Developer: CD Projekt RED / Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Nudity, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, Use of Drugs]
Watching a hardcore PC game you love move to console is kind of like watching your high school girlfriend move to Hollywood to make it big as an actor. You hope she’ll stay the same, but invariably she shows up at the ten year reunion with a fake tan, bleached teeth, and has completely discarded all the personality that made you love her for the sake of being popular.
Luckily The Witcher 2: Enhanced Edition is that small town girl that made it big but kept her values. This game compromises very little for the sake of being on the 360. It’s one of the best RPG experiences you’ll get this generation, especially if some recent RPG-lite experiences have left you wanting more substance.
I wouldn’t blame you if you dismissed The Witcher 2’s setting as stereotypical fantasy. It has elves, dwarves, and magic-slinging sorceresses. However, there are slight twists to the setting and story of The Witcher that make it newer and darker than your typical Tolkien-inspired adventure. Geralt of Rivia is the game’s protagonist, and as the title implies, a Witcher. Now, Witchers are humans that have superhuman agility and strength, which they typically use to travel the world and slay monsters for the average folk in exchange for money.
Geralt has worked his way up the chain, though, and is working as a personal bodyguard for King Foltest as the game opens. Shit goes down, and Geralt is soon framed for assassinating the King. To prove his innocence, Geralt must escape and catch the real assassin. This story takes place in an even larger plot in which Geralt is trying to recover his lost memories of a previous life, which come in bits and pieces as he meets old acquaintances and has recollecting dreams.
The plot itself is a refreshing change from dumping a world-ending baddie on you and asking you to kill it. Additionally, the game’s subquests always present an interesting twist or hook that never turn out like you’d expect. One quest near the beginning of the game has you deal with a bridge-guarding troll that has let his bridge fall into disrepair and attacks those who want to cross. You can just kill the troll and collect the reward, or look into it a little and discover that his wife had been killed by a hunter, and he’s turned to binge drinking to console his pain. It’s your typical bridge troll setup with a dash of originality that’s gives The Witcher its own personality.
The Witcher 2 gained some infamy for being unfriendly to newcomers on the PC, and while a new tutorial will ease you into it, prepare to see the Game Over screen a ton. This game is difficult, but it’s a rewarding sort of difficulty. You have to prepare for battles and stack up as many buffs on yourself as possible or you’ll crumple like a piece of paper — especially if you’re fighting a group. The game’s autosaves don’t come as frequently as is common these days either, so expect to lose 10 – 15 minutes of gameplay a few times before you learn your lesson and hit that save often.
Once you learn the ropes, The Witcher 2’s gameplay is extremely deep and open, allowing you to play in a number of different ways. You can level along three paths – swordsmanship, alchemy, and magic. Pick swordsmanship, and you’re playing a twitch action game where you have to dive through enemy attacks and pick off weak targets as fast as possible. Alchemy will have you relying on traps, bombs, and potions to best your enemies, which is more cerebral and tactical. I played through the PC version multiple times just to try out different skill trees, not to mention all the varying story content, so you have great replayability to look forward to.
Outside of combat, there are a few quirks to the game that you should know about. This is not a hand-holdy experience, meaning that quest trackers won’t tell you exactly where to go a majority of the time. Hell, some quests even give you vague objectives like “research more about such and such monster.” This will cause some players to be lost and confused, but I really loved finding my own way without a giant floating arrow telling me where to go. All in all, The Witcher 2 offers a difficult but rewarding experience that asks a little more patience from you, but offers even higher rewards.
If you have a pair of eyes, you’ll be able to tell the 360 can’t compare to the visuals a high-end PC can crank out. That said, The Witcher 2 still looks damn good on a 360, and didn’t once make me wish I was playing the game on a PC instead. Frame rates can stutter in combat and the texture resolution has taken a dip, but all due props to CD Projekt for keeping the game as gorgeous as it is. Just make sure you install the game to your hard drive – it makes a big difference. You’ll still see some texture pop-in and stuttering even with the game installed, but it’s much worse without.
The Witcher 2’s port to a gamepad feels incredibly natural, mostly because the original game was tuned well to a controller to begin with. The left stick moves Geralt, the right the camera, and the rest of the controls are contextual, with a quick inventory / spell selection screen mapped to the left bumper. You’ll stumble with the controls at the game’s beginning, but that’s due to the complexity of the game’s combat rather than a poor layout. I confused the bumpers for a long time, throwing items when I meant to switch spells and vice versa.
On the whole, The Witcher 2 controls well though a few problems have been inherited from the PC version. To list a few: finding NPCs or quest objectives on the game’s 2D map can be a hassle when your goal is above or below you, the screen blinks oddly every time you sell an item, and item descriptions scroll really slowly which makes it hard to find out what ingredients crafting schematics use. There’s also other little stuff that’s irksome, like the tutorial teaching you how to counter-attack, a skill you won’t be able to perform once the game starts until you buy the appropriate skill. Those are all small annoyances though, which should tell you how well done the controls are.
The Witcher 2 is one of the PC’s best RPGs, and save for a few graphical bells and whistles, has sacrificed nothing in traveling to the 360. If you’re digging the dark fantasy of Game of Thrones or the demanding challenge of Dark Souls, buy this game without hesitation.