Cut above: Witcher 2 teaches PC-to-console master class

By Stace Harman
12 March 2012 07:19 GMT

CD Projekt RED looks set to provide a PC-to-console master class with the adaptation of The Witcher 2. Stace Harman goes hands-on and speaks to level designer Marek Ziemak.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Enhanced Edition – Choices and Consequences

The fiction of The Witcher lends itself to a non-linear, character driven narrative where the decisions you take and alliances you forge and break make real differences to your experience.

The consequences of your choices are usually not revealed for several hours, making them more permanent and meaningful.

One choice, made towards the end of the first of three acts results in around 25-30 percent of the game taking place in one of two distinct locations.

This diversity also extends to character development. With no chance of maxing out all abilities in the Swordsmanship, Alchemy and Magic branches combined with the varied narrative consequences of your actions, multiple play-throughs become a genuinely interesting endeavour.

A well hidden NPC in the third act of the game offers the chance to reallocate your skill points, if desired – though anger him in conversation and he’ll just as soon execute you as offer his services.

There are some interesting parallels to be drawn between Polish developer CD Projekt RED and a certain Washington-based videogame behemoth:

CD Projekt, the parent company of development studio CD Projekt RED, started life very much focused on the PC market but is gradually edging onto the console scene – it also owns a successful and well regarded PC digital distribution platform,

Time and again the company has demonstrated its dedication to gamers, actively encouraging feedback and then developing and tweaking its output accordingly – much to the delight and empowerment of its fans. Where other companies are embroiled in messy arguments that provoke negative feelings surrounding day one/on-the-disc premium DLC, CD Projekt RED supports those that buy its games with regular content updates that come, by and large, free of charge.

Furthermore, and quite uniquely, representatives of the company speak plainly and openly about thorny issues such as piracy, DRM and sales figures.

And so, in many ways, the gamer-centric key philosophies of this relatively young development studio and its parent company remind me very much of Valve.

This is why, when I sit down with CDPR level designer, Marek Ziemak, to discuss the upcoming Xbox 360 version of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, I’m happy to give him time to elaborate on his claim that this is an adaptation of the PC version, not a port. Like Valve, CDPR’s decisions to-date have established a degree of credibility that engenders trust and means such a statement is unlikely to be empty rhetoric.

“We were adamant that we wouldn’t just cut features until we could get it to fit on console,” Ziemak begins. “It was one of our core aims to bring all of the content, the graphical fidelity, the scale of the world, the choices, consequences and non-linearity of The Witcher 2 to Xbox 360. We were adamant that we wouldn’t compromise those key factors and that’s why it has taken us a while to bring Geralt [the protagonist of The Witcher series] to console.

“Mostly, the process was about optimising the game and changing things like streaming; the biggest problems to tackle were the sheer amount of content and also the rendering – rendering scripts take a lot of computing power. However, we managed to squeeze everything possible from the Xbox and we’re really pleased with it.”

From what I’ve seen, they have every right to be. In fact, there’s a case to be made at this point that Ziemak is being slightly modest, for it’s not just that CDPR has managed to recreate The Witcher 2 on 360 but that, in a move typical of the developer, it has also improved upon it.

Watch on YouTube

Kinglsayer trailer.

These improvements come partly in the form of new content, which ranges from the aesthetic – an extra 32 minutes of CG movie footage designed to further illustrate the consequences of your choices and add an impressive new opening cinematic – to extra gameplay options in the form of an additional four hours of questing. This latter includes new characters, dialogue and locations added to the third and final act of the game, which was perhaps the sparsest of the three acts in the PC version.

Less obvious, is the re-designing and re-coding that has gone on in order to create an experience that feels like it has been made specifically for console. The camera and control system have been overhauled and targeting has been tightened to provide a more immediate, fluid feel to combat. Of course, when bringing a game to console from PC it helps if that was part of the plan all along.

Forewarned is forearmed
Telltale design choices that hinted at a console version could be seen upon the game’s PC release last year: the shift in focus from the timing-based combat of the original Witcher – with its three distinct move sets and stances – to the more accessible light/heavy combo style of the sequel, along with the presence of a controller-friendly radial menu interface, were two of the more obvious signs.

This made the adaptation easier and entirely more successful than CDPR’s attempt to bring the original Witcher to console. An experience from which Ziemak insists the company learned a lot.

“It was very difficult attempting that with an outside company, especially as we had no console experience and had to rely on someone else’s,” he admits. “It didn’t work out, so we had to freeze the project and move on.

“It was too bad that we weren’t able to have that be our first console project but you live and learn and we certainly took our lessons from it, like how to design a game to fit consoles as well as PC. This time around we knew we wanted the game to work on console and so we made the appropriate decisions early on.”

Despite CDPR’s relative lack of experience with console development, what it looks to be on course to achieve with The Witcher 2 is both technically and conceptually impressive. A solid, proprietary engine handles a wealth of on-screen detail and while the 360’s comparatively old architecture cannot hope to compete with modern PC GPUs it performs admirably. Screen-tear, drops in frame rate and instances of pop-in are rare during an afternoon of play, which takes in several locations at different points throughout the story.

Watch on YouTube

A look behind the scenes of the Enhanced
Edition’s new cinematic opening.

All of the content provided via the numerous PC patches and DLC is here and, as previously touched upon, the new content in the final chapter of the game should make it feel more like a fully-realised location and less like a build-up to the end game. An intro to what manner of being Geralt of Rivia is has also been included, ensuring that the concept of Witchers is neatly introduced to new players, circumventing the need for cumbersome in-game conversations to establish Geralt’s abilities, mutations, and purpose.

With The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Enhanced Edition, CD Projekt RED is on track to deliver not only a fantastic version of an excellent PC game, but a unique, character-driven mature RPG for Xbox 360. Perhaps unsurprisingly, all of the extras that have been prepared for the 360 adaptation will also be delivered for the PC version, free of charge, ensuring that fans that have supported the studio from the beginning will feel as appreciated as the millions more that CD Project RED can expect to court on 360.

Based on the company’s philosophies and forthright endeavours to put legitimate gamers first, this is an undertaking of which even the mighty Valve would be proud and should ensure the critical and commercial success that CD Projekt RED wholeheartedly deserves.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings launches worldwide on April 17 for Xbox 360. The PC version is available now.

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