I was rather a big fan of The Witcher. The sequel is also a flawed masterpiece, although perhaps with more emphasis on ‘masterpiece’ this time around.

The Masterpiece

  1. The visuals have undergone a stunning renovation compared to the original game’s trying-hard-but-ancient tech. In places The Witcher 2 is the prettiest game I’ve ever played, occasionally even outstripping the tech powerhouses from Crytek. It makes console games such as Assassin’s Creed 2 look like they’re from a previous generation, while 2011’s other big RPG, Dragon Age 2, should be feeling thoroughly embarrassed.
  2. The vast majority of the dialogue and  voice acting is successful and engrossing. Characters have convincing motivations beyond simple Good Guy/Bad Guy setups and most of the actors avoid overplaying.
  3. Nudity and sex make a return but in a far more mature manner than the first game’s puerile trading cards.
  4. The Witcher 2 has some of the best female characters I’ve seen in games for years. And some of the best male characters, come to that.
  5. The combat, when it works, is fast and fun and satisfying, a roleplaying riff on the Batman: Arkham Asylum style. Though see below for the rather major caveat on this point…
  6. The main plot is twisty and turny in all the right ways, full of scheming political motivations, social injustice and obfuscated morality. There are no simple good/evil points to be earned here and the consequences of your actions are often hard to predict.
  7. The politics and world being depicted is more Game of Thrones than Lord of the Rings. This is extremely refreshing.
  8. At a key point in the finale, you can choose to fight the Big Bad, or simply wave a dismissive hand and walk away. This was probably my single favourite moment of the game – it works from a story perspective, but it’s also wonderfully mischievous, completely subverting the normal expectations of such games.

The Flaws

  1. The difficulty curve is something of a rollercoaster, peaking in all the wrong moments. The prologue is comedically difficult, while the mid-section of the game is a more even and entertaining challenge, before returning to frustrating difficulty spikes in the finale.
  2. Boss monsters are rarely worth having in a game and Witcher 2’s are some of the worst I’ve encountered. The common mistake is made of completely changing the combat and environment dynamics during boss fights in an attempt to make things exciting and fresh, when boss fights should really be about combining all your skills in new ways. Instead, the bosses are less of a test of your carefully honed skills that you’ve practised for the previous 10 hours and more a matter of trying to guess at what the game designers want you to do. A boss fight near the end of the game seriously undermined the progression of the story for me and left a rather sour memory of the climax.
  3. While the politics are fascinating and involving and it’s nice being thrown in at the deep end, on occasions the motivations of the key players are a little too obtuse. An assumption is made that the player has a basic knowledge of the Witcher’s world, from the books and from the first game, and too little is done to educate the uninitiated.

Pretty pictures

I thought it best to finish off this review with an assortment of annotated screenshots. The game’s art department deserves as many screenshots as I can squeeze in.

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