Even though the world is full of M-rated video games deemed suitable for players 17 or older, it’s rare to find one that feels like it was not made with children in mind.
Sex scenes in games are tamer than what we see on network TV, for fear of offending parents groups. Profanity is either avoided or used so liberally you get the sense developers are trying to seem cool to a young audience that still finds swearing novel.
Not so in “The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings,” a blockbuster-quality role-playing game from Polish studio CD Projekt. The game’s gritty, medieval fantasy world is a far cry from family-friendly fare like “Lord of the Rings.” Its kingdoms are ruled by tyrants who openly talk about slavery, racism and sexual subjugation.
Your place in the game, which was released last year on PC and came to the Xbox 360 in April, is as Geralt of Rivia.
The titular witcher, more anti-hero than hero, is a human who’s been infused with magic and the ability to quaff toxic potions. He’s typically tasked with the unpleasant job of eliminating gruesome monsters for coin. Instead of being looked at as a hero, he’s greeted with wariness and suspicion, no doubt due to his yellow eyes, deep scars and gaunt frame.
Early in the game, Geralt, suffering from amnesia about much of his past, is essentially framed for the murder of a king he’s been protecting. In part to clear his name, he sets off in search of the shadowy figure responsible, and begins to unravel a complex plot full of mystery and political intrigue.
As Geralt completes quests and kills monsters to level up, the game encourages players to build up Geralt to suit their play style. You can choose for Geralt to focus on “signs,” essentially low-grade magic spells; swordfighting; or the creation of potions and traps. The specialization you choose will greatly effect how the game’s somewhat difficult combat plays out, and because Geralt’s level is capped at 35, you can’t maximize every ability. Players may want to revisit the game to explore alternate combat styles.
Also encourging repeated playthroughs is that “The Witcher 2” is a rare game in which choices matter greatly. Near the end of the first act, Geralt must choose one of two factions to ally with as he pursues the kingslayer. The rest of the game plays out differently based on your ally.
You’ll make plenty of tough decisions, and mercifully, they generally steer clear of the shopworn good/evil dichotomy so common in Western role-playing games. Where a BioWare game like “Mass Effect 3” might ask players to choose between saving a settlement or sacrificing its residents to achieve greater power, “The Witcher 2” asks whether we want to side with a terrorist guerrilla or a special forces unit whose members drunkely rape and pillage their way through enemy territory.
With a rogue’s gallery of corrupt despots, terrorist sympathizers, prostitutes and drug dealers who peddle laced incense, “The Witcher 2’s” characters talk in language befitting their grim world. “Whoreson” is a common insult.
The game’s sex scenes, while not hardcore pornography, more resemble something you’d see on a show like “The Tudors” or on late-night pay cable.
Profane insults and nudity aren’t something I’ve sought out in games, but it’s refreshing to play a rare console video game that doesn’t feel like it was compromised artistically for the sake of protecting someone else’s children.
If you’re an adult who doesn’t play games, imagine how infuriating it would be if it felt like most of the books you read or movies you watched were santized and scrubbed to make them more child-friendly. That might give you an inkling of how rare and refreshing a game like “The Witcher 2” can feel.
That rare feeling of “adultness” will help players overlook some flaws. Although the narrative bar is set high, the game on Xbox 360 is beset occasionally by mild technical glitches.
Both versions suffer what appear to be a Polish-to-English translation issue in at least one spot. It led to a frustrating, half-hour-long search for an item that does not exist.
The game’s quest tracker suggested I use “beehive” bombs to collapse some tunnels. It turned out, though, that there are no such bombs in “The Witcher 2” and that I was to use something called “grapeshot” bombs. Despite already having grapeshot in my inventory, I spent considerable time trying to find these beehive bombs, before I finally gave up and discovered via a Google search that I had the item I need all along.
It was a frustrating misstep for a year-old game that has been patched multiple times, but it’s one I’m willing to put up with because of all “The Witcher 2” does right.