Saturday, May 21, 2011

Review: The Witcher 2

A few days ago I received the Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. There's so much wrong with this game. I hate it.

And more than anything else this proves its quality. In fact, The Witcher 2 is probably the best story-focused RPG I have ever played. Which is exactly why I care so much; and why I hate it.

Let's start with why I care. The story is mature. Not teenage-mature, but truly mature; credible. Its direct competitors, the Dragon Age and Mass Effect series pale in comparison. Having played The Witcher 2, they reveal themselves to you in their true form: stories for children.

"You are my hero",
"You are our leader",
"Please love me"
This is a Bioware story. Read my Dragon Age review, if you want.

The Witcher 2, however, has a complex and deep story which is truly epic. Not because you are epic, but because the world, you are in, is. Perhaps most importantly, the characters are credible. They have their own goals, their own feelings, their own reasons. They love you or hate you, but mostly want to use you to their own ends. At no point do you desire to give them 'presents' to make them like you! Whenever you can make a decision, it just feels too important than to use it to suck up to somebody. Characters are not superficial at all.

Oh - and there is no hand-holding. If you insist on doing (and saying) stupid things, you will die. Without further warning, in fact! The coices you make do matter!

The game has four difficulty levels of which three can be taken seriously: "easy", "normal", "hard". "Insane" means perma-death and it is even harder than "hard". My guess is that only a handful of people on this planet have the dedication and skill to finish the game at "insane".
I play at "hard", as usual, and within the first few minutes I started to make decisions not to increase the power of my character, but to stay alive. This feat alone were actually enough to declare the game the best story-focused RPG of all time!

Moreover, at many times in the game I started to walk, not run, because running felt wrong! Think of that! I've never done that before. In a dark forest, I wouldn't run, because it is too dangerous. Who knows, what you run into, what is behind the next tree? In a tavern I would rather walk, because running feels not appropriate. As you see, I love this game and, yet, I hate it.

Because, why the hell, can't I jump down a 1 meters slope?? Why, the hell, can't I walk through this scrub? Why do caves appear and disappear depending on whether you have a quest to do in them? Why am I flooded with quests when I arrive in the first main city. Haven't we outgrown this?

Why can I loot the chests in peoples' houses while they look at me? Why are there coins in every stupid chest? Why do the merchants sell at 100 times the price at which they buy? Why is there a herb at every second step? Why can I carry about 1-2 metric tons?

Why does this game require an item-power progression? Why does it change into a stupid arcade-reaction game at times? Why is the best way to do 90% of combat to fanatically click your left mouse button?

Why do deadly looking bear-traps reduce my health by about 5%, even at "hard"?

Why, oh why, does the game have scripted boss-encounters? ahhhhhhhhh!

The Witcher 2 is the best story-focused RPG I have ever played, but it's not really a game. Honestly, and absolutely seriously, I would have been just as satisfied, if not more satisfied, if I could just have skipped the entire combat (the game) and experienced the interactive story. Because this interactive story, with decisions that really matter, characters that are perfectly credible, a world that makes sense and an adventure that feels epic and at times amazing: This is why I "play" that game.

The actual gameplay is average - at best. Sure, your character's sword does not cause an explosion whenever it hits an enemy. Nowadays this is a something you need to mention as outstanding. But otherwise, The Witcher 2, even at hard, does not have a deep or even polished gameplay. The reason I stopped playing at "insane", with perma-death, was that the game doesn't allow me real control over my character. In fact, it takes control away on a very regular basis - even during boss fights: ridiculous. I have died more often due to the insufficient character-control than to anything else!

The Witcher 2, in some way, is the opposite of World of Warcraft. While WoW focuses on gameplay, gameplay, gameplay and lacks any credibility and immersion, the Witcher 2 lacks good gameplay, but excels at creating a world. Now, we just need to take the best of the two and merge it. But, I fear, there are technical obstacles here. Have I mentioned, that the graphics are phenomenal, even at "high"? I couldn't play at "ultra" settings - which means I'll probably need to buy a new computer soon.


  1. Is there a point playing it at hard if the only good part is the story? Does the difficulty setting have any influence on the story/decision part?

  2. A good question. The answer is that there is mostly no point in playing at hard; except that it takes longer and makes you explore more carefully.

    The gameplay isn't the best, but that doesn't mean that it is terrible. I think I wrote, 'average'.

    The reason I play the Witcher 2 are the incredible (=immersive) sound & graphics (almost completely dark dungeons for example!), and the story. It would be a pity to run through these dungeons not fearing anything could happen to you. So, even though the actual gameplay once a monster attacks you is pretty bad, playing at hard, you still need to be careful to not be surprised. And be prepared for all the obstacles, the user interface throws in your way. That's still better than just rushing through the dungeon ..

  3. As an aside, I can't argue against you on how Bioware structures their stories, but they've typically done a good job in making their games all-around fun without sacrificing gameplay. But my hopes are low for SWTOR.

    Anyways, as for Witcher, this is the first I've heard of the second one, most of what I've heard is about the first. I like the idea of danger in a RPG setting, such as mouthing off to somebody who can clearly kill you. I really do wish the typical RPG tropes would be killed off in favor of more realistic dangers and settings. Being the badass in every game is great and all, but sometimes it's nice to have to work for that and have it mean something in the setting you're in.

  4. Straw Fellow, I'd argue that Dragon Age 2 actually does have pretty bad gameplay, but that's not because they sacrificed it for the story ;). They just wanted to make it console-like. Which is, btw, something the Witcher 2, also has a problem with: It is obviously made for consoles. A big MINUS in my book to not use the sophisticated user interface the PC offers.

    However, I'd absolutely advise to buy and play the Withcer 2. This may not have been obvious when reading the review.
    It's probably the best story-focused RPGs ever created. The unnecessary immersion problems it has, are not new: every other AAA-RPG does have them, too. And almost completely dark dungeons, that you either need to navigate with a magical potion or by incinerating torches on the walls, are BIG step forward.

    This game is a milestone in the genre and every new Bioware RPG will need to reach its higher level. Epecially when it comes to the story, storytelling and the characters, but this also applies to graphics and use of sounds.