Despite an unstable frame rate and horrendous loading times, PC role-playing game The Witcher sold more than 1.5 million copies worldwide. The Witcher 2 runs at 60 frames-per-second and has no loading times whatsoever.
The Witcher was one of my favourite games of 2007. Based on a series of short stories and novels by Poland's premier fantasy author Andrzej Sapkowski, The Witcher delivered a gorgeous PC role-playing experience, rich in depth and complexity, with compelling characters, stunning graphics, and countless little touches that brought the struggles of ghost-haired killer Geralt to life.
So when my impressions (we didn't do reviews back then) of the game called out loading in the headline, you knew it was a major issue.
CD Projekt Red senior producer Tomasz Gop Says it's not an issue any longer. "Once you're in the game, you will never see loading times," he explains, guiding Geralt and companions off a boat into the forest. The white-haired swordsman looks more dashing than ever in the game's new engine, as does the lovely sorceress Triss and dour non-human hunter Vernon Rache.
The trio stumbles upon an elf, a long-time enemy of Rache's, so while the two trade insults, Tomasz shows off the game's new dialog system. Geralt and Triss whisper to each other as the tension builds. A series of dialogue choices lead to Triss casting a lightning bolt at the tree the elf is sitting on. Elves pour out of the trees, surrounding the party. It's a trap!
Arrows fly towards the party, and Triss casts a spell that transforms them all into butterflies, crumpling to the ground with the strain. Vernon picks hoists her over his shoulder, leaving Geralt to face off against the encroaching elves using the game's new combat system.
The slightly clunky, timing-based system of the original game is gone, replaced with a more action-oriented affair that Gop controls with a wired Xbox 360 controller. Instead of different stances for hard and light attacks, Geralt now strings them together, fluidly performing combos, slipping the odd bit of magic into his deadly dance, and every once in awhile delivering a stunning finishing blow, mowing elves down left and right. It's almost mesmerising to watch.
Hardcore gamers will be pleased with the system, but what of the more casual RPG players? "There is an easy mode for casual players that will let them effortlessly take down enemies, in order to experience the story without much struggle," Gop explains.
The action moves to a small village, where Geralt and his party stumble upon some old friends awaiting the hangman's noose in the town square. As the party approaches, they recognise the 'colourful' bard Dandelion. According to the executioner, he's about to be killed for 'debauchery.' That figures.
Here comes the dialogue tree again. Geralt can choose to straight up attack the guards around the gallows, or take a more devious route, as Gop does, inciting the locals towards unrest.
"Debauchery is one of my favourite pastimes," shouts one villager, while another, a prostitute by trade, alerts the assembled citizens that the head guard's "balls are rotted."
Yes, the adult situations are still fully intact.
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But don't expect collectible cards featuring naked pictures of Geralt's conquests this time around. Acting on criticisms that the system objectified women, the romance in The Witcher 2 is another tool to help deliver a richer, deeper story, rather than a tacked on pseudo mini-game.
As Gop struggled to find the right word to describe the way romance was being handled in the game, I offered up 'emotionally engaging,' which seemed to fit the bill nicely.
With the action-based combat, branching dialogue choices, and emotional engagement, it almost sounds like The Witcher 2 is going to be a dragon Age clone.
But the major differences are there. The entire world, for instance, is accessible at all times. You can travel anywhere, with no loading times, any time you want. Inside buildings, on top of buildings, or deep into the swamp to face off against the giant octopus/bull monster that Geralt faced at the end of our demo.
Showing off the game's combat again, Gop had Geralt setting stun traps, rolling out of the way at the last minute as huge tentacles came crashing down. Triggering the traps, they remained rooted in place while Geralt took out their weak points. Once three were down, he rushed in, tricking the monster into smashing the pillar supporting a broken stone bridge above its head. The structure collapsed, trapping the creature, and with a few final blows the Witcher stood triumphant.
It's almost a completely different game. The load times are gone, the frame rate is crisp, and the action is more fluid than ever. But the first game's wit and charm are firmly intact, making The Witcher 2 the perfect example of a sequel done right.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is due out in the first quarter of 2011.