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Five Great Things about Act I of The Witcher 2

It’s Witcher 2 Week again for the third straight week. Get used to it. If you’re not playing or haven’t played this amazing game, get off my Web site. This game is almost the perfect real-world argument against everything we grumpy old folks complain about here at NHS. If only the industry would look to this game as a model that shows how to do things right.

I have no idea how many hours I’ve put into The Witcher 2, heading into the third week of playing it. Usually I’m interested to see this statistic because it speaks to pacing, content, and I can usually gauge where my interest is with the game. With The Witcher 2, I couldn’t care less. I’m taking my time and savoring every minute with it and getting the most out of it. It’s a game that you can really dig into and get lost in- these days among console games.

But I do know that as of Friday I completed Act I and as far as I know every optional objective. Following are five great things about the first part of The Witcher 2. Obviously, there are spoilers abound so don’t read if you want to preserve the great sense of revelation and discovery this game offers.

1) The Kayran. I loved that the entire first act of the game effectively builds up to the massive battle with the Kayran. As I wrote about in my last Witcher 2 entry, I loved that the game had that same Monster Hunter-like buildup and preparation for the big fight. It’s reminiscent of the movie Dragonslayer, and I love how the inevitable climax with the Kayran casts a shadow over everything that goes on in Flotsam. It’s out there. You know it’s coming. You’ve got to learn about it and get your ducks in a row.

I loved the sortie into the Kayran’s lair to get the mucus sample, brewing the Mongoose potion, and collecting materials to build traps. I loved discussing the upcoming fight with Sile. I loved the gradual development of a sense of readiness. The game never tells you it’s time- you decide.

The fight itself could have gone horribly wrong. When I saw the glowing tentacle parts, I sighed. But then it turned out to be, like some of the best boss fights in the Souls games, more of a puzzle than a resource management or dexterity test. Also like the Souls games, I had that awesome “how the FUCK am I going to kill this thing” feeling when Sile lured him out of his lair.

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I actually really liked the QTE segment- it was really well done, and it depicted a kind of action that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. It only took me about ten deaths to get to that stage and then the damn thing dashed me against the columns a couple of times. But then I got to the run-up, tossed the bomb, and then robbed its body of eyeballs and such.

Now I’m wearing the son of a bitch.

2) Adult sex! BioWare, I hope you saw the scene with Geralt and Triss and the Elven Baths. I hope anyone entertaining the idea of putting a sex scene in a game sees this, because it was by far the most successful, heartful, and mature one I’ve seen to date- even with some still pretty creepy and weird uncanny valley stuff going on. The secret to its success is that it’s a very spontaneous, actually quite romantic interlude between lovers- not some sleazy Commander Shepard hook-up where the player has followed leading dialogue lines to try to get in the sack with a blue lady or gifted a bunch of trinkets to a character to shift a slider toward Booty Readiness.

Prefacing it with the scene where Geralt gives (or doesn’t give, if you’re a jerk) the Rose of Rememberance to Triss made the entire exchange feel genuine and tender, even in its relative explicitness. I didn’t feel ashamed or embarrassed by it at all, and instead it seems to really cement Geralt and Triss’s relationship in my mind. I’ve run across a couple of instances where Geralt could hop into bed with other women, but it makes sense to me that the character would be completely monogamous and faithful to Triss- particularly after the Elven Baths. It also influenced my decision to go after Triss at the end of the first act.

I also really liked the humorous denoument to the scene with the dwarf bandit hearing the “ghostly” moaning- one thing that I absolutely love about the game is its willingness to introduce some levity into its otherwise dark proceedings.

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3) All politics is local. I loved encountering the unique political situation in Flotsam, rife with corruption, racism, rebellion, and intrigue. I felt like it all integrated seamlessly into the larger story of the game and the subplots were compelling and well worth pursuing. I also really liked becoming a thorn in Loredo’s side, skulking around his compound, stealing all his stuff, and snubbing him whenever possible.

I also really liked how Iorveth’s Scoi’atel, who could have been portrayed as Robin Hood and his Merry Men, are not apparently good or bad. Like almost every character and faction in the game, they’re chaotic neutral. How delicious was it not knowing if Iorveth was going to be friend or foe, or how Geralt would fit into the dissension between the trading post and its harassing outlaws?

It’s another testament to the great writing on display. Even more than obscured motives, situational ethics, and moral gray areas, the story and decisions are so well-presented that the game never has to tell you what is right or wrong. It’s up to you- the player- to decide where you and Geralt fall politically without facile value judgments or phony morality. That’s a very, very uncommon degree of respect afforded to the player.

