The Witcher 2: Assassins Of Kings isn’t interested in letting you craft a character. In this new role-playing game from Polish developer CD Projekt, you’re Geralt of Rivia—a lean, monster hunter with a Yojimbo knack for playing the angles. As far as revisionist fantasies go, there aren’t many better in videogames. That’s because The Witcher 2 ably sidesteps the pitfalls that make games like Dragon Age feel so turgid.
At its heart, The Witcher 2 is an action game. Geralt is a freelance creep-killer, so his strengths lie in using his swords, magic, and wits to rid the world of mutants. Sadly, the game’s fighting is fussy to the point of being overly difficult. An easy setting offers an out for those too impatient to wrestle with Geralt’s controls, but reaching that point can be a hard-learned lesson.
Also vital: Geralt’s ability to brew potions and craft traps and weapons. More difficult fights require planning and smart use of gadgets to win the day. And though the overarching plot of The Witcher 2 finds Geralt chasing down the jerk who framed him with a king’s murder, a good part of the adventure is spent in Geralt’s wheelhouse—tracking and killing beasties.
The Witcher 2’s best strength is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. As voiced by Doug Cockle, the amnesiac hero drawls with the same hard-to-place European accent as Christopher Lambert. The performance borders on parody, like David Hayter’s Solid Snake. And the world Geralt inhabits is filled with bawdy rabble griping noisily about their life in the mud.
Much credit is due to The Witcher 2’s lovely level design. The world Geralt travels is beautiful even when it seems dire. The game’s first big sandbox is a grimy town plagued by a tentacled river beast. The old forest around it seems to sprawl forever. Within those woods, there are hidden caves, haunted ruins, and nests teeming with giant bugs, undead creeps, and rebellious elves. A slew of quests dangle carrots to lure you into these wilds, but they're almost unnecessary. The landscape itself, full of mysterious fallen statues and caches of treasure, is more than enough motivation to explore.
It’s easy to lose yourself in the experience of The Witcher 2. Geralt’s role as detective, exterminator, and hand of justice is just flexible enough to accommodate all types of role-players. Choices peppered about the game let players nudge his performance toward the poles of self-interest and honor. And yet in spite of multiple paths and endings, you’re still neck-deep in Witcher 2’s cruel world. It isn’t a terrible place to be.