Less than a week to go until Wild Hunt! Who is excited to find Yennefer, unravel the mysteries of Ciri and hunt some goddamn monsters?! I know I am! Today, I provide you with a refresher of the best (and small amount of worst) parts of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. Playing the second game almost immediately after finishing the original game really highlights the improvements which were made to the sequel. Here’s hoping we can expect just as many improvements in Wild Hunt.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is a spectacular game, especially when compared with its predecessor. The comparative improvements that this sequel brings to the table are some of the best I have seen between games. Although The Witcher contains many of the elements necessary to concoct a good game, Assassins of Kings brings everything The Witcher could have been to the fore, improving on it impressively.
First, I must talk about the combat. Oh, the combat. What a relief to play through a game with a challengingly difficult combat system that actually allows you to block! As I described when recounting my experiences with The Witcher, the combat of the first game is noticeably and infamously flawed. CD Projekt RED listened. They listened to the problems players experienced and designed something that successfully carries over the good features of The Witcher’s combat, such as the Signs, while creating a fresh combat experience that’s more logical, engaging, and fun. Assassins of Kings employs more traditional combat controls, but adds some game-changing abilities to accompany your base sword-fighting skills. Assassins of Kings retains the five Signs from the first game, but gives them a whole new look and altered effectiveness. Although they remain basically the same – Igni is fire, Yrden is trap, Quen is shield, Aard is knockback, and Axii is control – they look different and their effects are better balanced to be more useful. My instinct while completing the combat tutorial of Assassins of Kings was to resort to the trusty combination I employed while playing The Witcher – swordplay and Igni. However, I discovered that the wise decision had been made to modify Igni quite a bit. By the end of The Witcher, I had fuelled so much experience into Igni that using it resulted in surrounding enemies being lit on fire and taking a hearty amount of damage. In Assassins of Kings it is a far more balanced, short burst of flame, which at level one targets only one enemy. Although it was tough to transition to the vastly different controls, they make for a much better game.
On PC, Mouse 1 is your swift attack, Mouse 2 is a strong attack and again you have both a Steel Sword (for humans) and a Silver Sword (for beasts). Q is for using Signs, which you cycle through using 3, E is block, and R is for throwing bombs or setting traps (cycled from pockets with 4). The introduction of blocking is really what introduces proper strategy into the combat of Assassins of Kings. There was strategy in the original game, in its own screwy kind of way, but the strategy there felt more like grappling with the system to try and make it do what you want. The sequel’s combat feels strategic because it was designed to be that way.
A cool feature of The Witcher series is the ability to import a save from your previous game into the new one, so that the decisions you made in one game carry over to the other. Some gear is also transferable. I was pleasantly surprised to find my awesome swords from the end of The Witcher in my Assassins of Kings inventory.
Despite these massive improvements, a new problem I noticed was the substantial gap in difficulty between ‘easy’ and ‘normal’ game modes. Having completed the first game and played a respectable amount of games over the years, I decided ‘normal’ was the most appropriate level of difficulty for me. Once I had adjusted to the new combat controls, I was able to complete the Prologue and Chapter One without too many problems. However, the beginning of Chapter Two was frustrating. Depending on whether you journey to Vergen with Vernon Roche, commander of Temeria’s elite military unit The Blue Stripes, or Iorveth, elven leader of a band of Scoia’tael (non-human rebels fed up with their treatment as inferior) you begin Chapter Two as King Henselt of Kaedwen or Prince Stennis of Aedirn. Either way, you must engage in a combat with no time to prepare accordingly. This is tough because unlike The Witcher, in Assassins of Kings you may only drink potions prior to battle. Consuming them during conflict is totally impossible. Playing Iorveth’s path, I found the battle fun and fairly easy. Although you begin by playing as Stennis, Geralt soon arrives and your control returns to him. In Roche’s path, although you play as Geralt from the outset of the combat, it is ironically much more difficult and took me a long time to finish. The enemies were the same, but Iorveth’s path supports you with many more allies as compared with Roche’s. Combat difficulty does not seem to depend on whether the enemy is human or monster. Rather, it depends on numbers. During the ‘Death Symbolised’ quest, in which you must recover the standard of a dead knight by exploring his tomb, a group of around seven bandits held me up on my way to crypt. However, I had no trouble defeating what felt like an endless stream of wraiths and finally their leader, the ghost of the Knight, once I had chosen to face him. The wraiths were limited to waves of three, but all of the bandits consistently attacked at once. When frustrated with the game, I experimented switching to ‘easy’ mode, to see how different it was, and whether I had perhaps overestimated by abilities. I found easy mode way too easy. The amount of damage taken is much reduced compared to normal, so much so that the fights lose their challenge and therefore their edge. So ‘normal’ it had to be. Although frustrating, the difficulty of Assassins of Kings’ combat makes success really rewarding, and certainly more fun, while the easiness of ‘easy’ makes it totally viable to slide through combat that can become really tedious.
Speaking of tedious, let’s briefly talk ‘Quick Time Events’. These are time-sensitive moments during cut scenes or cinematic sequences, which require the player to react promptly and accurately by pressing some button, or combination of buttons, to complete the scene. Although I can appreciate that their purpose is to encourage instinctual player decisions, keep the game engaging, and increase immersion, they are so frustratingly poorly signalled in Assassins of Kings that I felt they often detracted from pivotal game moments. The required button press appeared on the screen in a tone of orange that seemed to always camouflage with its nearby surroundings on the screen, resulting in frequent failure the first time they occurred. Luckily, they can be turned off, so not too many complaints can be made here.
