Although based on the written works of Andrzej Sapkowski, CD Projekt’s The Witcher proved to be a saga of its own, in no small part from its virtually unprecedented post-release overhaul. Launching to high expectations, The Witcher II: Assassins of Kings quickly loses some steam thanks to early gameplay and interface issues. Sticking with it, however, reveals a complex, sophisticated narrative about big decisions and long-term consequences. Even saying that sells the game short. This is, simply put, one of the best stories the genre has produced in a long time.
When we last left Geralt of Rivia, the professional monster hunter had narrowly saved Temeria’s King Foltest from an assassin. Though this naturally earned him the king’s favor, our hero starts the game imprisoned and interrogated for crimes seemingly committed by other witchers. Someone has been killing heads of state, and for the prologue Geralt relates how he wound up taking the fall for the latest one. Finding the real kingslayers is now job one on his itinerary, and things rapidly spiral out of control from there. From clashes over disputed territory to backroom deals over potential heirs to each throne, the region is primed for war and every actor wants a piece of the pie. Mysteries are manifold and multifaceted, and Assassins can be downright devious in hiding peoples’ true motivations from the player. The plot forks along the way, with some decisions leading to substantially different paths through the game. While the ongoing political drama is a lot to take in, it does help put the player firmly in Geralt’s shoes.
Gameplay similarities between titles are only skin deep. Assassins controls more like a standard third person action game, in contrast to the point-and-click mechanics of the original. Mouse buttons directly correspond to quick and strong attacks, blocking is manual, hotkeys cover your active items and spells, and context sensitive actions are indicated on the screen. It still has the guts of an RPG – you can turn on a battle text log to see the numbers yourself – but combat is unforgiving and you’ll need to think on your feet to stay alive. Like you, enemies actively block with whatever is at hand, and a shield-bearing opponent can be surprisingly formidable. Groups of enemies can flank and tear you to ribbons, and larger monsters can toss you around like a toy. As deadly as Geralt is, he carries potions, bombs, traps, and other tools for good reason: he’s still just one person and the world doesn’t fight fair. The changes to combat reflect this well enough, and there is satisfaction in learning to handle ever more dangerous situations.
|Good, you remembered to bring a weather vane. I was worried we’d be unprepared for this.|
Would that the game introduced you to these mechanics gradually. Although The Witcher threw you into combat almost immediately, you faced fairly weak bandits who attacked in small groups. By contrast, Assassins drops you into a pitched battle against large numbers of armored soldiers while unhelpful text boxes pop up in real time. Minutes into this you’re tasked with clearing a courtyard full of enemies by yourself, and it will take several attempts if you don’t immediately adapt to the controls. Complicating matters is that you can only drink potions while meditating. Using potions elsewhere is inexplicably not allowed, which means being suddenly thrust into a fight can spell your doom. Strange hit detection for enemy magic doesn’t help things, and neither do the mercifully few instant-death quicktime events. The battle system hits its stride eventually, shedding most of the headaches without losing the intensity, but it does ask you to tolerate a lot until then.
In truth, a lot of the game’s problems stem from the interface. Inventory management is simply a chore. The first game told you at a glance what you were carrying, while this lists items in a small window with some category buttons. The Witcher let you read and then dispose of crafting recipes, where Assassins forces you to keep them on hand to use, and you’ll frequently craft something only to find something better five minutes later. Monster information is needlessly spread out, with short blurbs in your bestiary but combat strategies relegated to a submenu on your character sheet. Potion making automatically assigns ingredients, which is usually a time saver but can consume quest-specific ingredients if you’re not careful. Doors are often a hassle to navigate thanks to canned animations, and you’ll find yourself backtracking through one on accident at least a few times. You can also no longer simply hold a button to reveal nearby containers and triggers. While pressing Z sends out a pulse with basically the same effect, it’s limited in range and it has a short cooldown period. You’ll eventually learn to work around these problems, but the interface is tolerable at best and it never does the game any favors.