4) Learning by Doing. I’m over games that explain everything in tutorials. I never want to spend the first hour of a game in some tutorial, learning to press the A button and tilt the control sticks again. I loved that I spent a lot of Act I learning to play the game, developing skills, and figuring out how to do things like brew potions and fight crowds effectively. I almost feel like I’m remembering how to do all this stuff along with Geralt as he regains his badassedness.

It’s another example of how this game respects its players. It knows you’re smart enough to figure most of it out. The tutorial is really just a combat exercise to teach you the mechanics- but even then, it’s part of a mini-story about Geralt and the game’s combat arena. Of course, there were times when I just didn’t know what was going on and I felt like I was thrown in the deep end. But the payoff of actually becoming skillful with the game was well worth some early frustration.

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Some ways into Act 2, I feel like I’m still learning. I still don’t really get how to use the Harpy traps for exampIe. I almost hope that I never figure it all out.

5) A Witcher’s work is never done. The sidequests are probably the best I’ve ever seen in a game because they make sense, they’re interesting, and they’re thematically consistent with the nature of a Witcher. Taking on jobs to root out Nekker nests, investigate local strangeness, and even prizefighting make total sense for a ronin-like vagabond taking odd jobs and plying their talents for coin.

A couple of the sidequests have been as good as the main story- the burned-down hospital in particular. The key is that the optional quests all provide compelling leads and the promise of story content, not just level grinding, money, and loot. They’re fully realized sub-stories, and they reveal more of the game world and Geralt’s character.

I keep thinking of how wrong Kingdoms of Amalur had it with its MMORPG-style quest system. Doing menial crap like picking flowers or killing X of Y may make more sense with an overlay of socialization, but in a single player, story-focused title they simply do not work. I’ve done- and will do- every side quest in the Witcher 2. I think I saw maybe 15% of the hundreds of empty, meaningless sidequests in Kingdoms of Amalur.

I’d feel like I was missing out if I skipped them in this game. In Kingdoms and other, lesser RPGs I’ve never looked back. Somewhere on my 360’s hard drive there are dozens and dozens of NPCs wondering when I’m going to be back with whatever crap they wanted me to find or why I said “no” to getting their cat out of a tree. The Witcher 2 demonstrates the difference between great optional content and filler trash.

So it’s onto Vergen in Act II, and I’m already cowl-deep in the goings-on there. A mist choked with wraiths, a Joan of Arc-like figure seeking to unite the races of the Pontar Valley, foul-mouthed dwarves, and harpies galore. It’s almost like another game, and truth be told if Act I were all there were to the Witcher 2, I’d still be very, very damn satisfied with it.

Michael Barnes

Games writer Michael Barnes is a co-founder of Nohighscores.com as well as FortressAT.com. His trolling has been published on the Web and in print in at least two languages and in three countries. His special ability is to cheese off nerds using the power of the Internet and his deep, dark secret is that he's actually terrible at games. Before you ask, no, the avatar is not him. It's Mark E. Smith of The Fall.

22 thoughts to “Five Great Things about Act I of The Witcher 2”

  1. What’s really going to impress you is when you go back and play the game again, and make the other major choice at the end of Act 1. (If you hadn’t planned to do this, change your plans).

    1. Remember when I said “get used to Witcher 2 week?”

      Playthrough two is already on the cards. And I don’t do playthrough twos.

  2. Can’t agree more. Having started over on Hard I found three or four areas I’d made mistakes on had seamlessly led me back into the story without feeling like I’d failed. It was only on this second beginning that I realized it could have been another way. I can’t speak more highly of the excellent writing in this game.

    1. I think it’s really important to play it on Hard. The difficulty of the combat makes the stakes higher and it really calls on you to LEARN to play the game using all available abilities and tools.

      It is really seamless though, isn’t it? I haven’t run into any part where failure was obvious, and things that have consequences later aren’t always apparent.

      I _had_ to do that thing with the alchemists testing Witcher physiology…I have no idea where that’s going to lead, but I couldn’t pass it up.

      1. I agree with this (having completed a playthrough on Nightmare), but there is at least one part in Act 2 that will make you want to gouge your eyes out on the higher difficulties. I won’t specify why, for spoiler reasons, but it’s the one misstep in a game that otherwise really rewards play on higher difficulty settings.

  3. I say it every time, it’s the best RPG since the infinity engine days. Nothing else touches it, for quality of writing, story and characterisation, and overall maturity.

    1. I’m just about done w/ Act I on the 2nd playthrough. Curious where the story goes this time.

  4. I had to pass up bathtime sexytimes. +20% damage resistance against magic was too much to ignore. Stupid abilities and their stupid way of helping me not die.

