Written by  :  Oleg Roschin (181570)
Written on  :  Jun 20, 2011
Rating  :  4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars

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I can discuss politics and women all day long, but swimming is still a mystery to me

The Good

When the original Witcher was released in 2007, it quickly gained a cult following among RPG fans, mainly thanks to its mature narrative and the moral choices it presented to the players. The sequel continues to push these concepts forward, and once again, they are revealed as the game's most appealing side.

The word "mature" has been incessantly abused by everyone when referring to video game content; it has been firmly associated in our brains with naked female bosoms and severed monster limbs. While The Witcher 2 spares no effort in depicting precisely these anatomical details (particularly the former), it also understands the idea of maturity a bit more seriously than other games. Instead of simply throwing sex scenes at the player, it is not afraid of openly discussing sexual topics that have been largely absent from mainstream games.

Just like in the first game, the world of The Witcher 2 is marked by unabashed sexism, and many of its characters are driven by primitive passions, often tainted by violence. To its credit, the game never uses rape as gratuitous material for sexual stimulation (which is often the case in many fringe products by deranged Japanese developers). Instances of rape are part of the game's story, but it certainly doesn't dwell on them; they serve as a macabre illustration to the society it depicts.

Political ambitions, racial intolerance, and other important themes are also treated in a truly mature way in the game. Perhaps The Witcher 2 can be described as too dark, persistently emphasizing egotism, greed, and violent tendencies in most of its main characters; but it succeeds in painting a sinister world that serves as a (mostly) convincing counterpart to naive romanticized depictions of European Middle Ages-like scenarios prevalent in most other games. The Witcher 2 is mature in the best sense of this word; it challenges the player with its serious topics, showing that video games can be thought-provoking without resorting to cheap sensational gimmicks.

Deliberately avoiding clear black-and-white alternatives, the game compels the player to ponder every decision he makes. Many of the choices are quite tough, including the principal story-branching decision (siding with Roche or Iorveth), which essentially splits the second third of the game into two completely different chapters. As in the first game, trying to find some sort of guidance, some principles to adhere to in this gloomy world, provides a good role-playing experience, the player constantly struggling with his own choices rather than following formulaic "light" or "dark" paths.

While the first Witcher suffered from translation inadequacies, the second one seems to be impeccable. The writing is excellent, with bits of dark, sarcastic humor interspersed through the conversations; each sentence is cleverly built, each phrase is poignant. Even the most mundane dialogues contain something interesting; I founded myself looking forward to yet another wise, cynical remark by Geralt that would spice up every conversation he takes part in. The English voice acting is, for the most part, clearly above average.

The Witcher 2 addresses some of the gameplay features that were poorly developed in the original. The most evident improvement is the much heavier equipment management. There are many more weapons and various types of armor in the sequel than in its predecessors. It is worth the while to find or purchase stronger swords or heavier armor; browsing the wares of every merchant will often reward the player with an unexpectedly good item. Crafting system is very interesting and well-executed; hunting for raw ingredients becomes one of the most addictive activities in the game, and nothing compares with the joy of finding that piece of silver ore that will finally allow Geralt to don a shiny new chainmail.

The game boasts beautiful graphics that ooze charm and atmosphere. Particularly the outdoor areas are full of typically Slavic poetic melancholy that softens the game's overall brooding tone, casting an enchanting light on its delightfully simple images of Eastern European nature.

The Bad

Exploration has always been an important part of Western role-playing game mechanics. Paradoxically, as the technical quality of graphics grew, the size of game worlds began to decline. The few true open-world RPGs of late (e.g. Gothic 3) were distinguished by bland writing and dull narratives. This changed when Fallout: New Vegas proved that a huge, fully explorable environment could co-exist with cleverly written dialogues and memorable characters. Before New Vegas, I discreetly craved for such a combination; after New Vegas, I openly demand it. Unfortunately, The Witcher 2 clearly represents only one side of the deal: the writing. Its world is a collection of artificial paths created with the sole purpose of advancing the game's story.

It is particularly distressing that a game which tells a fairly complex story full of grand conflicts between kingdoms and political intrigues reduces itself to a paltry collection of two or three small towns. Worse, the outdoor areas are composed of infuriating arbitrary borders that hinder exploration and significantly lower the immersion in the game world. When I behold a lofty mountain, I want to climb it and enjoy a breathtaking view. When I see a river glistening under the sun, I want to swim in it. When I encounter a log on my way, I want to jump over it. Why is Geralt unable to perform these simple activities? Why does he inexplicably refuse to stray from his pre-determined way? Why do I have to tread on boring roads to reach a space that should be clearly accessible by simple walking? Why create such wonderful graphics only to degrade them to a mere background status, preventing the player from properly interacting with them?

I wasn't at all excited by the combat system in The Witcher 2. Regardless of its flaws, I found the elegant combo-based system of the first game more attractive. The sequel does little to enhance the meager combat-related character development possibilities of the first game; just like before, it's all about being a swordsman and nothing else. Magic is used for supportive purposes only; it pays off to increase some of the spells, but the actual battles invariably boil down to basic hack-and-slash. Combat feels rather messy and is ultimately unsatisfying. Also, experience bestowed to the player upon vanquishing the foes pales in comparison with the hefty chunks received for automatically completing main quests. Higher experience awarded for side quests, as well as a larger quantity of those, would have been very helpful; side quests in The Witcher 2 are only few and far between.

A personal writing-related quibble of mine regards the prodigious amounts of sexual expressions in the game's conversations. I realize they wanted to present a harsh, repelling medieval life driven by earthly desires, but I feel they went over the top with that. Vulgarisms are natural when uttered by guards, but they do not behoove monarchs and representatives of nobility. It makes a strange impression when a king finds it appropriate to discuss a woman's body when talking to an ambassador. Nearly every female character in the game is object to crude jokes and coarse descriptions by the game's characters. Judging by Witcher 2, it seems that the European nobles were nothing but a bunch of whoring, drinking male chauvinist pigs. It is entirely possible that many of them indeed possessed those traits - but were they really so eager to admit it?..

The Bottom Line

Much like the other two modern-day RPG blockbusters, The Witcher 2 has left me with contradicting emotions. Loving the writing and the mature themes, I couldn't help being disappointed by the way it functioned as a game. The Witcher 2 is surely a worthy follower to its illustrious predecessor; it has soul and charisma, which is what ultimately matters. But neither its world nor its gameplay mechanics made a lasting impression on me. Am I too impertinent to wish for a story-driven RPG with physical interaction and open environments? Or maybe modern RPG developers could learn something from Fallout: New Vegas?..