At a recent meeting with the developer, I played through one of The Witcher 2's sidequests, which amounted to roughly an hour's worth of gametime. It was enough of an introduction to convince me that if you liked the first game, you'll enjoy the second. There's not a lot of innovation in the sequel, but CD Projekt again proves itself to be a skilled developer of the PC RPG.
My quest began in the town of Vergen, a Dwarven village with the usual tavern and row of shops to explore. Geralt the witch hunter resumes his role as the (now) series' protagonist, and the game takes place directly after the events of the first title, with various NPCs making reappearances alongside the new storylines. As I was about to enter Vergen's tavern, a young man named Ele'yas pulled me aside to reveal that some men had disappeared from the town, only to turn up dead. I was given the option to investigate, and since this sidequest was the focus of the preview session, I gladly accepted.
As I headed off to a local tomb to begin my investigation into the apparent murders of the missing townspeople, I got my first taste of the game's revamped combat. CD Projekt wasn't satisfied with how it had executed combat in the first Witcher, finding that it wasn't quite as reactive as had been intended, so the sequel's hacking and slashing has been punched up: enemies react more appropriately to your attacks, and the flow of the action has become more smooth. You can still pause the battle at any time to queue up abilities or switch weapons, but even then, the game continues on in molasses time in the background.
I found the changes to combat to be favorable and, in general, more engaging. Instead of just hacking away at steadfast enemies like I did in the first game, I was tailoring my attacks from moment to moment based on the way enemies responded to them.
Inside the tomb, I did a quick check of one of the victims, selecting cues from a action-dialog list. I chose to take only a cursory glance at the corpse, finding just a book of poetry linked to a poet named Master Dandelion, who was waiting to meet me back in town. A CD Projekt developer told me that if I'd explored more, I could have found additional clues, which would have opened up other options later in the sidequest.
Back in town at the tavern, I played a few minigames, including a "poker dice" game and an arm wrestling competition. One of the big complaints about The Witcher was its uneven voice work, and it appears that CD Projekt took note. The few scattered lines of dialog I heard in the town were well done enough to immerse me in the world -- and in an RPG like this, that's what you really want.
When I finally did meet up with the poet Dandelion, he confirmed that a succubus was behind the murders, and, to catch it, he suggested that he play the bait. After a short wait until midnight (players can now "meditate" to move the game clock forward), Dandelion and I walked out to the succubus' cave, and I was given brief control of the poet and asked to recite some of his poetry from a dialog tree. Here the game emphasized that the players who do a little research on their own are not only more knowledgeable of the gameworld, but better equipped to thrive within it: If I'd read the poetry book found earlier, I'd have know Dandelion's style and could have been able to recite his poem from memory. Instead, I clumsily limped through the verse.
This kind of decision-based gameplay is what endeared The Witcher to so many players, and the sequel looks to charm those same gamers and more when it's released for PC in May. If the response is positive enough, we might even see The Witcher 2 brought to consoles one day.