Digital rights management. Sloppy ports. PC developers fleeing for consoles. Rampant, unrepentant piracy. It's been a rough decade for PC gamers. And while we've been given a number of excellent games, it’s impossible to deny that console development has in many ways diminished our cherished PC platform. But The Witcher 2 stands as an example of what PC-only development should be, combining difficult, tactical combat with a mature story and plenty of decisions that affect the game's tale.
The Witcher 2 picks up almost immediately after the events of the first game: King Foltest of Temeria and his forces are besieging rogue nobles, and they've brought Geralt of Rivia along for the ride. Even if it is only the prologue, the game already shows off two of its best features: combat and its branching narrative. Geralt ends up tracking a conspiracy to kill kings, a peasant rebellion, great battles, and a cabal bent on ruling the north.
It's a nonlinear story, one that throws a number of quests at you as you unravel the mystery behind the "assassins of kings." It's not an open world – once you finish a chapter, you can't return to complete any quests in progress – but the range of choices Geralt faces in the game provides plenty of reason to give the game a second – or third, or fourth – playthrough.
One of the hallmarks of The Witcher 2 is its maturity, and I don’t mean all the gore and sex. Yes, the limbs of your foes fly as you chop through the enemy, and Geralt does engage in "adult situations" with some of the game's female characters, but, like the first game, the maturity applies to the reactions of NPCs and the entire story. Witchers aren't exactly embraced by the people, and many react with fear or disgust when Geralt appears. Some children even get scared.
Geralt is a genuinely intriguing character. He's still trying to piece his memories together, and the game's tale illustrates how important his recovery from amnesia is – on a number of levels. We learn more about his background, what happened to him in the events before The Witcher, and his death. The game reveals this through fantastic illustrated cut-scenes. The choices the game asks you to make also help you connect to Geralt better, and some of them lead to, dare I say, tender moments that show he's more than a monster-killing ladies' man.
The Witcher 2's swordplay takes some time to learn, let alone master. It's difficult, and, playing on normal, I died a number of times in some of the prologue's battles. Instead of having a set of three combat stances, you have just two basic attacks: swift and strong. First of all, you've got to make sure you're using the proper sword – silver for monsters, steel for humans – but beyond that the key is really patience.
Just like in Batman: Arkham Asylum, rushing into combat, especially against a group of foes, is signing your death warrant. You need to isolate your enemies, and take on the weaker ones first before going after men-at-arms with shields or heavily armored knights. You're going to roll away and parry often in this game, especially against stronger foes or large groups of enemies. My approach involved heavy use of Aard, a magical ability that pushes foes back and can even stun them, and Yrden, a spell that lets you lay a magical snare on the ground. In difficult battles, I pushed back the stronger foes with Aard as I engaged the lesser threats, rolling out of the way or parrying after getting a few strikes in.
Unlike many RPGs, The Witcher 2 is a game where you must use your resources, not merely hoard them. Brew and drink potions – especially those that alter the rate at which your Vigor replenishes or give you combat bonuses – before going into a new area or anywhere you expect to find a tough fight. You find plenty of crafting components to brew potions, so you don't need to feel like every last one is precious. Drink 'em like you're on a bender in Vegas.
This may sound intimidating, but honestly, it's a lot of fun. The combat is far from mindless, challenging you to devise tactics for your encounters. Fights get easier, too, as you add more abilities. I concentrated my skill points on the swordsman skills, which give you bonuses for combat, allow you to engage more foes at once, and increase the chances for your blows to land critical effects – setting an enemy on fire, for example. In fact, this extra edge of difficulty is what makes the The Witcher 2 so rewarding, but be warned, there is little or no hand-holding here.
On a visual level, The Witcher 2 is hard to fault, but you need some serious tech to run it with the settings turned up to eleven. Be sure to keep an eye on the frame-rate, and if you're having trouble look around on forums for solutions.
The Witcher 2 embodies everything that's good about PC development, and everything that makes it, to my mind, the best platform out there. It tells a mature tale full of intrigue, mystery, and frustrating but satisfying combat, and while it is difficult it's bound to please any RPG player who gives it a try.