This weekend, when I wasn’t attending three soccer games for my two kids or watching High Fidelity*, I was dumping a good 12 hours or so into The Witcher 2. Not that much if you’re a real gamer, but when you’re me and can’t keep your eyes open past 11:00 or so, that’s not too shabby. At this point I’m into the meat of Chapter 2 of what, I’m told, is a 4-chapter game (counting the prologue). The game is good. Really frigg’n good.
I talk about some of this on Jumping the Shark this week, but it’s worth reiterating: After a horde of crashes on the preview build, the game plays rock-solid stable. I had one instance of getting locked into a loading screen, but that’s been it. I’m impressed a game that taxes my PC this hard has this level of stability since it’s been my experience that games that push the envelope technologically are often most brutal on the hardware at the tail end of the spectrum. Speaking of which, I’m writing up another post to talk about system specs and performance with Witcher 2. I started to write it here, but it turned into a bigger conversation than I first had in mind and I’m sure many of you would like to talk more about the game than how it performs. I’ll link this to the specs post once it’s up in a day or two. For now, on to the game…
Combat in the game – I wouldn’t call it entirely unfair, but it can be outright punishing. Although terrain doesn’t appear to be a factor, positioning matters because flanking matters. Very often you’ll find yourself going up against three, four, even five or more opponents. Smartly, they will try to surround you. Smartly, they do not take turns. Smartly, when you get flanked and hit in the back, hits do double damage. Frustratingly, this means it’s very easy to go from full health to dead meat on a stick. The shield spell is all well and good, but it lasts about five seconds if you’re getting stabbed in the back.
I’ve read a lot of folks say the prologue is particularly difficult because you don’t have a lot of witcher skills available to you to help mitigate damage. Bullocks. I died a couple time in a couple of the tougher battle scenes in the prologue (on Normal difficulty), but nothing like some of the stuff that comes later. At one point I emerged from a cave in Chapter 1 to face a “routine” combat encounter with four or five Drowners. Even though I wasn’t specifically engaged in combat, I was unable to meditate to quaff a potion without retreating back into the cave as I was too close in terms of proximity. (Incidentally, while I like that you can’t use potions while in combat, the meditation restriction for using them can be frustrating because of the times and places where the game won’t let you meditate even though you’re not being attacked.) So, I’d charge into combat, trying different magic signs, trying to block, and trying to keep them from surrounding me. And I might have found a way to survive without dropping down to Easy after a half hour of failing miserably, were the controls just a touch more responsive. But they’re not. There’s a slight delay (that seems worse using mouse and keyboard) that gets tremendously frustrating.
This, in all honesty, is probably an issue with performance. My framerate in combat with multiple critters drops into the teens and that’s a particularly nasty problem when you’re dealing with action-oriented combat. You think you’re blocking to stop an incoming blow, but the game says you’ve already been tagged. Staggered, you’re out of control for a second, which is more than enough time to be surrounded and quickly shredded into Drowner Kibbles and Bits. I’m dying to play this game with a frame rate that stays over the 20-30 range no matter what, so I can see if that makes a difference. That, however, will have to wait for a PC upgrade, which I’m strongly considering.
So I drop down to Easy. Easy is well named because you really take very little damage, except from the worst of the big bads and such. Here I survive without breaking a sweat and that’s how Easy should be. It is nice that you can switch back and forth at will since most of the time Normal is where it’s at for me, but I can’t help but wish there was a mode of play between Normal and Easy. There’s much more to talk about here, but we’ll save that for a Dissecting piece on the combat model. Suffice it to say, the combat model works well in principal, but can quickly grow frustrating, especially if you’re unwilling to make use of potions, traps, magic, etc.
The star of the show with The Witcher 2 is really the world itself. Even on Medium details settings it’s gorgeous. But it’s also functional. The town of Flotsam in Chapter 1 absolutely comes alive, as people mill about on their daily routines. Many have roles and jobs that make sense for this place. At the wharf fishermen fish during the day and go home at night. The tanner’s cabin is filled with the trappings of his trade and when you trade with him he only keeps in stock materials and goods that make sense for his job. On the outskirts citizens and soldiers alike keep crossbows trained on the woods, guarding against incursions from Scoiatel (militant elves) and monsters, as workers pick amongst the plants and shrubs. When you’re dealing with soldiers you see big strong ones with a mean streak and no conscience. You talk to portly ones who fall asleep at their posts and are just there because there’s not much else they’re good for. The place just feels like it works and that, in turn, helps make the game work. There’s real diversity here and it is good.
