Here’s where the first game let me down. Gameplay in The Witcher part uno felt like it had been put together by people who liked to design games but didn’t spend all that much time actually playing them. It was filled with a veritable shopping list of gamer pet peeves that most design houses with years of experience have long learned to stop putting into their products. Long travel times on foot between destinations? Check. NPCs repeating the same gestures over and over (and over!) again during conversations due to an inadequate game engine? Check. Load times long enough to make one consider reading War & Peace in the interim? Check. Having to claw your hair out figuring where quest givers roam during the game’s needless day/night cycles? Check. Repetitive combat? Big ol’ check.
I’m sure someone will point out that most of these issues were fixed in The Witcher: Enhanced Edition released by CD Projekt as an attempt to make the game more stable. Now in my experience, with most games you expect to have to download a few patches to fix some minor issues. But a company having to release an entirely new product to make up for the original’s shortcomings speaks more loudly about The Witcher‘s problems than I ever could. Also, I don’t make a habit of reviewing patched games. The product that I pick off the shelf at my local store is the product that’s going to get reviewed.
So with that out of the way, can Assassin Of Kings redeem its daddy?
In a word, yes.
Now let’s try that again with a few hundred more words (maybe a few thousand, I get verbose).
Using an in-house engine built from the ground up, as opposed to Bioware’s Aurora engine powering the original, Assassin Of Kings is light years ahead of its forefather in regards to overall game stability. Gone are the excruciating load times, replaced by more tolerable 5-10 second waits between zones. I sighed in relief when I noticed that NPCs now have much more varied faces. The citizen’s inhabiting the original had what I can only describe as a paucity of visages, as if everybody Geralt encountered was somehow related by blood. You can only run into the same fat shopkeeper so many times before deciding that somebody in his family really played the field.
Fatal game crashes seem to have been completely eliminated. On my play through I didn’t experience a single game crashing bug, which is admirable considering the number of pixels being pushed around by Assassin Of King’s superb engine (more on the graphics in a minute).
To sum up, The Witcher 2 more than clears its ancestor’s name when it comes to letting this player concentrate on the actual gaming and less on the overwhelming urge to smash my face on the keyboard due to yet another crash to Windows, annoying bug or excruciating load time.
Thus ends the good news…
Assassins Of Kings still feels like a game made by people who talk aboutgames rather than play them. Overall, Witcher 2 plays a lot like Mass Effect 2’s slower, special cousin (let’s call him Billy Bob). Combat is needlessly hard, even on the lowest difficulty level. Now, before I’m bombarded with the inevitable cries of “the combat is tactical!” and “it’s deep and complex!” let me point out that I enjoy difficult games. Assassin Of King’s combat is not difficult, it’s simply broken. Monsters have huge stat bonuses in numbers and when attacking from behind it isn’t until late in the game that your own talent tree finally catches up to theirs. I recommend going down Geralt’s “sword” path to lessen the number of beat-downs you have to suffer.
Basically, combat works like this: You encounter a group of monsters, you get decimated. You load a saved game and try the fight again, only this time, seeing as you know how many bad guys to expect and their relative positions to you when the fight begins you place traps, ready your bombs, and hope it works out better this time. This is not challenging. This is trial and error taken to extremes. The game expects you to fail on your first attempt and, like an abusive ex-girlfriend, expects you to come crawling back for more. I don’t expect to bully my way through every single encounter while finishing a game, but when every fight becomes a chore, I lose interest. You should be able to muddle through random encounters without having to break out a blueprint and sketch out a game plan.
Interaction with other characters is faulty at best. The conversation wheel is unforgiving, never letting you know which option will suddenly bring a conversation to a screeching halt. Often, you’ll miss out on optional side-quests or even entire cutscenes because you chose the wrong line of dialog, which is not the optimum way of encouraging a second play through. Not that Geralt is a sparkling conversationalist. Combine a dour voice actor with lines that have none of the wit or gravitas of a Bioware product (I’m looking at you, Mass Effect) and you end up with a boring main character, not exactly fun when you have to spend dozens of hours in his company.
Speaking of company, Assassin Of Kings doesn’t feature a party system like most RPGs. Normally that would not be a complaint, I’m perfectly fine with a lone wolf protagonist. However, the game can’t seem to make up its mind whether or not it likes this whole “no-party” thing. Several of Geralt’s friends tag along on his adventures, but aside from a few battles here and there, they never contribute anything of value. If a cutscene requires them to show up, they’ll magically appear next to Geralt as if they were hiding in the bushes, waiting for their cue. It’s like the designer’s couldn’t be bothered to create a set of game mechanics that would have allowed you full control of a party, but still insist on having a bunch of people follow Geralt around like cheerleaders shouting encouragement from the sidelines as you slay your latest foe, only to retire to the local inn once their part of the current plot is settled.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and Assassin Of Kings is a beautiful game. Every setting Geralt finds himself in feels alive. NPCs come and go, going about their busy lives. Cities are huge, in every way, including up: Houses and mansions reach for the sky, towering over the protagonist. One major caveat of all this beauty — you’re going to need a monster rig to squeeze every last ounce of graphical prowess out of this beast. Even on a lower high-end machine, like the one used in my play through, you can expect some stuttering and the occasional texture pop-in. The camera is also prone to epileptic fits.
I shudder to think at the requirements needed to play Assassin Of Kings with all settings cranked to ludicrous. But owners of less powerful (read: crappy) machines need not despair! The Witcher 2 is very scalable and you should be able to find a level of graphical poshness that feels just right as long as you have a gaming rig from this last half decade or so.
That said, it’s a shame that Assassin Of King’s art style comes up short. I’m not sure when “mature” and “dark” turned into gray, dirty, washed out textures, but Witcher 2 certainly embraces this design philosophy. Look, I realize it’s the middle ages (or the fictional equivalent) and nobody in The Witcher universe is all too familiar with the concept of baths, but come on! Spells have no pop. Battles have no dazzle. Character designs have no razzle. I’m familiar with the world Andrzej Sapkowski created for his Witcher novels: it’s a dark and depressing place, the Hoboken of fantasy fiction, but there is such a thing as sticking too close to the source material.
Audio wise, Assassin Of Kings features a decent soundtrack, the type filled with your usual bombastic fantasy stylings. As far as voice acting goes, I’ve already mentioned my distaste for Geralt’s actor. The rest of the cast does decent work. Kudos to whoever voices Triss Merigold; she strikes just the right balance of tough yet occasionally in distress chick. But the whole cast does suffer a bit from a case of “speak with a funny accent” syndrome. Just because you’re voicing a fantasy character doesn’t mean you have to make him sound like a mixture of Irish, British with a bit of “what the hell?” thrown in.
The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings is an exceedingly well made, average game. It’s like a big summer movie, the kind that’s shiny in all the right places, doesn’t insult your intelligence too much, and leaves you in a decent enough mood when the credits roll.
Now I’m gonna go assassinate me a pizza and some beer nuts…
Your humble reviewer,
The Witcher 2 Screenshots