Thursday, 23 June 2011

Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura

Right, this could be a long one. Bare with me. Arcanum seems to have gone completely under the radar of most of the gamers I know, being completely overshadowed by Diablo II (see previous review) and Baldur's Gate II. All you really need to know, as far as introductions go anyway, is that Arcanum was another isometric RPG. It was released in 2001 after being developed by Troika. Now, Troika is another under-the-radar name, but the important thing is this: the driving force behind Troika was the same group of gentlemen that developed the original Fallout. One of them was on IGN's list of the 100 greatest developers of all time, and another is working on Diablo III. These guys really know what they are doing. I'll let you sit on that for a minute; some of the developers of Fallout, a game widely considered to be an up-there, hall-of-fame, top-ten-lists classic, set up another studio, developed another game and most of you haven't even heard of it. Shame on you.

Anyway, as you have probably guessed by now, Arcanum is a title that has a very special place in my heart. In 2001 I was a mere 12 years old, and this game brought me firmly into the RPG genre with its deep story arcs and entrancing soundtrack. Oh yeah, the score. Ben Houge did a fantastic job, producing gorgeous string pieces that are truly evocative of an aptly industrial-revolution-esque period. Genuinely, as soon as you begin the character creation, which I will expand on later, the slightly melancholy and yet almost determined melodies chime in, and as you are looking at areas like your character's background, it really helps you to picture the type of world that this person would have lived in.

The character creation itself is really quite well done; you have a DnD type character sheet, where you can allocate a certain number of points, and add more later during the game while your level increases. Also, there are linear skill trees for things like pickpocketing and melee combat. Each of these skill trees has, by the way, apprentices, experts and masters littered around the world of Arcanum who can teach you to a slightly higher level and give you bonuses to each of these skills. Apprentices are usually fairly easy to find, but there is only one master for each, and instead of the apprentices' 100g or so fee, you'll normally have to do a fairly challenging or time-consuming quest to become a master. While on the topic of characters, the aforementioned character background is a brilliantly well done system in this game; you cycle through each one and they explain, without being boring or dull, what bonuses or handicaps you'll have and why, for example:

"Ran away with the circus: Having run away with a local troupe of circus performers, you have gained considerable physical Strength (+6), but have serious deficiencies in Intelligence (-2), Willpower (-3) and Perception (-1) due to all of the school that you missed."

It's a simple touch, but it's implemented really smoothly and it helps you feel like your character is your own, not just another generic warrior/wizard/etc. RPG character. All in all, between the main menu and the completion of your character creation, partly because of the music, you've already started bonding with your character the way all great RPGs make you. You want them to succeed, but not just because you want to finish the game, it's also because you like them. Some RPGs leave you so overwhelmed with numbers and statistics and dice rolls that they detract from the other great things that go into the game, and that can really break immersion for me. Obviously some players like that, but if you want that level of freedom, for me, you should be playing table-top. Just saying. Arcanum gets this initial balance just right, though.

After that stage, the world of Arcanum is pretty much your oyster. You'll begin to assemble a party fairly quickly, assuming you want to, and the story will progress at whatever pace you like. There's plenty to explore and do, though, so if you rush it, you're missing a good deal more than half of the fun. Some of the best content is in Arcanum's side-quests, like an elderly gnome (or possibly halfling, I forget) who lost all of his comrades attempting to acquire a valuable ruby - they were all killed by monsters that came up out of the ground. He wants you to go and get it for him and, of course, most players will need to take on all these monsters when they come out of the ground. When you combine that knowledge with the score I mentioned before and the scenery involved in that quest, as well as a number of other little details, you get a spectacularly enjoyable side-quest, much better than some of the primary plot-driving quests in a number of more modern RPGs I've played.

By all accounts, the main story itself is a great standalone experience, even if you don't partake in the fringe content. It will have you beginning as (possibly) a humble nobody, and winding up meeting thousand-year-old elves and, if you choose to, saving the world. Of course, you can kill everybody along the way, lay waste to entire cities and leave the world for dead if you are that way inclined. As far as RPGs go, the ability to play a role has not been done, to my mind, quite as well before or since Arcanum, at least in terms of games. NPCs will respond to you in an appropriate way, whether that is dependant on your race, choice of clothing, general level of intelligence, beauty, or lack of both or either. It's deep, it's rich, and because of all of that, it creates spectacular immersion. You're there, and you won't want to leave.

Summary: Arcanum is a great game, made by people with a track record for great games. It's well thought out, well executed, and thoroughly enjoyable because of that. Obviously, it's not as new as a 2011 release, so don't expect photo-realistic visuals, but if you can look past that, you'll find an expansive world for you to carve your mark on, in whichever fashion you choose.

