I'm probably one of the few PC gamers that didn't instantly fall in love with The Witcher when it came out. From the story to the characters to the combat, it was all just "okay". Even the much-touted "Enhanced Edition" barely made much of a difference, as far as I could tell. It always made me wonder if, because PC gamers rarely get exclusivity anymore, maybe they were all just deluding themselves into their Witcher lust, the same way Wii owners refuse to accept that they wasted their money. From what I could tell, The Witcher was a middling RPG with a confining combat mechanic, bland story, frustrating user interface and to top it all off, one giant pander to young teenage boys with its "naked trading cards of women I've banged in the game" aspect. To put it simply, The Witcher 2 has a lot to prove.
It's hard to stay skeptical long when the first thing you notice about the game is that you feel like you are playing a fully rendered CGI movie. The graphics are, in a word, amazing. In the first few minutes of the game I was treated to a grand vista of an ongoing castle siege at dawn. Gorgeous mountains ringed the siege camp while monstrous trebuchets periodically hurled boulders at the castle walls. The prologue alone was a visual masterpiece, and it didn't let up the whole game. The Witcher 2 is loud and proud about coming out on PC first and seems to almost brag, "You won't see this on any mere console". Be warned, however, you will need an above average rig to get anywhere close to max settings. Thankfully even on lower settings, it looks better than pretty much everything that's come before it.
Unfortunately, it's hard to keep that aesthetic going when you have combat as clumsy as this. For whatever reason, developer CD Projekt Red jammed what can only be called a clumsy console auto-lock-on system onto the swordplay. The problem is that Geralt will only do damage to the person/monster he's currently targeting and the game spastically jumps from one target to another based on where it thinks you are aiming the camera. The end result is that half of the time you are impotently flailing at the enemy right in front of you while your real target is five feet behind him. There is a skill called "Whirl" that basically fixes this design flaw by letting you damage whatever makes contact with your sword, making it all but a required purchase. But that's hardly a sound way of creating games: make a game barely playable, requiring the player to fight the horrible mechanics the whole way, until finally he can make the game function properly by spending skill points?
The admixture of potions and magic make their return, pretty much the same as they ever were, both with skill branches dedicated to enhancing and prolonging their effects. I do dig the low-magic world of the Witcher, as Geralt's abilities are useful but not bombastic. A little bit of fire, force field, magical traps, wind and Jedi mind tricks are really all that he ever gets to fling around. It makes for a grittier, less cartoonish world but it also means that you can't really build Geralt into a full mage or alchemist. He's always going to be a swordsman with supporting magic and potions, no matter which skills you pick.
Crafting is another area where The Witcher 2 establishes a decent system and then throws a giant wrench in the gears. You obtain schematics for potions, bombs, traps, armor and weapons and then combine them at a smith, using found ingredients. The system is intuitive and quite functional, and I enjoyed making badass swords and armor. The problem is that, in a game where you are constantly finding heavy crafting materials like iron ore and leather, there's no system in place to store them for later crafting. Instead, you eventually have to sell them because they overburden you. After the first chapter, I just stopped picking the ingredients up altogether and if I needed to craft something later, I just hoped that a merchant had everything in stock. Supposedly, the developers wanted players to travel light and not horde items, in order to keep the story and action moving along. They apparently don't understand a large part of what makes RPGs fun for people, which is very strange given the inclusions of their otherwise excellent crafting mechanic.
Following in the pattern of decent-and-then-awful that The Witcher 2 loves to soak in, the story waffles back and forth between "standard fantasy fare" and flat-out incomprehensible. For the most part, Geralt's quest to uncover a conspiracy to assassinate all the kings of the realm is adequate to move the action along. Other times, especially concerning Geralt's loss of memory, the game starts spitting out "in the know" gibberish in rapid succession and when the game dips into this lore from the novels, you may just as well go make a sandwich. Random names (of people we've never been introduced to) are thrown around willy nilly, with the developers seemingly assuming that the players will know who the hell they are. Half the time I couldn't tell if nonsense words like "Aedirn" and "Glevissig" were people, places, weapons, artifacts...and after the first few hours, I just gave up caring. CD Projekt Red was clearly not interested in helping me understand so if they weren't going to meet me half way, there's not much I can do but smile and nod while all the characters spout context-less dialogue.
Another huge problem with using an established universe and characters based on a book series is that everything feels borrowed. I never truly got the impression that Geralt was my character. Even regarding any possible romantic relationship, I never knew if I should be staying true to the predefined roles or branching out on my own. Since I wasn't the one that got Geralt to where he is with his lover, Triss, being given the option to cheat on her now seems shallow and scummy. But if I had been the one to establish that partnership in the first place, maybe finding someone new would be in-character. It's like going to a friend's house and seeing his shiny new LCD TV. Sure you want to watch something on it, but you aren't going to start fiddling with the settings; it's not yours to customize.
Both of these aspects hurt this RPG more than one might think. Immersion is always a big deal in a role playing game and the single biggest contributor to immersion is the feeling of ownership. This was never my journey, my companions, my victories, my rewards. They were all Geralt's, and more than that, they were just the latest in a long line of such events that I have no knowledge of. It was as if I was merely a foreign consciousness that took control of Geralt for a single chapter of his life and then I was gone. He'll go on to live more chapters in other games or books, and I'll move on to other RPGs, barely remembering my time inhabiting his world. Was it a fun ride? Sure, but that's all it was. It wasn't a personal experience, like it should have been, like all RPGs should be.
That said, the actual structure of the narrative is quite rich, with various branches based on your choices. Who you choose to call ally and enemy plays a large role in how the story plays out and sometimes even which locales you visit. The world itself is also extremely detailed, with tons of colorfully drunk townspeople (I especially love the singing), day/night behaviors for most NPCs, and just a general "lived in" feel to the universe. You may not remember what city you are in or why, but it will certainly feel "real" enough in the moment.
I come away from this game with nothing but mixed feelings. Pretty much every aspect starts by exciting you, giving you hope that an RPG is finally going to be all the things you want it to be. But at every turn, it mocks you with "Just kidding!", ripping the rug out from under your feet and making you taste cold reality again. This back and forth relationship makes playing The Witcher 2 tiring. Everything is a battle against good intentions turned sour by fatal design flaws. It's one of those games that I don't regret having played, but I also wouldn't recommend it to a friend, either. And since that's exactly where the first game left me, I have little hope that the Witcher universe will ever be a place I feel at home.