Two Worlds was a game with some interesting ideas, but was deeply flawed in its execution. Ok, fine, it was pretty terrible. But rather than being discouraged by their game's fundamental failures, the developers at Reality Pump went right back to work on a sequel to one of the worst games of this console generation. And I thank the RPG gods that they did. It would be meaningless for me to say that Two Worlds 2 is an improvement over its predecessor, that's like saying a slice of delicious cake is an improvement over getting stabbed in the eye with a fork. There are still some rough edges in Two Worlds 2, but the overall experience easily outshines them. Forget about the first Two Worlds, or the fact that Two Worlds 2 is an utterly ridiculous title, because Two Worlds 2 can stand toe to toe with Oblivion, in the rich tradition of fantasy RPGs.
Let's get the nasty parts out of the way first, shall we? Two Worlds 2 is a great game, but in the beginning it tries very hard to obscure that fact. The first hour of gameplay has you slogging through an uninteresting dungeon and a small island full of tutorials. These tutorials explain some of the more basic gameplay mechnaics of the game, like opening doors and attacking, but never touch on the more complex aspects of the game that would actually require a tutorial. When I really needed a tutorial, I was left on my own to figure out how to read the map, learning how to assign hotkey abilities (on the console version at least), or even discovering that the same button is used to run, block, and crouch for stealth. These are crucial parts of the game, and they are either absent or briefly glossed over in the excessive and unnecessary tutorials that are given. But if you can make it through the game's rough introduction, the reward is definitely worth the wait.
Once Two Worlds 2 opens up, you're transported to the continent of Erimos. Every RPG has its share of lush forests, icy mountains, and medieval-inspired architecture, but Erimos has none of those things. No, Erimos is a savannah, with the slight hint of a Middle Eastern atmosphere and where the common enemies are ostriches and rhinos. Towns and cities are alive with activity as NPCs follow their own schedules and merchants shout sales pitches as you pass them on the street. You can't talk with every NPC in the streets, but every single one that you can speak to is a fully fleshed out character adding to make the game's world that much more cohesive. From the lowly merchant Salah to the crime boss Lawrance Lexington, there are no throwaway characters in Two Worlds 2.
It helps that Two Worlds 2 doesn't fall into the trap of taking itself too seriously. For example, an early quest sent me to find a little girl's lost puppy, Fluffy. A trail of blood and dog tracks led me to a nearby cave where I found Fluffy, but instead of the dog or even werewolf I expected the cave contained a worm-beast that wouldn't be out of place in the Tremors movies. After the battle, my quest objective updated to say that I had "put Fluffy down" and upon searching the corpse a new set of shoes appeared in my inventory called "boots of Fluffy's carapace." Other quests include Lovecraftian deep ones in someone's basement, killer umbrellas, and a quest simply called "Magic: The Gardening." That isn't to say the game is all joking around, but Two Worlds 2 certainly isn't afraid to poke fun at itself, making the overall game world feel more alive and less sterile.
You aren't just exploring in Two Worlds 2, and you'll frequently have to engage in combat to progress. Unfortnuately, combat is probably my least favorite part of Two Worlds 2. No, scratch that, riding a horse is my least favorite thing in Two Worlds 2 (seriously, just ignore the horses, they're awful), but combat would be second. The actual controls for combat work well, and on consoles your special abilities are mapped to context-sensitive hotkeys for easy access. The problem in combat is the enemy AI. I primarily used melee weapons, and quickly found that almost every enemy can take a defensive stance that blocks all damage. This would be fine if my own character's defensive stance did the same, but some damage always bled through to my character from blocking. Ranged weapons are nice for initiating combat, but taking damage interrupts your aiming and most enemies are quick to charge at you. The final option is magic, which can compose of both close and long ranged attacks, and I'll go into more detail about that later. But magic is also severely underpowered, requiring a lot of skill points at the expense of melee and ranged attacking in order to become useful. Once I discovered how to read enemy weaknesses and could tell when to use a blade or a blunt weapon, or which elemental magic to use against which creature, combat smoothed out some. But the uncanny ability for even basic enemies to block attacks, including a special attack that is specifically said to be unblockable, makes enemy encounters take far longer than they should, and slows the game's pace to a crawl.
