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The Weight of the Witcher

I don’t mention it a lot here, but my gaming life started as a PC gamer. Sure, there were handheld forays in high school, when I’d sit in Joe Faul’s basement and play his brother’s Game Boy while the Mike Tyson fight was ever-so-briefly on HBO. Those were just passing moments, though. My real game playing time started in 1997, when I got my first computer.

I remember it like it was yesterday, mostly because I ordered a Gateway which promptly broke down with a shoddy CD drive. The replacement was also shoddy and the replacement for that replacement was DOA, a tragic situation made all the more tragic by it coinciding with my wife being away for a week while she helped her brother drive cross country. Eventually I ditched Gateway but not before reaming out the useless tech support rep, dashing off an angry letter to Gateway, the Better Business Bureau and PC Gamer. What can I say, I was pissed. I ended up with a Dell, and I have owned Dells ever since, even when I moved over to gaming exclusively on consoles.

I’m telling you this because when I talk about the Witcher 2 for the 360, I want you to understand that despite my console allegiance, I do have fond memories of days when weight meant something in RPGs.

One of the things that impressed me off the bat about The Witcher 2 Enhanced Edition was the sheer physical weight of the product. I was gaming during one of the greatest eras in computer RPG history, when games like Fallout 2, Baldurs Gate 2, Icewind Dale, Diablo 2 and Deus Ex were released. I played those games and Planescape and Nox and Arcanum and Neverwinter Nights and Wizardry. During it all, one thing and one thing only was the best starting point for evaluating an RPG: the weight. A heavy box meant multiple discs, a beefy manual, maybe a map. Were there heavy RPGs that lacked in quality? Sure there were, but if you were thinking of picking up an RPG and the box weighed as much as the box for the latest shooter, you had to pause. What kind of world were they building that I didn’t have pages upon pages of character classes and subclasses to pore over? What magical system was in place that didn’t have dozens of spells to investigate? What the hell was I going to do while the game installed and my device drivers updated if I didn’t have a manual to read or a map to look at?

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The Witcher 2: Enhanced Edition is a heavy game. The manual it comes with is thick and beefy, a rarity in console games, even RPGs, these days. There was a time, not long ago, when I would play the game for an hour and then bring the manual upstairs with me to read while the wife and I watched TV. Here I would try and gain a deeper understanding of the dozens of hours that were still to come. Nowadays, if there’s a manual at all, it consists of a list of commands and the associated buttons and maybe a picture of the HUD. Most of the time you get an epilepsy warning, a piracy warning, a EULA and a link to a company site where you can download the manual as a PDF. Nothing hearkens back to the days of rerolling characters for an hour quite like curling up with a PDF for the latest Assassins Creed game.

The Witcher 2 breaks this cycle with a manual that leaves nothing to the imagination. Combat techniques, signs, character upgrades, it’s all here. Do you want to know how Quen changes with two upgrades rather than one? It’s here. Would you like to know what the different types of alchemical ingredients are? It’s here. Whether you want to know what the HUD looks like, or you want a reference guide for planning out Geralt’s character advancement, the manual has it covered.

More importantly, having such a detailed guide at your fingertips gives the player the impression that only are the developers proud of their work, and they want you to experience it in as many ways possible, but that that they encourage a level of contemplation outside of what you can get while playing. Do you need the manual? No, probably not, but to be able to read about things away from the chaos of battle helps crystallize how you play the game. At least for me it does. Many times, the reason you don’t get a manual is because there isn’t enough game to support it. The Witcher 2 laughs at that. Here, it says, take this manual, you’re going to need it.

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This is to say nothing of the quest handbook that details the main quests, the side quests and the options for all quests, great and small that reside within. I certainly don’t expect publishers to provide you with a guide for every game they put out, and I doubt I’ll use this much that much, preferring to find things for myself. You could say that the developers don’t have faith in their game and the guide is a hand-holding device, and there maybe some truth to that. The opposite can be said also. The developers want you to see this through to the end and if giving the player a nudge in the right direction, or some help in choosing a path, then all the better. Here, the guide says, sit back, let us take you on a journey.

