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Before I get into the more intricate details, I can't help but spend a little time on just how amazing the game looks. With the settings cranked up to "High" (the "Ultra" settings had some instability issues in the early build I played), the characters, buildings, and environments all look spectacular. The amount of painstaking detail that went into crafting the early battle landscapes, the La Valette Castle courtyard, the town of Flotsam and its wilderness, and other such areas is simply staggering. With the addition of even more realistic day/night transitions and weather effects (blurred vision during torrential rain, anyone?) than we saw in the first game, The Witcher 2 is easily the best-looking RPG I've ever played. And I say that without any hesitation.
Beyond the actual eye candy, it's also worth pointing out the diversity in the game's locations. Each of the game's villages and settlements is comprised of numerous residences, which Geralt can enter in search of NPCs (for conversation, trading, mini game, or crafting purposes) or any valuables that aren't nailed down. The game's residences and shops were clearly designed by hand, as most if not all of them possess different floor plans, a variety of different furniture, and decor that matches their functionality (I wouldn't normally mention all that but, hey, we're living in a post-Dragon Age II world). You won't ever get a sense of repetition when adventuring elsewhere in the game, either. For example, each one of the gnarled trees in the Flotsam wilderness looks dissimilar from the next and even a side area of Flotsam where a notable NPC named Loredo lives has a completely different feel than the rest of the town.
The team has stepped up their presentation efforts in the sequel, as well. The artistic style is similar to that of their debut effort, but the UI is much slicker (a categorized inventory, much-needed item comparison windows, and four groups of neatly organized skill trees) and the dialogue sessions don't possess any of the bizarre gestures and head-scratching translations that plagued early versions of the first game. And if CD Projekt RED intends to bring The Witcher 2 to consoles, you'd never know it from the UI, text arrangements, or keyboard/mouse control system - everything feels right at home on the PC.
Geralt's primary form of advancement is done through four separate talent trees (Training, Magic, Alchemy, and Swordsmanship) that house a total of 51 talents, each of which can have up to 2 points allocated to it. However, there are a few other lesser known progression options, including abilities (important skills like intimidation, persuasion, and haggling that are increased in level through use), knowledge (useful information gleaned from books, battles, and other means that grant combat bonuses and the like), and a slew of derived statistics (the in-game character sheet lists 37 different numeric scores) such as resistances and regeneration rates that you'll be watching closely to maximize your effectiveness.
Since you'll be spending the most time with Geralt's talents, though, I'll go into a bit more detail on those. The Training tree contains a half dozen basic proficiency talents such as "Dagger Throwing" and "Arrow Redirection" that you're required to take in order to expand Geralt's capabilities in the early game. Only after you've allocated several points into the Training tree will the Magic, Alchemy, and Swordsmanship trees unlock, therefore expanding your options considerably.
The Magic tree consists of talents that can be chosen to pick up new signs or to enhance the ones already available to you. For example, Geralt starts the game with the Aard sign, but he can pick up an early talent like "Enhanced Aard Sign" to unlock Aard Sign Level II and therefore increase its range by a couple of meters. Farther down the talent tree, you can pick up "Magical Sense" to unlock the Heliotrope sign, which grants you the ability to generate adrenaline through sign usage. Other talents like "Energy Flow" increase the chance of causing critical effects when using signs, so they're a good choice if you find yourself tossing around Igni quite a bit in battle.
If you intend to use a lot of bombs, traps, and potions, then the Alchemy line will probably end up with a majority of your talent points. For example, the "Alchemist" talent increases bomb and trap damage and the "Catalysis" talent increases the positive effects of all imbibed potions while also decreasing their negative effects. Furthermore, a talent like "Taster" is something of a necessity for would-be alchemists, as it allows Geralt to consume an additional potion at any given time.
Regardless of how you intend to play the game, you're going to be using Geralt's swords on a consistent basis, and that's where the Swordsmanship tree comes in. The "Precision" talent increases the chance of your opponents suffering from a bleeding effect when hit, or you can opt for the "Sudden Death" talent for a small chance that any of Geralt's sword strikes might instantly kill a struck foe. Other useful additions include "Combat Acumen" to unlock adrenaline- charged group finishing moves and "Invincible" to increase Geralt's vitality while also reducing incoming damage.
