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The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (PC) artwork

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (PC) review

"The Witcher 2 doesn’t stop with waterfalls and ferns, though, or even with prostitutes and foul-mouthed dwarves and snide noblemen. It paints this fantastic world full of complicated people and it lets you interact with all of that in such a way that eventually, like Geralt himself, you are unable to continue as a passive observer. You have a stake in what happens to the people around you, a position in the middle of all of it that you chose for yourself through your prior actions."

It’s time for a confession: after playing The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings for many wonderful hours, I now want to persuade every serious PC gamer I can to buy it and play it and love it, just as I have. I feel comfortable admitting my agenda because until I played it for myself, I had only passing interest in the title. It looked like it might be good, but that’s true of a lot of games and I wasn’t going to lose much sleep over the matter if I never got to play it at all.

The many dozens of hours that I spent with the game changed that, though. Perhaps inevitably, I’ve fallen in love with the depressing world inhabited by Geralt of Rivia. Here is an experience that has captured my imagination so thoroughly that awarding it anything less than a 10 feels like a betrayal. Yet no matter how much I love the game and might wish otherwise, its flaws can’t be completely ignored. Somehow, that’s appropriate for a game that works as hard to avoid perfect black and white as this one does.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings asset

One of the game’s most obvious problems is that its enemies are recycled. You won’t notice it at first, but it’ll get to you by the end. There are only a few monster breeds throughout the world: harpies, nekkers, endregas, drowners, trolls, bullvores and a few other assorted beasts. Mostly, you fight human soldiers from one faction or another and the thing that differentiates one guy from the next is that he’s holding a long-range pike or he’s wearing robes and tossing fireballs at you or he has a shield and knows how to use it so you have to outsmart him and flank him.

There also are a limited number of environments to actually explore—just four distinct areas, with two that are expansive and two that feel small but only by comparison—and some of the character models repeat a lot. So do the lines you spout as you’re carving apart monsters of one sort or another. There’s nothing like going one-on-one against a massive beast, duking it out for several minutes, then hearing your character ask with disgust “How many more of you are there?” Uh… there’s just the one, I hope!

The game also boasts an array of irritating technical flaws, though the number of those that you actually are likely to encounter is anyone’s guess. Those flaws range from the extremely rare case of a person floating in the air or getting trapped in a wall or melting out of sight, to instances where you can’t draw or sheathe your sword and you’re being swarmed by monsters or by town guards who are angry with you for your impertinence.

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Sometimes, though not frequently, you’ll have to load a previous save to rectify an issue that you have encountered. Sometimes textures are slow to populate even on super-powerful computers like mine (which easily exceeds the recommended requirements to run the game) and you’re left looking at a character who seems to have been fashioned out of putty until weather-worn creases spread across his face and a proper nose and eyes flicker into sight. A freeze or two is likely over the course of the many hours that you’ll probably spend with the game, as well.

It’s easy to appreciate that the issues that affect The Witcher 2 would kill a boring game, one that goes through familiar and now-tired motions, because no one likes bugs and some of the stuff that happens here can really pull you out of the moment. Gamers put up with those same issues and worse in the really good games, though, and we have every reason in the world to put up with them here because—glitches and hiccups aside—there’s perhaps no better adventure title on the market.

Interestingly, The Witcher 2 earns that praise by not trying to revolutionize much of anything. The game’s strongest point—a twisting plot that you actually control, with fiendishly good moral twists and characters and a world you’ll care about—is exactly the sort of thing that ambitious developers have been trying to produce for years. It seems fair to say, though, that none of them have met with quite this much success.

I thought until now that I hated games that rely on plot to compel the player to keep playing. There’s a reason for that, though: I was playing the wrong games. Most experienced gamers have too many times run into titles that try to capture us in some fantasy world or another and nothing ever quite gels. There are the occasional exceptions every few years, but mostly I’ve come to regard plot as the stuff that happens when you’re not being allowed to play a game.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings asset

If you’ve had similar experiences in the past, then you owe it to yourself to give The Witcher 2 a try. Once you do, you’ll likely agree that there’s always a place for a good enough story.