While the combat didn't carry my through the game, the brilliant crafting system made the rewards of combat that much greater. Every piece of armor, equipment, and weaponry can be broken down into base components like iron, steel, and leather. Those base components can then be used to improve any other piece of equipment in your inventory. This means that even weak items found late in the game are a valued commodity, as even the steel and wood from a weak axe can upgrade your higher level axes, pole arms, shields, bows and arrows, and magic staves. It's incredibly freeing to make use of even the most useless equipment.
Customization is then taken to a whole other level with magic spells in Two Worlds 2. Spells are constructed from a series of cards, both elemental and for effect. Combine air with projectile, and you can push objects with a gust of wind. But then combine that with a damage modifier and you've created a lightning spell. I'm generally a fan of necromancy in games, and just swapping a few components made the difference between a healing spell, a poison projectile, and summoning a skeleton. Unfortunately, this is another area where the game is sorely lacking a tutorial, so I was mostly unaware of just how deep the spell crafting could be until a character taught me a complex spell formula using a combination I never thought possible. However that didn't happen until 12 hours into the game. It takes a lot of experimentation to find the right spell combinations, but once you get the hang of it, crafting spells becomes an addicting game in its own right.
You may have noticed that I haven't touched on Two Worlds 2's story yet, and there's a very good reason for that: I have no idea what is going on in the main plotline. I'll admit, I couldn't stand to play more than 5 hours of the first Two Worlds, and Two Worlds 2 picks up the story where I assume the first game left off. The story has something to do with saving your sister and overthrowing an Emperor, but honestly I've been enjoying the game far more focusing on the well developed side stories and characters. The main plotline, in my experience, is present more as a way of introducing new areas, like an Asian-inspired island full of velociraptors and another huge continent late in the game. Though the second continent is disappointingly lacking in areas to explore given its size, most likely leaving the developers room to expand the game with DLC.
On top of Two Worlds 2's single player adventure, there is a vast multiplayer offering that could easily have been a full game of its own. Multiplayer allows you to create your own character, including options like race and gender not available in single player customization. Then you pick a class for your character, giving them a ready-made set of abilities, and enter a number of different multiplayer modes. The meat of multiplayer is the adventure mode, which allows up to eight players to explore a seven chapter story separate from the single player campaign. These chapters are more linear, but also more enjoyable if you can get a group of friends together. When playing online with friends the combat is significantly improved, as mages, ranged attackers, and melee fighters work together rather than having a swarm of enemies against a single player.
Once you've amassed enough gold from the adventure mode, you can unlock your own village. This mode completely changes the focus of the game to that of city building, as you build farms, taverns, and shops to maintain the village's economy. The village isn't just for show though, and if you build it up enough the shops become stocked with rare and powerful items that your multiplayer character can take into the adventure mode or into the deathmatch and duel multiplayer modes. It's a shame that with such robust multiplayer options there seems to be very few players online. And the few random players I did meet online already had leveled up their characters over level 100, so my level 6 half-orc was usually booted from matches before they began. But if you have some friends to play with, the multiplayer offerings in Two Worlds 2 could sell the game on their own.
Two Worlds 2 is an absolutely massive game, and aside from a rocky start and some cheap AI, it's currently one of my favorites. The environments and characters created by Reality Pump are some of the richest that fantasy RPGs have to offer, making the game a joy to explore. Two Worlds 2 may have started development as an expansion pack to the first game, but it is much more than that. It is a redemption of the first game. It's still far from perfect, and definitely needs more in-game explanation of its gameplay mechanics, but once you get the hang of it you'll have a hard time putting the controller down.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of Two Worlds 2, and a copy of Two Worlds 2 was provided by the publisher for this review. I played 26 hours of the single player campaign and around 8 hours of the online modes. I did not play the single player campaign to completion, and judging by my active quest log, doing so would delay the writing of this review until around June.