"The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings: Enhanced Edition"
Reviewed for: Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: CD Projekt/WB Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, nudity, strong language, strong sexual content, use of drugs)
If it's possible for anything to emerge triumphant from the fallout over "Mass Effect 3's" roundly disappointing (and, according to no less than the Better Business Bureau, misleading) ending, you're looking right at it. Save for Bethesda's games, no game anywhere gives you the power to carve your destiny as measurably as does "The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings." And even Bethesda's endgames don't pay off on the choices you make as satisfyingly as this one does.
That's a credit to "Kings" taking the concept of role-playing to a certain limit but not past it. Though dauntingly thick with side quests and opportunities to explore freely, "Kings" still subtly guides players through a narrative that's more Bioware (cutscenes, dialogue trees, significant story decisions that fork the road) than Bethesda. You're playing as Geralt, the titular Witcher, and while his destiny rests in your hands, his personality and physical makeup come pre-designed (and for good reason).
Within that structure, though, things can get wonderfully messy.
"Kings" usually tips its hand when you're at a crossroads that can shift the makeup of the story and the world at large. But the charismatically blurry lines that comprise the personalities of Geralt and his supporting cast - imagine "Game of Thrones' " irreverent take on fantasy instead of your typical straight-faced and straight-laced role-playing game - allow those crossroads to cloud the discrepancy between doing the right thing and doing the desirable thing. Consequently, it isn't a question of if some seemingly innocuous decision you make early leaves a surprising mark later, but when and how often it happens. From "Kings' " structure to its personality to the respect it pays to player intelligence and maturity, this is the new standard-bearer.
Though not easily mastered (which may be great or distressing news, depending on your stance on hand-holding), the act of actually playing the game is similarly enjoyable.
"Kings' " third-person combat finds a happy Western RPG medium. It isn't as fast and smooth as "Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning's" action game-style combat, but it's in the same ballpark, and it trades in some of that finesse for an extra level of depth and danger.
Specifically, success in combat entails vigorous management of your inventory as well as your adversaries. Where "Amalur" lets you hack away with abandon, "Kings" quickly delivers smart and powerful enemies who will punish you if you don't play defense and bring a game plan into battle. Geralt's arsenal includes traps and fortifications as well as swords and daggers, and establishing them as a first line of defense is - along with executing optimally timed dodges, blocks and counters - incredibly valuable. If you want to have a healing potion handy in battle, you'll need to mix it yourself ahead of time, and if you want your blades at their sharpest, you'd best oil them up before walking into a fight. "Kings" provides a seemingly bottomless sea of weapons, clothing, special ingredients and combat strategies, but it's entirely your job to put the pieces together and survive once the world opens up.
Happily, the most notable additions to this enhanced edition - which arrives 11 months after "Kings" originally appeared on the PC - work in the service of user-friendliness. Along with a brief but invaluable in-game tutorial that lays out the combat basics, "Kings" ships with a 90-page handbook that exhaustively walks you through every facet of the game. The handbook is loaded with spoilers and should be regarded as a last resort if the bevy of quests and menus are threatening to chase you way entirely, but it more than addresses the grievances players had about the PC version's user-unfriendliness.