October 23, 2013
Our Round 2 series takes a second look at a game as we replay it several months or years after the initial release. Spoilers are likely as these games have been out for some time.
Over two and a half years after the release of The Witcher 2, I have started my second playthrough. In preparation for The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, I am reimmersing myself in the rich, detailed world that CD Projekt Red has created. How has it held up over the years? The answer should not surprise you.
The Witcher 2 was released on PC in May of 2011 to widespread acclaim. Labeled as a modern PC masterpiece, The Witcher 2 was unforgiving in its hardware requirements and system load. One of the best advantages of replaying such a intensive PC game is leveraging current hardware to max the game out graphically as the developers originally intended it. Finally being able to turn on ‘uber sampling’ makes for a truly stunning display. This, in addition to the countless bug fixes and improvements, lends to a much more cohesive and seamless experience when compared to an initial launch. Too often, you read game reviews of people cursing the game due to bugs, overshadowing the core of the game experience.
CD Projekt Red deserves props for continually supporting and expanding a game so long after launch. The Witcher 2: Enhanced Edition rode upon the coat tails of the xbox 360 port, but original PC adopters were treated with a free upgrade to the vastly superior version of the game, sporting several DLCs and an overhauled and tightened narrative. CD Projekt has stated that The Witcher 3 will also include countless free DLC packages and support. Furthermore, they condemn the industry-standard shady business practices of publishers that nickle and dime players for updates and inconsequential DLC.
Booting up the game, hearing the familiar (yet shortened) intro soundtrack, the memories of 30+ hours of gameplay slowly start fading back to light. One issue that plagued the initial release was a clumsy introduction to the game mechanics. Previously, learning the controls while being bombarded by enemies in the prologue was a somewhat demoralizing and frustrating experience. The addition of a training tutorial helps to initiate those unfamiliar with Geralt’s universe of swordplay and sign casting.
For my second playthrough, I want to see how different the game can become from the choices I made previously. This time through, I am making distinctly opposite decisions for what I know are pivotal choices. And this is where The Witcher universe still holds up and will likely continue to do so for many years: player choice.
No other RPG out there emphasizes the importance of your actions as much as The Witcher. With a purported sixteen unique endings to the game, choices truly matter. By killing an important character in the prologue, later on you encounter his mother, chained up being interrogated. This time around, I chose temperance over brutality and spared his life. This time, I happened upon him, not his mother.
The biggest example of choice revolves around your actions in Chapter One. A racial schism divides this universe, with Geralt eventually being faced with having to decide to support humans or non-humans in the town of Flotsam. This choice defines everything that will do in Chapter 2. CD Projekt Red chose to omit nearly half of their game based on a single choice – that takes guts. Playing through a second time also gives you perspective on the game. Knowing what’s around the corner helps to make more informed decisions. Having some clairvoyance goes a long way towards making Geralt make the decisions I know to be right. Yet by altering Chapter 2, CD Projekt Red brought back what you lose from an initial playthrough: surprise.
Visually, the game is as stunning as it was when first released. Graphically, there are still few games that can hold a candle to The Witcher 2. With the ‘next gen’ on the horizon, this will hopefully change as developers have been hindered by 8 year old console hardware – not wanting to invest too much efforts in the low-yield PC market. The Witcher 3 will be released on next gen consoles and PC. CD Projekt Red has made it clear that they will always put PC first, pushing the envelope for PC graphics capabilities.
Textures and models are high res and have a very film like quality to them – grainy, yet defined. As a contrast, I booted up Dragon Age 2 and got as far as the first act before being fed up with the muddy textures. And don’t get me wrong, I love stylized games such as Borderlands or Left4Dead, but Dragon Age 2 (which is an easy candidate to pick on) felt like an abandoned child compared to these games.
The Density of The Witcher 2 is what truly makes it stand out. People often compare it to Bethesda’s Skyrim. Quantity versus quality. The Witcher may be smaller in map size, but the richness of the level design easily overshadows any shortcomings. Running through the forests of Chapter 1 leads to being lost in a maze of twisting trees and streams. In addition to the graphical density is an astounding amount of written information. The Witcher 2 uses a really unique writing style for the ‘journal’ – a third person story as told by Geralt’s friend Dandelion. Delving into mission summaries reads like a mystery novel slowly unfolding plot point by plot point. Looking further into descriptions of people, objects, creatures provides a deep and enriching background into the lore of this universe.
The Witcher 2 sets high marks in many categories, yet does fall short in a couple as well. Story wise, The Witcher 2 presents an interesting and divided narrative which can adapt to your choices and actions. The dialog often falls short of living up to the potential of the story. Many portions of the game have characters saying things that just don’t make a lot of sense. Often, characters will draw conclusions which seem outlandish. Geralt can often come across as curt and dull. His relationship with Triss seems very stiff and uncertain. Voice acting is hit or miss, with certain characters sounding highly believable while others you can picture some guy in a soundbooth wondering what the hell a witcher is. Perhaps this is due to the game being natively made by a Polish developer, but with a AAA game, should come a budget for translating and polishing the dialog to a better standard. Here’s hoping that The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt does not suffer such stifling dialog.
For the most part, the gameplay in The Witcher 2 meets or exceeds what you would expect from a big name RPG. However, repetition does bring this down a bit as the variety of the swordplay and sign casting is somewhat lacking. One of my biggest gripes is the use of the controller for activating and switching between signs. Clunky controls slow down the action, making the radial menu an annoyance to bring up. It would be nice if there were a way to cycle between signs rather than needing to open the radial every time you wish to switch. Fallout easily accomplished this by docking your 8 equipables to the d-pad. PC purists will exclaim that I’m using an inferior input device, but I prefer the ergonomics of a gamepad as I lay back and play on my HDTV.
The Witcher 2 will continue to be a marker for PC game treatment. Two and a half years after its release, it holds up surprisingly well and surpasses most games on the market. Developers have had to get creative working with the current gen of crippled console hardware, but hopefully with the next gen coming soon, PC titles will no longer be held back by 8 year old standards. I fully expect The Witcher 3 to surpass its predecessor in every regard. I can’t wait to get back in and finish the journey through Geralt’s world.