When The Witcher 2 arrived on the PC last year, it was considered by some to be a dark horse candidate for the best RPG of the Year [and it wound up winning Game of the Year here on the Shack — ed.]. It had its share of commercial success as well, going on to sell some 1 million units. Yet, when I asked friends and colleagues if they planned on picking it up, the typical response was, “We’ll wait for the console version.”Developer CD Projekt Red finally seems to be ready to reward their patience, making good on its promise to bring the cult favorite series over to the Xbox 360. It’s definitely taken a technical hit in the move — the resolution is lower and the textures aren’t quite as detailed — but the framerate is intact and it looks and plays just fine. And, in a bit of enticement for PC fans to pick the game up a second time, the port includes additional quest lines for Act 3.As for console owners who are wondering what The Witcher is all about, here are a few ways the series distinguished itself from the likes of Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age.1. It’s More MedievalThe Middle Ages weren’t an especially nice — or sanitary — time to be alive. Putting aside the terrible diet and the backbreaking labor, there was also the threat of being sold out to the Inquisition and falling victim to one of the instruments now populating European Torture Museums. Such scenes hold their place in the west’s institutional memory, but North American writers and developers seem to romanticize the era more than their European counterparts.The Witcher exposes its overall approach near the beginning of the game. Geralt, the legendary Witcher at the center of the game, hangs shirtless in a dank dungeon while his guards play cards. The screams of luckless prisoners can be heard in the background. When he eventually affects his escape, he even runs across a fairly grisly torture chamber — perfectly in keeping with the era that it emulates.Of course, there’s more to the Middle Ages than misery and torture. The Witcher 2’s characters wear period appropriate clothing, obsess over etiquette and protocol (if they’re royals), and sing drunken songs before battle. It may not be precisely accurate, but it comes closer than most to capturing the look and feel of dark medieval fantasy.2. The Action Strikes A Nice Balance Between Dark Souls and Dragon Age IIThe Witcher 2’s combat drew some criticism from fans who derided it as shallow and “arcadey” when it launched last year. It also had some legitimate balance issues, including one particularly overpowered defensive spell that arguably made the second half of the game trivial by essentially absorbing and even reflecting all damage.These balance issues have since been addressed through patches, though–the defensive shield dissipates faster now–and the combat is certainly worth another look in comparison to its console competition. What it lacks in depth it makes up in entertaining setpieces, such as the dragon attack early in the tutorial. The magic signs are its main strength, as they offer numerous ways in which to deal with a crowd while forcing you to keep an eye on your stamina gauge.
The Witcher 2
Compared to Dragon Age II, which couldn’t seem to decide whether it was an action game or an old-school RPG–and tried to be a little of both–The Witcher 2’s action is both more interesting and better focused. And while Dark Souls‘ stance-based combat and wide range of weapons make it deeper, I imagine that some Xbox 360 owners will prefer the quicker, less intimidating style of the Witcher. It could stand to make better use of the potions and alchemy that defined the first game, and Quen is still a bit overpowered, but it nonetheless strikes a solid balance between the extremes represented by Dragon Age II and Dark Souls. 3. It’s Morally Ambiguous and Full of IntrigueAt its heart, The Witcher 2 is one big succession crisis. Any number of powerful factions are out for the crown, and Geralt frequently finds himself having to pick between the lesser of two evils. “We believe we have quite a different approach to RPG design compared to our competitors. We’re not afraid of gore, nudity, or discrimination and racism,” lead combat designer Maciej Szczesnik told me. “These are just the elements of our work. Sure they aren’t the core elements, but we’re trying to reproduce the problems from real life in this RPG.” He continued, “So it’s not high fantasy, it’s not about saving the world. Sometimes it’s about saving a person because someone wants to kill her because she’s an elf. It’s a simple problem, but it can be extremely emotional as well.”This approach is nicely illustrated in one of the quest lines in Act 3, which is exclusive to the Xbox 360 version. King Foltest’s children are ambushed and kidnapped, and the evidence points to the Baron. Upon the testimony of a mercenary that I ended up saving, I eventually implicated the Baron, but I didn’t feel particularly good about my decision. For one thing, the rival Count who directed me to the mercs was far too gleeful after the arrest. For another, some of the evidence was forged. I kind of wish I had investigated further.Ultimately, its quests like that one that go the furthest in helping The Witcher 2 to distinguish itself from its competition. It deliberately plays down monster hunts and fetch quests, in exchange for promoting its intrigue and realism as much as possible. For that reason alone the Witcher 2 looks to be a breath of fresh air for RPGs in the console space, and the main reason that I’m looking forward to playing it later this spring.