Previously known on the RPG scene for translations of western PC games into Polish, CD Projekt struck out on their own in 2007 with the release of The Witcher, a fully in-house developed RPG based on the series of books from author Andrzej Sapkowski. Despite the first game being well-received, CD Projekt has not become complacent in making the sequel, The Witcher 2: The Assassins of Kings, as superior to the first game as possible. Whether or not CD Projekt has managed to propel The Witcher from a cult success to a big mainstream hit will be found out in May, but initial impressions indicate there is a very good chance.
"All signs so far point to CD Projekt having a winner on their hands."
The Witcher 2 picks up almost immediately after the final cutscene of the first game (itself set five years after the final book in the series), with players once more taking control of the scarred and moody Geralt. CD Projekt has confirmed there is the ability to import saves, although the effects of importing and the extent of any plot-affecting choices are as yet unclear. It does seem that the intro will be the same for everyone, regardless of whether a save is imported or not. While The Witcher 2 may not give a comprehensive plot recap for those new players that haven't played the first game, impressions so far have indicated that the story should bring players up to speed fairly quickly. In difference to the first game, Geralt starts out as very much the skilled witcher he is supposed to be with players immediately having access to all of the standard magical abilities from the first series of battles.
Due to Geralt's character, being by necessity a mixture of alchemist, fighter, and mage, there isn't as much leeway in character customization and build as seen in some other WRPGs. Players will have the option when levelling to balance their build more in favour of one of these disciplines, but will still need to be adept in all three. The Witcher 2 will at least provide a good deal of equipment customization, with a number of clothing items and lots of potential loot. The actual combat has been completely overhauled from the first game, using an entirely new engine, and looks to be much more action-orientated. Basic attacks using either the steel (for humans) or silver (for monsters) sword are done by clicking the left-mouse button, while the right-mouse button does heavy attacks. On top of this, a button can be used to bring up a list of possible signs (i.e. magic) that will also slow the game down greatly to give players some time while not actually freezing combat, helping to limit the grating levels of start-stop action seen in other games.
Another area The Witcher 2 diverges from the norm is the inability to use health potions or other stat-boosting medicines during battle; the upshot being that fights rest on skills and toughness rather than the number of healing items a player can carry. Any potions must be drunk before battle and will last for ten minutes, so going into a fight unprepared could turn out very costly. On the defence side, Geralt can either parry, use a shield or attempt to roll out of the way. Parrying requires using stamina, although it is worth noting that stamina is also needed by magical signs, while the shield will soak damage but is not going to last forever. Levelling up will provide access to talents that can greatly reduce some potential annoyances that the battle system may create; one example being a talent that results in no longer taking 200% damage whenever Geralt is attacked from behind.
Player choice remains a vital part of The Assassins of Kings, with a multitude of optional quests and a great amount of plot-affecting choice offered throughout the storyline. As revealed in a recent interview with Senior Producer Tomasz Gop, The Witcher 2 will contain sixteen endings, although the differences between some of the endings will vary considerably. These choices are excellently combined with the incredibly political world that ensures that choices are nowhere near as simple as the standard good/evil/neutral paths seen in many games. Players can expect to see plenty of characters from the previous game and CD Projekt has strongly hinted that some characters not yet seen from Andrzej Sapkowski's books will make appearances. Those concerned about possible language issues should not have much cause to worry due to the great care that has been involved in the localization process, the game being written simultaneously in English and Polish. Lots of extra little touches should also help to provide life throughout the world, be it through background interactions of NPCs or some of the snarky responses Geralt can come out with.
The Assassins of Kings maintains a lot of themes from the first game and CD Projekt has once more developed a very mature game, containing lots of vulgar language and sex. Fortunately, CD Projekt has seen fit to remove the frankly silly card-collecting rewards that were given when a sexual encounter was found in the first game, however there is still certain to be a good amount of controversy to be generated with what takes their place. Now players are rewarded instead with fully-animated sex scenes, although how well these are handled throughout the game obviously remains to be seen. It is worth saying that those who have sampled the code did report back very positively on the handling of one particular scene and the way it did help develop the characters involved. The world of The Witcher 2 is clearly not a particularly pleasant place; expect to hear lots of sexism and casual dismissal of acts such as raping and pillaging. At least CD Projekt does look like it has done a good job of making these feel like they are more a fault of this world than something to do with the game and it should be noted that having such a world does help in creating those much in-demand murky moral choices.
Make no mistake, the game looks absolutely stunning. Ditching the modified version of BioWare's Aurora engine used in the first game, CD Projekt has created their own in-house engine for The Witcher 2 and gone all out on detail. The game is obviously targeted towards high-end machines and as a result of this RPGamers with a lower-end system may find themselves missing out on some of the glorious visual effects that CD Projekt has achieved, assuming they even meet the system requirements. Character models all look excellent, the detail on Geralt's scars and the movement on his ponytail both being worthy of mention. The technological level on display here is incredible, further evidenced by some spectacular lighting effects, but complementing this are some great design choices that further enhance the visual level of the game. The sound is another area CD Projekt has't skimped on, working closely to ensure the localization and voice acting is as good as can be. The number of localizations also point towards how seriously CD Projekt are taking this game, with eleven different languages catered for, five of which are fully voiced. The music of the first game was another of the high points and samples so far indicate that The Assassins of Kings is not going to disappoint in that area either, judging from the excellent and very striking samples available.
As with the original Witcher, CD Projekt has committed their attention fully on developing The Assassins of Kings for the PC initially. The possibility of console release in the future hasn't been discounted yet, but console RPGamers shouldn't get their hopes up too much yet considering the fate of the console edition for the first game. Those with a sufficiently powerful PC though will be well advised to keep their eyes on this as all signs so far point to CD Projekt having a winner on their hands. The Witcher 2: The Assassins of Kings is due to be released worldwide for the PC on May 17, 2011.