Polish developer CD Projekt charmed a lot of PC-playing RPG fans with its first game, The Witcher, and now the studio is using that solid foundation to build the sequel, subtitled Assassins of Kings. The first game used a heavily modified Aurora Engine (from BioWare's Neverwinter Nights series), but The Witcher 2 runs on a new graphical engine of CD Projekt's own design and features a revamped combat system.

At a recent meeting with the developer, I played through one of The Witcher 2's sidequests, which amounted to roughly an hour's worth of gametime. It was enough of an introduction to convince me that if you liked the first game, you'll enjoy the second. There's not a lot of innovation in the sequel, but CD Projekt again proves itself to be a skilled developer of the PC RPG.
My quest began in the town of Vergen, a Dwarven village with the usual tavern and row of shops to explore. Geralt the witch hunter resumes his role as the (now) series' protagonist, and the game takes place directly after the events of the first title, with various NPCs making reappearances alongside the new storylines. As I was about to enter Vergen's tavern, a young man named Ele'yas pulled me aside to reveal that some men had disappeared from the town, only to turn up dead. I was given the option to investigate, and since this sidequest was the focus of the preview session, I gladly accepted.

Like the first game, The Witcher 2 leaves much of its storytelling to be unraveled by the most investigative of players. Once I picked up the quest, an entry was added to the game's "journal" (written as if the story of Geralt was being told from the future) that said the solution to the problem would prove to be "a poet." Had I not combed through the journal entry, I wouldn't have been privy to this clue (there was no dialog to prompt me, for example). While the clue is easily missed and unnecessary to complete the quest (at least, for the most simple resolution), it was one instance in which I became aware of a deeper layer to the gameworld. Curious players who dig into the story of The Witcher will be rewarded.

As I headed off to a local tomb to begin my investigation into the apparent murders of the missing townspeople, I got my first taste of the game's revamped combat. CD Projekt wasn't satisfied with how it had executed combat in the first Witcher, finding that it wasn't quite as reactive as had been intended, so the sequel's hacking and slashing has been punched up: enemies react more appropriately to your attacks, and the flow of the action has become more smooth. You can still pause the battle at any time to queue up abilities or switch weapons, but even then, the game continues on in molasses time in the background.

I found the changes to combat to be favorable and, in general, more engaging. Instead of just hacking away at steadfast enemies like I did in the first game, I was tailoring my attacks from moment to moment based on the way enemies responded to them.

Blocking at the right time now pushes opponents off balance, and you have a variety of Witcher magic ("signs" that can be assigned to hotkeys on the fly) to use against your opponents, like laying out magical traps or confusing enemies into fighting each other. I didn't see much of the complex alchemy system (that provides crafted buffs from raw materials collected in the gameworld), but I was told it will be back in full. Geralt also has some mechanical weapons at his disposal, including some bombs I got to toss around.

Inside the tomb, I did a quick check of one of the victims, selecting cues from a action-dialog list. I chose to take only a cursory glance at the corpse, finding just a book of poetry linked to a poet named Master Dandelion, who was waiting to meet me back in town. A CD Projekt developer told me that if I'd explored more, I could have found additional clues, which would have opened up other options later in the sidequest.

Back in town at the tavern, I played a few minigames, including a "poker dice" game and an arm wrestling competition. One of the big complaints about The Witcher was its uneven voice work, and it appears that CD Projekt took note. The few scattered lines of dialog I heard in the town were well done enough to immerse me in the world -- and in an RPG like this, that's what you really want.

When I finally did meet up with the poet Dandelion, he confirmed that a succubus was behind the murders, and, to catch it, he suggested that he play the bait. After a short wait until midnight (players can now "meditate" to move the game clock forward), Dandelion and I walked out to the succubus' cave, and I was given brief control of the poet and asked to recite some of his poetry from a dialog tree. Here the game emphasized that the players who do a little research on their own are not only more knowledgeable of the gameworld, but better equipped to thrive within it: If I'd read the poetry book found earlier, I'd have know Dandelion's style and could have been able to recite his poem from memory. Instead, I clumsily limped through the verse.

Dandelion was eventually captured by the succubus, and back as Geralt, I burst into the cave to save him -- and to kill the demoness. I chose violence and a quick end to the beast (I am a Witcher, after all), but again the CD Projekt representative reminded me that there would have been more to discover -- and to play -- had I taken a different approach to the quest. He revealed that it was actually Ele'yas (the man who started me on this sidequest) who had killed the succubus' lovers, and that if the player discovers this then "the story gets really complicated." My questline had ended, but I'd only covered about half of its total gameplay because of the choices I'd made.

This kind of decision-based gameplay is what endeared The Witcher to so many players, and the sequel looks to charm those same gamers and more when it's released for PC in May. If the response is positive enough, we might even see The Witcher 2 brought to consoles one day.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.

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