Witcher 2 Xbox 360 review: Darker than Skyrim, sexier than Mass Effect - better than both?
13th Apr 2012 | 10:28
There's a zinger piece of dialogue during the original Witcher where Geralt of Rivia muses: "Power, sex. Sex, Power. They both come down to one thing - fucking others." It's a brilliant line in a series filled with great lines: where musings of causality and morality sit naturally alongside mucky quips about 'lesbomancy', 'ploughing' and 'whoresons'.
First things first: this isn't Skyrim. Duh. There's no epic sandbox to meander through; narratively it's way more linear. You don't get to roleplay Geralt as a tattooed female elf with a pornstar bosom, nor as some Halfling with an afro. Accept that CD Projekt's take on the RPG is more of a framed experience than the one offered by Bethesda and you're halfway to appreciating this game's manifold majesty.
To arms then, with a speedy plot recap. After an epic opening where Geralt helps gallant King Foltest to subdue a noble uprising, said sovereign is brutally butchered. Suspicious eyes fall on our mutated hero, and he's tossed into gaol to rot. We know the White Wolf (Geralt) is innocent; indeed he's already deduced the true killer is actually another Witcher. So, after a suitably epic act of escapology, Geralt begins his quest for answers... and the true machinations behind Assassins of Kings begin in earnest.
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Humans, non-humans, soldiers, sorceresses, kingslayers, trolls - everybody has their own tale (usually of woe), their own ambitions, and their own agenda. Indeed, there are so many shades of grey here we're guessing the devs might have even concocted some new ones. Suffice to say Temeria is not a happy place - from the loftiest monarch to the most browbeaten serf. Geralt and chums usually find themselves slap bang in the middle of the maelstrom, the resulting catharsis rarely being all that, er... cathartic. Such is the life of a Witcher; prepare for some of the toughest role playing decisions you've ever encountered.
Indeed, there's a nastiness to some of the quests that might prove eye-opening after the relatively safe worlds of Skyrim and ME3. The original Witcher is still (unfairly) pilloried in some quarters for its obsession with carnal pursuits, with the same criticisms flung at this sequel. In truth, the frequent crude references to, for want of a better word, fucking actually help flesh out the game's uniquely base universe. Sex is as much a way of Temerian third-world life as slavery, magic, bloodshed and the threat of starvation. That said, by the time Geralt's managed to bed a busty, goat-legged succubus you might be rolling your eyes a bit. Or, like us, cheering.
Rest assured, Geralt's not the divisive character you might be expecting. He's a big, ugly man sure - but there's an incredible depth behind those scary yellow eyes. Similarly, just because you're stuck with the White Wolf as your avatar, it doesn't mean there's not a considerable capacity for independent decision making. Play him as a slimy old git or bastion of heroism - there's room for both.
Geralt's romance with foxy magic user Triss Merigold is particularly well-realised; there's a steamy scene in a rose-smattered Elven bathhouse that captures both the physical and mental sides of their relationship better than any other title this writer can remember. Dialogue is rich and expertly penned, and while the sheer amount of lore being spouted is occasionally disconcerting, it's a boon rather than a hindrance.
That depth continues through to the gameplay itself, with three significantly disparate paths to plough XP into. Is your Geralt a herbalist, wielder of the magic-alike Signs, or swordsman supreme? Signs like Aard (Force Throw) and Axii (Jedi mind trick) lend the combat a quasi-Force Unleashed feel, while the kinetic swordplay recalls a simplified Arkham Asylum. Both elements are satisfying and sound, if not quite class-leading. There's also a stack of weaponry and armour to purchase/pinch/forge, meaning Geralt's garb feels constantly fresh and - more importantly - badass.
And badass you'll need to be at times; despite a tweaked tutorial and massaged difficulty spikes this can be frustratingly tough. A button-spamming hack 'n slash it is not, and your initial encounters with the likes of Letho and the Kayran will end bloodily and abruptly unless you quickly learn to block and roll- dodge with the best of them. The key lies in preparedness, so ensure you guzzle potions, craft incendiaries, apply any vicious, viscous blade coatings, and don't swear too much when you're occasionally hamstrung by fiddly multi-enemy encounters.
Depending on your choices then, Act 2 plays out in two drastically different ways. We're talking near-totally disparate locations and characters, here - before everything comes together with a (rather abrupt) resolution at Loc Muinne. That said, it's also a rather brave ending in one way - and speaks volumes for the devs' approach to storytelling. The Witcher may look epic, but much of its lore concentrates on suggesting that these 'heroes' and 'villains' are little more than motes of dust in the grand galactic scheme of things. That's really rather progressive when you stop to consider every other title out there is continually trying to out-epic one another...
Unlike the heavily-modded version of BioWare's Aurora engine that did for the original title, the RED engine is a bespoke colossus that oozes potential for franchising out. Some naysayers have expressed dismay that the 360 conversion only drives visuals equivalent to a PC's medium spec, yet that still results in one of the most stunning titles on the machine. Flotsam's town square genuinely feels alive, the kind of virtual world we could only fantasise about when tinkering with RPGs like Bard's Tale and Ultima way back when.
It's a combination of art design and sheer engine potency - but whether you're exploring riverside ports, looming forests or army encampments you're continually aware that gaming universes have rarely felt this real. Ally this to haunting Celtic melodies and some bang-on regional British acting chops and you realise CD Projekt's craftsmanship effortlessly compensates for their relatively meagre resources.
Even better, this is far from a straight port. Dubbed the 'Enhanced Edition', 360 owners get a subtle drip of fresh content in the shape of side quests, fresh faces and beefed up cutscenes. The only real surprise is that it's taken this long to come to 360. Ultimately, The Witcher 2 is an outstanding title that offers a uniquely tough take on role playing - standing proudly alongside its more revered peers, and quite possibly gobbing a greenish wad of phlegm in their faces for good measure.