The Witcher 2 is essentially multiple games gracefully molded into a single experience. The second act, for instance, tells a very different tale depending on choices you make beforehand. You might comb beaches and battlefields or go spelunking with a group of profane dwarves at your side, in each case making a different region your base of operations. By their very flexibility, many RPGs inspire replay, but few offer such differing paths, allowing you to experience a complex narrative from distinct points of view. The characters at your side, the enemies you face, the dialogue--they all differ based on a series of decisions that the game never forgets.
As it turns out, trolls don't pay taxes on the bridge tolls they collect.
Cities and wilderness areas are relatively contained, though just extensive enough to encourage exploration. In doing so, you might uncover a chest that can be opened only by interpreting the clues on a nearby scroll, or stumble upon a giant arachnid guarding treasure. A number of stupendous action moments punctuate your travels. You won't remember just the big story developments, but the sequences in which you clutch your sword and stare down the danger ahead with savage resolve. In one such scenario, you slash away at grotesque representations of hate and violence, the whispers of magical incantations barely rising above the distant noise of steel on steel. Elsewhere, terrifying screams and flurries of feathers make your first encounter with a gaggle of harpies unforgettable, and the squawks and growls of unseen wildlife intensify your showdown with an endrega queen.
While there are a few different kinds of weapons you might wield, you usually choose between your silver and steel swords, depending on whether you are facing monsters or humans. You perform both light and heavy attacks from a third-person view, and can block and cast signs (Geralt's magic spells) as well. Before you leap into the prologue, you might want to check out the tutorial, though it isn't strictly necessary, as the first proper combat encounter isn't nearly as punishing as it was on the PC. It might take you a few tries, but you eventually grasp the rhythm of swordplay. Crowd control is important: you want to avoid getting surrounded at all costs, and bombs and traps can make all the difference when the odds look overwhelming.
The Xbox 360 release benefits from a reasonable difficulty curve, but there are some frustrations here and there. The manual targeting system is fiddly enough that you'll likely let the game's auto-targeting take over for you, unless you face a single enemy, or maybe two. You might inadvertently tumble toward an enemy behind the one you meant to attack and find yourself in the center of a deadly mob. There are also moments when basic actions don't feel as responsive as they should; unsheathing your sword might take a couple of button presses, for instance. Yet the action is largely satisfying and enjoyable. There's a palpable sense of weight in every swing. Geralt might somersault toward his victim and slash him with a steel sword or use a flaming staff pilfered from a succubus to land slower, heavier blows.
Friend, or foe? Your decision has far-reaching consequences on the missions that follow.
Potions are toxic to Geralt; thus, the number you can drink is limited. It might take you a while to come to terms with this "prepare in advance" approach to potions. Brews act as statistic buffs rather than immediate cure-alls, and unless you know what monsters you might be coming up against, you don't necessarily know which potions are most effective. When the story snatches you up into a series of battles and cutscenes, you may never be allowed to meditate and, thus, never reap the benefits potions may have granted. Thankfully, the long animations depicting Geralt entering and exiting his meditation pose have been removed, making this process less arduous.
It may also take some time to get used to the interface. It isn't complex but there are some minor idiosyncrasies, some of which are rather sensible. You can't hold a button to identify loot and items of interest as you can in other RPGs; instead, you activate Geralt's medallion. It's a neat way of taking a game-y function and making it seem more natural. Other interface quirks are less understandable. In most RPGs, once you exhaust a particular dialogue tree, you are usually allowed to select other options before exiting the interaction. In The Witcher 2, you might get thrown out of the conversation and have to reengage the character to explore other options. It would have been nice to compare equipment at a glance, rather than have to select a particular menu option. There are other quirks too, such as picky contextual prompts (you might disarm a trap instead of swinging at an attacking nekker), but they are small blemishes on this ambitious adventure.
You can run from this spirit--but you can't hide.
Though combat is central to The Witcher 2, it's far from the only thing you do as Geralt. You can earn some coin by trading blows with certain locals, which means performing a relatively easy sequence of quick-time button presses. Timed events show up in boss fights and in other scripted sequences as well, though the game doesn't focus on them, and they make for a fun spectacle: the close camera angles and barbaric punches give brawls a lot of pizzazz. The PC version's arm-wrestling minigame returns as well and controls far better with a controller than it did with a mouse and keyboard. You can even go get a haircut or play some dice when you aren't busy chatting up the local ladies or hearing of Zoltan's latest exploits.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings - Enhanced Edition is an excellent port of a superb game, embracing many of the elements we love about RPGs without skimping on any of them. But it's the way it handles player choice in particular that makes it most notable. There are no contrived right-versus-wrong decisions to exploit. The results of your decision don't just influence minor details: they lead you down wildly disparate paths, each as entertaining as the others. The Witcher 2 is a mature game indeed--not just because of its sexual themes and violent images, but because of its complex portrayal of morally ambiguous individuals struggling in a morally ambiguous world.