Recommendation: If you liked Fallout, Baldur's Gate, Diablo I or II or any other isometric RPG titles from around the same era, this is an absolute must. If you haven't played any of those, this is a great introduction to the style, but beware the others won't seem quite so fun after this one - it outshines them all by a considerable margin. Honestly, the only reason you shouldn't play this is if you don't like RPGs at all.

Actually, even if you think you don't, this one could change your mind.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Diablo II

Back when Virgin Media was NTL,
I was taking my barbarian through layers of Hell...

This classic game, along with Starcraft and the Warcraft series, was one of the considerable forces in cementing Blizzard as a gaming powerhouse. They've since become richer than God himself through World of Warcraft, and there's a lot of hype for their upcoming sequel, Diablo III.

Diablo II was a simple, charismatic isometric RPG with 5 levels (including the Lord of Destruction expansion) and each level had a series of quests, culminating in a boss fight at the end. This is all par for the course, but what made Diablo II so compelling was the looting - you run through the world looking for caverns and caves that you're yet to explore with one simple mission: find some new, fancy shit to hit monsters with. The random-item generation system is really well done, and when you do find something useful, it's a really satisfying feeling. This is, however, short-lived, as you then need to go and find other items to complete your set-up to a similar standard.

The game-play is as simple as it sounds, almost exclusively mouse-controlled, you navigate, move attack and arrange items within your inventory with a series of clicks and drags. This is all well and good, but the more modern numbered-skillbar-for-ease-of-use wouldn't have gone amiss in this title, it does suffer a bit from an unintuitive way to select which skills you would like to use, only being able to map them to either a left or right click. The other main criticism I have for Diablo II is that the online community is notorious for hacking this game, making everything all the less enjoyable unless you want to undertake the same endeavours yourself. All in all, though, this is still a great game and has done a lot for the genre, arguably being at least in part the spiritual inspiration for many games, including Borderlands, Gearbox's FPSRPG loot-a-thon.

Summary: Obviously a bit dated now, but still has a great many hours that can be played on it.

Recommendation: If you like the old isometric RPG style and haven't played it, give it a go. Especially if you're looking forward to Diablo III. If you're more into heavy action and skill based isometric titles, I'd stick with some RTS games like Starcraft, or the more similar Warcraft III.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis

Nostalgia is a word we use a lot when we talk about old games, and it gets thrown around a whole bunch when old games get a re-release. Let me first indulge in some nostalgia; it's relevant, I promise. It's the early nineties. I have a mere four years under my belt, and my mother decides she needs a computer in the house for work. Excited by what this means for entertainment, she also buys 'Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis', and I met my first video game. I spent hours and hours on it and eventually, at a certain point in the game, the combination of early Macintosh technology and rudimentary memory storage resulted in a game-breaking crash at the same point during every playthrough. I was young, I didn't mind, I played something else.
Last year, the re-release of this game was massively overshadowed by that of various other point-and-click adventures that clambered onto Valve's Steam network, and it has been quickly forgotten again. I, presonally, did not miss this second coming. It dawned on me that I had never actually finished the game before, and as soon as I realised that, I had to download it, and download it I did.
"How" is the first question that struck me. More precisely, "How did I ever manage to get that far through the game at the age of four?" and also, "How is it possible that I can remember almost all of this dialogue and almost none of the solutions to the puzzles?" I was genuinely stunned, some of the locations in this game are punishingly difficult to get past, at least without resorting to the wisdom of other players on the internet. I also discovered, to my delight, that there are three possible paths in the game. Replayability! I had no idea the game was so multifaceted.
I was flabbergasted, actually, at how much of the game must surely have gone over my head when I was younger; the dry, sarcastic sense of humour for example. Amazing, as well, is the music in this game. Obviously, it's almost two decades old, but it displays drama and accomplishment better than the soundtracks of some big-budget blockbusters from the current generation, all with really simple, electronically created melodies. I'm certain that in my youth I didn't have the nous to appreciate the 'American scholar taking on the big, bad Third Reich' plot in its brilliantly tounge-in-cheek entirety, but something made me keep playing it.
I think I've figured it out. It's Indy. I'd seen I think one of Dr. Jones' movies before I played the game, and I was already hooked. That's one of the great things about this game, the characters and dialogue are well done enough to keep it immersive, a real achievement when all you can really do is look at the background for things that look like they might be animated. Ok, so the combat is fantastically basic and you won't be surprised if I say the visuals are comically bad, but it's a great story, told in a way that might have you tearing your hair out, but never bored.
Summary: It's fun, it's silly, and it's Indiana Jones. Realistically, a lot of this game is what you would expect from it, it's a bit dated, but whether you find that endearing or frustrating will wind up being a matter of choice.
Recommendation: If you've got time for classic point-and-clicks, and haven't given this one a go yet, you're missing out. It's pretty cheep, and it'd be a shame not to give it a go. If you're more into epic and detailed scenery, explosions and realism then I'd probably give it a miss.