'Witcher 2' casts a spell on Xbox
There's always an element within any role-playing game that fans of the genre will gripe about.
While last year's "The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim" was lauded for a beautiful and expansive open world, it was slammed by others for its somewhat bland combat.
On the other hand, "Dark Souls" was hailed for a brutally difficult combat system, yet dismissed by those seeking colorful characters and a tangled web of folklore.
"The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings" (Warner Bros., for the Xbox 360, $59.99), with a nearly flawless combination of deep, nonlinear storytelling and challenging combat, satisfies all around.
One of 2011's most popular and critically acclaimed PC games, it comes to the Xbox in a robust "Enhanced Edition" full of bonus content.
Playing as the witcher Geralt of Rivia — a mutant who "slays monsters for coin" — you are quickly immersed in a complicated world of political intrigue where loyalties are tested.
With only fragments of his memory intact, Geralt is accused of assassinating the king and seeks the true killer to clear his name.
Beyond the main storyline are plenty of colorful characters who need help, so you can pick up monster-hunting jobs here and there — or you can just sit around drinking and arm-wrestling for money.
Choose your own ending
The enjoyable quest log is written from an outsider's perspective, and the pieces are slowly put together based on the decisions you make. These choices have significant weight, and even those that seem small could have a huge effect on the story as you battle your way toward one of 16 possible endings.
Combat is fast-paced, and the Xbox translation has very responsive controls. The magic spells, called "signs," work well in tandem with the swordplay. You can cast a sign to protect yourself or throw a ball of flame, but the most amusing sign turns enemies against each other: Hit three foes in succession and enjoy the mayhem.
As you gain experience, you earn talent points to spend on three skill trees: swordsmanship, alchemy or magic. The variations are many, making for high replay value.
There's also an intense "Dark Mode" that must be played to unlock even more quests and content.
An "Elder Scrolls"-type alchemy system requires you to collect ingredients and formulas to make powerful potions, and you can also collect items to craft and upgrade weapons and armor.
The world created by Polish developer CD Projekt Red is incredibly detailed. Sunlight shimmers off bodies of water; forests are hazy and full of shadows; towns and cities are teeming with activity. This is one of the best-looking games to hit Microsoft's console.
The vibrant music and sound effects add to the medieval-fantasy ambience, and with a good audio setup you'll feel as if you're actually inside a tavern hearing 10 conversations going on around you while a bard sings a lilting tune.
"The Witcher 2" takes awhile to get going, and there are some slight limitations to traveling, though they never really hinder you.
If you weather the early frustrations, you'll meet a wonderful array of people and creatures, including scheming merchants, down-on-their-luck warriors and hard-drinking dwarfs, all brought to life by strong voice acting.
Early on, an elf maiden invites you to a waterfall, hinting at carnal delights — but be careful, because there is far more than meets the eye in the land of Temeria. "The Witcher 2" easily earns its "M'' rating, with plenty of profanity, nudity and bloodshed.
For all of you adult gamers out there who hunger for a mature story set within a fantastic world you can lose yourself in, "The Witcher 2" will satisfy your cravings.