To add another interesting element to the talent trees, certain talents also have the option to attach mutagens to them. For example, with each talent point that you allocate to "Invincible", you can attach a mutagen to the talent (up to a maximum of two, obviously) for an added effect or characteristic. Mutagens randomly drop from slain creatures and their potency varies across lesser, normal, and greater tiers. As such, a Lesser Critical Effects Mutagen might be a nice addition to one of your Swordsmanship talents or to complement your sign usage, but the Greater version of the same mutagen is obviously more desirable.
Once again, Geralt must choose between his steel or silver sword with each battle that he finds himself in, with the former being the better option for humans and the latter a good choice for monsters. Combat consists of swift attacks, heavy attacks, blocks, dodges, parries, ripostes (if you've unlocked them with the proper talent), the occasional throwing knife, and sign usage. With each successful attack, Geralt builds up adrenaline which then allows him to carry out flashier maneuvers that are chained together and far more potent. Chaining together swift and heavy strikes isn't difficult to do, but it does take some practice as it's entirely dependent on getting the timing right with your mouse clicks (while also avoiding taking any damage yourself). Misclick once and your chain of attacks is over.
Where combat gets a bit tricky is when Geralt is overwhelmed by multiple thugs or beasts. Even if your timing is impeccable, getting hit with a single melee or ranged weapon will force Geralt to immediately stop whatever action he was taking. It can be a little jarring at times, and there's usually a slight delay before you can start chaining attacks together again. I could usually manage to deal with two opponents at once relatively well, but fighting three or more enemies in close range is practically suicide on normal difficulty. If you get surrounded or knocked down, the barrage of incoming attacks will likely be lethal.
I didn't find myself blocking or parrying very often, but I did make use of dodges quite a bit. Since dodging helps Geralt move around the area quickly during a battle, you can usually "pull" a single enemy toward a specific point so that they can quickly be dispatched before the remaining foes advance to your position. And since Geralt has the ability to regenerate vitality (the rate of which is determined by talents, items, and potion consumption), dodging around a battle for a few moments just might give you enough breathing room to carry out the rest of the fight.
Beyond standard opponents, The Witcher 2 will also pit us against major "boss" creatures. By the end of the first act, I had dealt with two of them - a massive dragon terrorizing La Valette Castle and a tentacled beast called a kayran that was feeding on fishermen around the town of Flotsam. These types of battles are carried out with the help of quick time events (referred to QTEs from here on out), though this do-something-quickly-now! system is optional and can be switched off if you'd rather not continuously click a mouse button or press "W" at specific intervals during a cinematic portion of the fight (like when you've successfully trapped a tentacle with the Yrden sign and need to slice it off). Two areas where QTEs aren't optional are the fist-fighting and arm wrestling mini-games, but these are pretty entertaining distractions when they occur, so I don't think anyone will mind being forced to react quickly to their on-screen prompts.
One final aspect of combat that I'd like to point out is the tactical use of lures and traps. Should you be specifically on the lookout for the alchemical ingredients dropped by a specific monster, you'll want to place the appropriate lure into one of Geralt's "pocket" slots. For example, harpies are attracted to phosphorescent crystals and trolls will pick up the scent of rotten meat. I didn't get a chance to test them all out, but from what I could tell, your chance of running into a hungry beast is simply increased when its lure is equipped rather than just suddenly calling them forth from the surrounding areas as you stand and wait. However, if you're able to bring all of the lured creatures into one particular area, it's to your advantage to set up some traps in the area first to skew the inevitable battle in your favor.
Alchemy, Crafting, and Encumbrance
The alchemy and crafting systems in The Witcher 2 are quite impressive and have considerably more depth than what we saw in the first title. Before you can start tinkering with either system, you'll need to track down some formulae (for alchemy) or some diagrams (for crafting) so that Geralt has the understanding necessary to create the new items. These are purchased from merchants for the most part, but you'll also pick up a few of the better ones as quest rewards or rare loot. Once you have a formula or diagram in hand, the specifics on what you'll need to craft the item and what the item's statistics will be once finished are automatically added to your journal for easy viewing. Concocting new potions, oils, or bombs is done via the game's meditation menu, while crafting must be done through a blacksmith or another merchant with the necessary tools.
