It's not often I respect my enemies in a game—how could I? They're just a target. A bundle of HP. An obstacle. Something to conquer.
But when you're a legendary Witcher, your (equally legendary) enemies demand respect. Monster hunting is not for the reckless; approaching creatures in the world of Temeria with an unsheathed sword can only get you so far.
You must educate yourself on your enemy. In this case, it means scavenging for information—you can ask townfolk what they know, you can pick up a book, sure. But the best way to learn is out there, on the field.
In this case, out in the middle of the Floatsam forest; that's where I'm at right now. I'm playing the Witcher 2 for the first time, actually —a couple of us here at Kotaku have (re)picked it up in anticipation of the recently announced The Witcher 3.
I'm a bit in awe of the sense of setting in this game, the forest in particular. It's bustling, it feels alive—like a creature onto itself. The paths wind further and further in, the foliage rustles in the wind. Frogs croak in the distance, beckoning me forward.
I can't see it, but I can hear the Endregas crawling down the trees as I navigate my way through the forest. Loathsome creatures, those ones. They look like giant reptile scorpions. Reptile scorpions that can spit poison: tell me that doesn't sound awful.
I learned about the poison first-hand—and learned that, given enough of them, an Endrega can take down a novice Witcher easy. Of course the villagers want these things gone.
Nekkers (another creature-type) on the other hand like to burrow in the ground. Until you get too close, that is. Then they'll burst out of the ground and attack. But finding their nests in the forest is no easy task—knowing the nests exist in the first place takes a few encounters and sharp eyes. It's a game that actually expects you to pay attention.
I can't look at them as just an obstacle in my way, because I know that without them, the world wouldn't need me, either.
I wasn't prepared for that, not at first. I've been babied! Games just tell me where everything is now. But the map in The Witcher 2 isn't much help, not that it denotes where my marks are anyway. I'll just have to find them on my own.
It feels like playing a game that respects me—respects my choices, respects my ability to figure quests out, respects my ability to scavenge for things. It's also remarkable how well the game builds the world up—in this specific case, the ferocity of monsters and the utter necessity of people like you, the monster-hunting Witchers.
I can't look at them as an obstacle in my way, because I know that without them, the world wouldn't need me, either. Also, they're terrifying and, initially at least, kind of a mystery to me. Both of these together creates a sense of respect and fear. Normally, at best, a game can make me fear something—say, the absurdly difficult Deathclaws in Fallout. Respect is trickier.
If only I hadn't undermined that all. As fearsome as, say, the Endrega queen is (think a much huger, much more difficult Endrega), it's still just AI. If I played by 'the rules,' it would destroy me with ease. So what did I do? I abused its attack radius by going way farther than its AI would let it, and I also made sure it got stuck on stuff so I could wail on it easily.
I'm ashamed. The queen deserved more, I know. My gaming neurosis—the one that does look at enemies like bundles of HP—won out.
Thankfully, The Witcher 2 put me back in my place. This was my next contract, the Kraken-like Kayran. Look at it:
You have to defeat that thing. It's huge. And, admittedly, how you go about killing it isn't clear—what preparations do you take? And once in battle, how do you damage that thing? You can see the weak points, but how do you get to them?
Normally that would seem like obtuse game design, but in this case, again, it's really just a game that requires you to pay attention and deduce. You have to ask yourself, what would a Witcher do? A Witcher might ingest potions, might set traps, might learn more and observe the creature. And those are all things you can do, obviously, but the game leaves most of that up to you.
I'm nearing the end of act 1 now, but I'm looking forward to (if not dreading!) what other creatures the game throws my way.
Like Return To New Vegas, we're doing a series that looks back on an older game—in this case, The Witcher 2. Stay tuned for more over the coming weeks.