Geralt of Rivia is back, pissed-off as usual, and he’s coming to an Xbox 360 near you.
The good news is that the only bugs standing in his way can be dealt to with just a few mighty swings of his silver sword.
Based on Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski’s cult fantasy series, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Enhanced Edition is CD Projekt RED’s first foray into the console market. Arriving almost a year after the embittered, genetically-engineered medieval exterminator made his return on PC, the 360 port is replete with gameplay fixes and over 10GB of extra content, including four additional hours of gameplay, new characters, and 36 minutes of new cinematics.
Following on from events that tied up the first Witcher title, regicide has become the delinquency du jour in the Northern Kingdoms, and Geralt is helplessly drawn into a greasy feudal web of sex, violence and political rock 'n' roll in order to clear his name after being implicated in the murder of Temerian King Foltest.
Assassins of Kings progresses much of the same way the original Witcher did. Chapters are divided into location hubs in which the main storyline and sub-quests can be completed. It might feel like a crime to restrict a beautifully rich world such as the Northern Kingdoms to such linearity, but the railroad ends there, as in true Witcher fashion the moral choices Geralt makes will determine how successful he is, and how much collateral damage is inflicted along the way.
Naturally the console version will always struggle to compete with high-end PC setups, particularly when it comes to contrast and lighting, but the environments are nonetheless detailed, and beautifully presented. Installing the game to the 360 hard drive will also go some way to improve the visuals, as well as improving game performance, but even so it’s hard not to be drawn into this morally dubious fantasy world through character development and the narrative emphasis. The locales Geralt sullenly saunters about are authentically immersive in their depiction of life in the Northern Kingdoms.
There's no need to be familiar with Sapkowski’s world to gain an appreciation for the inhabitants and their idle chatter, from haughty nobles tucked away behind gilded barricades, right down to grimy serfs and non-humans (dwarves and elves) fighting prejudice while making the best of it in their manure-stained hovels.
Far from the cliché of noble knights and scheming sorcerers, almost every denizen is portrayed in refreshingly unrelenting shades of grey. Night and day cycles, and weather effects are nothing new, but they greatly contribute to the end product of a living, breathing world. The White Wolf may give off the impression of an overpowered hero, but as the story progresses it becomes clear that in many ways he’s just another pawn in the overall scheme of things.
Mutant outsider that he is, the Witcher is generally free to choose his allegiances. These can have a serious effect on the eventual outcome of the game, making for considerable replayability over different endings. Some of these choices will only affect individuals, whereas others have greater implications for all involved.
No apologies then, from CD Projekt RED on the narrative scope of this game. Nor is the developer contrite when it comes to relations, and in keeping with the first title, there are several intimate moments that can be followed up at the player’s discretion.
Of course the diplomatic approach only goes so far. Aside from his bag of homebrew potions, and magical Signs used to stun or ignite opponents, Geralt also has a veritable range of bombs, traps and throwing daggers on hand to spice things up a bit.
Preparation is key however, as despite being armed to the teeth, the White Wolf is no tank. He’ll need to dodge and move about the battlefield when taking on large groups if he’s to emerge from the battle in one piece. This goes double for enclosed areas, where even the most prepared Witcher can be undone in a matter of seconds if he’s not quick on his feet.
Special runes and other enhancements can be used to give temporary or permanent damage boosts, though steel swords still work best against humanoids, and silver against monsters. Special oils can also be coated on blades to give advantage against specific enemy types.
The potential complexity of combat may seem intimidating, but it’s well-presented, and is what sets Assassins of Kings aside from routine hack ‘n slashers. At times there’s a token nod to stealthiness, when access to sensitive areas is required, Triss Merigold excepted. Geralt can creep around and knock out guards, but going in swords swirling is fine as long as players don’t mind dealing with the extra attention.
More choice can be found in the skill tree, which is divided between alchemy, magic, training, and swordsmanship. Talents are gained by levelling up, and by investing these in specific areas Geralt can become a master swordsman, unlock more powerful Signs or dabble in alchemy to increase the duration and effect of enhancements.
Compressing a made-for-PC title on to a 360 controller has all the potential in the world to go horribly wrong, but the controls are easy to grasp for the most part. The only hiccup to be seen comes in the quick select menu where different Signs, secondary weapons and Meditation are available.
Accessing the quick select menu slows progress dramatically, so there’s time to think about the next move in the melee, but having to simultaneously press LB, hold the left stick to select the desired option, and press A to confirm is a little cumbersome at times.
The road from PC to 360 may not be as bumpy as the one to redemption, but with the additional content taken into account the final product is more than worth it for console players pining for a bit of Witcher action. Amongst the nitty-gritty details, there’s enough action to satisfy those simply looking for an unconventional RPG that is nonetheless very well-presented for a port.
Much like its protagonist, Assassins of Kings stands in defiant contrast to the crowd, but in doing so CD Projekt RED has come away with a product that appeals on many different levels – a strong draught of dialogue, action, and coordinated gameplay that ought to slake the hunger, thirst, and yearning loins of any lonesome traveller of the road.