The stench hits me first. Before the gurgle and hiss, the skittering of twisted claws against bare stone, the stale air of the abandoned mine delivers a stomach-churning whiff of the creatures' breath, the miasmal scent of spoiled flesh between rotting teeth.
Rotfiends. Eaters of the dead.
They overwhelm two of my senses, so I must enhance a third. I quietly remove the stopper from a small flask and bring it to my lips. Sharp white brightness replace flickering shadows as the bitter mixture of scavenged herbs takes hold.
My eyes adjust to the potion's effects. The creatures come into focus despite the distance - and heavy stone walls - separating us. The rotfiends' hunched silhouettes pulse with orange warmth in the cold, dark depths, awaiting some unsuspecting fool to stumble over them.
They'll find no such fool today.
I could charge the fiends, silver sword singing like a fairy tale hero, but that's not the sort of adventurer. I am a man of learning, my mind a weapon more powerful than any sharpened metal. I make preparations. Then I make myself known.
The rotfiends charge me on sight, driven purely by hunger. All they see is their next meal. They certainly don't see the snares I've laid out in their path. Heavy iron jaws clamp shut on spindly legs, eliciting otherworldly shrieks of pain.
Their advance slowed, I hurl a glass globe into their midst. It shatters on the stony ground between them, its only effect a faint shimmer in the air. The gas is colourless and odourless. The gas is also extremely flammable. A simple mystical hand sign looses fire from my fingertips and the cavern explodes in flame.
* * *
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is not a tale of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski's hero, Geralt of Rivia; it's the tale of your Geralt of Rivia. CD Projekt Red has gone great lengths to create a game better than 2007's The Witcher. They've built a stunning new game engine rife with dazzling special effects. They've tightened up the writing considerably, crafting a narrative deftly woven with suspense and sprinkled with lighthearted wit. Combat is faster, more fluid and natural than the complicated stance-switching beast of the original game. Even The Witcher's trademark sexual content has been taken to a whole new level. These improvements lend themselves to a highly enjoyable PC action role-playing experience, but what makes The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings excellent is the same concept behind the success of its predecessor: The power of choice.
Take the battle I describe above, a single encounter, one brief moment in a story spanning twenty hours. That two minute battle was a unique experience, based on the decisions I made while levelling up my personal Geralt of Rivia. I chose to put skill points into Alchemy rather than Swordsmanship or Magic. I chose to collect the traps I stumbled upon for future use. I chose to gather the herbs necessary to craft that flammable gas bomb and that vision-enhancing potion. I chose my path.
Another player might have charged in, sword swinging, having invested heavily into his melee skills such that the claws of the rotfiends were no deterrent. Maybe they trained up their magical arts, rooting the creatures in place and devastating them with mystic force. Perhaps they never entered that cavern at all.
What impresses me even more is the fact that this degree of developmental freedom is granted while playing a well-established fictional character. While not nearly as prolific in the states, in places like Poland The Witcher is a beloved franchise. There have been movies, television shows, comic books, card games, and even a pen-and-paper role-playing game based on the exploits of the supernatural monster hunter Geralt of Rivia. His skills and abilities have been established across multiple mediums, yet here you can fuck around with them as you please. It's akin to allowing Frodo to spend points on his dagger proficiency in a Lord of the Rings game, becoming some sort of furry-footed expert killer. Tolkien fans would riot. Fans of The Witcher embrace their personal Geralt with open arms.
* * *
I wake to the taste of river mud in my mouth and the dull throbbing of last night's booze in my head.
I rise slowly, brushing sand and dirt from my skin and swatting away eager insects. The morning sun is two daggers in my eyes, opening slowly to accept the pain and survey my surroundings.
The town of Flotsam looms behind me looking as ramshackle as its name implies. I'm certain that's not where I left it. In fact, I remember spending a pleasant evening drinking ale and swapping stories with a particularly rambunctious group of mercenaries, the town arranged safely and with a distinct lack of swirling around me.
Someone moved the town while I was drunk. That happens sometimes.
I kneel to gather my things, only to realise my things are nowhere to be gathered. In fact I'm only wearing my undergarments, now stained with mud and other souvenirs of the previous evening's frivolities.
They moved my clothes as well. Those fiends!
I stumble off towards the misplaced town, absently rubbing my hand against my neck, which burns as if freshly tattooed. Funny thing, that.
* * *
Exactly as if freshly tattooed.
The decisions made in The Witcher 2 extend far beyond simple stats and skills, granting the player the power to transform the narrative with the choices they make. Waking up drunk and naked on a riverbank isn't an experience that everyone playing the game is likely to have. It was an event I stumbled upon accidentally while exploring one of the game's locations, looking to cause some trouble. The decisions I made that night left me in a rather compromising position, but had little lasting effect. Others can change the entire course of the game.
Geralt of Rivia, A.K.A. the White Wolf, is a witcher, one of a group of legendary monster hunters forged superhuman from years of training and gifted with supernatural powers through the application of magical potions. Simple folk consider them mutants, fearful of their powerful abilities. So when King Foltest turns up dead after having last been seen in Geralt's company, important people jump to the obvious conclusion. The story's beginning is firmly established. The rest is up to the player.
Indeed the entire second chapter is based off of decisions the player makes during the first. The choice of allies and actions in the port town of Flotsam creates such wildly divergent outcomes that a second play through (at least) is required to experience the full scope of the game.
While players and the press like to make a big deal of the sex scenes in The Witcher 2, aside from some naked cuddling at the beginning and a rather odd series of cut scenes featuring a sorceress and her female apprentice, the game tucks its more illicit sex scenes away from the general storyline. When those rare instances do occur the player is well-aware of the bawdy direction his or her choices are heading. The player has to truly want to see Triss doing her half-assed magical girl act.
So while there is some basic nudity and the odd bout of girl-on-girl spanking that can't be avoided, the amount of sex you witness in The Witcher 2 depends on the amount you want to see, pervert.
CD Projekt Red's trickery is to blame for The Witcher 2's replayability. Whereas many games focused on choice plainly state which side of the moral compass your decisions fall on, The Witcher series is much more subtle and devious. The results of impactful decisions don't manifest immediately. Instead they fester in the game's memory, rising to the fore hours after you make them. Time and time again I was surprised at the impact of seemingly trivial judgment calls. Save peasants from a burning building, and somewhere down the line they might return and offer you a gift. Convince an angry mob to spare a suspected criminal, and days after the fact that suspect becomes a powerful person in The Witcher's world.
The developer's greatest achievement with this system is that they've managed to include such malleability without the game's core story falling apart at the seams. This gripping tale of political intrigue, magical espionage, and self-discovery thrives on your choices, flowing around them to create a legendary tale that's completely your own.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings far exceeds the excellence of its predecessor. CD Projekt Red has delivered a role-playing game with superb graphics, action-packed combat, a deep and involving story, and – for those interested – some delightfully ribald sexual encounters. Those polished features take a backseat, however, to what should be the most important factor in a role-playing game: The role you play.
* * *
I stand at the edge of rocky cliffs overlooking the ruined Elven city of Loc Muinne, reflecting on all that's transpired since that first battle, when King Foltest lost his life and I won a price on my head.
My mind reels with memories; my body feels its own: fresh scars, blemishes, and bruises, each a reminder of the obstacles I've overcome to get here.
The world has changed drastically since my adventure began. I am the agent of that change. They are set in stone, frozen in history, and for good or ill I must deal with their ramifications.
Still, I can't help wondering how these events would have played out if I had done things a little differently…