This all ties into the story because, true to the first game, when you have to start making decisions and choosing sides, it’s not at all clear what the right thing to do is. There is no right thing. The familiar conflict between elves and men is still there. Men are frequently cruel to non-humans, and those in positions of authority use it to oppress. But that oppression isn’t entirely without reason. A commandant might be selfishly lining his pockets, but you get a sense that he generally wants to see his town grow and prosper and his fear -everyone’s fear- of the Scoiatel is so strong they’re incapable of trusting any nonhuman. The Scoiatel are sympathetic to a point. They’ve been wronged and there’s no denying that. But they strike out at innocents and guilty alike with complete disdain. (I’d of liked to actually see more of this. Much of their crimes you only really hear about second-hand.) Vernon Roche, a king’s agent and one of the more likable characters you’ll find, is noble to a point, but cruel and sadistic to those he regards as enemies and he’s difficult to trust. Regardless, the dialog and interactions sell it all remarkably well. There are times it gets a little clumsy, and it’s hard not to think that, like the first game, there’s something lost in translation from the original Polish to English. What I like, though, is the way the dialog and encounters vary from highly political, to business like, to entirely personal and even heartfelt. I could listen to Zoltan the dwarf talk about his failed engagement all day. Most of the voice work is solid, but whomever voiced that guy did a hell of a job. (For some reason his character isn’t listed on the game’s IMDB credits page.)
Misogyny. That’s a word I’ve seen laid at the feet of the first game in a couple of circles. I generally reject that notion on the grounds that because the world you inhabit is most certainly misogynistic (amongst many other vile things), that’s different from saying the game is so. Witcher 2 does away with some of the cheap hypersexualization of women from the first game by getting rid of the pin-up cards you collected for sleeping with various women, but I do think if the first game offended you, this one’s not likely to change it much. There are women throughout the world who are fully clothed and go about their daily routine largely without notice. But at the same time, the women who are players in this story, the ones with whom you’ll interact, are either whores or are obviously sexualized in some way. I’m not sensitive to the use of sex and sexuality in games, nor to the ugliness of male subjugation of women when it fits the world my character inhabits (as it does here), but I’d like to see more variation to keep it all balanced. There’s an extent to which the game is a little too eager to show you the ugliest sides of human nature, while too infrequently showing the other side of the coin. But even factoring in that, as is the case in many such games, so much depends on how you play your character.
I decided early on I’d treat my character as fully committed to Triss, the sorceress from the first game. I haven’t seen a lot of opportunities for sleeping around yet, but I’ve passed them up where I could and selected those conversation options for Geralt that express love to her. In chapter 1 that lead to a scene between Triss and Geralt at some elven ruins that, although graphic, I actually thought was very well done, with a particularly amusing bit at the end involving a dwarf. (I’m sure your mind is going to all sorts of lovely details as to what that entails, but I promise you it’s not kinky.) Better was a scene that came later, when I had Geralt ask Triss about removing an unfortunate tattoo he obtained after a night of drinking. Her reaction to it was absolutely priceless. Triss brings the heart and humanity to this game in a very necessary way, and despite being Geralt’s main squeeze, it helps tremendously that when she’s on the job she may be the least sexualized central female character I’ve seen in this game so far.
So, all in all, an extremely promising first half. If you’re looking for the glass is half empty side of the equation, there is the aforementioned issue of performance affecting the combat in a notably negative way. Some of the mini games are fairly annoying. The arm wrestling is just a weird mechanic that has absolutely no tactile feel to it at all. The quicktime events are largely pointless, as most such functions tend to be in games. Does it really help the game any that when I’m being tossed about on a Kayran’s tentacle that I have to hit the left mouse button repeatedly? Is pressing random combinations of the WASD keys really the best they could have come up with for the fist fighting mechanic? Why is it so easy to throw the dice completely off the board when playing the dice game? The overwhelming numbers of creatures you have to face off against in certain places gets to feeling punitive at times. The game can be fiddly about positioning Geralt which can make combat frustrating if you inadvertently end up putting your back to an adversary. Other times the game has a maddeningly narrow range for sensing when you can pick up objects or loot, particularly when using a game controller instead of the mouse and keyboard,. There are also times it’s hard to see just what the game wants you to do and that can mean a lot of wandering around or re-tracing your tracks. In Chapter 2 right now I’m supposed to be collecting some artifacts, but I’m either missing something obvious or haven’t found the right area yet, because I have no idea where to go or what to do to track down a couple of them and the quest log doesn’t appear to offer any clues. I’m probably just missing something obvious, but we’ll see how that goes.
Overall, though? This is an amazing game and if you’ve got the machine to run it, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
*High Fidelity is such an overlooked gem. Been a couple years since I last watched it (though I did read the excellent book last year) and, although I was always fond of it, more so than in the past it really struck home with me this time around.