These role-playing games have less in common than you might expect--and that's why you should be excited for The Witcher 2.
The Witcher 2 made its original debut as a PC title in May 2011, well before all-conquering Skyrim came along, but Polish studio CD Projekt has been readying its game for a second bite of the cherry. An "enhanced" version for the Xbox 360, with half an hour of new cinematics and an extra four hours of questing*, is on the way, and it still looks pretty tasty squeezed onto a console, resembling the PC version with medium graphics settings.
That Xbox 360 adaptation is due in April, set to arrive in a genre landscape where the fifth Elder Scrolls game now casts a long shadow. But though these fantasy role-playing games share a genre (and a GameSpot reviewscore), they have less in common than you might expect.
If you fell in love with Skyrim but didn't catch The Witcher 2 on the PC, you owe it to yourself to try it this time--not because it's more of the same, but because it's a stimulating contrast. And if you were one of the eight people who couldn't stand Skyrim, don't write this off as more dragon-swatting sword-and-sorcery nonsense. The Witcher 2 has some important differences that might just win you over. Here are five of them.
(*PC players of The Witcher 2 can also expect all the new Xbox 360 content in a not-too-shabby free update.)
1. No More Choose-Your-Own-Adventurer
As much as we love noodling around with sliders in a character creation menu, there's something to be said for a character designed by a professional. Geralt, The Witcher 2's white-haired, cat-eyed hero, makes the case particularly well. But it's about more than looks. Where Skyrim's generous choose-your-own-adventurer approach lets you be whoever you like, the Witcher 2 tells you who you are: the sardonic titular monster hunter of Andrzej Sapkowski's Witcher books. He's a world apart from your blank-slate Dovahkiin and, wonder of wonders, he can talk. If unvoiced protagonists leave you cold, here's a welcome change.
2. No More Guzzling Potions
Even at the normal difficulty setting, there's an agreeably stern challenge in much of The Witcher 2's combat. The controls have been reworked for this console release, and the camera and targeting have been tuned up to make enemy selection easier, but the proper toughness remains. Not least of all because you can't just pop into an inventory menu and quaff health potions in the middle of a fight, a la Skyrim.
The Witcher 2's alchemy and meditation systems mean you have to prepare yourself in the calm moments before a fight, drinking the potions that will confer the right long-lasting buffs to keep you alive. You can't knock back your whole stash, either--these concoctions are toxic, and Geralt can stomach only so much poison.
3. Narrative Focus
The game story is delivered in three definite acts, with the entire final act determined by your choices leading up to it. That is to say, The Witcher 2 pulls off the neat trick of a nonlinear game with a single-minded narrative focus. By CD Projekt's reckoning, the new Xbox 360 version adds about four hours of play to the last act of the game in the form of two new adventures, introducing new locations and characters. True to the game's branching structure, these two adventures are along alternate paths, so you'll have to play the act twice to see all the new material.
Temeria, the land in which The Witcher 2 is set, isn't quite so sprawling as the nation of the Nords, but on the other hand, it is home to a tighter plot: a tale of kings, assassins, political machinations, and adult situations. Speaking of which:
4. Adult Situations
If Skyrim without the nudie patches was too chaste for your liking, The Witcher 2 has you covered. But no one buys a game on just the promise of a handful of steamy cutscenes and painstaking boob modelling (right?), so it's not for those The Witcher 2 gets the nod. Instead, it's for treating sex like something not outrageously out of place in a grown-up game about grown-ups.
Geralt is a lusty young buck, but as CD Projekt's Marek Ziemak puts it, The Witcher 2 isn't about sex: "Sure, it's there, but it's like in the movies or in the books--it's just a part of this world because this is a mature storyline. It might sound pathetic, but in many cases it's more about the relationship between those two people." Though that's not to say it's not also engineered to be titillating, or won't be given disproportionate attention.
5. Dark Fantasy, Not High Fantasy
Without getting bogged down in definitions for "high" fantasy and "dark" fantasy, The Witcher 2 leans heavily into the latter. There's still magic and elves, but if you're looking for Tolkien-style demarcation between the forces of light and darkness, you've come to the wrong video game. As Ziemak tells it, Sapkowski's books were ideal source material for CD Projekt because the studio didn't want to make a high fantasy tale with a "zero to hero" saviour protagonist.
With its equally flawed civil war factions, Skyrim dabbles with some of the same moral ambiguity--but it also has an evil dragon who eats souls and brings on the apocalypse, given the opportunity. With conflict a shade more complex, The Witcher 2 will be a fun change of pace.
The Witcher 2 for the Xbox 360 comes out on April 17.