Second only to my delight with the new combat system of Assassins of Kings was my appreciation of the visual improvements the sequel provides. The first thing to strike me, apart from the stunning environments, was the character redesigns. Geralt looks more as a Witcher should look. Gruffer, tougher, and generally more badass. Everything is more detailed – but in a logical, rather than frivolous way. Everyone’s outfits are equipped with pouches, buckles, and ties that make everything look a bit more believable. They even went to the trouble of bothering to give Geralt scabbards!
These visual changes were most noticeable in Triss and Dandelion. Dandelion retains his ridiculously colourful, eye-grabbing bard’s garb, but also seems more handsome and natural looking. Interacting with Dandelion was awkward in The Witcher. His character model just looked so odd at times, and was poor at expressing different emotions. The makeover is much appreciated.
Likewise, Triss’ look received a massive overhaul, and I love everything about it. Not only does she look much prettier, and more attractive, her outfit seems much more like that of a battle-ready mage compared to her lamentable old outfit. But for Triss, the changes do not stop with appearances. Although Dandelion looks very different, his character is much the same. This is not the case for Triss. Instead of the stiff-backed court sorceress of The Witcher, Triss in Assassins of Kings is more like your bubbly college girlfriend. If, like me, you chose Shani rather than Triss, The Witcher will end with Geralt and Triss on barely civil terms. Yet an early scene of Assassins of Kings sees Geralt and Triss enjoying a romantic morning together in Foltest’s camp. Although this felt really incongruent, I like the new Triss so much better that I really did not mind the strange change. She is sassier, funnier, and generally more likeable. However I did find it frustrating that she spends two-thirds of the game playing the damsel. Old, Senator Triss would never have let that happen to her.
Something that constantly impressed me throughout the game was CD Projekt RED’s dedication to building a world that is complex and believable, thanks to the epic amount of detail the game possesses. ‘Lovingly crafted’ only begins to describe it. From silly things, like the soldiers you accidentally stumble upon peeing in bushes, to more useful content like the painstakingly recorded journal entries. Every phase of every quest is recorded in a readable and entertaining tone, as though the bard Dandelion was retelling Geralt’s stories years after they happened. And it’s not only Dandelion who speaks of Geralt as some kind of myth. In the poor village of Lobinden, if you happen to be listening, a village elder will be retelling the story of Geralt the Witcher and cursed Princess Adda, the Striga (an adventure that takes part during the original game) as though it is a legend of mythic proportions – this recount has no practical function in the game – it is merely for flavour, but it is exactly this kind of detail that makes the game so immersive and quality. This kind of dynamism is everywhere in Assassins of Kings. Characters and environments react to who you are, what you say, what you do. You may, at times, interrupt NPCs if you dislike what they are doing. You can take counsel with your friends – Dandelion, Zoltan, and Triss – throughout the game, regarding both personal and political matters. It is these kinds of additions that make the game so immersive and enjoyable.
The plot of Assassins of Kings is equally as ambitious as that of The Witcher, but much more political and dramatic. The opening of the game sees Geralt locked in a cell, bereft of weapons and shirt. You spend the first few hours of gameplay discovering what happened through the prologue. However, rather than watching three hours of cut scenes (I am looking at you Square Enix), you instead get to play through Geralt’s memories leading up to his arrest as he recounts them to Roche. As you may have guessed from the title, Assassins of Kings’ plot is driven by, well, a string of assassinations. Geralt is wrongfully imprisoned for committing one of these regicides, after which you spend the rest of the game trying to clear your name or exact your revenge, depending on your view of the situation. Just like its predecessor, Assassins of Kings is all about choices, but the scale of intrigue is much vaster than in The Witcher. Although the plot of the original game sees Geralt become involved in politics and war, in Assassins of Kings he is stuck firmly in the middle of it throughout the game, no matter how neutral you try to be. The conversation choices are excellently written, often intelligent or thought provoking, and regularly reflecting exactly what I actually wish to say – a rare happenstance in a game.
Mixed throughout the main action are flashbacks to Geralt’s past. As he interacts with people, places, and objects that trigger memories, the player witnesses his recollection in the form of highly stylised, grim-dark, visual-novel animations. These snippets are intriguing, especially for players of The Witcher, and the animation is an oddly suitable style for Geralt’s memories. Another cool addition is the ability to play from the various characters’ perspectives as they recount memories to you. If Triss or Roche are recounting an important memory to Geralt, just as you play as Geralt through his memories in the prologue, you make decisions or fight as other characters as necessary. This is a great plot device.
One thing that The Witcher definitely had over Assassins of Kings was the complete feel of the game’s plot. The Witcher may have left many stones unturned, but it had an independent plot that felt adequately wrapped up at the end of the game. The ending of Assassins of Kings felt like stepping out of the theatre for what you thought was the interval and returning to your seat to find that the actors had all gone home. While this effectively builds anticipation for the next instalment, it feels a little like poor storytelling.
All up, it must be said that Assassins of Kings is a better game than its predecessor. CD Projekt Red learned a lot from their first game, and made nothing but improvements upon its sequel. The Witcher can be considered better story-wise, but its questionable combat system and less superior visuals and design – in terms of HUD and menu navigation – make Assassins of Kings a better gaming experience. While I hold The Witcher in high regard for its ambitious and engaging plot, intrigue, and quests, Assassins of Kings was more fun.
If the improvements between Assassins of Kings and The Wild Hunt are anything as dramatic as the improvements between The Witcher and Assassins of Kings, which given the equal development time of roughly four years may likely be the case, we are in for something truly special.