Hearing about The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings throughout 2011 almost prompted me go out and create a cutting-edge gaming PC, solely to play it. Needless to say, my expectations were quite high when the Enhanced Edition was finally announced for Xbox 360. The promise of a dark fantasy world, strategic action-oriented combat, and truly ambiguous dialogue branches filled me with excitement. Now that the game has made it to half of the relevant home consoles, I'm pleased to say it lives up to much of the runaway hype. Its conversation system is expertly executed and varied, and the oppressive world is a consistently interesting place to explore. However, it's not quite the transcendent revelation in role-playing preached by many. There are simply too many design stumbles along the way, but its foundation sets up The Witcher 3 to truly shine.
While the Enhanced Edition takes much of the fan and critical feedback into consideration, adding new features and refinements to make the port label - usually negatively associated with sloppily thrown together products in the name of the almighty dollar - feel inappropriate. This console version of The Witcher 2 clearly shows a great deal of care and attention to detail from its creators. That being said, it is still very much the same, compelling dark fantasy offering as before, so, for the purposes of these impressions, I'll make many references to our <a href="http://www.gamingunion.net/reviews/the-witcher-2-assassins-of-kings--501.html">PC review from last year.
On the story, Darryl said: "The story kicks off directly where the previous story ended, with King Foltest attempting to get his children back. Even if you haven't played the previous title though, it's written in such a way that you can get straight into the action without having to know all of the back story. And it's still engaging due to the interaction that's possible.
"It's mostly non-linear, so what you do and say will have an effect on how events transpire. And you'll learn this more and more as Geralt goes about his quest, trying to get to the bottom of a conspiracy to kill the various kings of the realm. The dialogue and the choices you make really help to connect you with Geralt, who is still trying to piece his memory together. There are only three chapters, with a prologue and an epilogue, but there's more than enough story content here to keep you busy. However, it's not an open world, even if the realm does seem rather expansive, so once a chapter is done, you can't go back and take on uncompleted quests."
One of the major complaints stemming from the original version was the lack of an effective tutorial to ease players into the brutally unforgiving world of Witchers. CD Projekt Red somewhat addressed these concerns this time around by expanding the initial hint/feedback system, providing more context to your actions. This is a major improvement, as many players were turned off by the PC version's needlessly punishing opening, to such a degree that they immediately stopped playing.
On combat: "At first glance, the combat in The Witcher 2 might seem rather standard. Geralt can now only perform two attacks, a light and heavy swing, but it's very deceptive. First off, you have to use different weapons for different enemies. Geralt carries a standard melee weapon, which can be a sword, axe, etc, and needs to be used for killing humans. But he also carries a silver sword, which must be used for killing monsters.
"Geralt then has different spells he can use, and how you use them will depend on what type of person you are. For example, you can use Aard to shock people out of the way and disrupt groups of enemies, or Yrden to trap enemies and go behind them to deal critical damage. Or, you can use Axii to mess with their minds. In any case, Quen is your safety net as it's a shield that will absorb all damage while it stays up. Each fight, even random ones while walking around, will present its own challenge. You can't just run into a pack of 3-4 enemies and expect to hack your way to victory. A strategy is a necessity, especially against the various bosses."
As mentioned above, combat is, for the most part, satisfying and rewards a strategic approach. However, the difficulty curve seems somewhat poorly thought out, as the most exciting combat scenarios, the ones when you truly feel vulnerable, come during the game's opening chapter. As you progress, increase your level and unlock new abilities, hunting monsters and kingslayers can become rather robotic. The Witcher slowly turns into a superman-like figure, allowing you to put your mind on auto-pilot as you hack-and-slash your way through hordes of enemies. The game redeems itself a little bit near the end, but the overall progression feels uneven.
These issues are, by far, most prominent during boss fights, which, in my opinion, are almost never executed well in gaming. Each boss encounter throughout Assassins of Kings represents a giant spike in difficulty, and generally boils down to mindless memorization of patterns, or a frustrating experience in trial-and-error due to the non-existent visual cues. Let's be clear: I'm not asking for the game to "hold my hand" by criticizing the cues. Well made boss fights simply require them, because of their pattern-oriented nature. For example, the first major boss puts your witching abilities to the test by tasking you with trapping its menacing tentacles. However, some simply are immune to your traps, but there's no logical reason for it, leading to the aforementioned exercise in frustration.
Since we've touched on the often messy topic of hand-holding in games, let's examine the other ways The Witcher 2 embraces its Eastern European origins. The game at times stumbles when it arbitrarily keeps you in the dark, from a moment-to-moment gameplay perspective - the incredibly convoluted map being a prime example. However, this design philosophy absolutely shines during the dialogue sequences which ultimately shape the narrative. Whereas games such Mass Effect clearly and unashamedly lay out the moral implications of your interactions, Assassins of Kings takes the polar opposite approach, with fantastic results. There's no clearly presented good / bad choice, simply different directions and tones you can take, which really allows you be idiosyncratic, contradictory, and ultimately, human. Furthermore, conversations often don't have predictable cut off points, keeping you constantly on your toes. I really loved this approach, so hopefully more games will make use of it.
Presentation is probably the most obvious point of distinction between the console and PC versions - the Xbox 360 just can't keep up with the cutting-edge desktops the game was originally made for. Fortunately, CD Projekt Red made smart adjustments to fit the console's architecture and capabilities, resulting in a game that feels as though no major compromises were made. It's not going to compare in terms of resolution, detail or polygon count, but really, who cares about those things. The art style remains intact, and aside from some texture pop-in and awkward loading areas, runs very smoothly. That being said, make sure you install the game each time, because doing so significantly cuts down the loading burden.
My expectations were quite high when the Enhanced Edition was finally announced for Xbox 360. The promise of a dark fantasy world, strategic action-oriented combat, and truly ambiguous dialogue branches, allowed my imagination to run wild with the possibilities it entailed. With that in mind, I'm happy to say that it lives up to much of the runaway hype - the conversation system is expertly executed and varied, and the oppressive world is a consistently interesting place to explore. However, Assassins of Kings isn't quite the transcendent revelation in role-playing preached by many. There are simply too many design stumbles and unnecessary frustrations along the way. That being said, this Enhanced Edition is well worth your time should you wish to check it out.