If you can tough out the prologue, Assassins clicks into place in time for the first major hub. Fights become less frequent and easier to manage, and your path widens considerably. You have big things to do, but as in the first game you get the time to poke around the world: clearing sidequests, getting the rundown from the locals, stopping by a brothel, maybe taking in a boxing or arm-wrestling tournament. Dice poker is as enjoyable as ever, and this time opponents won’t throw away perfectly good hands. Conversation grants multiple options to turn things your way, adding new flavors of persuasion alongside good old-fashioned bribery. These can fail, so be ready to do things the hard way. Although you’ll take on fewer monster contracts, they’re generally more complex than turning in X number of critter parts. Reading up on your target and exercising a little deductive logic can pay off in the field. Finding nests of nekkers, vicious swamp creatures, might seem difficult until you stop to search areas where they spawn, and some light reading will tell you what kind of explosives you need for the job.
Character development has seen simple modifications, most notably an expanded skilltree divided amongst basic skills, swordsmanship, alchemy, and magic. Some upgrades are simple damage or resistance bonuses while others grant extra abilities, such as redirecting projectiles or targeting multiple enemies with witcher signs. Points earned from leveling up can be assigned at any time, and select talents have slots to host mutagens, which provide further enhancements. The skilltrees are fairly intuitive and their effects are clearly labeled, but some skills are short on balance. Vigor upgrades are extremely useful as they let you parry and cast spells more often, while the ability to perform group finishers is just hilariously broken, if awesome to watch. Still, most character builds are perfectly valid and you don’t get enough points to master everything. Alchemy specialists get a lot more mileage out of potions, and health regeneration that outlasts a pre-fight conversation can make a world of difference.
|Yet more proof that supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses.|
On the visual front, there is no denying that Assassins is a gorgeous game. Actors are well rendered and animated, with lots of personal touches and (sometimes) convincing physical interaction. Environments are awesome in the literal sense of the word: expansive, detailed, and teeming with life. The game starts on the right foot, with the Temerian army camp sprawling into the horizon as massive siege engines pound a distant castle and soldiers take formation in the foreground. The dingy, weatherbeaten town of Flotsam looks every bit a grimy, backwater port, its nonhuman ghetto teeming with resentment and barely kept in line by an ill-tempered militia. It’d be spoiling too much to say exactly where the game takes you, but suffice it to say a few imaginative backdrops are downright breathtaking. The engine handles a respectable number of actors on screen at once, with large battles feeling as chaotic as they rightly should. From the simple to the extraordinary, from sunlight flitting through a tree canopy to shelter disintegrating under fiery assault, Assassins paints one hell of a gritty, low fantasy picture.
Quality audio rounds out the excellent presentation, and again the prologue hits the ground running here. The opening scene at Foltest’s camp is backed by swelling uptempo horns and a rising string chorus, switching to a heavy military bass beat as the battle begins in earnest. Quieter moments are scored equally well, whether relaxing at an inn or hurling accusations at enemies. Sound effects add plenty of punch to combat and rich ambient noise goes a long way in making the world seem lively. A handful of speech issues mar the acting, most commonly timing glitches and audio repetition. You’ll hear the same Cockney guy yelling “Wait ’till he drops his f***ing guard!” about a dozen or so times per fistfight, and some back-and-forth while following an NPC can be cut off if you reach your destination too quickly. Nonetheless, most dialogue is paced properly and delivered more naturally this time around.
