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Posted on February 4, 2013
The Witcher 2
So that’s two new games I’ve tried recently. We finally – FINALLY – got Bryce to buy BSG the boardgame and played a trial run game which was fun. And trying to find an RPG on the XBox I picked up The Witcher 2. I’ll get to BSG when we play it a second time, I think. “Brimming with promise” is how I’d sum it up just now.
With Witcher2, I was looking for something that would scratch a roleplayer’s itch and I don’t think that was it. Skyrim long ago lost its appeal, as I couldn’t bear to look at any more drab backgrounds with potato-faced unnamed NPCs wandering around in their pale grey and brown sack clothing. The tipping point in Skyrim is funny because there are 5 levels at the beginning when you die all the time and then 20 levels where it feels like an actual game and then once you get past that point, you’re single-shotting dragons with that Broom that you found in Potatoface Potatofacesdottir’s kitchen and laughing maniacally. At a certain point in that game, inventory management becomes the hard part of the game and that’s kind of sucky. If you’re still enjoying it, more power to you, but I’m looking to the next RPG.
Good: Witcher 2 promised to be a different experience. First it isn’t a sandbox. This isn’t in itself a good thing, but it may mean that the narrative is a bit tighter and the planned events a bit better arranged. Sandboxes like those Bethesda makes work best when your character has nothing particularly pressing to do: Fallout3 – find your dad, somewhere, out there. When you have something pressing to do it gets a bit weird: Skyrim – the dragons are returning and you’re some sort of Keanu Reeves that can save all of… what’s that, a dog wants me to follow him? Okay then. If the dragons come back, tell them I’m doing this inconsequential side quest and will get back to them. Let me know their response by arranging your charred skeletons in a pattern.. you know what fuck it, this dog can’t wait.
Bad: Witcher suffers a bit because the story does seem urgent, so I never bothered with some side missions. How could I? My hot sorceress girlfriend was being held captive, I can’t go traipsing off collecting a bunch of body parts from woodland denizens. All the quests and side quests are actually pretty good, so I missed out because in being determined not to hold your hand through the whole game, Witcher 2 allows you to make your own grave errors. Which is sneakily clever, because I already find myself wanting to replay just to get all the side quests I missed.
Bad: One of the biggest gripes in reviews of Witcher 2 is that combat is mindblowingly difficult, right off the bat. In the original release of the game, you were thrown straight into the prologue, which features plenty of fighting. Which meant people had no time to figure out what was going on or how to do stuff. We were supposed to remember from the first game, I guess. In the Enhanced Edition, a tutorial is added… which didn’t help me much. At the end of the tutorial is an arena fight which gauges how well you’ve picked up the combat basics and suggests a difficulty level accordingly. My suggested difficulty level was Easy. Because I sucked at it. But I thought, fuck you Witcher 2, nobody tells me how to play my game. And put it on Normal. And then 10 minutes later turned it back to Easy.
And the problem with that is that the jump between Easy and Normal is massive. Easy consists of me mashing the quick attack button so often nobody gets a chance to hit me. Your Witcher can use bombs, traps and clever spells to defeat enemies and you never bother, because just mashing A also wins fights. Combat is super, super easy on Easy. Whereas combat on Normal consisted of me repeatedly reloading after being bludgeoned to death by two peasants. Learning the combat skills, when to roll away, when to cast spells, when to hit, big hit, block and riposte would be great, but you never really have much of a chance to figure them out because you can’t heal during combat, so you can’t badly fuck up and then pull yourself back from the brink. Combat is hard… but again, this would add to the replay value of the game.
Good: Again I assume that the original game would fill in much of the backstory, but I kind of caught up, I guess. It helps that your character is amnesiac, but then, doesn’t it always. You’re a Witcher, a magically enhanced monster-hunter, who protects humanity from non-sentient monsters. You’re a mercenary of sorts, since you are not doing this out of the goodness of your heart, at least at first. You live and work in the Northern Kingdoms who recently secured their freedom from the big bad Nilfgaardians, (who are dutch, maybe?) when somebody starts killing the Northern kings. This leads to political turmoil as parties rush to fill those voids. Nobles are assholes about it, peasants get uppity, dwarves are Scottish again.
It is a complicated and mature plot, that mostly gets explained as you go, but often doesn’t leaving you wondering why people are doing things the way they are doing them. The characters do reasonably believable things. Things get pretty brutal at times, so that’s good.
( The Opening Cinematic is important to the story (Letho helping King Demavend lose a few ugly pounds) but sets the tone for the rest of the cutscenes and gives you a glimpse of what combat might be like if you were any good at it, which I was not. It is however, devilishly difficult to find to embed… possibly because it has an age restriction due to all the slashed throats and what not. This is a game, the opening cinematic says, that will pull no punches. http://www.g4tv.com/videos/57097/the-witcher-2-assassins-of-kings-intro-cinematic-trailer/ )
Bad: But it almost tries too hard to be a grown-up game for grown ups. The plot is a mature, sensible one, the execution and development of characters is often far from mature. There’s a fair number of nude scenes (always chicks, never dudes) which aren’t super necessary or even sensible: hot sorceress girlfriend wakes up in the buff, while our hero wakes up beside her with his leather trousers on. What? One of these things suggested that they wanted to take the scene one way and the other thing suggests that they totally didn’t want to see dong, at the expense of everything else in the scene.
