The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings starts as it means to go on, with a sharp presentation featuring Geralt of Rivia's story in a clever playable intro.
Stuck in a cell with a mysterious figure interrogating him, Geralt recalls his participation in the assault on a castle. In these memories, it dawns upon Geralt that he's been accused of a significant crime, but as he currently has amnesia the specifics are unknown to him. Thus begins the main story arc as the player sets out to clear Geralt's name.
As the camera pans out in the first mission and the world is exposed, it's easy to see how good this game looks. On full graphical settings, Assassins of Kings embarrasses Crysis 2 in the eye-candy stakes, and as more of the world is revealed it only seems to get prettier. Geralt himself still looks like zombie Fabio, although he's presented in much more detail this time around.
Luckily there's substance behind that pretty face. Developers CD Projekt Red has released a well written, compelling story, with twists, turns, moral choices, and some very adult moments.
This time around, the solutions to the aforementioned moral choices aren't as obvious. Unlike Mass Effect, where it's usually fairly obvious if a statement is positive or negative, actions undertaken here may not have consequences that are immediately apparent.
Assassins of Kings doesn't go out of its way to give the player a moral compass. Geralt is much more human, and makes choices based on what he needs and knows at the time. On several occasions, it's necessary to choose who to trust without really knowing everything about the selected ally, or indeed, even if they should considered an ally. Sometimes your choice is merely the difference between left or right, and yet conversely, some decisions can be game changing.
Tied into this is the extensive adult content. Sex, nudity, murder, deception, and some pretty vulgar language have endowed upon this title a fairly restrictive rating. That said, it's done with style and substance. Whilst not everyone is going to love game characters dropping about the worst kind of profanity possible in casual conversation, it does fit within the context of the game. Much as The Sopranos was better for its uninhibited adult themes, Assassins of Kings does mature content with actual maturity, creating a believable medieval world that is as brutal as can be expected.
Part of this comes down to the nature of the characters. There's nothing wrong with retaining creative control within a story, and playing as a specific character has some distinct advantages. It is, after all, difficult to take a game seriously when user-designed characters rivalling the grace and sophistication of Frankenstein's Monster frequent the cut-scenes, so having the player play as Geralt, gives tighter control over the game world for the developers. He has a personality which the other characters can react to, and interact with, and it's all underwritten by the cult appeal of the Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski.
Allowing the player to transition to another character within the game is a refreshing addition. Even the non-player characters are well thought out, without too many noticeable repeats.
The learning curve may come up for criticism by some, as the combat takes time to master. In the initial stages it's easy to feel underpowered, but perseverance is rewarded. The mechanics for combat are fairly similar to the first game, insofar as Geralt carries two weapons – a Witchers sword for monsters, and another weapon for humanoids. New weapons can be found, or crafted, or modified by adding oils or items to existing variants.
Combat is facilitated by blocking and parrying to land heavy or fast blows, and self-preservation is facilitated by diving away from oncoming attacks. When surrounded by enemies, combat is a challenging but very fun affair. Also included are quick-time moves, which allow Geralt to hand out serious damage if the timing is right.
A new addition this time round is the Boss Battles. A combination of real-time combat and quick-time events are used here, and luckily to good effect. Even the environment can be destroyed around the player during the fight, making for a hectic and challenging battle. The sense of achievement is definitely worth it.
Levelling and character improvement has changed too, with a skill points system being utilized. It's not possible to reach the maximum level on all attributes, so it's necessary to make some choices about play style, such as a sword skill build, or perhaps the creation of a character that errs more towards alchemy, complemented by a healthy collection of potions.
Receiving skill points is a function of levelling. Whilst Geralt will get experience for killing individual monsters, it's a slow way to level, and it's far more efficient to get stuck into the side quests. Thankfully the focus here has been quality over quantity, and rather than having to rely on FedEx missions, quests often seem related to the main story – or at least a small part of a story arc. This makes for a much better level of immersion.
Assassins of Kings' design philosophy promotes quality with individual style, and a very deliberate approach to the genre. There's also a well written storyline with some clever twists and turns, and a level of maturity that doesn't patronize or try to shock the player.
All these things combine to what is arguably the best role-playing game of the year – or at least until Skyrim.