Is the sequel to the wonderful but hamstrung 2008 PC RPG The Witcher, developed by CD Projekt from Poland, and released for PC in May 2011 and for Xbox 360 in May 2012. This refers, of course, to the PC version (because I'm not the sort of person who has one box of electronics in my room for work and a separate one for funs) which seems in my view to be better on account that it was developed for PC initially then ported. (I have horrible memories of porting disasters ancient and modern.) An Enhanced Edition for PC came out in May 2012, and that's the edition that I have.
Like its predecessor, it's based on the "Wiedźmin" series of novels by one Andrzej Sapkowski and "wiedźmin" translates apparently to "witcher." Once again, you, the player, take the role of Geralt of Rivia, our hero, a heavily-scarred, white-haired, cats-eyes magically enhanced professional monster hunter, snarky bastard, and skirt-chaser extraordinaire, in another adventure of gratuitous sex, violence, and 14th-century-era politics.
The Story So Far
Well now, without spoiling too much, in The Witcher, Geralt recovered from a large cabal of bandits the secrets used to transform an ordinary slob like you into one of the aforementioned professional transhuman fantasy monster slayers and, in so doing, stopped the plans of the dastardly Jacques de Aldersberg, Grand Master of the Order of the Flaming Rose. They're kinda like a cross between the Knights Templar and the Teutonic Knights. Having done this, he scored a very large sum of money from the King of Temeria and, in the ending cinematic, saved said king from an assassin who turned out to be another witcher.
It is now about eight to nine months later, and at the beginning of the game one is treated to a ridiculously gorgeous pre-rendered cinematic of the event that sets the plot in motion. The main notability of this cinematic is that it looks almost entirely indistinguishable from a real live action film. The only manner in which one can see that it is not, in fact, live action is that everything looks just ever so slightly too slick. In it, a huge, bald-headed chappie assassinates King Demavend of Aedirn aboard his flagship by clambering aboard, flash-freezing everyone with some magical bomb of some sort, and then dodging arrows and sword strokes in slow motion to assassinate His Majesty. Now, this is no great loss because reference is made later to how Demavend was a horrible tyrant (and in the novels this is likewise) but still... it's not something anyone expects, mainly because nobody knows who the assassin is, and one would expect the assassin of a king to be political big fish or rivals or suchlike.
Anyhow. One begins the game proper in a cell with no clothes on and being interrogated by a Vernon Roche of the Temerian elite soldiery, the Blue Stripes. There is then a series of flashbacks to the day on which the king of Temeria (that's the one who knobbed his sister and begat a striga, just so you know) was assassinated by the same huge bald-headed man in the solar in front of his two bastard children, and leapt out a window to escape, leaving you, Geralt, as the only person in possession of a large silver-plated broadsword standing over a dead king with his throat cut from ear to ear. Having convinced this Roche of your guilt, he lets you go so long as you accompany him to try to find the real kingslayer.
The rest of the game splits itself into three acts all along the same river in which you try to work out what is going on, and slay a few monsters here and there. On the way, you find that the titular Assassins of Kings are all linked into a multitude of larger conspiracies and end in a confrontation in an ancient ruined city with the kingslayer himself, who is a fellow witcher called Letho, and who understands the circumstances surrounding your (Geralt's) death five years ago and has some interesting things to say about what was going on. Depending on how you went about things in the rest of the game, you are then treated to one of sixteen different endings (yes, unlike certain other RPGs released recently, The Witcher 2 actually has 16 endings. CD Project had a competition when it first came out for the first person to send them their final saves for all 16 endings. It was won three weeks after release by some German bloke... make of that what you will.) In these sixteen endings, you learn how your actions affected the political situation of the Northlands. Unfortunately, you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs and there is no ending in which you have saved the day conclusively, there's just 16 different messes. Such is life. Such is politics, even.
There's then another gorgeous pre-rendered cinematic which will serve, no doubt, as a sequel hook for The Witcher 3 (SPOILERS: Yennefer's ALIVE! Yay!). And then you're dumped back at the main menu.
Yes, but what's it like to play?
A lot tougher than the first game, that's for sure.
The enemy AI really seems to have levelled up since the first game. There are now, rather than timed clicking, different controls for different attack types and blocking, as well as for ranged weapons, blasting enemies with magical signs, and similar. The need to be crazy prepared is even greater than the first game because, especially early on, Geralt has comparatively few hit points and not even the second greatest swordsman alive can defend against being cheerfully murdered by a horde of mooks. Even lowly bad guys consciously attempt to get round behind you and work in teams. Certain larger monsters, such as endregas (giant scuttling spider-cum-ants) will click about at a distance before one of them tries to charge you and bowl you over, upon where their compatriots move in and slash at you unless you're quick with the dodging. To survive, you have to be the chap who brings a grenade to a sword fight, or make use of terrain and features to funnel enemies and avoid being mobbed.