My own experience went like this: I started playing the game and, after a tasteful sex scene alerted me to the fact that this wasn’t another “Saved by the Bell” for dragon lovers, there were scenes full of people talking and naming places and villains and such that meant nothing to me. I soldiered on through those first few minutes because everything looked fantastic. There was a moment not far into my quest, for instance, when I stood on the side of a crumbling castle parapet and I looked out over a red-hued sky choked with smoke rising from burning buildings and obscuring distant towers. I almost wet myself when I realized that I could actually walk between those buildings, enter that tower. I had entered what felt like an actual fantasy world, with buildings that were more than level hubs or set pieces.

If that’s as far as the developers went to establish a credible world, though, my affection for The Witcher 2 would have quickly diminished. The first ten times you run through a fantastically-realized forest it’s great, but eventually you’ve seen every gnarled, moss-covered trunk and have watched the cascading waterfall long enough that such things no longer impress. If you’re not invested, the only thing that matters is finding the next surprise.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings asset

The Witcher 2 doesn’t stop with waterfalls and ferns, though, or even with prostitutes and foul-mouthed dwarves and snide noblemen. It paints this fantastic world full of complicated people and it lets you interact with all of that in such a way that eventually, like Geralt himself, you are unable to continue as a passive observer. You have a stake in what happens to the people around you, a position in the middle of all of it that you chose for yourself through your prior actions. You watch someone take a dagger to the chest and you realize with surprise that you care about that crumpling pile of pixels and polygons because you’d kind of grown to like him and because now that he’s lying in a pool of blood, that’s going to be a problem for all sorts of other folks. Late in the game, as I had to decide whether to let a monarch walk out of the room or fall at my hand, I paused and actually spent a few minutes trying to consider the choice from all of the angles because this wasn’t a case where wrong is wrong and right is right.

Indeed, the world of The Witcher 2 seems to have been designed—like the series of short stories and novels on which it is based, or so I hear—specifically to avoid insincere questions of morality. In real life, it’s not always clear what will work most to your advantage or to the advantage of those for whom you fight. Most computer games that try to incorporate moral and ethical dilemmas feel like they’re asking you to choose whether to put out a fire with water or gasoline. Here, you’re following a story about elves and dwarves and a hero with amnesia and it feels like it means something because “right” and “wrong” feel like nothing more than convenient fairytales and because the guy you met at the tavern has never felt more like someone that here in the real world might be your best friend.

You can ignore all of that if you like, of course. You can dismiss The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings as just another CRPG with pretty graphics, technical issues and a guy with a sword too big and amnesia too trite. People make mistakes all the time.

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Staff review by Jason Venter (July 07, 2011)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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Lewis posted July 08, 2011:

A very good review, even though you're wrong. ;-)
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CoarseDragon posted July 08, 2011:

"I’ve come to regard plot as the stuff that happens when you’re not being allowed to play a game." That is a pearl.

I definitely felt your enthusiasm for the game and I must say I agree. Not sure about anyone else but I think you did the game justice in your review.

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honestgamer posted July 08, 2011:

Thanks, guys!

Lewis, your review had already done a good job of covering what has wound up being the minority perspective on the game. Since there was already a staff review posted, I felt a bit more freedom to try something different with the second staff review. I'm glad that it seems to have worked for the people who have read it.
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humorguy posted July 10, 2011:

It's funny how 45% of this review is about perceived problems and another 45% is about the graphics, with only about 10% about the most important part, the gameworld, characters and story changing quests, and yet it all comes out about 80% right.

All I would ask you to think about is would you have like The Witcher 2 as much if it had all the things you wanted? Would lots of new creatures have made sense when the gameworld was in well defined areas? What of the world was 6 times bigger, but by virtue of that having to re-spawn creatures rather than destroying the nests? Or a story that had to be more drawn out, or a gameworld not as dense with sub-plot inside sub-plot?