The game itself also has weight, in part due to jumping to a story that is in the middle of being told and jumping into the shoes of a character with a significant backstory. There’s something about the scope of conflict in this game that somehow makes it seem weightier than ones where the fate of the world or universe is at stake. In those games, fighting is an absolute necessary. To not fight is to perish. Here though, Geralt fights because he chose to serve and protect a king. It’s possible that the scope of the conflict will expand as I get further into the game, but right now, Geralt risks his life not for the universe, but for one man. Like those he kills, Geralt is in the piss and the shit, fighting, killing and, in my case, dying, while the powerful watch from on high.

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When Geralt stops Fortest’s men from sacking a house and killing those within, I don’t feel bad about asking for a reward. After all, if Geralt wasn’t fighting for Fortest, he’d be scrounging to make a living, helping those who despise him. In this situation, not asking for money seems more out of character than requesting payment. Again, it comes down to a matter of weight. What did Commander Shepard do in between ME2 and ME3? Who knows. More importantly, who cares? With Geralt, I know that when his service to Fortest ends, it will be back to hunting monsters by night, searching for herbs and any trinkets and treasures that can be sold to stave off poverty. Geralt lives in a world that hates him and needs him in equal measure and this gives his world and his interactions with it a weight I haven’t felt in an RPG in some time.

I ‘ve barely scratched the surface of the game so much of what this world has to offer has yet to be shown, but so far, The Witcher 2 gets my vote for weightiest game of the year. I won’t be at all surprised if “weightiest” ends up synonymous with “best”.

Brandon

Brandon loves games, which shouldn't be a surprise given where you're reading this. He has written for GameShark, The Escapist and G4, and made them all less relevant as a result.

32 thoughts to “The Weight of the Witcher”

  1. I’ve kept my eye on this one for a while.

    Having never played the original, most of the reading I’ve done has suggested that won’t be a problem. The only real concern I have left is what I’ve heard about the game difficulty. I played Dark Souls and got frustrated after about 6 hours. I’m curious if that frustration will carry over here.

    1. There’s an easy mode…you can actually even make the QTEs easier. I think it’ll accomodate you.

    2. I can assure you, having forced my way through the first game in preparation for the second, that you’re not missing much in terms of plot or character development. Suffice to say, you stopped the conspiracy of a genocidal maniac, whether in service to the humans or not, and therefore Foltest looks kindly on you. Well, due to that and to the assassin you stopped in the ending cutscene.

      On the one hand, I enjoy a self-contained story in this franchise-obsessed industry. On the other, I was expecting some sort of payoff for finishing a forty-hour game I didn’t particularly like, whether narrative or material, and it was disappointing enough that the gear you got from importing was vastly inferior to the preorder bonuses. Ah well, you’re in for a great time with The Witcher 2, at least.

  2. Oh boy oh boy oh boy. You have only just touched the literal tip of a very large iceberg. Suffice to say, the prologue can play out very differently based on a specific choice during Aryan La Valette’s section. Then you will wind up in the most mangy, dirty, grimy place imaginable : Flotsam. It’s a horrible place, hangings are a daily occurrence, fights both organised and not rage both in and out of the tavern, there’s hookers, Scoia’tael and bent officials everywhere you turn.

    There really is no right or wrong in the storyline, there is choice – and consequence. A fact the game will hammer into you with brutal ferocity at the end of chapter 1 (where the game will literally -split- into two very different paths for the mid section of the game, before coming back together in ch 3).

    With the extra content that the EE puts into play, Witcher 2 is essentially the bar that other RPG’s must hit in order to be legitimately called classics (Mass Effect 3, stop hiding in the back, you know when you’ve been called out). So, yeah, I wish you a fun journey through the eyes of Geralt, just make sure to save late Chapter 1 so you can explore both paths properly.

