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One More Time

While the rest of the gaming world is staring at Error 2389742 screens, waiting patiently for Blizzard to switch the servers back on, or- if they’re lucky- Pavolvianly clicking monsters until they dispense money and items, I’ve started on my second playthrough of 2012 Game of the Year The Witcher 2. It’s Roche’s path this time, and I’m playing a “no mercy, bed everything that moves, jerkwad Geralt” game this time around. Last night I punched a peasant for not paying me. Felt so wicked. I’m markedly better at the game than I was the first time through, cutting through foes without struggling with learning the controls and how to leverage the tools at the Witcher’s disposal. Difficulty? Dark.

Let me be clear about something here. I almost never play through story-based games twice. If a game has a specific narrative line and the gameplay isn’t score or skill based, then my time with the game is pretty much done after the credits. Exceptions are rare. Dead Space 2, Arkham Asylum, and Metro 2033 were the three most recent games I played through more than once. And I’m almost always trying to get back to another playthrough of Resident Evil 4 and any of the Metal Gear Solid titles. But those are top-shelf favorites. Eternal and timeless. And it says a lot about The Witcher 2 that I am buckling down for another bajillion hour trek with Geralt not a week after completing it.

So far I’m enjoying taking a different approach and building out skills differently- the key is that the content of the game and the interpretation of its story material is different. And I know when I hit that fork in the road, there is quite literally a completely different game in the second act. It’s not just a minor variation or a feeble “game plus” option.

But typically, I could not possibly care less about playing through any of the Mass Effect games again just to see what Renegade FemShep says. I got one of the umpteen different endings in Chrono Trigger and I was content to wait a decade and a half to look up what happened in the others on YouTube in a moment of curiosity. I’ll never know what it’s like to play Fallout 3 as a vampire or what’s it’s like to kill the Little Sisters in Bioshock. I don’t generally care about alternate morality paths, slight variances in endings, or any of that crap. I don’t care about achievements or trophies (that thunk was Brandon hitting the floor). I know these kinds of things add replayability for a lot of folks, but once a game has told me its story, I’m almost always ready to move on and never look back. Unless it’s something like Bayonetta or Vanquish, where performance goals add measurable challenge and incentive. I’ll get those “S” rankings one day.

I can watch a great film endlessly. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched Dog Day Afternoon, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Apocalypse Now, or Touch of Evil. When I got the There Will Be Blood DVD, I think I watched part or all of that film every night for two months. There’s something different about commiting to playing a game and seeing it through to the end. Ultimately, the return on investment in terms of time and energy for a second playthrough is rarely worth it to me. Even the short, sub-10 hour games rarely entice me to have another go. One and done.

I hear about people doing all of these playthroughs of games, experiencing every aspect of them, and I almost kind of envy them. I wish that I could be so committed to a game. I wish I could squeeze that kind of value out of my purchases. I wish that I could immerse myself that much into a single title and abandon my “love ‘em and leave ‘em” ways. But I can’t. There’s too many games I want to play, there’s always something I want to check out, finish, or master. When I’m done, the games are gone, out of my life. Sold. Traded. Bartered for the next love affair. Nothing I can do, a total eclipse of the heart.

Oh, I’ve intended to play through games again many times. I was certain that I would play through both Bioshock games again. They sat on a shelf and gathered dust for years. I had a giant stack of PC CD-Roms, all games that I held on to with the intent to one day boot up Age of Wonders, Homeworld, Alone in the Dark, and Sacrifice. It never happened. My wife found the pile during a housecleaning binge last year and made me throw them away. It didn’t hurt. I played those games, finished them, moved on. Remember them fondly.

I knew with The Witcher 2 that I needed to start playing it again right away or else it wouldn’t happen. I would put it aside, other games would wind up in my rotating, ephemeral collection and it would get shunted to the side. It’s a playthrough already at risk. Dragon’s Dogma next week. Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. Anarchy Reigns. Whatever. It’s going to take some willpower for me to go through the entire game again. But I did not want to miss a sizeable percentage of the game’s content, which I hold in such high regard. I could have waited for a rainy day. But rainy days never seem to come when there’s always something new to play.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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”.