Characters have likewise been given more attention this time, with a lot of nuance beyond first impressions. Doug Cockle reprises his role as Geralt, infusing a good sense of fatigue into the gruff, straightforward hero and showing how being everyone’s go-to guy can take its toll. Old friends Triss, Zoltan, and Dandelion make welcome returns and show more depth to their characters. Triss in particular is much better written over her previous outing, and if nothing else it’s refreshing to see a sorceress dressed sensibly for travel. One of the kingslayers is made all the more dangerous as the scope of his plan becomes apparent, and his thuggish appearance capably hides a ruthless intellect. The kings themselves are portrayed with suitable poise and authority, their personalities varying greatly but all clearly used to getting their way. Foltest is particularly fun to watch, his confident, dare I say infectious, swagger and enthusiasm practically stealing the show. It’s hard not to admire a man who stands his ground and calmly explains why an incoming ballista bolt will miss, which it does.
The Witcher was at times guilty of equating sex and violence with maturity, but it had a good grip on choices with delayed consequences. Assassins makes admirable improvements in both respects, the most obvious being a significant plot branch based on who you side with at a critical moment. You’ll often have to make judgment calls with an imperfect understanding of what’s really going on, the full consequences of which will only be clear in hindsight. Some decisions are even timed, further underscoring the urgency of your situation. Optional sexual encounters have, thankfully, been scaled back to fewer but better developed ones. Append “if you know what I mean” to that if you like. It’s the progress towards a more complex storyline that truly deserves praise, however. You start neck deep in the ugly, murky morass of feudal politics where everyone has at least one eye on the big picture. When incest, both alleged and actual, is one of the least disturbing things going on, you know you’re not in Happy Sunshine Land anymore.
|Is this a bad time to ask if I can renegotiate my contract?|
Geralt is carefully kept a few steps behind everyone else, and if players can’t really identify with a mutant super-swordsman they can surely relate when even he seems overwhelmed by what’s going on. The nested conspiracies and plots within plots can get dizzying, though by game’s end most of what happened will make sense. The plot is built up like an intelligent political thriller, and happy endings are not preordained. Warring families try to put bastard children on, or deny them from, vacant thrones and it only gets messier from there. Hidden agendas abound and every person is hiding something, some so well concealed that their actions will only make sense well after the fact. Even the kingslayers are merely one part of the larger picture, a fact made clear on the rare moments when you jump into another person’s perspective. The only downside, if you can call it that, is how the game sets itself as a middle installment. There is closure to be had, but CD Projekt clearly has more in store for us and, with any luck, what happens in Assassins will matter going forward.
While you’ll wind up at the same place in the end, Assassins‘ many plot branches do much to make a replay worth the effort. Characters remember if you’ve snubbed them before, and you’re given opportunities to take sides or walk what passes for a middle ground. Seemingly binary choices can unfold in unexpected ways, such as a stealth sequence that carries a twist if you spared a minor character earlier. The game’s three chapters aren’t all evenly paced, with the first containing the lion’s share of exploration and sidequesting. That said, a do-everything run will clock at a fairly reasonable 30 or so hours, with subsequent runs shaving time off. You can also import your save from The Witcher, though the effects of carried-over decisions are fairly minor. One encounter with the Order of the Flaming Rose may turn hostile if you sided with nonhuman guerrillas in the first game, for example.
With so much done right, it really hurts to admit that many players will be justified in giving up early. Its consistently great presentation is crippled by a frustrating gameplay introduction and a cumbersome interface, and even die-hard PC RPG fans will be hard pressed to clear the prologue without hassle. But stronger still are the reasons to keep at it. Maturity is as empty as buzzwords get these days, and yet Assassins carries it so well that no other word seems to fit. This a smart story for a grown-up audience, and the writers have shown considerable care in handling uncomfortable subject matter. That the developers patched out DRM after a week is just icing on the cake. Whatever your opinion of The Witcher, CDP deserves respect for the respect it has shown its audience. Not everyone will look past Assassins‘ problematic beginning to see the great game within, but those who do will be all the richer for it.
Hey, if it’s good enough for President Obama, it’s good enough for you.
This game was played to completion and reviewed using a digital copy purchased through Steam and generously gifted by our very own Jerry “XeroZohar” Swain. Thanks, man!