CD Prokekt Red bring their award-winning dark fantasy RPG to the Xbox 360. Featuring a tale of regicide and the brutal political intrigues that follow in its wake (along with war, monster hunting, and a little bit of skin), the violent adventures of the White Wolf, Witcher Geralt of Rivia is a vast, complex story framing brutal combat against all manner of human and inhuman opponents. But does this PC-to-console port survive adaptation for a new platform? Or should CD Projekt's White Wolf stick with his hunting grounds on the PC?
***Minor spoilers about the opening of the game to follow***
In the aftermath of a battle between Geralt's employer King Foltest and a seditious noble, the Witcher—born a part-human monster hunter, a mutant—is framed for Foltest's murder. To keep his head from being separated from his body as well as prevent the land of Temeria from plunging into complete civil war, Geralt—accompanied by his sorceress lover Triss Merigold and the king's right hand Vernon Roche—will have to hunt down the bald, hulking king-killer who seems to know more about Geralt than Geralt knows about himself. Oh, did I mention that Geralt also has amnesia and one of the storylines threaded throughout The Witcher 2 is his attempt to restore his memory and find out what happened to his previous sorceress lover, Yenifer.
You can't say it lacks for scope—the story will take you and Geralt across multiple lands in confrontations with multiple would-be kings, killers, trolls, wraiths, gamblers, fighters, lunatics, rapists, all based on the writings of novelist Andrzej Sapkowski who created The Witcher's universe. And for the most part, the game tells an intriguing story full of questionable, shifting alliances with Geralt not quite at the center, making the game all the more interesting because your character isn't "the one" or somehow special, but instead a dangerous piece on a board full of dangerous pieces. And while you might join me in getting lost in the press of names, factions, and locales, the overall story is pretty easy to follow, although the final act suffers from a rushed conclusion where one character actually shows up with a dozen or so dialog choices to essentially explain what the hell happened over the last two dozen hours or so of gameplay.
The plot is communicated through both dialog-driven interactions and motion comic-style cutscenes which elaborate on Geralt's fractured past. The dialog system allows for some branching in the story depending on whether you remain loyal to Vernon or cast your lot with Iorveth, an elf terrorist/freedom fighter (in my story, I decided to stick with the king's man, for better or worse). Instead of good or evil choices, Geralt's dialog options tend more towards the idealistic and pragmatic, and on occasion, you can even alter the direction of the conversation with spells of manipulation, although these are infrequent and the options are super-scripted—so if one comes up, go ahead and use it.
Instead of having a discrete class-based system, the combat starts you off with five upgradeable magic attacks and two swords, one silver for killing monsters and one steel for killing everyone else. In The Witcher, combat is based on preparation before skirmishes with the enemy, meaning that before fights you'll take time to buff Geralt with stat-boosting potions that you've bought or crafted, while applying poisonous oils to your weapons, being careful at the same time not to overdo it with the potions and overwhelm Geralt with vitality-sapping toxicity. You can also outfit Geralt with throwing knives and bombs that you can select along with your spells.
In theory, the "preparedness is everything" style combat is very cool, adding a thrilling extra layer onto the combat and making mismatched battles against multiple foes memorable stuff, as you take the time out to properly prepare Geralt when no enemies are around. But on occasion, thanks to the way the way the story and missions are structured, you might find yourself coming out of a cutscene and into a fight totally unprepared—and it can be frustrating to have your butt handed to you thanks to trial and error.
Beyond that, though, the usual crop of problems that come along with PC to console ports rear their ugly heads here, from the awkward to navigate menu system which makes going through inventory a chore, an even less navigable world map which is stylistically neat, but not especially helpful in finding your way from points A to B, and you can see the edges where core mechanics were stripped out to streamline the overall experience, such as notifications that you've learned skills and abilities in conversations that don't appear to have any bearing on the game as a whole. The Enhanced Edition also includes an arena mode which allows you to fight waves of enemies to level up and earn gear. And while it's an interesting idea and great opportunity to get comfortable with the learning curve of The Witcher's combat, given that it has no connection to the campaign and stops awarding your points for winning should you die, it doesn't feel especially satisfying. Finally, there are quite a few random performance issues, from dropped audio, to flickering textures, to one mission in particular which broke entirely based simply on where you walked on the map.
The world, Geralt
If complex, sometimes complicated political intrigues are your thing, this is the game for you. Again, the story isn't tough to follow, but there are a lot of names and factions to keep track of throughout. It's particularly great how Geralt is simply a part of events and not necessarily at their center, giving the game a wide and compelling scope.
The violence, oh the violence
When you get a hang of it, the combat is a blend of swift brutality and careful strategy. The spells that Geralt has in his arsenal can shift the tide of battle while enemies come equipped with their own bags of deadly tricks to make things rough on your beleaguered Witcher.
Sometimes it's not a tale well-told
Occasionally, the story can be poorly communicated, for instance, if I recall, the revelation that Geralt has amnesia comes about 20 or 30 minutes into the game, whereas this feels like something that should have been covered in the first minutes. Likewise, the final act is a rush of information as new factions are introduced and quickly dispensed with, while a new and looming threat is teased in a kind of awkward way, setting up a sequel while robbing this game of a "proper" ending.
And sometimes it's simply broken
See the complaints about bugs and the menus above. It's especially problematic in combat where sometimes hits aren't properly registered or outright delayed and you might lose a hard-fought battle simply because you couldn't tell that you were getting stabbed by a soldier whose animation hadn't yet completed.
The arena could have used more thought
Terrific idea, poor, floating-off-on-an-island-alone execution.
You can practically feel the constraints around The Witcher 2 as CD Projekt Red attempts to reduce the massive scope of the PC version down to something manageable on the Xbox 360. Ultimately, the major issues that arise with the game—from bugs, to optimization, to menus—are the results of not reigning in the experience more, and distilling the game's overall experience down to something that's workable across two DVDs. As it stands, the current product feels slapdash and full of half-measures, which is unfortunate, because there's more than enough in The Witcher 2 that intrigues and occasionally excites.
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