  5. Since we’re talking spoilers…

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention Malena’s quest. On surface it seems pretty basic: racist soldiers want to blame the disappearance of their buddies on the convenient elf. Then you actually find the bodies riddled with arrows. When I returned to Malena, I was glad that I had the option to lie, which I did, to save the pretty elf girl. Unsurprisingly, she invited me to the waterfall to repay the favor (“Hello, first sex scene of the game. Man this is totally like Witcher 1.”).

    Then you get ambushed by 4-5 Scoiatael. Time to reload. Next time, I just told the guards.

    Also, the huge nekker fight in the cave was very intense. There was like 20 nekkers chasing me, while I rolled around and casted Quen whenever I got hit. Stopping to attack more than once got me surrounded and ripped apart by the pack almost instantly.

    1. YES, that was a really good one. I lied to the guards too, mostly because I was thinking that it was a potentially volatile situation given the politics of the area- not so much because of the girl. But then I wound up dispensing some rough justice in the end, regretful end to a regretful story.

      I trapped the shit out of the Nekkers…but man, that was TOUGH.

        1. The hospital, I believe. She’s tucked away in a corner (above ground, not down in the dungeony area).

  6. For reference – Following Iorveth’s path will tell you one half of act 2, and following Roche’s gives the other. The crossroads is the -big- fork in the road. At which point you’ll either be siding with Iorveth and his Peasant turned Noble Knight lady friend, Saskia, or you’ll be siding with Roche and Henselt, both paths offer unique options on goodies, as well as very thematically different locations.

    Saskia’s place being under siege means you’ll take the “Castle” side of Vergen and it’s surrounds, and the Kedewen camp is a rounded out version of the one you peeked at in the prologue, very much wood and ramparts and logs smacked into the ground to form walls and trench lines.

    Both sides of act 2 can yield vastly different outcomes in and of themselves (Roche’s reason for helping Henselt turns him into a magnificent bastard if you let it play out). And the sub-resolutions based on your choices will echo in to act three.

    Having tested Act 3 on the PC now, it’s a lot stronger. I played this game twice, once on initial release, once with the first major content patch, and Act 3 always felt a little thin. Not anymore. A hell of a lot to do, and a lot of foreshadowing before something awesome.

    1. Yeah, it’s nice to see someone following Roche’s path like I did. I winced when Bill told Brandon that he was headed to Vergen on the podcast, since he may never see it until the very end of the second act.

    2. Yep, when Roche told me in Flotsam something like “what the hell are you doing, quit fucking around and lets go already” i was like, yes, best point you could have made, and followed Roche’s path. I quite liked Henselt and Roche.

    3. I too thought Act 3 had problems in the initial PC release. Had not heard they flushed that out. Dammit. I’m going to have to replay this now.

  7. Love this game. I keep imagining the way the Mass Effect/Dragon Age/ RPG X could be improved by taking the lessons that are available to be learned from playing this game.

    3 hours into the game I was already deciding to play through a second time to access things that I did from the other side. It never makes you feel like you’re seeing the same things but with different dialogue options like some other RPGs that are oriented around player choice.

    I am loving playing on Hard Mode. This is sword-play the way it should be. Visceral, fast, and deadly. Much like wielding a hand and a half sword would be. I love having to prep with potions, choose sword oils, and prep the battle field/maintain mobility and sign usage during the fights. It never feels like too much if you do the work but it feels like you’re walking a thin line between death and victory… exactly the way things should feel. I am going to have to make my second play through on dark mode.

    Loved the boss fight in Act I. Felt like a badass using a specific trap and then realized that the rest of the fight was up to me… Took me a few tries, but when I succeeded it gave me a fantastic feeling of accomplishment, much like every other fight in this game.

    The only issue I’ve come across so far is a spot in Act II where there are infinite harpies (at least following the Roche path). Let’s just say there are no merchants in Henselt’s camp that have anything worth buying after about an hour of harpy killing… In a normal game I’d say it’s a bug, but it fits in a bit with the witcher. He’s just trying to exterminate the monsters, and there are merchants willing to pay for the crafting ingredients along the way.

    Fantastic game. So far I don’t know of another game that could beat this for Game of 2012.

    1. hrrrhrhrhr… yes… merchants buying harpy feathers for… ingredients… hrhrhrhr… how innocent your mind is…

  8. Even before Act 1, in the Prologue things change slightly towards the end of the game because of decisions you made.

  9. The dwarf’s comment in the Elven Baths scene made my night. Like the rest of the game, that whole section was written with thoughtful maturity. Need more stuff from CD Projekt.

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