    1. I’m just through the prolouge but this game has already mopped the floor with pretty much everything BioWare and Bethesda have done for the past ten years- including some games I really liked.

      Now, if only game developers make the right moral choice and follow this game’s lead and not fucking Skyrim’s…

      1. “Butbutbut Skyrim sells!”, cried men in suits…

        As for me, I can’t wait to replay Witcher 2, and this time try to make different choices so I can see other area of Chapter 2, and so much other stuff. And new quests and extended ending, and new difficulty mode, and… Oh man, I love Witcher 2 😀

      2. The best part is, Good Sir, you get the EE, so you’ve had the benefits of CDP’s feedback from the PC crowd. I’ve watched them evolve the Witcher 2 as I had it right from the start, and it’s been a beautiful thing to behold. The tutorial was tightened up, the rough edges smoothed off, extra content added (and genuinely high quality stuff, the alcoholic troll is fuckawesome) and hell, even the Arena minigame is a good blast once you’ve mastered combat and can work your way through the nasties.

    2. Man, Flotsam is such a great location, probably the best starting location I’ve ever experienced in any game, let alone an RPG. It’s level 1, basically, but the game makes it clear that there’s no hand-holding. It’s exactly what you’d expect a shithole of a frontier town to be. You can almost smell the swampy stench mixed with sweat and human excrement.

      And there’s very little gameplay/story segregation in terms of the difficulty. Plotwise, Geralt is already an amazing swordsman but even for him to venture into the forest unprepared is risking certain death.

  3. First off, let me just say that HOLY FUCKING SHIT THIS GAME IS AWESOME.

    Seriously, it’s not common for a jaded, contrary grinch like me to put in a game and just fall completely in love with it almost literally from the first minute. But getting that heavy-ass package with a REAL manual, the quest book (written in the context of the game itself, just like in the old days), the map and all certainly primed me. I think that really says it all- it’s like the creators of this game are proud of what they’ve done and they’re giving the customer a complete package befitting of their finest work…and it’s not some ridiculous “collector’s edition” that costs $40 more than the regular one.

    No DLC, no online passes, no multiplayer crap. Just fucking pure GAME.

    I don’t think it’s just _weight_ though. It’s also a matter of density. The in media res story literally puts you in the thick of it…and even the tutorial is a kind of short story about Geralt…the bit where the guard thinks he’s a vampire and makes him wait outside is just brilliant.

    The scene with the siege in the prologue is another example of density…visually, thematically, and narratively. So much going on, so much detail and CARE evident in everything.

    Seriously folks, the reports of this game’s greatness have not been exaggerated. If anything, they’ve been under-reported. If this isn’t the game of the year, I would be shocked…this is the kind of game I wade through hours and hours of game industry nonsense, mediocre titles, and online jibber-jabber to find.

  4. The ending of Witcher 2 is awful. That final boss fight was a terrible let down for me, nothing, but playing the patterns.

    1. Here we go again: it doesn’t matter what happens to Garrus and Wrex and all of them after the ending, just let the game exist on its own merits and end on its own terms and stop complaining about the ending. BioWare made a solid game and…

      Oh! This is about The Witcher 2’s ending! Sorry, force of habit.

      1. Nothing like that, in fact. The ending of The Witcher 2 lacks the “punch” of its prequel, so to speak, but it’s very well done. It may be a bit underwhelming because it leaves quite a few questions unanswered… but I’m sure those will be dealt with in an expansion or in The Witcher 3.

        Also, there are elements in the ending that are much more meaningful for people who have read the books, or at least the first one (The Last Wish).

        Now, I haven’t played the enhanced edition (yet). It might be that they fleshed out the ending a little bit more, in which case it might be just perfect now.

        As for the “final fight”, one thing I liked about it, and that not many RPGs have the courage to pull off… SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER is that you can avoid it entirely if you want to. SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER

        Enough said. The Witcher 2 is a fantastic game, one that I’m happy to see reaching the console crowd.

