First off, I think I should make something plain. I really didn't get on with The Witcher. Long load times; obscure combat that didn't really make sense to me or really feel fun; a plot that begins in medias res and failed to really grab my imagination; and ‘mature' themes that really seemed geared toward immature players (collectable ‘cards' that are acquired by sleeping with the in-game honeyz?). Suffice to say, I never really played it for all that long, and completely failed to see what all the fuss was about.
That was the first game. But it seemed to sell quite well, and I likes me a bit of fantasy gaming, so I decided - almost reluctantly - to give the sequel a try.
And spank me with a bastard sword if it's not one of the best RPGs I've played in a very, very long time. The story is an engrossing and multi-layered tale of treachery, love and magic, the character development is really noticeable as you progress, and the graphics are as beautiful as any I've seen in an RPG.
But before I get all giddy and over-excited, I suppose I should start with the things that make this game less-than-perfect. Firstly, and I think most importantly, the learning curve is unforgiving. Tutorial messages pop up all too briefly, if at all, and the first act of the game goes past in a bewildering and often frustrating muddle. Blocking... Why can't I block? It's incredibly frustrating, until you somehow learn that blocking enemy blows uses up your vigour (which is only otherwise used for casting spells). Two of your main stats are called vigour and vitality - perhaps not the clearest distinction. Items can be recalcitrant with their features - a few more pop-up info boxes wouldn't really have gone amiss. Some battles can be frustrating and, eventually, repetitive as you play through the first bit over and over to get to the bit where you constantly die. Oh, and sometimes the targeting system that selects enemies for you can get confused, interfering with your ability to string together awesome combat moves.
But that's about it. Despite not having the true ‘open world' freedom of the Elder Scrolls series, the player never really wants for stuff to do. Most quests are a little more involved than the old ‘bring me fourteen giant bee carcasses' that make up most RPG sub-quests. A few of these quests can seem to just cut off suddenly with no clear progression evident, but through the excellently-written journal entries, filling in the blanks is straightforward.
Ah, yes. The writing. See, one of the big obstructions to my enjoyment of the first game was the often ropey writing. For a game heavy on story, there were so many errors and confusing inconsistencies, I lost track of what was going on and had no real desire to catch up. However, the story and dialogue in the Witcher 2 is solid, well-crafted and immersive. There's much less emphasis on having sex with everyone in town (although that's still an option, if that's your thing), and the storyline branches significantly - so much so that there are whole areas that you'll only get to experience if you follow a certain path.
Be warned, though. The published Witcher 2 system requirements are greedy beasts. That said, the game looked beautiful and well-rendered on my graphics card, which came in well below those published specs. I had no issue with slowdown at all, and the graphics were gorgeous even at low setting.
I may as well come out and say it. I enjoyed the Witcher 2 more than I did Dragon Age, which I guess is its main competitor. In fact, the two games had a similar feel in that the worlds are dark and gritty, they both feature branching storylines and mock-open-world play areas. Oh, and they both feature sorceresses with cleavages you could ski down.
In the last couple of years, RPGs have really grown up. What used to be obsessive monster-slaying, dungeon-exploring and fiddly experience level management, has now become just as interested in provoking an emotional reaction. We are expected to grapple with questions of mercy, fidelity, honesty and greed and the Witcher 2 is a shining example of this brave new world of RPG design. Personally, I'm hoping other developers are inspired to follow this trend just as this game builds on its celebrated RPG forefathers. Despite being an obvious console port (for better or for worse, as I've mentioned before), this is the kind of game I think mature PC RPG fans deserve.
I probably got about 25 hours out of the Witcher 2. That's taking my time; if you focused on the main quest and got a move on, I'd imagine you could easily half that, at least. But there's a joy to be had in just wandering in the forest at night, or playing dice with the locals. Everything you'd expect in a modern RPG is present and correct, except perhaps for character creation at first level.
Great job, guys. I'm a convert!