I find it bad form to divide reviews into categories – I’ve never been one for grading graphics, gameplay and sound before averaging the whole and calling it a review. A review, in my book, should echo the feel of the game – be it a representation of the game’s soul, of just how it affects you, and sometimes, that feel is entirely and unambiguously separate from the sum of its parts.
So I come to the Witcher 2 – arguably the first mainstream, hardcore RPG to land on PC since the original Dragon Age, anda masterful technical achievement from a small studio in Poland. Yet, despite all the good things I’m about to tell you about the tales of Geralt of Rivia, the overriding, all-encompassing feeling that I had when I finally finished the game wasn’t one of joy or elation, but unbelievable frustration. I’m angry.
Which is strange, because part of me remembers the Witcher 2 as being really quite good. Once more, you’re cast as the baddest of all the badasses in a world largely filled with badasses: Geralt, the white haired, monster slaying mutant;in a vast, bewilderng world filled with intrigue, betrayal and treachery.
Now, if you’re anything like me, you don’t know any of that. You don’t know the difference between the Nilfgardians and whoever the other side is, you don’t know about the kings or queens of the realm, you don’t know anything about anybody – and yet, strangely, the game expects you to.
You start in the midst of a siege, tethered to people you know nothing about for reasons you don’t particularly care for, like some poor African child suddenly stuck on Madonna’s private jet bound to god-knows-where. Your character knows, everybody else knows. Jesus, the lost peasants you cross on the muddy roads all seem to have a degree in fantasy-politics as far as knowledge of the land’s political cluster-bomb is concerned. But you know absolutely bugger all – andso starts a nice little trend that continues throughout most of the game. You travel a fantastic, mystical world, full to the brim with everything from the smallest detail to biblical, continent-spanning wars – and none of it is explained, at all.
You’re dumped into one of these wars from the very start of the game. You besiege a fortress (which you know nothing about), defend some king (you don’t know who he is, either) and fight your way through a few mobs. Sadly, when it comes to combat, Geralt is just as incompetent as you are in the games opening hours. He can’t block to save his life – quite literally – his attempts at magic work just about as well as my own attempts to use The Force, and enemies seem to be built out of reinforced concrete. This feeling of complete and utter uselessness tends to evaporate half-way through the second-act, but these bizarre difficulty spikes that transform you from legendary monster slayer into mewling kitten appear erratically throughout the game, turning an otherwise enjoyable romp into a dreadful slog.
The game’s boss fights are particular highlights of this ridiculousness. Out of nowhere, often without any real warning, you’re dumped in front of stupidly powerful enemies, which all seem to be several orders of magnitude stronger than you are, and can only be defeated by following utterly inane combat patterns. One particular highlight was the final boss fight, during which I spent about ten minutes simply dodging, and stabbing, and dodging, and stabbing…ad infinitum.
Terrifying. Even when you do eventually manage to kill the damn things, more often than not, the game will steal away control during a cutscene, showing you being roundly stomped on. For a game that places so much emphasis on choice, this soon becomes a mind-bogglingly frustrating decision.
This is such a shame when you consider how much emphasis the rest of the game places on choice, and just how well it does it. Choice in gaming is often far too analoguous to black and white moral choices, choosing between pure good or arbitrary evil, whereas the Witcher takes a far more realistic and ambiguous path. From the very opening of the game, you’ll be choosing which factions you align yourself to, and these choices will severely affect just what role you play in restoring the realm, and which of the game’s many endings you arrive at. It’s just a shame that all these choices are tempered by the fact that you’re still utterly clueless about who the hell you’re choosing to negotiate with. People will tell you about their personal experiences, and you make serious, game changing commitments based only on those.
The game starts hitting its stride towards the apex of the 2nd chapter. Unperturbed by greater issues, Geralt returns to monster slaying, you’re in an angelic village, surrounded by swarming horrors of all shapes and sizes, and left to your own devices.
In circumstances like these, the game truly shines. The stunning graphical engine astounds with some impressive effects, you’ve gained enough skills to make Geralt appear more like a warrior than a wounded pup, and you can really take your time to uncover the creeping plot. Here, the Witcher shows itself as one of the best hardcore RPGs of recent times, putting Dragon Age 2 to shame – but it‘s all over far too soon. The ending at the climax of the fourth chapter feels forced, tying together a myriad of loose ends with a couple of unsatisfying cinematics and simplistic boss fights, piling frustration atop more frustration , compounded by the sheer potential on display.
Fighting has umph – you swing your sword like a monster, leeping in and out of combat at a moment’s notice. Once you’ve levelled up a little, magic becomes a powerful tool, foes bursting into flame or shattering into icy shards all around you. Quests are surprisingly involved, with even the generic “fetch x of monster y” requiring you to go out of your way to research your foes. At its peak, the Witcher 2 makes you feel like the Witcher – hunting monsters, and despatching them with swift justice. There is so, so much depth to the gameplay, so many shades of grey, so many choices where even the most obvious good decision can backfire at the most unexpected moments. Perhaps, for the first time since Baldur’s Gate and Planescape, your relationship with characters is slowly, evolving, and real. In stark contrast to the original Witcher, you’ll no longer be dragging women into your bed like so many collectables, instead seeing your companions evolve over time. It’s just such a shame all the efforts you make will be so un-subtly crushed in the game’s ending.
Despite how incredibly annoyed at it I am, I can’t deny the Witcher 2 is really rather good. At its apex, this is one of the better RPGs of the last ten years – mastering complex mechanics, action packed combat, and some real character development in one fell swoop, something most games fail at so tremendously. And yet, I still can’t get past how incredibly annoyed I am at it. My most endearing memory won’t be the epic battles and intricate depths of the gameplay, but the sheer unbriddled annoyance of it all. Maybe I’m just not dedicated enough – there’s a tremendous wonder here, but it’s burried so deep under my bitter annoyance I’m just not sure I’m willing to dig it out.
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