CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings was a treat for PC gamers when it arrived last year.
It delivered an uncompromisingly mature fantasy tale layered with political intrigue, steamy love scenes, and a twisty plot players could meaningfully affect via their actions and dialogue choices. It's what Game of Thrones would feel like were it a game instead of a series of books.
Plus, it had remarkable production values. Players running the game on tricked out PCs were treated to some of the most beautiful environments, characters, and visual effects yet seen in interactive entertainment. And a strong cast and gritty script transformed the game’s heroes and villains from mere collections of pretty pixels into complicated personalities with multifarious motives.
It had its down sides – including some quest-arresting bugs and a complex and unintuitive menu system that was difficult to learn – but it was compelling enough to spawn plenty of fawning reviews, win a few awards, and land on more than one top-10 list come year's end.
With the just-released Xbox 360-exclusive The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings – Enhanced Edition, we now discover how well this complex, often difficult, and graphically sophisticated game – what some might rightly call a quintessential PC RPG – translates to a console.
The good news is that the meat of the game has made the transition unscathed. There's little need to review the story, which survived not just whole but expanded. Its plot, filled with lordly personalities and rich cultures, remains as grown-up and engaging as ever, and has been a pleasure for me to work through a second time, thanks in no small part to several hours worth of fresh quests released as downloadable add-ons for the PC edition as well as some sparkly new CGI-animated story scenes.
And I never really had any concern regarding the controls. I actually played through much of the PC version using an Xbox 360 controller, and the game’s melee and magical combat, which relies as much on one’s ability to concoct and change strategies on the fly as it does reflexes, is a good fit for a game pad. The interface has been tweaked a bit for the Xbox 360 release, making our link with Geralt, the game’s hero, even smoother and more satisfying. Battles remain extremely challenging (I haven’t moved beyond the second easiest difficulty setting), but are gratifying because of it.
Of course, the main difference between the PC and Xbox editions is visual in nature. To make the most of the PC edition one requires a Windows box far more powerful than an Xbox 360, so it was inevitable that any port to the latter would suffer. To be sure, the console version has moments that hint at its precursor's graphical grandeur – golden butterflies that flutter into existence when the sorceress Triss casts a shield spell, shifting shadows created by light sifting through the canopy as the sun slowly marches across a tree-covered sky – but its splendour is truthfully evaluated as a shadow of the PC edition.
To achieve a playable frame rate the developers had to remove finer details on the game's objects and characters, increase the amount of fog in busy environments, and allow for plenty of pop-up. I’d be lying if I said these things didn’t matter. I miss the delicate particulates hanging in the air, the shafts of sunlight burning through windows and trees, and the finely pocked and blemished skin textures.
But I should be clear, here: The Xbox 360 edition is far from ugly. It’s impossible not to recognize the amount of artistic effort that has gone into designing character costumes and environment architecture. What's more, console gamers who haven’t seen the PC edition in action might not even notice many of the issues that will be readily apparent to someone who has played the PC version. It may not be the ocular feast it is on Windows machines, but it’s certainly not without beauty.
I do, however, fear that there is a certain something about the game that may prove off-putting to some console players, not all of whom are as hardcore (for lack of a better term) as their PC brethren. Among its many winsome qualities – satisfying storytelling, rewarding combat, arty flair – there is one thing sorely lacking: Accessibility.
Quests are a funny thing in The Witcher 2. More often than not they require players to carefully examine long entries in their quest log, find and read documents or books that explain the significance, use, or whereabouts of required items, and chat with multiple characters to gain more information. They become multifaceted investigations that sometimes even intertwine, leading to new quests and occasionally cancelling others.
This complex, interconnected structure is part of what makes the game so engaging. CD Project Red expects, perhaps even demands, that we become so invested in the world it’s crafted that we be willing to invest whole evenings each time we pick up a controller. Unfortunately, this isn’t conducive to people who like to drop in for an hour or two here or there, or folks used to ignoring game conversations and simply following a map icon to a specific location, killing a beast, and collecting a treasure.
The clumsy menus, which haven’t been much improved from those found in the PC edition, won’t do much to help mainstream gamers struggling to find footing. They’re tricky to navigate (switching between sections involves a counter-intuitive series of trigger, shoulder button, and directional pad taps), and critical features often seem hidden. I can imagine casual players, frustrated because they can’t figure out how to concoct and drink formulas or craft items, simply deciding to abandon the game before giving it a real chance, and that would be a shame.
I’m not trying to scare anyone away. I’ve had a great time with both editions, and consider The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings to be a terrific fantasy RPG comparable to – yet significantly different from – other popular entries in the genre, including The Elder Scrolls games, Dragon Age, and Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. It is, arguably, the most grown-up game of its kind. Just bear in mind that it remains an entertainment not really intended for the mainstream and that it is still best played on a game-worthy computer.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings – Enhanced Edition
Platforms: Xbox 360
Developer: CD Projeckt Red
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Release: April 17, 2012