        1. Oh no, I was just poking fun at the abundance of talk over ME3 the past month or so. I suspect The Witcher 2’s ending will leave me plenty satisfied once I get there (I’m still on the original Witcher).

          I’m actually incredibly excited about this game, and all the talk here on NHS has made me want to get through The Witcher that much quicker, but I’m forcing myself to savour it and take my time. I think it’ll be better that way.

          1. I know. I just did a segue of sorts to talk about the Witcher 2 ending, as some people thought it was somewhat underwhelming. Then again, after the epic conclusion of Chapter 2, I can see why people would think that.

        2. I loved the ending. Having the choice to have a drink and let the bad dude walk out alive was so … refreshing.

        3. The EE corrected the epilogue quite handily. Now the Outro has weight and punch. They also did a workover of Chapter 3 wholesale, so now it’s ALMOST as good as Flotsam. It’s not as dirty, or muddy, or a lot of things which flotsam is, but it’s still awesome.

      2. The game it’s self was fantastic, but i felt really let down by the boss fights. Strafe, roll, Duck, Slice, repeat. (So id say an instead of a 9 on a 0 point scale?)

        I only post here to improve my math skills.

    2. It might be worth it to reload your final save and watch the new extended ending for your game. Apart from being narrated by the obnoxious guy who voiced Dandelion, it makes a world of difference.

  5. Great article! I always loved the heavy box too, and was an avid manual reader, its the one thing I miss in the steam era.

    Also, I bought Baldurs gate when it came out, and ordered a gateway to play it on. After waiting 2 weeks for it to arrive, I booted it up and it crashed within a minute and would not run windows. Then I had to wait another week for them to send the install disks they left out to fix it. After that I’ve built my own.

  6. I just want to say this evaluation of the meaning of manuals was amazing. I still remember the original Fallout’s spiral notebook and perks list.

    I might be okay with a world in which a wiki replaced a weighty manual – but then, it would have to be a free app for phone or tablet. Badass crossover opportunity.

    Here’s hoping developers figure out the value and place of reading a manual AS a gameplay device (namely, that people who play RPGs for the story would generally rather read a manual than play a shoehorned-in tutorial level).

  7. One of main things I liked about The Witcher and loved in Witcher 2 is that the consequences of your choices are not always immediately felt. I feel like those delayed reveals really encourage just playing the game instead of playing, making a choice, reloading to go back 5 minutes and make a new selection. It helped make Geralt into a real character instead of just another avatar.

  8. Your description of the packaging alone made my eyebrows raise. I use to take my instruction booklets to bed while the wife watched her shows also. I would even take them to work when I had a desk job. I love action RPG’s. After reading your write up and Barnes’ comments. I now will be unable to wait for this game. Thx

  9. Good points Brandon. I’ve always loved the feel of a hefty game box, knowing that there was some much more than just the game discs to discover.
    Btw, good to see you can use ‘pore’ correctly. I seem to be seeing many ‘professionals’ completly IGNorant of the difference between pour/pore.

  10. Played this all day yesterday. Took a personal day.

    Id never have played this if not for bill and todd raving about the series over the past year.

    Just wanted to thank all you guys for the referrel because this game is amazing. I think it puts skyrim to sha me. Flotsam is more detailed and real in any section of skyrim imo. I like that game and sunk 60 hrs in it but witcher is in another class. And brandon I agree…man I miss hefty game boxes.

    1. Nothing like taking personal days to play a great game.

      I remember when I was a kid, feigning illness to play Ultima III for 8 hrs.

          1. And in those 3 months, you had the best gaming experience of your life. So, in the end, it was worth it, was it not? 😉

            BTW, how do you feel about Darksiders’ Tiamat now? 😉

  11. Everything is very open with a very clear clarification of the issues.
    It was definitely informative. Your website is very useful.
    Thanks for sharing!

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