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Witcher 2 Xbox 360 review: Darker than Skyrim, sexier than Mass Effect - better than both?

The black sheep of RPGs fights onto console

There's a zinger piece of dialogue during the original Witcher where Geralt of Rivia muses: "Power, sex. Sex, Power. They both come down to one thing - fucking others." It's a brilliant line in a series filled with great lines: where musings of causality and morality sit naturally alongside mucky quips about 'lesbomancy', 'ploughing' and 'whoresons'.

First things first: this isn't Skyrim. Duh. There's no epic sandbox to meander through; narratively it's way more linear. You don't get to roleplay Geralt as a tattooed female elf with a pornstar bosom, nor as some Halfling with an afro. Accept that CD Projekt's take on the RPG is more of a framed experience than the one offered by Bethesda and you're halfway to appreciating this game's manifold majesty.

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To arms then, with a speedy plot recap. After an epic opening where Geralt helps gallant King Foltest to subdue a noble uprising, said sovereign is brutally butchered. Suspicious eyes fall on our mutated hero, and he's tossed into gaol to rot. We know the White Wolf (Geralt) is innocent; indeed he's already deduced the true killer is actually another Witcher. So, after a suitably epic act of escapology, Geralt begins his quest for answers... and the true machinations behind Assassins of Kings begin in earnest.

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Witch witcher
Humans, non-humans, soldiers, sorceresses, kingslayers, trolls - everybody has their own tale (usually of woe), their own ambitions, and their own agenda. Indeed, there are so many shades of grey here we're guessing the devs might have even concocted some new ones. Suffice to say Temeria is not a happy place - from the loftiest monarch to the most browbeaten serf. Geralt and chums usually find themselves slap bang in the middle of the maelstrom, the resulting catharsis rarely being all that, er... cathartic. Such is the life of a Witcher; prepare for some of the toughest role playing decisions you've ever encountered.

Indeed, there's a nastiness to some of the quests that might prove eye-opening after the relatively safe worlds of Skyrim and ME3. The original Witcher is still (unfairly) pilloried in some quarters for its obsession with carnal pursuits, with the same criticisms flung at this sequel. In truth, the frequent crude references to, for want of a better word, fucking actually help flesh out the game's uniquely base universe. Sex is as much a way of Temerian third-world life as slavery, magic, bloodshed and the threat of starvation. That said, by the time Geralt's managed to bed a busty, goat-legged succubus you might be rolling your eyes a bit. Or, like us, cheering.

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Rest assured, Geralt's not the divisive character you might be expecting. He's a big, ugly man sure - but there's an incredible depth behind those scary yellow eyes. Similarly, just because you're stuck with the White Wolf as your avatar, it doesn't mean there's not a considerable capacity for independent decision making. Play him as a slimy old git or bastion of heroism - there's room for both.

Geralt's romance with foxy magic user Triss Merigold is particularly well-realised; there's a steamy scene in a rose-smattered Elven bathhouse that captures both the physical and mental sides of their relationship better than any other title this writer can remember. Dialogue is rich and expertly penned, and while the sheer amount of lore being spouted is occasionally disconcerting, it's a boon rather than a hindrance.

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