The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings
Perhaps the most impressive thing about The Witcher 2 is that you might never see the content I demoed recently. Such is the non-linearity in CD ProjeKt RED's follow-up to their 2008 RPG, it's entirely possible you could bypass not just the side-mission on show, but the entire town it's set in.
And do you know what? That would be a shame. Because there's real character here. In the visual design, the dialogue and the sense of life that populates this twig of The Witcher 2's vast branching narrative, Vergen lifts itself well above your bog standard RPG town.
A quick re-cap for the uninitiated. The Witcher 2, like its predecessor, is based on the novels of Andrzej Sapkowski, a kind of dark fantasy, Polish Tolkien. Both the books and the games follow the adventures of Geralt, an especially grizzled monster hunter trained in combat and magic. He's basically King of all the badasses.
Here's just one reason why. In the demo I played, Geralt was approached by a woman in distress. She asked him to sort out a "problem" with her husband. Y'know, the usual side-questy stuff. Until he opened his mouth that is.
"Did you find his entrails strewn on the porch and his head a few paces away? Because those are the kind of problems I solve."
And that was it. There was no side quest. It was just a ironic riff on RPG design. And maybe, just maybe, a cheeky swipe at Bioware. Commander Sheppard sorts out a domestic dispute on the Citadel in Mass Effect 1, right? No such faffing about for Geralt! Perhaps Im stretching it a bit there.
Anyway, the point is that he's tough and the dialogue is funny. Indeed, the dialogue is great throughout, for all the characters, even the incidental ones. Vergen is a dwarven town, at the heart of which is, naturally, a tavern stuffed with boozed up dwarfs. They're great fun.
Amongst the tavern's bustling community, you can indulge in a range of minigames; simple, manly pursuits like arm-wrestling (keeping a reticule within a gradually-reducing target area), gambling (a poker-esque dice game) and a spot of fisticuffs (QTEs, which Im sure they will fix, but are a little buggy at this stage).
After conquering a set of dwarfs in the arm wrestling for instance, the disposed champion said in a thick Scottish brogue, "I believe I'd split a rock with my dick sooner than beat you in an arm wrestle." It might seem a little puerile in black and white, and perhaps it is, but thanks to some fantastic delivery it's brilliant. Wonderfully charming.
Out of the tavern and into the town to tackle the sidequest proper and I'm finally stuck into the meat of the demo. Here's what I had to do. Some of the town's men have gone missing and, after a little bit of bartering with an Elf, Geralt agrees to leave the warm, stone-carved town and investigate.
Striding purposefully past the market stalls on the edge of Vergen and into the rocky, tree scattered countryside I realise just how pretty it all is. The Witcher 2 is a fantastically great looking game. It's been a long time since I played a PC title with the settings pushed up to the top, but this one's a beaut. Then again it was running on NVIDIA PCs the size of ice cream vans, so you'd expect a certain amount of graphical grunt.
Emerging onto the edge of a marshy swamp area, it's not long before I come across nasty soldier types intent on my death. The combat in The Witcher 2 has been re-jigged to feel more action-orientated, so I bash away with my sword hoping that will it stop the blighters. It doesn't.
I'm quickly surrounded, taking hits from all sides. Tomas Gop, the game's producer, hovering over my shoulder, politely suggests I choose the magic shield option from a radial dial that pops up with the press of the Ctrl button. I do as I'm told. Earlier, during the presentation, he insisted that our characters had been levelled up to such a degree that he could guarantee I wouldn't die. Seems he wasn't prepared for my ineptitude.
But I had tricks up my sleeve. That same radial dial also contains access to a range of magical attacks. I quickly selected the fireball and let fly a volley of flame. That worked better. Growing into it, I alternated the magic with the melee attacks, realising that well-timed blocks leave enemies open to hits. It wasn't long before I finished off the last of them with a suitably brutal flourish.
On to the crypt. This is where the missing men had been secreted away, their dead bodies tucked into stone bunk beds. Peeling off their dressings I could investigate their wounds, in an attempt to get to the bottom of their deaths. The body I looked at had scratches along its back, something Geralt took as an indication that the men had been doing the vertical tango prior to their demise. Curious.
Rolling a body over I also discovered a poetry book owned, funnily enough, by Dandelion, Geralt's minstrel. Apparently, Dandelion was back at the tavern all along, though I missed him first time around. So back I go.
On the way back to town a dirty great big spider attacked me. Gop had warned me about this horrible beast. "There's no auto-scaling in The Witcher 2, so you may want to avoid it," he offered. I do exactly that, scampering back to the tavern. Maybe another time.
Once I'd met with Dandelion back at the tavern, who admits his poetry book has been stolen, the pair quickly deduce that the culprit is a Succubus, a sexy female Demon type who seduces her victims before offing them. Not a terrible way to die, but still.
Traipsing just outside of town, I'm put in charge of Dandelion and tasked with reading a poem to summon her. Thankfully, because Gop had told me to, I had flicked through the poetry book earlier and roughly knew the poem in question. Given three multiple choices I was able to recite right lines and the Succubus' lair was revealed.
Here, I was given two further choices. I could either guide Dandelion down there, libidinous rogue that he is, or choose Geralt to bowl in mob handed. I chose Dandelion, hoping to get my end away. Still peering over my shoulder, Gop exploded with laughter, "I knew it!" Geralt added a dismissive, "Fucking idiot actually went in." Thanks guys.
And then, just as things got out of hand for Dandelion, my brief demo of the game was over. I would have loved to have gone on, or even through it again - perhaps made a few different choices, taken on that spider or perfected the combat, but time was up. I'll have to wait until May 17th now, when the game finally hits. Or perhaps even longer for a console port, something that Gop openly admits CD Projekt RED have one eye on. It's a shame. Forget Dragon Age 2 for a minute, this is the fantasy RPG that has me most excited.