I've spent the past year holding up "The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings" as a compelling reason to make the investment in a gaming PC. Its weighty combat, difficult choices with real consequences and fascinating stories are some of the best gaming has ever seen.
I can no longer lord it over the console masses with this one, though, because the long-in-development Xbox 360 version is just as amazing as the original. It's actually better than the PC game was at launch thanks to a year of patching, refinement and additional downloadable content.
The main character Geralt, the eponymous witcher, is in his words "a mutant created for swordsmanship." The "mutant" part is the most important. Tearing apart foes with Geralt's acrobatic blade work and magical signs is fun, but taking on the role of a hated and feared inhuman adventurer in this rich world is so much more than that.
Choice and consequence in "The Witcher 2" aren't the kind of moral absolutism that most similar role-playing games typically descend into. Depending entirely on the player, Geralt can be a beacon of hope to the common people, a whimsical drunkard, a terrifying avatar of vengeance or a selfish smart-aleck. More important, the witcher has logical reasons for each action or response and the player simply decides which of his motivations has priority.
The tale is a thick web of politics, magic, love and revenge that weaves interesting characters around historical events that could be medieval Europe with different names but for all the monsters and magic. Powerful sorceresses, rival witchers, kings and generals all have their own agendas and motivations, many of which will surprise you once you decode the truths, half-truths and outright lies that the story is parceled out in.
Geralt's success in combat is predicated on player skill, not stats -- although putting a modicum of thought into picking skills that complement your playing style as you progress pays great dividends. The tactical challenge is mostly entertaining, although a few horribly balanced encounters are beyond frustrating. The one consistent misstep in the scripting is in throwing the player directly from dialogue into nasty combat situations with no time to prepare or save your progress.
There are few differences between playing "The Witcher 2" on 360 or a high-end PC. The graphical gap is noticeable but trivial, load times are short and infrequent on both, and the game plays equally well on mouse/keyboard and gamepad. Several complaints I had about the original -- horrid inventory management, punishing early difficulty, targeting problems -- have been fixed.
The few flaws I take issue with should in no way discourage anyone from playing this fantastic, unique game -- as long as they're over 18, because this is the most deserving Mature-rated game I've ever played.