There's also lots more spectacular enemy-dispatching than the first game. Finishing moves now are customised to each enemy type. My personal favourite is the group finisher on a group of bandits where Geralt blasts one with a fire sign, stabs one with the steel sword and the other with the silver sword all at the same time. Claret flows and splatters on the camera for your edification as well. You can also score "railing kills" by using the air sign to blast enemies off cliffs and walls and things to their doom.
It is still mainly a "talking game" like its predecessor. There are loads and loads and loads of characters and loads and loads of quests stuffed into a comparatively small (compared to, say, Skyrim or Baldur's Gate) playable area. Often these are mutually exclusive as well and have multiple resolutions. In fact, the entire second act can be totally different depending on how you resolve the last quest in the first act - and the third act is quite dissimilar on each path as well. Often doing a quest in an earlier act can have an impact in a later one even if it wasn't plot critical. There are also several quests that span the entire game, notably the "Mystic River" quest which starts with you stumbling across a shipwreck in the first act and ends up with you getting the best armour in the game right near the end.
It should be mentioned that this is a game based on shades of grey (No, not that! Though there are quite a few of the ol' semi-explicit sexy bits as well, which to be fair is in character for Geralt because in the novels he was a bold enough man of his lance...) so many of them are deeply morally suspect individuals. Power hungry bastards to a man. Often you will have to make deeply unpleasant choices and then live with the consequences. For example, near the end of Act One, there can be a bit where Bernard Loredo, the greedy, power-hungry, deeply corrupt, brutal and depraved commandant of the border town of Flotsam attempts to escape downriver on a barge with his last few loyal men. To cover his escape, he sets light to a building in his compound where he's keeping a quintet of elf women hostage (as "comfort women" for his lackeys, no less) and you have seconds to decide whether to pull them out the burning building or go after Mr Loredo. If you go after him, the women all burn to death horribly. If you save the women, he cosies up to a rival monarch to whom he sells the town and is reinstated as commandant and carries on his criminal antics - and this includes ethnically cleansing the local area of nonhumans. Either way, you're a bastard.
In the epilogue, Geralt calls out to Triss Merigold, a red-headed sorceress and Geralt's better half by now, the events of the game on all this. I cannot help but feel that this is more aimed at the player, specifically, that subset of players who want to be able to save the world in an RPG. Well, sorry, but that's just not realistic, and the developers know it. Unfortunately, politics and affairs of state are a dirty business and when you bathe in shit - or in this case, when a bathtub full of the stuff gets dropped on you - you can't expect to come out smelling of roses and being all big damn heroes. You just have to be able to live with what you did.
I have to say, that this is in a way actually more realistic and believable, if you will, than something like Skyrim or Mass Effect in which you can take your time and do everything that needs to be done to save the day. Mass Effect 3 was particularly bad about this, allowing you to delay almost the entire game doing side quests while the Reapers were attacking everyone's home planets and needed super urgent assistance from you, the hero. Here, though, although you can take your time, many of the quests, especially the major storyline quests, are mutually exclusive. Notably, in Act 3, you can choose to save Triss Merigold, the sorceress, from a bunch of bad guys with sinister German accents and even sinisterer black-lacquered plate mail, or another major plot figure (depending on what choice you made at the end of Act 1) from someone else unpleasant. Either way, you don't get to do both.
In a word - absofuckinglutely gorgeous. There are very few games that look as nice. The hardware requirements are colossal as well. If you don't have a quad-core processor, lots of RAM, and a powerful graphics card (officially an Nvidia GTX 260 or a Radeon HD 4850) you'll have to turn the detail level down a lot. There is also one item in the graphics options, "UberSampling," which, when enabled, has each frame rendered five or six times with different tolerances and then takes an average. This makes it look less obviously computer generated and more organic, but decimates your frame rates. Attempting to turn it on pops up a mouse tip warning you of this, and the developers say that without at least an Intel Core i7 or better and an Nvidia GTX 590 or Radeon HD 6990 or better, you're wasting your time enabling this. (Of course, if you're one of those over-monied goat-ploughers with a giant-sized LGA 2011 based system and three Radeon HD 7970s in crossfire, you can probably put it on ubersampling, top detail, and across six above-full HD screens and still have it smooth as Maria Schneider's butter-smeared arse. In which case, I would hate to see your electricity bill.)
Needless to say, because of all this, there are parts of the game which exist purely to say, Look at this! Ain't it purty! And it is. The forest outside Flotsam is one of those big old-growth forests with trees arching over the town and with trunks the size of a house. The dwarven town of Vergen is built into a mountainside and you can get spectacular views all the way down. The "Eternal battle" segment in Act 2 features, just for atmosphere's sake, the spectres of soldiers long dead fighting each other over and over and over, full renders, just in the background while the rest of the game goes on through it. And not just a handful, but entire platoons. (It also features possibly one of the most annoying battles in any game I've ever played.)
