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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.

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.