And OMG lezbian b0ndagez!. When you try to crowbar this kind of stuff in, it doesn’t make it seem mature, it makes it seem utterly juvenile. The Torchwood Effect, if you like. In real life, people are having sex somewhere all the time – you might be having sex while you read this, I don’t know what you’re into. Yet somehow we all manage not to be interrupted by wandering adventurers, what with things like ears and latches keeping them at bay.
The jokes (as few as they are), are appalling. This isn’t a matter of translation (see below) but of intent and the intent here is awful: YOU CAN’T CRACK JOKES ABOUT LORD OF THE RINGS IN ANOTHER FANTASY SETTING. You can allude to it, you can slyly poke fun at it, sure, go nuts. But you can’t just tell a joke that can only logically be told if the two characters telling it have read the book. Not with the characters who are supposed to inhabit the world. That’s on you Polish developers and it was awful. There is a shitty “That chick must be on the rag” joke too which makes you cringe to hear.
Then there is the swearing, which is bizarrely inconsistent, which leads me to a different section of critique…
Good: The good thing about the Witcher 2 is that it is neither a French, German, Japanese or any English-speaking nation’s game. Because the rest really all are, and (outside of Japan) it gets a bit homogenous, because even if they are developed outside the US, they are usually about the US, since that’s a magical place where we accept any kind of bullshit can happen. The US, to Europeans, is Narnia For Fucked Up Events.
The design in Witcher 2 reflects medieval and renaissance Central European design styles really, really well. It’s seriously my favourite part of the game.
Wiedźmin 2: Zabójcy Królów
The flourishes in design, the extra decorative stuff is an absolute joy after playing Skyrim. Because more than most other things in the game it makes the places you go feel lived in and alive. If you can walk into a village square and find it full of people (with names, actual names, not just Peasant, Guard or Guy-you-will-later-need-for-quest-because-he-has-an-actual-name) who appear to have had some interaction with their environment, you feel as though it really is their town. You stop paying attention to their scripted movements.
Text in the game is similarly awesome, drawing from old cyrillic variants. And your character’s flashbacks are presented as slightly animated woodcut-style pictures. The cut scenes are good, although they never fixed the hair-clipping through female character’s faces problem, which made me want to tell them to fix their goddamn hair. Here, here are some barettes, jesus.
Vodka pops up a lot. The trolls and dwarves are excellently done – both providing most of the comic relief in the game, just through character interaction.
Interactions with the dwarven characters leads you make an important early decision. Side with the human establishment, or side with the oppressed non-humans. The oppressed non-human bit has been done before – the Elves in Witcher being indistinguishable from the Elves in Dragon Age. It’s just that when Poles say “ghetto”… they kind of know what they are talking about. That adds a bit of weight.
Bad: With the game being Polish, it had to be translated and I place a great deal of the blame for any shitty writing with the translators. Even if it was crap when it came from Poland, you have a chance – nay, responsibility – to clean that up. And there is a lot that doesn’t work in the dialogue. While straightforward exposition usually goes just fine, there is the odd idiom thrown in that doesn’t work and an inconsistency with what people say and how they say it. That makes me wonder if the problem isn’t having a team of translators. What you need is a team of translators and then one writer, who can basically rewrite the translated text. In this they failed. There are a few characters who stay consistent – antagonist Letho, who, to be fair, doesn’t say much and scenery-chewing elf Iorveth. So maybe they had one writer all the way through or maybe the voice actors pointed out when things went awry.
There is liberal swearing early on in the game (oddly dies off later on) with “ploughing” used as a stand-in euphemism for “fucking”, until people also start saying fucking, and then “swiving” and a few other euphemisms.
All of this could have been taken care of by a competent translation process and it wasn’t; and the feel of the game – which is well established through the visual style and helped along by the plot is badly hurt by it.
Good: The music is good and the voice acting is much better than the writing with the exception of…
Bad: …the main character, Geralt, and his by now par-for-the-course gravelly, laconic, american Video Game Protagonist Male 01 voice. Yawn. Cary Elwes, we miss you, a lot.
Seriously, look at those doors. They could just have been wooden doors, or metal bound doors, but they’re not. They’re freaking great.
Good: There are several minigames really. Explicitly, Arm-wrestling, brawling and dice poker. But really the crafting and alchemy parts of the game are mini-games (gather X,Y and Z and win a new sword!). All of these are entirely optional (you can just sell all your crafting components and buy your gear, like a proper consumer), but…
Bad: …the Stealth minigame is not optional. You have to do it in a few sections of the game. By have to I mean you have no choice. There is no stealth button, you just get put in Stealth Mode (two words I wish we never had to put together again) and have to do some stuff. This is the most hateful part of the game because what you are actually supposed to do in (sigh) Stealth Mode is never really very clear. I almost rage quit the game during one section. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, you are suddenly playing a different game with way worse mechanics.
In summary, there are some good things in Witcher 2 but so many bad things that you may not like it enough to finish it. Unlike most other games I didn’t love to pieces though, I’m going to go back and give this a second go. The story has enough choices that effect future outcomes that I’d like to make different choices just to see what happens. And there are a ton of side quests that I never got to. I’d also like to see if putting more work into getting good at combat made the game a more rewarding experience.
What the game did leave me with is a will to see Witcher 3. Because I think if they improved on a few key areas, it could be a really great game and setting. Also because Witcher 2 ends with so many threads of story not yet taken care of that they should really have called it Witcher 2.1
And despite everything that was wrong with it, I found myself happy that these were the people who were going to be developing Cyberpunk.
Now that was a protagonist with voice acting chops.