As the news that Dark Souls is coming to PC filters through the forest trees and into the light, another RPG passes it on the trail in the opposite direction – The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. Ported from the million selling PC incarnation, it is the first of the series to make it to Xbox 360; but will it survive the transition to console like a hardy set of dragonscale armour, or fray under the strain of battle like a cheap cloth tunic?
Based on the novels of the same name by Andrzej Sapowski, as the ashen-haired Geralt of Rivia, you must use your witcher powers to hunt down a mysterious kingslayer, an ogrish assassin who also has magic on his side, as demonstrated in a stunning opening cut sequence.
In this sumptuously rendered intro, we immediately meet our foe, the kingslayer that we will spend the game pursuing, as he goes about his killing business. Then it’s on to the standard tutorial section, which is rather a chore for those itching to plough into the quest. Initially it seems a bit confusing, introducing you to a vast array of moves with little pause for breath. Once you gain a rudimentary grasp of your witching powers, swordplay and various traps, bombs and thrown weapons, you can begin your adventure.
Graphically, worries about the ability of the 6-year-old 360 to replicate the high-end visuals prove unfounded. There’s no doubt that the lighting effects are not quite as vivid as the original, or that some of the stunning vistas are slightly less breathtaking. It’s probably less than half a lungful difference though, and it still looks spectacular. Installing it to the hard drive for me certainly improved the graphics and quieted the noisy spinning of the game disc.
Compared to contemporary role-players like Skyrim or Kingdoms of Amalur, The Witcher 2 is perhaps more adult in content than either, setting itself apart in more ways than one by introducing a healthy dose of bad language. Everything’s in here, from the C word to the F bomb. I did a double take the first time someone had the audacity to call me a cocksucker, and enjoyed the frequent use of the word ‘plough’ as a synonym for, well, you decide…
Talking of the script, Witcher 2 veers from the pleasantly poetic to the dreadfully prosaic, often within the same conversation. It’s a strange inconsistency, but not one that really jars too much once you get used to the game. Equally, the sprinkling of British regional accents among the NPCs seems slightly weird – some characters switching between them even – Brummie, Welsh, and Yorkshire voices all make the cut, oddly often contained within a single town.
With a year to convert the title, I was also slightly disappointed that some spelling errors in the subtitles remained – I would have thought the subtle difference between ‘hoards’ and ‘hordes’ might have proved significant in a role-playing game, for example.
As for the gameplay itself, once you get the hang of the slightly fiddly menu screens, the multiple weapons and witcher powers, (of which more are learnt as you progress through the game) it’s great fun whether setting traps for drowners – ugly biped beasts with fins – or finding a way to clear the river monster from blocking trade to Flotsam.
Another thing to mention is the excellent companionship of Triss Merigold, the buxom sorceress who accompanies, assists and, well, I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. Let’s just say after years of female characters remaining boringly chaste – the rather passionless romances in Skyrim, for example – that things finally change. There’s even polygon-rendered nipples on show, which I certainly wasn’t expecting to see, let alone so early in the game.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings may contain a lot of familiar elements, especially to hardened RPG fans, the usual magic, smithing/weapon creation, inventory organisation, but it ties them all together into undoubtedly one of the better packages out there. It’s absorbing right the way through and most importantly, entertaining.
Did I mention the vodka-swilling alcoholic troll? No? What benevolent gamer wouldn’t want to help the poor guy get sober…do your bit, save the workload for the Flotsam branch of AA, and plough into The Witcher 2.