Witcher 2: First Impressions

Despite being very excited for it, and despite calling the first Witcher my game of 2009, thanks to a backlog of games I’ve only now started playing the Witcher 2. And what do I think?

Overall I like it. I’ve just completed the first chapter (which means there are spoilers related to the conclusion of the first chapter only). And I’m getting that feeling that comes when you start to really obsess on something. The game has its flaws, but it does some things so well that the flaws become easy to overlook. Such as?

Here are some specific thoughts and observations:

As with most RPGs, the first few hours are overwhelming. The Witcher 2 is no different when you’re trying to figure out combat, equipment, upgrades for your equipment, herbalism and alchemy, using your amulet, figuring out the map and quest system, etc. It really is borderline unforgiving. And that’s without referencing the combat difficulty when you’re facing off against groups, and trying to catch up on all the intricate story happenings.

Once you get past the learning curve, or at least the first wave of it (in the Witcher 1, it took one full playthrough before I was taking advantage of all my abilities), it’s pretty easy to settle into the game. But this game could have used a smaller, more guided tutorial level that let you practice with and learn the value of your character.

In the opening scene, with you in prison and speaking to Roche, you are presented with three options: three different sections of the story to tell. In retrospect, the game wants you to pick them in a linear order. Each subsequent choice is a little more difficult and builds progressively upon character control lessons you’re learning. But when faced with three options, players can pick in any order for any reason. It might have helped to have that play out more linearly.

While trying to get used to the game, I also tweaked the graphics settings constantly to find the best ratio of performance to aesthetics. Oddly (though maybe this is just me since I’m more of a console gamer), I found that I can play with the graphics set to ultra (minus uber-sampling) and get frames in the 40-60 ranges (and it’s usually right about 60) — at 800×480. That makes the smaller fonts jaggy and difficult to read, but if I raise the resolution to 720 or 1080 pixels wide, even at low graphic quality the frames aren’t nearly as good and drop to the 15-20 range. I’m sure this elicits little more than a “duh” response from most, but I found myself surprised at the contrast. Regardless, I can “settle” for a game that looks fantastic and runs smoothly.

The game’s combat want me to play it as an action game, with quick reflexes and precise responses. However, the engine itself is not up to the task. It is a little sluggish and lacks in precise control.

For example, in my battle with the kayran I died a few times when a tentacle hit where I had been a moment ago. As another example, when hitting block I occasionally (frequently?) hear the sound that accompanies attempting to cast a spell without the requisite energy. The work-around is hitting another button before trying to block again, but a game’s major systems should not need a work-around for basic actions. If they built the engine from the ground up for this game, then they need to put a little extra work into improving the controls.

Balance is poor. The fight against Letho and also the kayran fight both made me want to rage quit. Same thing with the endrega queen. The fights are so far beyond the rest of the game’s combat that it should be a side plot that you can choose if you want to overcome it — except the kayran and Letho are both on the critical path. When I look on-line to find other people’s strategies, they’re a mix of cheating/exploiting the system and its limitations, combined with frequent re-loads until you also get lucky.

The game’s world is alive. Merchants don’t stand in empty courtyards while it’s raining out. Instead, when it rains people run for cover. And when they’re not working, they spend time at the inn or go home or hang out in groups. Additionally, there are people, and signs of people, everywhere — including on the way out to adventure areas where guards are fighting to secure the region with trap-setting and monster slaying. I appreciate the latter note. Most RPGs make you feel like you’re trying to save the world without any assistance from the helpless citizenry. In the Witcher 2, there’s the sense they’ve created a stalemate position which needs your heroic push to topple things in their favor.

Choice is limited. There was the choice of whether or not to fire a ballista to make an ensuring fight easier. There was the choice of fighting a strong warrior one-on-one, or allowing his back-up to assist him. There was the choice of allowing Roche to help you escape, or to die. In other words, choice isn’t a major component of the game.

I was slightly disappointed with the level of choice in the first Witcher since I thought it was their primary goal, but I understand what they are trying to accomplish better now. I’m certain there are a few significant, story-shaping choices later in the game. But the way-you-proceed-through-a-quest choices, and further opportunities to impact the narrative, are more limited. And, not to defend the game against an issue of hype versus reality, wouldn’t choice have to be limited in a game that’s supposed to go as long as 40 hours? Also, there are so many side quests to explore and optionally accept that it satisfies a lot of the sense of linearity that might otherwise have pervaded the game. Coupled with the world’s level of detail and sense of life, I am less the hero changing things as I see fit, and more the traveler, journeying down the path of the story and loving every moment of it — at least, every moment that doesn’t feature an impossible fight that relies on me hitting the block button accurately.