Digital rights management. Sloppy ports. PC developers fleeing for consoles. Rampant, unrepentant piracy. It's been a rough decade for PC gamers. And while we've received a number of excellent games, we can't deny that console development has in many ways diminished our cherished PC platform.

The Witcher 2 stands out as an example of what PC-only development should be. This engrossing RPG showcases what's best about PC development by combining difficult, tactic-laden combat with a mature story, and plenty of decisions that affect the game's tale. A must-play for CRPG fans, The Witcher 2 is one of the best standalone PC games of the year, along with being one of the best RPGs of this generation.

Review: The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

The Witcher 2 picks up almost immediately after the events of the first game. King Foltest of Temeria and his forces are besieging rogue nobles, and they've brought Geralt of Rivia along for the ride. Foltest views Geralt as a sort of "lucky charm" from saving him from an assassination attempt. Even if this is the prologue, the game already shows off two of its best features: combat and branching paths based off decisions. Geralt ends up tracking a conspiracy to kill kings, a peasant rebellion, great battles and a cabal bent on ruling the north.

This all leads to an engrossing tale (the best I feel since 2007's Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer). It's a non-linear story, one that throws a number of quests at you as you unravel the mystery behind the "assassins of kings." It's not an open world. Once you finish a chapter, you can't return to complete any quests in progress, but the range of choices Geralt faces in the game provides plenty of reason to give the game a second (or third or fourth) playthrough.

One of the hallmarks of The Witcher 2 is its maturity. This doesn't just apply to the gore or sexual content. Yes, the limbs of your foes fly as you chop through the enemy, and Geralt does engage in "adult situations" with some of the game's female characters (although the sex cards are gone). But like the first game, the maturity applies to the reactions of NPCs and the entire story. Witchers aren't exactly embraced by the people, and many react with fear or disgust when Geralt appears. Some children even get scared.

It's nice to see characters have such reactions. A number of RPGs just gloss over what happens when a menacing, weapon-wielding warriors saunters into town. The main characters also show this maturity. Geralt's options can lead him to becoming a deeper character than you suspect, and other side characters such as Foltest are developed well even if they aren't onscreen for much of the game.

Review: The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

Geralt is an intriguing character. He's still trying to piece his memories together, and the game's tale illustrates how important it is, on a number of levels, that the Witcher recover from his amnesia. We learn more about his background, what happened to him in the events before The Witcher and his death. The game tells these details through fantastic illustrated cut scenes. The choices the game asks you to make also help you connect to Geralt better, and some of them lead to, dare I say, tender moments that show he's more than a monster killing ladies' man.

The Witcher 2's swordplay takes some time to learn, let alone master. It's difficult, and playing on normal, I died a number of times in some of the prologue's battles (including one fray in a castle courtyard). It's also changed from the first game. Instead of having a set of three combat stances, you have just two basic attacks: swift and strong. You've got to make sure you're using the proper sword (remember to take out that silver sword when facing monstrous foes, as silver does more damage than steel to them).

The key to The Witcher 2's combat, I feel, is patience. Just like in Batman: Arkham Asylum, rushing into combat, especially against a group of foes, is signing your death warrant. You need to isolate your foes, and take on the weaker enemies first before going after men-at-arms with shields or heavily armored knights. You're going to roll away and parry often in this game, especially against stronger foes or large groups of enemies.

My approach features heavy uses of signs such as Aard, which pushes back a foes and can even stun them (or send 'em flying over a cliff or ledge), leaving them open to a one-hit kill, and Yrden, a spell in which you lay a magical snare on the ground, and when an enemy hits one, they are immobilised (and suffer some damage as well). Or you can use Quen, which provides a magical shield. In difficult battles, I pushed back the stronger foes with Aard as I engaged the lesser threats, rolling out of the way or parrying after getting a few strikes in. The Quarter to Three forums have a thread dedicated to tactics for The Witcher 2, if you're having trouble, check it out.

And unlike many RPGs, The Witcher 2 is a game where you must use your resources, not merely hoard them. Brew and drink potions, especially those that alter the rate at which your Vigor replenishes or give you combat bonuses, before going into a new area or anywhere you expect to find a tough fight. You find plenty of crafting components to brew potions, so you don't need to feel like every last one is precious. Drink 'em like you're on a bender in Vegas.

Review: The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

The combat also uses quick time events, which involve either the WASD keys or rapid clicks of the mouse. These quick time events are best used in bar brawls, where the stakes are low and death isn't at hand. You can also adjust the sensitivity of your mouse for other QTEs if you're having trouble, such as aiming a ballista.

This may sound intimidating, but honestly, it's a lot of fun. The combat is far from mindless, challenging you to devise tactics for your encounters. Fights get easier, too, as you add more abilities. I concentrated my skill points on the swordsman skills, which give you bonuses for combat, allow you to engage more foes at once, and increase the chances for your blows to land critical effects (such as setting bad guys on fire). Even without these, it's fun to dice up foes as Geralt jumps and leaps between attacks, sometimes slashing behind him to get any foes who might attempt to flank him.

Review: The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

Another touch that makes The Witcher 2 so enjoyable, at least for an old school CRPG player like me, is its difficulty. The game does offer some rudimentary tutorials, but it doesn't explain a number of its aspects. Some may criticise the game for not doing a better job of explaining its mechanics.

You can add mutagens to your skills to boost a number of your stats and abilities. The game explains that when a skill has a circle next to it, you can enhance it with a mutagen. But you won't know a skill has a mutagen slot until you pick it. I didn't begin finding mutagen slots until my Geralt, who reached level 33 by the end of my playthrough, was in the 20s. And it can be a bit difficult to figure out how to take on some bosses (pro tip: the first boss is especially hard).

But I enjoyed having to figure these things out for myself, feeling a sense of achievement similar to when I solved puzzles in Portal. The difficulty level, though, is going to frustrate some players. While I played the game on normal, I had a few encounters that took an hour (or in one case, a little more) to conquer in the first chapter.

The game's gorgeous, but you need some serious tech to run it with all of its visual options cranked at max. Be sure you watch your framerate, and if you're having trouble, look around on forums for solutions. As for this report, Nvidia has released updated drivers that work with The Witcher 2, so you can run it in SLI, but CD Projekt confirms that ATI has yet to do so with its drivers, so you can't take advantage of Crossfire yet.

OUR VERDICT

The Witcher 2 embodies everything that's good about PC development and everything that makes it, in my mind, the best platform out there. It tells a mature tale full of intrigue, mystery and frustrating but satisfying combat, and while it is difficult (remember, there is no shame in playing on easy if you're having trouble, no one's going to take your gamer cred away from you for doing so), it's bound to please any RPG player who gives it a try.