The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings review

Role-playing games typically guide players through their rich, unfamiliar worlds in a way that’s easy to understand and exciting to explore. For instance, the first Witcher fell back on amnesia to explain itself. The sequel, though, takes a little more abrupt approach.

Returning protagonist Geralt has since discovered a bit about who he is and where his allegiances lie. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings skips over explanatory exposition and dives headlong into the present, where Geralt struggles to solve the problems of an unfortunate future.

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In this sense, The Witcher 2 is a demanding game. It expects a lot from players, but it never leaves them hanging. Geralt’s memory is still a bit broken, which affords freedom to explore, research and investigate. This means a hefty time investment for those that fall for the universe’s deeper details, but it’s worth the effort if only to further soak in the spectacle of its dirty grandeur.

Everything about this world has a layer of grime on it. Yet it’s the interaction with and culmination of all things undesirable that gives Assassins of Kings its distinctively dark identity. The characters straddle different moral shades of gray, with no one principle more favorable than the other. Villains aren’t all-powerful evils, and heroes aren’t altruistic saviors. Everyone is greedy, or racist, or a liar.

Even Geralt has a shady role in the depravity, which is what makes him such a fun character to role play, especially outside the conversation. He’s a violent fighter, and his victims react to his vicious sword strikes in an unsettling, believable way. Enemy encounters become unforgiving without excessive evasion, though, and trial and error failure is a frustrating teacher. The Witcher 2 takes a faster action-oriented approach compared to the rhythmic slashing of its predecessor, but there’s still a lingering meter to the flow of each fight. Every action—melee, magic, ranged attack and evasion—adds a note to the melodious sequence that’s as enjoyable as it is rewarding.

Geralt isn’t a murderer, though, and he won’t kill his way through diplomatic problems. Sooner or later, he has to determine which immorality to align with, and his gain inevitably leads to someone else’s harm, whether intentionally or accidentally. Sometimes I needed him to do the right thing, other times I just wanted to profit, or I’d take a neutral path and ignore what wasn’t my business. Deciding dilemmas is often a risky ethical endeavor because The Witcher 2 is unpredictable; allies and enemies aren’t who they seem, information is unreliable, and gain isn’t a guarantee. This steers the simple premise—Geralt must redeem his name after he’s framed for regicide—in wildly different directions. Where he goes and who what he’s willing to do to find the real killer diverge drastically.

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Jackpot loot hauls are sparse, giving Geralt's progress a gradual pace, funded by financial responsibility. Found junk and completed quests earn coin, which in turn supplies the resources necessary to build an incredible new weapon or piece of armor. Creating your own stuff, and subsequently improving it with found mutagen modifiers, runes or other witchery doodads is far more rewarding than the overbearing barrage of replacement gear most RPGs rely on. I grew fond of my creations and held onto them for lengthy periods of time. They weren’t just scrap metal stashed in someone’s ottoman; these are mine and I made them and they are awesome. Happenstance discovery can benefit the lucky, though, which is great if collecting materials piecemeal is unappealing.

The moment I completed the campaign, I started a new game. The excellent core of The Witcher 2’s combat and conversation remained the same, naturally, but what followed was an entirely different, equally absorbing game. So it goes when developers leave players to their own devices instead of spelling out all the answers. I adored stumbling into tucked-away corners of the country, meeting (quarreling with, helping, killing) interesting new characters, and chopping my way through The Witcher 2’s dense quest line. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings outweighs anything that tries to bring it down, and it outdoes everything in its class.

[This Witcher 2: Assassin's of Kings review was based on a digital copy of the full, PC release provided by CD Project RED.]