You cannot have a Witcher grey inside an Oblivion black and white. You need well defined areas with well defined characters in well defined towns and cities.

As to the broken quests. Well, by all means mention them if they are all over the official forums, but if they're not, as is the case, I don;t think they should be mentioned. Also, after the example of the free Wither Enhanced Edition for current owners, surely you could have given them the benefit of the doubt rather than spend the first two paragraphs talking about problems? Also maybe a mention of the retail price being 40% cheaper than other games? or the massive number of items that come in the basic package, like a strategy guide and OST?

You came up with a 9, but you also spent far too long on the negative and not enough on the positive. A sign you knew you were talking about a game from a smaller European developer? Would the review had been written the same way if this game were published by Valve or Blizzard?
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radicaldreamer posted July 10, 2011:

Jesus christ, people have to cry even when you actually give a game higher than 8. There must be a Witcher forum that's on the lookout for every single review that comes up. And what's this nonsense about the Witcher 2 being 40% cheaper? Completely false.
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honestgamer posted July 10, 2011:

I appreciate where you're coming from, humorguy, but I wanted to be sure to highlight the game's numerous technical issues before explaining why in a game that is otherwise of this quality, they don't matter. I feel that I did that effectively, and it would have been cheating to pretend that those issues don't exist. They had to be properly addressed before they were dismissed, and the review had to remain under a certain length to stand a chance of being read. What's more, I couldn't really discuss the positives in good detail without spoiling plot, because of the way that plot and gameplay converge.

As for your defenses of the game, I'm not disagreeing with you as much as you might suppose. I realize fully that for a game to have the branching structure that Witcher 2 does, resources had to be pulled from elsewhere. That's just the reality of development costs and I think most gamers can accept that. Yet your defenses are ineffective.

1) You suggest that a world as large as Elder Scrolls IV wouldn't work with this game because this game needs limited areas. In reality, a larger world (were it financially feasible to produce one) would only have helped because gamers would have found themselves spending less time covering old ground in the side quests.

2) You complain that I mention the side quests, when in fact they add a great deal to the game. You learn a lot more about the characters and come to know them better if you choose to complete the side quests, and the side quests have branches in them just like the major plot (even if the branches aren't as significant).

3) You suggest that it only makes sense for there to be such a limited number of creatures throughout the regions. That's ridiculous. In a world that is as brutal as the one that the witcher inhabits, it makes sense that the wilds would have a wider diversity and it makes sense that in a quest that is depicted as spanning a region that could feasibly make up much of three whole kingdoms, you wouldn't see the same three monsters throughout most of the game.

I loved The Witcher 2 and it's thus far my pick for the best game of the year (put that in your pipe and smoke it!), but that doesn't mean that a review shouldn't highlight its many weaknesses. The Witcher 2 is remarkable in part because despite its numerous issues, the game is still incredible and an experience that gamers deserve to experience for themselves. I needed to make that point in the review and I believe I did.

Side note: It's curious that when we post reviews here for games that aren't a pre-determined blockbuster, we get asked in the end if we would have given the game the same score (or in your case, written it the same way) if it were from Valve or Blizzard. Those two names in particular come up a lot. Honestly, I've played hundreds and hundreds of games over the years, but I'm not sure that I've yet gotten around to playing anything from either of those two companies. I think once I might have tried The Lost Vikings for a minute or two on an emulator, and I might have played a spot of Rock 'N Roll Racing, but I don't know if most people would figure that even counts and either occurrence would have taken place years ago. Maybe some critics adjust the score they award a game based on development team notoriety or size or what have you, but I don't do that. A good game is a good game and a bad one is a bad one and that's all a review really should cover. If I as the typical consumer spent $50 on each of two games, I'm not going to be content if one game sucks and tell myself "Well, it was from a small team in Europe." I'm going to say "Well, that game wasn't worth the $50." When I review a game, my job as I see it is to say "This game is worth the asking price" or "This game isn't worth the asking price."

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