This is my second post on The Witcher 2.
2. Strengths and weaknesses (as of early Act 2)
I’ve now played a bit more of The Witcher 2 – I’m now up to early Act 2 – and I can elaborate on when it works best for me… and when it doesn’t.
My starting point is the familiar argument about whether games should focus on scripted storytelling or open-world gameplay. As an argument, this is silly – the only correct answer can be, “It depends” – but it provides a useful framework for thinking about the experience Witcher 2 offers, because the game’s strongest suit is its story. I like talking to NPCs, I like watching the more compelling NPCs in action, and I like finding out what happens next.
As such, the game’s prologue, steep learning curve aside, made a great first impression on me because it had such a high ratio of (quality) storytelling to gameplay: plenty of cutscenes, plenty of NPC interaction, and because it was so heavily scripted, every minute of gameplay pushed the story forward by directly advancing Geralt towards his goals.
In contrast, I didn’t enjoy Act 1 as much as I did the prologue because it reduced that storytelling : gameplay ratio. It did this in a couple of ways – first, the game opened up, but as a result, I spent much more time running around a town and surrounding environment that I didn’t care much for, and much less time actually progressing the story. In some games, such as Fallout 3, just wandering about in the open is a pleasure, but for me, Act 1 of The Witcher 2, with its narrow paths, was not. And crucially, the pacing of the story quests themselves sagged – while I disagree with Edge’s review of the game*, I do agree that much of Act 1 felt like a diversion. I realise these are very subjective complaints, and they carry a big disclaimer – I missed most of the side quests in Act 1, so quite possibly I made things worse for myself.
However, I will stand by my other bone of contention with Act 1: its difficulty spikes. By the middle of the chapter I could comfortably handle most battles, but the exceptions were still jarring. Even leaving aside boss fights, one sequence required me to fight a whole squad of guards in a little corridor – wide enough for them to swarm me, but not wide enough to take advantage of Geralt’s superior mobility. I reloaded again… and again… and again… and again… and this is where I’ll reiterate my comment from last week that the game needs a difficulty setting in between Easy and Normal, for action-challenged players like me. Outside of boss fights and other scripted sequences, it’s almost impossible to die on Easy (seriously, in that corridor fight I mentioned, on Easy Geralt could stand in the middle of five guys swinging their swords and still survive), and that reduces potentially epic moments to anticlimactic clickfests. On the other hand, on Normal, non-stop wiping at that same point wasn’t just annoying. It again negated potentially epic moments (instead of “oh, cool”, my reaction became “just get it over with!”), and it was immersion-breaking, which hurt a story-driven game such as this.
Now that I’m up to Act 2, I’m happy to report that the game has picked up again. Without spoiling anything, the scripted sequences that open the act are strong and even after getting past those, the story density remains high – I can find, and solve, a bunch of quests all in the main hub. Some of the side quests lead into cool fights that, while minor, help flesh out Geralt as a character (the fights became extremely easy once I realised how to cheese them, but that’s a story for another day). And I really like how Act 2 actually tries to justify the usual RPG “run around a new town, helping a bunch of complete strangers” trope. The Witcher 2 has returned to form, and I hope to play more soon.
* I consider the score too harsh based on what I’ve seen of the game; at least as of the latest patch, the combat system is much, much better than described; I actually like the prologue “fights and QTEs” that the reviewer pans; etc etc.