedia plot summary, but I spent most of the campaign in the dark, with no guarantee that answers were coming. Doling this information out more steadily would have made The Witcher 2 less of a needlessly tedious slog.

I'm pleased to report that The Witcher 2 is considerably less sexist than the first game, and so the female characters are stronger and more fleshed out this time – "fleshed out" being a pun on my part, because they still get naked a lot, while Geralt always manages to keep his trousers on even during the game's steamy bits. So it all still feels kinda pandering, but you can see CD Projekt RED maturing, hopeful that they'll connect with audiences that find deft political maneuvering as intimidating as, say, a giant dragon (though The Witcher 2 has one of those, as well).

And this is where the comparisons to Game of Thrones become inevitable, because that show managed to introduce us to its geography, goofy names and complicated history using relatable characters anchored by strong performances. The Witcher 2 lacks both. While much of the voice cast is fine, its most important roles – the two leads – have been fumbled. Much of the reason I remain unsold on most aspects of Geralt's seemingly well-developed personality is that poor Doug Cockle still can't supply him anything other than growling mock-Eastwood menace. Jaimi Barbakoff, playing primary love interest Triss Merigold, is equally stiff, and the resulting lack of chemistry between these two characters means that their dramatic arc falls flat. It's hard to care about the goings-on of this universe when the people directly involved in them sound so bored.

So The Witcher 2 betrays its expansive lore by feeling so boxed-in and entrusting its dramatic weight to a cast unfit for the task, which certainly puts it in line with its predecessor, but weirdly, the game actually feels like a step back on a mechanical level. The original's smart, timing-based combat engine has been replaced with the generic "quick attack, strong attack" system that dominated the market before Arkham took over. There's a big emphasis on blocking and parrying, but doing so only reduces damage received, so it's barely worth bothering with. On the flipside, Geralt can dodge as many times as he likes with zero consequence, and thus the subdued, world-weary protagonist suddenly begins merrily rolling about like a cartoon character every time he's tasked with cutting someone down.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (PC) image

This is counterbalanced by the collision being absolutely dreadful, with enemies often landing hits from several feet farther than they should and Geralt frequently tumbling into invisible walls when he should've rolled between two enemies. Most disappointingly, though, the combat doesn't actually change or evolve throughout the course of the game, since all five spells (which all have weird names) are available from the start and the skill tree largely just provides stat boosts. And with enemy variety being minimal, the strategies you'll use during the game's first hour are the same you'll be using during the last hour. So the combat is uninspired, clunky and repetitive all at once. It's such a downgrade.

Also, they've stuck with that system wherein you can't manually heal in the middle of a fight. Potions have gradual and long-lasting effects, but Geralt can only drink them while meditating, meaning that they're off-limits whenever enemies are bearing down on him. And how exactly I'm supposed to know ahead of time that a battle will take place is anyone's guess. I'd largely just forgo healing altogether and focus on simply not taking damage by spamming the shield spell, and given how much of the Witcher series focuses on gathering materials and concocting potions, it's a rather large chunk of the game to just sweep under the mat.

I have a tip for enjoying The Witcher 2: don't bother with the side quests. The areas aren't massive, but the lack of a fast travel system or even a dash function makes the game's numerous fetch quests a chore regardless, and the crazy thing is that they barely reward any experience. That's a massive oversight. I'd run several quests for villagers and see hardly anything for it, then complete the newest story mission and instantly gain several levels. So why do the optional stuff? Money, I guess, but you only ever need that to buy the most up-to-date armor and swords.

And yet, despite all of these imbalances and pacing problems, it's hard to outright dismiss The Witcher 2. It's saying something that after over 80 hours of dissatisfaction, there's still something about this series that leaves me interested to see where CD Projekt RED takes it next. To their credit, they've avoided the color-coded moral choices of (say) your average BioWare game, and some of the decisions I was forced to make from the end of the second chapter onwards actually made me get up from my computer and pace around my apartment in deep thought. How intriguing to be given the option to flat-out not fight a certain boss character under the realization that his death would serve no purpose but to satisfy a personal grudge.

I'm eager to see if and how my potentially landscape-altering choices will affect The Witcher 3, and everything I've been reading about that game leads me to believe that CD Projekt RED may have finally capitalized on the series' potential. But they haven't done it yet. The Witcher 2 is too ambitious and too good-hearted to ignore, but don't blame me for forgetting all about it the day that a better, more fully-realized sequel eclipses it.

Suskie's avatar
Community review by Suskie (May 02, 2015)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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