Blog 497: The Witcher 2

As a product, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings: Enhanced Edition is everything I want. A physical box, including a manual, map and soundtrack CD — a physical box with no forced ties to the internet, no useless extras but the niceties one needs. A huge singleplayer-only RPG.

I waited because, as with The Witcher, I knew this upgraded physical box would come, and come preloaded with all the extra gubbins. I want to play a finished game, not whatever incomplete lumps people tend to release first these days.

Inverse Difficulty

It’s a problem that pretty much all RPGs face in the end, especially in the face of a completist player. Completists need rewards for the grinding they do, and what other way to reward you is there than with better equipment and more experience points? So of course the game gets easier the further you get.

The silver sword remains useless against human opponents. I don't understand -- it's still a sword, being silver doesn't turn it to mush does it?

But playing on Normal difficulty, The Witcher 2 begins punishingly difficult and ends stupidly easy.

The emphasis is on preparing for fights by drinking potions, but with all the hardest fights being walled off behind conversations it’s mostly impossible to know what potions might be appropriate in the early game — and when you inevitably die and want to try a different combination of potions, you’ve got to go through the whole conversation again. Sure, it auto-saves after these kinds of conversation, but that’s the start of the fight and you can’t down potions in combat anymore (probably for the best, but I wonder if it would break immersion to just give you a forced opportunity to drink potions before big fights).

Once you pull yourself out of the first chapter and get used to taking a Swallow and a Rook before any important-looking conversation, and learn just how bloody wonderful the Yrden sign (magic stun-lock landmine) is… Actually, beyond a certain point you very rarely even need these things to win a fight. Dramatic battles against wonderfully over-sized opponents lose their lustre when you had a harder time fighting a gang of faceless soldiers five minutes earlier.

You might be an incredible bad-ass in looks and dialogue, but a few Yrdens underfoot and you didn't last long.

Quick Time

The early game quick-time events are also a bit hit and miss. I don’t know if it’s my aging system or something worse, but load times for saved games seemed fairly punishing. When you miss a QTE you often end up just dying — there is no middle ground or failure case.

I am reminded of the finishing QTE sequences of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed — if you failed a QTE it kicked you back to the start of the sequence, doing a quick reset rather than a full-bodied death. Sure, it gets a bit daft after the first few cycles, but it’s still a lot less tiring than having to wait five minutes while the game loads for you to repeat the whole fight again to get to the QTEs (I’m looking at you, Kayran).

Having a fist-fight is now a QTE sequence, rather than the awkward not-quite-combat of the first game (sadly absent are Geralt's slow-mo victory dances).

Small World

The Witcher 2 has a very small interface. Considering The Witcher had a problem with small interfaces, I suppose it’s just something CD Projekt Red do. Either way, it’s bloody annoying for me — text is anti-aliased, which at lower resolutions like us mere mortals have to run at, this turns it into mush. And it really is tiny; I get the impression I’m supposed to be playing on a 2000×1600 monitor and using binoculars (amusingly, the game can apparently go down to 640×480 — there’s no way in hell I can see that working). There’s a big difference between having a clean, minimalist interface and just making everything miniscule.

I don’t know if I’m just being misty-eyed and nostalgic, but I seem to remember a time when I could take for granted that a game’s interface would Just Work. But The Witcher 2‘s menus are plagued by a heavy mouse cursor bogged down by acceleration, confusion between what is highlighted and what the mouse is actually over, a tendency to ignore some clicks and key presses anyway…

With those big empty spaces, did they really have to use tiny text and an auto-scroller?

Overall

I should love The Witcher 2. Expansive single-player RPG, physical box with no strings attached, unconventional creature design, glorious use of regional accents, constant swearing and banterous dialogue…

It’s definitely an improvement on its predecessor, sure. It looks a lot better (but suffers from a similar level of frame-rate fluctuations), combat is fast and smooth, there’s a strong variety of weapons and armour (I seem to remember The Witcher having precisely three different armours) — it is the same game but ramped up, as a sequel should be.

Like The Witcher, it is not a bad game, all in all. But it still makes mistakes that pull it down — while it’s definitely more than fixed the issues I had with combat previously, it’s seriously tripped over on the interface and its peculiar difficulty curve. Two steps forward, two steps back…

Of course the game ends with another lead-in, so maybe The Witcher 3 will finally nail it…

He's got me sussed.

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