In the first months of 2001, German developers Piranha Bytes released this excellent Role-Playing-Game, which soon received very positive reviews from German gaming magazines. Fortunately, non-German speakers didn't have to wait too long for the English version: it was released in mid-November that same year. After downloading and falling in love with the demo, I hurried to purchase it... and after spending quite a few hours with it, I can say it's excellent. I must say that the translation "feels" right (I can't compare it with the original version though), and the English voice acting is thoroughly solid and convincing. But first things first...|
For starters, the plot is interesting and well planned: In a fantasy-type land called Myrtana, the insidious Orks present a really dangerous threat for the kingdom. Myrtana's armies seem unable to stop their progress as they sweep through the land, and King Rhotbar is getting close to desperate. He needs heavy quantities of Ore, the magic mineral used to forge the best weapons and armors his blacksmiths can produce, so he forces all the prisoners of the realm to work day and night at the Ore mines. To make sure they won't be able to escape, he sends twelve mages to the mine to create a barrier impossible to transgress from the inside... but alas! Something goes wrong, and the barrier grows unexpectedly, trapping the mages inside their own cage. Things get even worse when the prisoners revolt and kill the King's guards, forcing him to trade with them in exchange for the Ore. The barrier is penetrable from the outside, and so the prisoners periodically get all kind of goods from the outside world (including women, by the way).
In this scenario, you appear as another prisoner, thrown inside the magical jail by the King's men, with a special mission: the delivery of an important letter to one of the mages...
The game doesn't give any more information to the player than that; it's up to you to find out how things work out inside the barrier. Soon enough, you'll know power struggles and disagreements among the prisoners/workers have led to the creation of three different encampments, each one with its own rules and objectives. The Old Camp, that actually trades with the king and extracts Ore for him; the New Camp, which doesn't want to have any kind of relationship with the outside world and only works for its own benefit; and the Sect Camp, believers in a strange God whom they call The Sleeper, who will be the key to their escape (or so they wish). Once you reach a certain point in the game, you'll have to choose one of these Camps in order to progress further; the game will play differently depending on your choice.
And that is one of the most interesting qualities of Gothic: its open-ended nature. Although you have to follow the main storyline if you want to see the ending one day, you have a certain degree of freedom along the way. You can choose your friends (and, subsequently, your enemies) in each of the camps, and you can (must) decide which camp you'll be loyal to. You can dedicate as much time as you want to solving the different subquests, or to simple exploration, hunting, trading the animals' furs and claws in the marketplace, climbing the high rocky mountains in search for secret niches rich in treasures, to exploring the dungeons, swimming in the rivers...
The virtual world. That's what really hooked me in Gothic. The landscape is beautifully 3D-rendered, with more than enough quality to create a convincing and charming effect (it isn't the best in the market though, so don't expect as much texture detail as Return to Castle Wolfenstein, to name a recent blockbuster). And, while the world is not HUGE, it's still BIG. Walking (running actually) from point A to B takes its time, but it's never boring: You are constantly finding new details you didn't notice before as you stroll along the valleys, the hills, the river banks, the waterfalls, the thick and gloomy forests... because Gothic features, above all, a credible virtual world. A world you can easily get immersed in. A world you'll WANT to be immersed in. Every detail, from the currents that push your character in the rivers, to the different cloud layers, the well simulated weather effects, the seamless transitions between day and night, to the possibility to forge your own swords or cook the meat you took from the animals you hunted in the forest, is calculated to lure the player into the world of Myrtana. You can spend a good deal of time in the camps, watching the NPCs as they carry on with their own lives, talking between themselves, trading, repairing their huts, taking a break to eat or drink something, sleeping, quarrelling... You can marvel at the amazing design of the old Ore Mine, which immediately brought me memories of the Moria mines as described in The Lord of the Rings (with giant insects instead of Orcs)... and yes, you can try your luck mining the Ore yourself.
This is probably the best virtual world I have seen in a CRPG since Ultima VII. It's a seamless world, too: but for rare cases (when you enter the mines, for example), you won't see any loading screens anywhere. Providing you are able to effectively evade/defeat the monsters, you can travel around at your leisure, freely, knowing the whole world is (almost) fully loaded around you... and you can see a good deal of terrain before your eyes, too, which can make for some stunning views when you look from the top of a mountain to the world below.
The game has some flaws that should be noted, though; and the main one lies in the interface, which is a quite serious problem, as you'll spend all of your time using it :-P. Believe it or not, mouse support wasn't included in the early designs of the game, and it shows. As it is, the mouse is quite useful for moving your character around, but there is no mouse cursor to be seen: not even in the game menu. You have to manage your inventory, select your conversation replies, combat or trade using combinations of keystrokes -- usually, by pressing the 'action key' along with a directional one. For example, Action+Up is used for a variety of actions, such as picking up objects, using/equipping them when browsing the inventory, starting a conversation with a NPC or climbing ladders. To pick a locked chest, you have to guess the right combination by pressing Action+Left or Right, and so on. This, at first, is confusing and unfriendly, and will annoy many players who are used to equipping items by dragging them into the inventory slots, or to reviewing the diary by clicking on it with the mouse cursor. Of course, perseverance is the key to success: give the game a chance, and soon enough you'll perform any action by pure instinct. But the first time around, it's pretty rough.
Another flaw is the game manual, which is short and lacks all important information on certain subjects, as well as being way too brief on others. For example, it doesn't explain how to dive while swimming (you have to hold the 'Jump' key and guide your character with the mouse actually). And the game does show a certain amount of polygon clipping when looking far into the distance. I haven't found any important bugs in the English release (v.1.08j), though, which in these days is sadly uncommon.
The game can ONLY be played from a third-person perspective (you can use a first-person view momentarily, but you won't be able to perform any action while in it), and you can't move the camera at all. Most of the time, you won't need to, but there are moments at which part of a tree or a wall will get in your field of vision and you will lose track of your character. (usually at the worst possible moment, like in the middle of combat...)
As for design choices that will annoy some players, it must be told that the game is NOT stat-based (as the Black Isle Studios RPGs are, for example). You just have Dexterity, Strength and Mana as your main attributes (called Skills), along with a few abilities (called Talents) such as Lockpicking or Acrobatics. And that's it. Actually, I like it this way (I prefer to concentrate on the story and background rather than in an intimidating, endless set of numbers that never make much sense to me), but the more "hardcore" RPG players will probably be disappointed. You can't even create your character at the beginning of the game -- though you can decide the way his Skills and Talents are to be improved as you gain experience and levels (you can decide to spend your hard earned experience points in raising either your Skills or Talents. You must choose wisely especially at the beginning of the game).
The action-oriented fighting will pose a big problem for those used to turn-based battles, too, especially if they're not fans of third-person 3D adventure games. There's no way to pause the game and issue orders to your character: you have to rely on your own ability to kill the nasty beasts you'll encounter... which are really well designed, by the way, and show a certain amount of intelligence. Many travel in herds, for instance, making the task of slaying them more difficult.
The lack of any kind of multiplayer support is another point worth noticing. And one I don't care about at all, but then again, I'm a natural born single-player gamer.
So this is what you'll find in Gothic: an excellent role playing game, with a thriving, living, amazing world to explore, and a whole lot of NPCs who actually are intelligent and react to your actions as you'd expect them to. But you'll have to dedicate some time to it and its cumbersome interface before you can really begin to appreciate it for what's it worth, and you'll have to forgive some minor annoyances as well.
For me, it's certainly a must-buy, the most pleasant surprise of 2001, and the best RPG released in the last years (no, I don't like the Baldur's Gate series much...). A fair few thumbs up!
Reviewed by: Reverendo