To me the answer has always been realization. If a company makes a game that makes it from inception, and through concept art and development with as little as possible being left on the cutting room floor, then that is the ultimate sign of greatness. A game that feels like a complete realization of the efforts and visions of the people that made it is what defines the top tier of this medium.
And in that top tier is The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, now available for free on the Shield through NVIDIA’s Grid service.
The Witcher 2 picks up where the first game left off (and continues the story of the novels this franchise is based off of) by placing our hero Geralt at the side of the king, who is embroiled in a war between rival kingdoms that just may yet come to an end. Unfortunately at the conclusion of the climactic battle of this conflict, an event occurs which disrupts everything that has come before and sets into play the rest of our adventure.
As grand and intricate as the plot that follows is, it’s impressive that it’s possible to experience it all with absolutely zero knowledge of the previous game or this universe, and still enjoy it in full. That low barrier of entrance means that no RPG fan should feel unprepared to experience an adventure that does take a pinch of the epic mythical journey stylings that Lord of the Rings used to popularize this genre to the masses, but leans a little more heavy on the more mature and bleak world of the Song of Ice and Fire series (popularized by the HBO show Game of Thrones).
While that does mean there’s enough sex and violence in The Witcher 2 to make moms across the world unexplainably blush whenever it’s booted up, it also means that the plot centers more on political strife and backstabbing among warring factions than it does on traditional fantasy (though there is still plenty of that to go around). That increased focus on the personal motivations of every individual in the game, and the collective motivations of the alliances they form makes for a world rich in detail where what comes next remains a constant unknown, and the implications of your previous actions never seem to reveal themselves until your face to face with the consequences.
And there are certainly implications. Knights of the Old Republic popularized the concept of your choices having an impact on the in-game world and the narrative flow of the game, but The Witcher 2 does as much, if not more, with that mechanic than any other game that came before it and any that has followed since. It’s somewhat notorious at this point for forcing players into an early decision that can dramatically alter what part of the game comes next, but what’s more impressive than that is the web of alterations that is woven from a series of minor decisions. Often times you will not know what your choices have resulted in until you play through the game a second or third time making different ones along the way.
But as important as characters, world and story are to an RPG without solid gameplay you’re going to have a tough time convincing anyone but the truly hardcore to stick through to the end of a 60+ hour adventure. While The Witcher 2’s reliance on a combat and navigation system that is decidedly unfriendly to new players makes it somewhat reviled in certain circles, I’ve always appreciated the way the game forces you to truly master everything it throws at you with little hand-holding along the way. That isn’t to say this is like Dark Souls where the game is intentionally trying to throw every obstacle it can at you. Rather The Witcher 2 lets you know right from the start that it’s a particular type of game, and then presents to you an adventure so compelling that you’re going to be willing to take your lumps learning it.
While that mostly applies to the combat, it does extend slightly to the character upgrade system which is by and large fairly standard for RPGs, but is complimented well by a more complicated potion and crafting system. Preparing for a battle by taking the right series of potions and pursuing the proper character and equipment upgrades is essential to surviving even small encounters in The Witcher 2. Too often RPGs allow players to hoard their best items and equipment until they absolutely need it. The Witcher 2 takes the opposite path and forces you to constantly be using resources and therefore constantly managing said resources. It could have been tedious, but instead leads to one of the fullest uses of an in-game inventory system ever seen.
That’s actually one of the many aspects of The Witcher 2 that seems to be inspired by the PC RPG’s of days gone by, which favored complexity so long as it contributed to a more epic adventure. The one place The Witcher 2 decidedly differs from those games is in the presentation value. Four years in gaming technology might as well be a lifetime, which makes it all the more amazing (and sometimes troubling) that The Witcher 2 running a full capacity stands shoulder to shoulder with many modern releases. As someone who does not often put much time into caring about graphics, I must admit that the quality of the visuals in The Witcher 2 contribute to the world in a very substantial way. This game would not be possible if it weren’t for the quality of the presentation elements, and that certainly extends to the game’s film caliber voice acting, sound design and score.
This is why I’m happy to report that the Shield version of The Witcher 2 does little to hinder. What loss there is to the visuals can be attributed to the simple difference in technological capabilities between a Shield and a top of the line PC rig. The bottom line as far as that goes is that when you are able to get the gamming running on your Shield device in optimal conditions, its version of The Witcher 2 proves to capture just about every element of the game that made it an instant classic.
The key phrase there is optimal conditions. Our set-up of The Witcher 2 at Hardcore Droid involved: An NVIDIA Shield (300 dollars), an NVIDIA controller (which retails for around $70), a copy of The Witcher 2 (free) through NVIDIA’s Grid service and as strong of an internet connection as you can expect this side of Google Fiber. While it is playable on a cable connection or better via Grid, try as we might, it simply was not possible to stream The Witcher 2 directly from a PC even though every listed requirement to do so was at hand (yes, we know many of you have made it happen. Bite us. Collectively). Furthermore, the game had a bad tendency to stutter at least occasionally even under said optimal conditions. It’s also worth noting that said optimal conditions can be quite the investment for some, and even with them the experience of playing such a game outside of a traditional desktop or console environment can be a slightly jarring.
But those failures are due largely to the limits of the technology powering the Shield device, and still don’t change the fact that in an ideal or semi-ideal environment, The Witcher 2 running in such a capacity the way it does is nothing shy of a modern day entertainment miracle.
Yet the biggest selling point of The Witcher 2 on Shield remains the fact that it’s still The Witcher 2. Though there is something to say about the ability to take such a game with you wherever you are, and when you are able to get it to work in those conditions as intended it may just be the best way to experience this game largely because of that, The Witcher 2 is a truly unique experience.
We will never know a truly perfect video game, just as we will never know a truly perfect world. But under nearly any definition of what constitutes absolute greatness in gaming; The Witcher 2 remains a soaring triumph that nearly every other RPG that has followed since can still only look at in awe.
The Witcher 2 on NVIDIA Shield remains just as great as ever, so long as you can iron out the few wrinkles of the device.