The Witcher 2 360 Review
When CD Projekt announced that they'd be porting their epic RPG The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings to Xbox 360, no one really seemed to understand why. Porting a sequel without the original game seemed weird, and were console gamers really even into the depth of a PC action-RPG? But after playing this 360 port, I now understand why they bothered: it's because this is still one of the most pure, satisfying, and enjoyable fantasy-action experiences released on a console in quite a while.
Even over on PC, The Witcher 2 launched with a few minor issues. For one, players who didn't complete the first game came in not really understanding what was going on. Sure, the developers started up a new plot, but we have no idea why the protagonist, Geralt, is such a big deal, nor do we understand much of the conversations with the first game's characters that return for the sequel. But with that said, I'm not sure that BioWare's strategy of hacked-together DLC to tell the backstory - or in the case of the third game, writing whole characters out of the story to avoid having to explain who they were - was really terribly successful, either. So while I'm vaguely going to complain a bit, I can't really offer a solution that any other game developer has put together properly, either.
The other issue is that the beginning of The Witcher 2 is rather difficult on normal difficulty, and it doesn't seem that CD Projekt changed that on 360. Combat is unforgiving and it only takes a few hits from one of your multiple enemies in many fights to kill you, and while the end of the game sees you easily destroying everyone in sweeping arcs and flurries (or just very powerful spells, if that's your thing), getting there can be a real challenge for a player whose motivation is flagging. To that end, I might suggest that those who don't deal well with frustration start out on Easy difficulty, as the game is still challenging, fun, and addictive there. Either way, sticking with it is certainly worth the effort, as the growth of Geralt as both a character and as an RPG hero that avoids the stereotypes turns out to be unique and interesting. And yes, all those RPG bits, like loot, talents, levels, crafting skills, upgrades, and more are in there as well, although I should point out that The Witcher 2 is much less about constant loot upgrades than other games. You won't change gear often, but when you do, you'll definitely notice a difference.
Combat plays out mostly like an action game, but like any good action-RPG, your success in a swordfight is fueled by the RPG choices you've made for Geralt along with proper use of the specialties you've set up for him. Adding talent points upon leveling up is important, of course, but so is setting up the Mutagens (part of Geralt's background as a Witcher) to modify those talents. Then there are the potions you can brew and then drink, but you only do that before a fight and you can only take a certain amount. This turns alchemy and potions into something that's part of the planning phase before a fight, rather than creating the ridiculous situations you see in many RPGs where you're chugging vials while three guys stab you repeatedly. And even after all that, you've still got multiple targets to juggle, so the quick target-switching system and ability to parry and riposte incoming attacks helps you deal with crowds effectively - although I do recommend that anyone new to The Witcher 2 check out the tutorial, as it's pretty cool and teaches you a lot about the game in a short time.
One part I want to point out specifically is the storytelling. Many RPGs include very simple hooks about heroes and villains, the duality of good and evil, and generally rudimentary tales where the only guy that stabs you in the back is the guy that you were warned about hours before. The Witcher 2 isn't so simple, as there is no morality system in play, and while Geralt will make some big choices, they don't come colored in red or blue text to let you know ahead of time just what the implications will be. For me, this is where most RPG storytelling needs to go, because the idea of anti-heroes and questioning a trusted character's motivations is much better than the unambiguous, predictable stories we often get. And while I haven't confirmed it scene by scene, it doesn't look like CD Projekt cut out any content on this port, so the full M-rated experience is here, complete with nudity and such. But this isn't just about a few exposed breasts, cuss words and swaths of blood, nor is this an M-rated game that the publisher is secretly trying to sell primarily to teenagers; it's a tale not made for children at all. I'm not sure they'd care much for it, either.
So, what's this "Enhanced Edition" stuff all about? Not that it will matter a whole hell of a lot to 360 gamers, but CD Projekt has added a lot of new content to make this version of the game. It starts with very impressive new intro cutscene along with new characters, quests, locations, and more, along with a super-hard Dark difficulty for those who are serious about their gaming. All of the content in this EE version has also been patched onto the PC version for free, but the most important thing here is that in the months since The Witcher 2 was released, the developers didn't sneak off to immediately make a new game with only a small team left to make paid DLC - you know, like the developers of so many other games do. Instead, the team stayed on and made the game better, and just like with the PC version, 360 gamers are going to get the fruits of those extra efforts without paying an extra dime.
From a technical perspective, The Witcher 2 looks and plays wonderfully. I was surprised at just how much detail CD Projekt was able to maintain on the 360 with solid frame rates, and while the port does still have a few very minor issues, this opens up the possibility that their next game could get a simultaneous console release. PC gamers will say that sounds evil, I know, but at least a few developers have done this without sacrificing the strengths of each platform - recent efforts from Valve Software and Bethesda come to mind. If there's one more studio out there that could bring both PC and console ports at the same time without compromising on both, then I now believe that CD Projekt could be the company to do it.
So, how does The Witcher 2 stack up against other epic RPGs on 360? Well, it doesn't have the open freedom of Skyrim and its story can be a little confusing at times, but this is still one of the better action-RPG experiences you can get your hands on for Microsoft's curved little console. The port went very well, and the game lends itself nicely to the controller, seeing that Geralt is usually swinging a sword rather than trying to precisely aim a gun or attack spells (although you can do the latter if you want). The story is excellent and original, and the game can take you dozens of hours to complete depending on how much you dig into the side quests. My original skepticism about the viability of a game like The Witcher 2 on consoles has been blown away, but of course it's up to the Xbox 360 gamers out there to make it a success.
Disclosure: This review is based on a 360 retail copy provided by the publisher.