I played the PC-exclusive Witcher 2 last year and really loved the adult-oriented story, gritty setting and challenging swordplay, but there were many nagging issues with the game’s design that were too frustrating to ignore. After garnering generally positive reviews, no one was really surprised when CD Projekt announced work had begun on a console version of The Witcher 2. The Polish developer took about 10 months to translate the game’s code into something the Xbox can understand, and took the opportunity to revise the pacing and smooth out the difficulty spikes. I haven’t made it to the third act in this new version, but CD Projekt promises new cinematics and quests to flesh it out a bit more. There were also new story-bits and refinements in places I didn’t even realize were lacking, making the second draft of The Witcher 2 a much more satisfying game.
In perhaps the smartest PR move ever, those who’ve purchased The Witcher 2 to play on the PC can appreciate these revisions with a free patch to the “Enhanced” version. Both Xbox and PC players who install the patch will get a refined game experience, the expanded third act, and all the DLC released so far for The Witcher 2.
The game now opens with a bang. The introductory cinematic shows off the Eastern European medieval setting by depicting an event previously only alluded to in the first version. The death of a king is nothing to scoff at, and the action sequence plays up the kinetic combat, unique potions and alchemical bombs of the setting. I didn’t necessarily need a whiz-bang cinematic to open The Witcher 2 while playing it on the PC, but, now seeing it, the sequence is invaluable for players new to the series. It’s also freaking badass.
We know from the start that The Witcher 2 is more Game of Thrones than Lord of the Rings. Drug and alcohol abuse is the norm, as is rampant racism against non-humans. A king will fight a bloody and expensive war over a spat with his high-born lover, while the common people scrape and starve. Witchers are mutants capable of fearsome combat, but they are as hated and feared as the monsters they kill. Sex and cursing, blood and filth, The Witcher 2‘s hallmarks work just as well on the console as they did on Steam – even if you can’t pay a whore to do your bidding like you could in the 2011 version.
The new prologue does a much better job guiding players in embodying Geralt of Rivia, the white-haired witcher with a nasty disposition. There’s still the awkward dialogue choice that allows players to play the prologue out of order, but you are no longer punished for choosing to play the sequence with the dragon first. The enemies and the dragon fire are still deadly, but I didn’t have to reload the sequence twenty times before I was lucky enough to get past it like I did playing it on PC. In general, the difficulty has been tuned well for an action RPG. The first part of the old version was much harder than the rest of the game, but that curve has been smoothed out nicely. You will still perish if you just mash buttons like the old version, but once you figure out to parry before counter-attacking and the correct use of magic signs, the combat balances well on the knife’s edge between challenge and frustration.
The geography of the setting was always a bit fuzzy for me – perhaps because the world map was labeled in Polish with Cyrillic letters – but the enhanced edition does several things to make the different nations and cultures easier to understand for us English-speakers. First, there’s the feelie map that’s packaged with the game; touching a physical object, smelling the paper, and running my fingers along the story trapped within its lines made the fantasy feel more real. I was surprised to hear a new voiceover from Dandelion, the foppish bard, accompanied by an animated sequence showing the path Geralt’s ship takes up the river to Flotsam. Deftly killing two storytelling birds with a single stone, the player now knows where in the world he is and hints at a character about to be introduced.
With so many moving parts, navigating menus and inventories often kills otherwise decent roleplaying games. I usually prefer PC controls to a controller, but this Enhanced Edition makes the muddy menus much easier to navigate. There’s still some overly complex usage of shoulder buttons and triggers, but it’s an improvement. CD Projekt thankfully removed the annoyingly long animation of Geralt kneeling down, drinking potions, then throwing the bottle away. You still can’t drink potions in combat, but I’ll take what I can get.
The action combat seems more at home with a controller in hand rather than a mouse and keyboard. There was a lagginess to the commands that has been mitigated by the transition to consoles and quickly parrying a sword blow feels like a natural reflex rather than a deliberate choice like it had to on the PC.
Not everything is clean, however. Likely in order to get the highest framerate and control response, texture resolution was the inevitable trade off. The forests surrounding Flotsam, the cliffs around Vergen, and even the battlefield of the prologue all feel a bit less crystal clear. Clipping and flashing of characters are frequent, like the port was imperfect. There’s a bit more graphical bugs than the average Xbox game, but not enough to put me off.
The Witcher 2 works extremely well on the Xbox 360, and CD Projekt certainly hopes that the new format will sell more than the million confirmed sales in 2011 of the PC exclusive. The Enhanced Edition improves nearly every mechanical concern I had with the game. If you’ve already played through the game, download the patch to see all the new cinematics and enjoy the refined mechanics. Better still, you can finally convince that console purist friend of yours to experience a high-quality action RPG with an unconventionally dark setting on his Xbox. The ingrate.