The detail level is also astonishingly high not just graphically, but in terms of atmosphere and suchlike. Locals wander round and talk to each other, often quite amusingly. In the basement of a sleazy bar, a drunken soldier sings "As Oyster Nan stood by her Tub" in between heaves, along with "Shove it Home." When you first encounter Iorveth, the elven guerilla, he's sat astride a branch playing "Stella splendens" on his flute. Text within the game (as opposed to captions, tooltips, subtitles, etc.) is in Glagolithic script (this is Eastern Europe in the 14th century, so it does fit). The only bit that looks "wrong," so to speak, are the characters' hair, which is a bit unconvincing, though this is probably because it looks the same as hair in other modern games, while everything else is an order of magnitude more detailed.
And, just like the first game, the ordinary people standing around all have their own things to do and do those things. They talk to each other. They drink together and tell bawdy tales which you can happily listen in to all day long. They try to cheat each other at dice and swap tales about how they robbed some guy somewhere. There's quite a few sly shout outs as well here - in Act I there's a foursome of elven women called Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte who constantly talk about shoes.
But is it any good?
Yes. Definitely. Between the prettiness and the wonderfully snarky and earthy deconstruction of high fantasy in the setting, the mutual exclusivity and the branching paths, the fact that there actually are 16 endings, and the glorious and wonderful ways in which you get to kill off bad guys, it's definitely worth a go. It is certainly not, however, for children - even more not for children than the first game. It contains strong bloody violence up the kazoo - not just hacking off bad guys' limbs and having claret splashed all over the camera, up the walls, and in slow motion, but some really quite unpleasant sections indeed. In one permutation of Act III, there is a rather nasty incident in which the sorceress Philippa Eilhart gets her eyes gouged out with a rusty spoon. You don't see them actually do it, but you hear it, and that's enough, and you see her all blinded and bloodstreaked in the aftermath of all this. In one of the permutations of the epilogue, the ruined city of Loc Muinne finds itself literally turned into a mass grave and you get to see some poor slobs being impaled on stakes up the arse and through the mouth Cannibal Holocaust styley. But then again, it is all in context - as I have said above, in this game, you do have to get along with some really nasty people, so it is in character entirely.
The other reason why it's not for kids is the sex. Thankfully, gone are the rather gittish "gotta bone 'em all" card collections from the first game for every encounter Geralt has, and they're replaced by gloriously rendered nudity and what my mother refers to as a "soft focus fuck." Once again, it isn't just having assignations with whores (though you can of course do that if you want), but there's plenty of encounters, including Triss (once almost right at the start and another in an ancient bathhouse), Ves (a female soldier and Vernon Roche's number two), an elven woman who you can rescue from a burning building, Cynthia (a Nilfgaardian sorceress), and a succubus.
There are some bits that I'm not all that keen on. For a start, the dice poker makes an unwelcome return and rather than rounds of it being best of three, it's just one hand. Ergh. Attempting to beat the dice poker caused me many screams at my screen of how the Random Number God hates me. Secondly, it has almost a reverse difficulty curve - early battles when you're a low level are significantly more dangerous than later on. There's also some battles that are almost frustratingly hard and reminiscent of some of the more horrible excesses in difficulty of the Nintendo era. The draug, or war elemental, for one. He's four times your size. He has a sword the size of a tree, a shield the size of a boat, is made of weapons and fortification bits, is only really vulnerable from behind, has the ability to summon flights of arrows and trebuchet missiles down on your position, and can do a really annoying explode-and-reform move where he turns into a whirlwind of sharp things. It's just nuts. It really is. There's also a couple of quests that I find very tiresome - the Gargoyle quest in Act III for one, which involves working out a rune sequence from annoyingly obfuscated clues which describe the correct runes in manners wholly false.
That said, there are some excellent moments. The side quest where you have to convince an iron golem that it is self aware so it trips a safeguard in its construction that deactivates it should it become self aware. The sheer badassery involved in you rescuing Triss from a camp full of sinister Nilfgaardian mooks who come at you only a few at a time. The group finishing moves. Fighting the kayran (a sort of kraken thingy that lives in the river and blocks it up). And, of course, the realisation that a seemingly unimportant decision you made hours ago just came to bite you on the behind.
I'm a bit miffed by the endings - all 16 of them - because they're all a giant sequel hook, and whatever you do, the Nilfgaardians are invading. The sub-plot about how (SPOILERS) the Wild Hunt are visitors from another dimension seemed to have a bit of the X-Files about it, and to be fair why the King of the Wild Hunt has such an interest in Geralt remains to be seen. However, for that you'll need to wait for The Witcher III, which isn't likely to becoming any time soon. That, however, is because CD Projekt's next outing will be an adaptation of Cyberpunk 2020, the tabletop role-playing game, and Mike Pondsmith himself is on board with that, which is due 2014. So... 2017, maybe?
In fairness, The Witcher II isn't perfect but it's pretty damn good. Almost Torment good. If only it was a bit longer...
It's also, if you get it on GOG.com, completely DRM free. Which is a change.