You don’t even need a highly-rated PC precursor to know that The Witcher 2: Enhanced Edition is a bit special. Just look at it; looks to die for, a leveling system big enough to get lost in and combat tough enough to necessitate it. Even on the surface it makes more of an impression than most do in an entire game.
And that first impression carries through. The Witcher 2 remains the same powerhouse performance on 360 as it was on PC. It’s a deceptively deep RPG that doesn’t let players waltz through its many castles, villages and forests without demanding serious commitment to all of its key ingredients. There’s barely a moment to be found in its beautiful world where it isn’t trying its utmost to impress you.
But what’s funny is that it shouldn’t be this good. PC games heading over to consoles don’t usually have a happy ending, and this is the last game I could see running on seven-year old tech. But in not only getting it to run on the system, but run well with an intuitive control scheme, developer CD Projekt has set a benchmark for other developers.
The Witcher 2 is all about giving players control. It’s a third-person RPG that fills a gap between Skyrim’s open world freedom and Dark Soul’s focused structure. While there’s always a defined path to take, conversation trees and decision making will shape a different experience for every player. The basics of combat rest in sword play and magic, both of which will develop depending on how you customize your character. Every conceivable RPG trait is thrown in; there are mountains of side quests and enough loot for a pirate to retire.
A surprisingly mature plot rests at the center of all your actions. Taking up the reigns as Geralt, a witcher (read: monster-slayer) that gets framed for murder in the game’s opening act, a quest to clear your name develops. It’s a plot that’s enriched by the game’s setting and cast; a deep lore about racism towards non-humans such as elves and dwarves is constantly touched upon while talking to allies and enemies establishes a connection with NPCs in that BioWare sort of way. Oh and there’s a lot of swearing and nudity, which is all the rage while Game of Thrones is on TV.
On Xbox, it finds itself at a disadvantage of not having its predecessor to make its universe more instantly-accessible. While it’s not impossible to pick things up as you go, you can’t help but feel like you’re missing the point a few times as the game assumes that players have seen the first game through to its conclusion.
But that’s where the limitations stop. Players aren’t restricted from the word go; there’s no “Pick a mage, knight or thief” introduction; there’s a tutorial that encourages you to embrace all of the game’s aspects from magic to sneaking.
And the game’s tough enough to make sure you do it all right. Even on the normal difficulty setting against a group of lesser enemies combat can be a harsh master if you’re not fully prepared. Mixing potions and items, something I usually like to skip over in RPGs, is absolutely essential here. It nails home the point that no one aspect of The Witcher 2’s mechanics is throwaway; they’re all tools that need to be embraced. When it comes to some of the game’s towering and intense boss battles, this is all the more apparent.
There’s definitely a learning curve to the controls, which squeeze every button out of the controller, but it comes as second nature once mastered. Getting a PC game to feel at home on a controller is almost unheard of, but The Witcher 2 makes you wonder why that is. As a result, the game’s combat is enticing in the same way that linear third person action games are. The heavy attack/light attack system, complimented by magic and weapons at your fingertips, crucially make it feel like an action game in the heat of battle.
But while the amount of control given to you to shape battles is remarkable, some of the basics are ever so slightly off. There’s a hint of sluggishness to the swordplay that places somewhere in between Skyrim’s floaty controls and the sharp response of a Souls game. It of course improves as Geralt’s skills grow, allowing for counters and better parrying to make up for its shortcomings, but it can leave you feeling at a disadvantage early on. Still, combat is not an afterthought like in many RPGs, but one of the key aspects that the game stands tall on.
It’s easy to RPGs to fall into the mundane in the day-today minutes of it all, but The Witcher 2 demands your attention throughout. Where to go and what to do is largely up to you, but it all unfolds in areas small enough to make quests snappy, but large enough not to suffocate the player. It’s a pacing that’s rarely felt in the genre, because it so often cuts out the travelling middle man. Such attentive plotting comes at the sacrifice of a deep sense of exploration, but the game has another ace up its sleeve to counter that.
Pivotal to that engulfing feeling are the game’s production values. The Witcher 2 is easily one of the best looking games on 360 and that’s made all the more impressive given the game’s scale. Its masonry boasts the kind of detail we’re used to in an AAA linear production, but it really shines when it comes to more natural areas. The woods of Flotsam in the first chapter, for example, are unlike any other we’ve seen before. Wondering around its earthy environment is like stepping into a Robin Hood story, proving that locations don’t necessarily have to be the most exotic to take full advantage of a console’s hardware. When we come to talk about the best looking games of the generation, make no mistake that The Witcher 2 will be well of fought for.
It doesn’t pull off everything perfectly – its jack of all trades natures makes it a master of only some. For instance, the game’s ‘cinematic’ quick-time events only serve to distance the player. Button presses feel disconnected from the actions on screen and missing one press can mean an annoying reload and repeat situation. In boss battles it can be a frustrating affair, as it’s that rare instance of ditching what makes the game a great RPG and relying on something what you simply didn’t want mixed in with the genre. It’s only a minor hitch but The Witcher 2 would simply be a better game without them.
Voice acting doesn’t seem to have entirely survived the transition, either. It’s all well-acted (and convincingly vulgar most of the time), but certain voice tracks feel compressed and scratchy. It’s a jarring contrast when stacked up to the game’s visuals, creating an odd separation between audio and what’s on screen at times. A big shame, given its other triumphs in the presentation department, but not fatal by any means.
But for all its pretty looks, where The Witcher 2 really hits home is in its successful mixing of RPGs both old and new. This generation has brought about a streamlining of the genre in some respects – just look at the transition from Mass Effect 1 to 2 – but CD Projekt have kept all of what’s made western RPGs so popular intact while never once compromising on its hardcore, tactical gameplay.
In The Witcher 2 the Xbox 360 has a truly wonderful hardcore RPG. It’s has an eager willingness to go the extra mile with every possible opportunity. Other developers should take note; now there’s no excuse for shoddy visuals or neutered gameplay within the genre. Geralt has proven that can be done, with surprising ease. On PC’ it’s expectedly impressive, but the feat of bringing it to consoles makes it something else. How CD Projekt handles its next step will be quite a thing to watch.