By the time I had reached the end of Act 1, I had picked up nearly eighty different formulae and diagrams, and that had me ransacking every container I found in search of ingredients (using Geralt's medallion will highlight all lootable containers in the immediate vicinity, and because ingredients are so important, you'll be using it a lot). Some ingredients are very rare or even unique, such as the skin you're able to acquire from the kayran I mentioned previously. This forces you to make tough choices, as some diagrams call for the same one-shot ingredient in your inventory. Using the kayran skin as an example, I could choose between using it to craft a very nice armor upgrade called a "Kayran Carapace Reinforcement" or I could use it for some "Kayran Carapace Armor" that had the largest damage reduction bonus of any armor I'd yet seen in the game. Decisions, decisions.
While the categorized inventory screen makes it easy to view all of your acquired formulae, diagrams, and ingredients, you'll no doubt find yourself encumbered on many occasions as you leave a sleeping NPC's home with every piece of timber, can of oil, and roll of cloth he had lying around waiting to be pilfered. Your formulae and diagrams only weigh a tenth of a pound each, but something like an endrega hide will set you back two pounds for every one that you round up. With less than two hundred pounds to spare beyond the weight of your own equipment (without the "Strong Back" acquired ability, anyway), it doesn't take long before Geralt is dragging his feet. Hopefully there will be some sort of "stash" where we can temporarily store ingredients farther into the game, but up until the end of Act 1, I didn't see any good way to manage my encumbrance other than opting to drop excess ingredients that would vanish as soon as I left the area.
NPCs and Dialogue
The handful of areas that I was able to check out in the press build were bustling with NPCs going about their daily lives, communing amongst each other and tossing out the occasional vulgarity as you get within earshot. Soldiers train for battle, workers move cargo onto boats, a butcher cuts meat, fishermen stand along the shore perfecting their craft, women gather to gossip, and guards man their stations (and can even be spotted taking breaks and falling asleep on the job as night falls). A believable world is essential to any role-playing game, and based on my 15-hour experience, the team at CDP seems to have ticked all of the right boxes with The Witcher 2.
Occasionally, Triss, Zoltan, or Dandelion will accompany you (primarily during specific quests), though they're never under your direct control during such an event. However, you can indulge in conversation with them at any time, as long as you're not actively in combat. Dialogue works just as Witcher veterans would expect it to, aside from the fact that you'll regularly see icons next to dialogue choices that can be influenced by your intimidate or persuasion abilities, or can be influenced with the use of the Axii sign. It's through these choices that you can initially gain the abilities themselves, and then you can increase their level with each successful check that you make. It's also worth mentioning that the dialogue options don't represent exactly what Geralt will say - each option is more of a summary of the conversation that's to come. I guess verbatim dialogue options are a thing of the past, even for the classic-loving guys at CD Projekt.
The choices presented to Geralt during dialogue are many and some have dire consequences. When asked by one of Flotsam's seedier types to track down a formula from a local alchemist, do you force him to give up the real formula or agree to a deal that will net you (and, ultimately, your employer) a fake one? Do you slay the booze-loving troll that's blocking a prominent trade route (and therefore claim its rare trophy and crafting ingredients) or do you sympathize with it and figure out a non-lethal solution to the problem? When a local thug sets a building inhabited by elven women ablaze, do you save them from a fiery death or do you pursue the man responsible? When things start to escalate while tracking down the main antagonist, do you side with Iorveth and the non-humans or Temerian agent Vernon Roche? These types of situations are quite prominent in just the first several hours of the game, so I expect that we'll be wrestling with a lot of decisions throughout the course of the game. Word is that Act 2 plays out in two completely different manners, depending on your prior decisions (including those you made in the original game, should you import your save game).
The White Wolf Has Returned in Style
If you've read everything I've had to say up to this point, you'll probably reach the conclusion that I thoroughly enjoyed my time with The Witcher 2. And you'd be right. There are so many refinements that CD Projekt RED has gracefully included in the sequel, and they've done so with a technical expertise that immediately catapults them to the top echelon of RPG developers. That's not to say it's a perfect game - the timed combat and quick time events might not sit well with some of you and Geralt's sexual escapades are once again a bit over the top - but as far as traditional role-playing titles go, The Witcher 2 is the finest example we've seen since Origins, perhaps even since its predecessor.
So did we make the right decision to label The Witcher 2 as our most anticipated RPG of 2011? Absolutely.