The following is based off my current playthrough-in-progress, covering the first chapter of the Witcher 2.
I’m having fun with the combat in the Witcher 2. The game contains the tools necessary for a great fighting system. But it lacks polish and balance. The outcome is a system that is frustrating not for how bad it is, but for how close it gets to something really well done.
There’s quick/weak attacks, and strong/slow attacks. There’s blocking, there’s parrying, there’s evading, there’s juggling, there’s fatigue (which, I now know, prevents you from blocking if you’re empty, and is accompanied by a sound that does not at all suggest at fatigue), and there’s stringing combinations together with properly-timed attacks. Plus, you can weave magic into the mix, but you can’t spam the “drink healing potion” button (because there ain’t one).
For those who have ever talked games with me, you know that my high-water mark for action game fighting comes from Batman: Arkham Asylum. What a perfect system. It is one of the few games where I was genuinely excited from, and satisfied by, fighting outside of the context of the story. Stick me in a room with a bunch of baddies, as the training rooms did, and I was made content for hours on end. For many years prior, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time held that title.
The latest Assassin’s Creed, Brotherhood, saw me spend a lot of time fighting baddies in a training room. But that was less out of enjoyment and more out of a desire to really grasp the combat system so that the game would be more enjoyable. That isn’t to say Brotherhood’s fighting is anything less than good, but it’s not to the level of Batman.
The Witcher 2’s combat feels inspired by these games. But there are problems.
Fighting against Groups
My primary gripe is that there is no effective way to fight groups — at least, not early on. The game excels when it’s you versus one or two others, maybe three others, but when the numbers rise beyond that the combat is frustrating.
Half of the problem is that if you do it properly, you string your attacks into a rhythm that focuses on one opponent. The moment your rhythm is disrupted or ends, the defender goes on the offensive. I’m not saying you can’t hit 5 or 6 different targets by bouncing around the battlefield, I’m saying that it is not an effective method of combat for a new player based on the controls.
The other half of the equation is the enemy AI. In a game like Batman, where group combat is handled flawlessly, the AI mirrors old kung fu movies. You face off against one foe while the rest circle, take a step back, and then lean in menacingly. They’re standing around, allowing the player to fight and have fun. Realistic? No. But that’s not what we want here. What we want is to see the player finish off one foe, and then one of the circling remainders jumps in for a shot.
In the Witcher 2, the foes all lunge at you at once. And while you start a series of combos against one foe, the remainders hit you in the back — not only disrupting your attack, but dealing double-damage for the rear attack. You’re also temporarily stunned each time you are hit, meaning your three foes now juggle away half of your health bar while you can only watch.
Movement during battles is handled pretty well. The Witcher can dodge his way about the battlefield by dropping and rolling out of (or into) harm’s way. Presumably, this gives you the ability to roll behind attacking foes and strike them in the back. In action, it never quite works out. Foes respond too quickly to keep you in front of them.
Throughout the first chapter, combat is balanced to make you feel heroic. Most fights square you off against singular or small groups of foes who are quickly dispatched. Their challenge comes from great numbers, and surviving waves of combat. Killing a few nekkers is easy. Taking on a dozen, a few at a time, is an exciting challenge that forces you to be careful and patient.
But, as mentioned in the first impressions post, some fights fall outside this zone. The fight against Letho is one example. The fight on the prison barge is another. These fights can be very difficult. In the case of Letho, like the fight against the kayran, things are more forgivable because you realize these encounters are pattern recognition challenges. The goal is to figure out your opponents patterns, and then dodge or attack based on the tells. Again, the game isn’t precise enough for these encounters to work well, but I appreciate the effort at a change up.
The prison barge fight is deeply flawed, pitting you against more than a half-dozen armed-and-aggressive guards. The saving graces here are that a) there are locations on the boat where the guards don’t follow, allowing you to sit back and recover energy or try to pick off stragglers from the group, and b) you have an ally who generates a huge amount of threat, meaning the majority of the guards focus on him instead of you. Since your ally cannot die, this allowance comes with the ridiculous humor value of letting you sit back and watch your ally get juggled around the perimeter of the boat by the guards.
‘Tis but a scratch!
In the Witcher, many foes fall from one well-executed string of attacks, a combination of, say, 5 or 6 successfully-timed strikes. Some regular foes, however, can absorb 4 or 5, or more, such combinations. I’ve said this before and I’m saying it again now: when combat is abstracted, as it is with the tabletop version of Dungeons & Dragons, I can suspend my disbelief when I’ve hit an ogre 20 times because I’m imagining little hits weakening and tiring my foe.
In a game like the Witcher 2, where the visuals are so amazing, I don’t want to watch my hero grinding his way to victory by sticking his sword in a guard’s face 20 times, only to note along the way that the guard’s health bar is still half-full. If I can prove I can do something a couple times, don’t make me do it another dozen times or more.
So You Hate It?
No! As I said above, I really like it. I’ve been through countless battles, and I can count the encounters that I became frustrated with on one hand.
The Witcher 2 does a lot of good things. I don’t want to see this game’s fighting re-made to perfectly copy Arkham Asylum. I like the fatigue on blocking, even if it’s not intuitive. I like that you can’t drink potions during a fight. I like that you have to time your attacks. I like the critical hit/kills. I like the animations, especially for the further-along-the-chain attacks. I like the occasionally QTEs. I like the realism that a single hero can be felled by a few normal people if they swarm you (even though they shouldn’t swarm you). And I like the various ways you can level up your hero to shape how you engage opponents.
Tighten up the reaction time so it feels more responsive, give the player an obvious opportunity to “potion up” prior to tough fights, weaken the excessively healthy individuals as in games like Brotherhood and Arkham Asylum, and prevent more than 2 or 3 people from attacking at once and you’ve got something special. Hopefully future patches for the game improve the experience and get it even closer to its potential.