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Battling Dragons, Orcs, Evil Demonic Cults, and Lag
By: Steven Bellotti
Gothic 2 is a very well-designed game, but it's just not enjoyable. It has seemingly everything going for it- inventive design, decent graphics, respectable writing, a simple yet varied skill system- but one tragic flaw, one insurmountable problem, brings it all crashing down. The end result is a game that is painful to play, both for its frustration factor and the added fact that there's a really good game hiding in that rubble.
Gothic 2 is a direct sequel to the original Gothic, but not knowing the plot isn't a problem. You have jumbled memories at the start, giving the returning chracters an excuse to give you the lowdown. In Gothic you were a convict cast into the Valley of Mines, a penal colony on the island of Khorinis. You were supposed to work off your sentence mining magic ore for the king's army, but escape was more your style. After a series of adventures, you invaded an orc temple and, with the help of the necromancer Xardas, killed a demonic entity called The Sleeper. His death brought down the magical shield around the colony, resulting in a massive breakout. Unfortunately, it also collapsed the temple around you, and you wound up buried under a pile of stone. Gothic 2 picks up the story about two weeks later, when Xardas revives you from death (bereft of all the gear and experience you had in the previous game), and delivers some grim news. With The Sleeper's death, all hell has broken loose- a huge orc army besieges the human encampments in the Valley of Mines, black-robed wizards are roaming the countryside, and there have been ominous reports of dragons.
The port of Khorinis and small communities elsewhere on the isle have yet to feel the full brunt of these changes, but they've got problems of their own. On the mainland, the royal army is losing a desperate battle against the orc hordes, and the king has sent a hundred paladins to clear out as much of the magic ore as they can. Their presence exacerbates the already tense situation between the rich merchants in the city and the poor farmers in the fields. One of the major landowners has hired escapees as mercenaries, and a peasant revolt is brewing. Meanwhile, the Order of Fire Magicians is trying to stay out of it. Xardas has a plan to deal with the dragons at least, and sends you to the paladin leader Lord Hagen to retrieve an artifact called the Eye of Innos. Of course Lord Hagen won't grant an audience to just any shmoe off the street, so you'll have to ally yourself with one of the three factions if you hope to get anywhere.
The story is fairly pedestrian, yes. But as always, it's the execution that counts, and Piranha Bytes proves their mettle by spicing things up with a lot of options. There are multiple solutions to many problems, and a lot of freedom in deciding what you want to do. Your choice of faction means more then just a few quests and a neat title. Virtually every quest and sidequest in the game is dependant on your faction allegiance, as well as which armors, weapons, and spells are available to you. The effect on your game is so pronounced, it's like having three games in one. Nice. Very nice. In addition to combat and magic skills, you can also take various sidelines. You can take up alchemy, and brew potions that will permanently increase your stats. You can learn to hunt animals, and take hides and other trophies from them for extra cash. You can train to pick locks and sneak around like a thief. Or you can work a forge and make your own weapons. With all that, it never devolves into the bland fetch-and-carry and formless story of lesser games. The quests are reasonably varied, and the lame ones are at least accomplished quickly, or en route to more interesting objectives.
The writing isn't spectacular, but it's quite serviceable. Exposition is not heavy-handed at all, and the translation from german is marvelous. If I didn't know better, I'd swear that this game was written in english. Probably this is because it had to be recorded by english voices. There are no text windows in Gothic 2. Well okay, there are, but only for choosing what you want to say. All the dialogue is spoken. The acting is pretty good, too- no one stands out as especially good, but only one or two characters in a large cast sound corny or unbelievable. Visual and audio presentation is uninspired, even generic, but also serviceable.
The combat system is unique, with most of the caveats that entails. This is how it works- first you draw your weapon, then you left-click and hold to lock on to a nearby enemy. If you're using a spell or distance weapon, you then press forward to let fly. If it's a melee weapon, then you push forward for a thrust or advance, left for a left slash, right for a right slash, or back to guard. You can also sidestep while fighting by holding left or right. The key to successful melee combat is to chain your attacks together- for example, follow up a left slash with a right slash so you can attack without a pause, giving the enemy no chance to counterattack. It's an innovative system that's satisfying to master, but it takes good timing, practice, and knowledge of the proper attack combinations to get down. Which means that a first-timer will find the battles in Gothic 2 extraordinarily frustrating. It doesn't help that the game starts you off weak as a kitten. Indeed, for most of the early game you'll be trying to avoid enemies. It's not until halfway through the game that you have enough power to fight and win consistently. Even then, combat seems kind of random because the damage ranges on the weapons are so vast. One hit will take a mere sliver off the enemy's life bar, and the next will chop it in half, with no apparent rhyme or reason to it.
But this approach of a somewhat wimpy hero has its merits as well. At one point you venture back into the Valley of Mines, finding the last castle besieged and the orcs everywhere, and you have to slink around, finding safe routes through the encampments, and eventually running a gauntlet through a weak point in the siege ring. At another point, you ally with a pair of Dragon Hunters to raid a nest of lizardmen. These are not unique challenges, but they provide some variety from the standard structure where the hero accomplishes everything by himself. Additionally, the enemy AI is very good- the enemies dodge and parry, often travel in groups and protect each other, and have excellent pathfinding- more then once I managed to force an enemy off a cliff and thought I was safe, only to find him charging back up the road a few minutes later. While I'm on the subject of cliffs, the landscapes in Gothic 2 are also very well done. A lot of 3D RPGs are a bit 2D in nature- that is, very flat worlds with lots of plains- by pleasing contrast, Gothic 2 has mainly vertical landscapes- mountains, hills, chasms and valleys all over. Furthermore, we have darkness, really deep darkness that you need a torch or light spell to see through. We also have forests that are very overgrown- Piranha doesn't just toss a leafy texture on the ground and plant a few tress, they put in undergrowth and fallen logs and such.
Now, all of the above would make Gothic 2 an excellent game. Except for the critical mistake. It is, like too many mistakes, a programming mistake. It is, furthermore, a very stupid mistake. It's something very simple, something the most elementary playtesting should have caught, something which, quite honestly, simply should not make it into a completed game.
Gothic 2 is an atrocious memory hog.
I have 256 MB of RAM on my machine. Gothic 2 goes through those like Pac-Man gobbling up dots, and then goes into virtual memory. Eventually it uses up all virtual memory, forcing an increase in the size of the paging file, and sometimes my system still runs out. What this means from the user's perspective is that Gothic 2 starts off running slow and runs slower and slower and slower as a session goes on. Slowdowns and minute-long freezes occur constantly, and a play session usually ends with hands thrown up due to a lockup or crash. Once this even occurred in the middle of a save, corrupting the file and erasing a days worth of progress. Even loading your save files takes forever.
The problem is that the programmers just bit off far more then they could chew, and no one told them "Stop, that's too much, any more and the game will run like crap." There are only two major maps in Gothic 2- the Valley of Mines, and the rest of the island. There are no separate maps for fortresses, caves, or inhabited areas- these are all on the same map. Granted, the given time. But it's still way too much for the machine to be expected to keep track of. It's not just that, either. A lot of it is spent on content that just isn't worth it. Much of the time the screen is graphically cluttered, with lots of interesting but useless details eating up CPU power. Sometimes these are even detrimental- like the low-hanging branches on trees that serve no purpose other then looking good and obscuring the camera. (Did I mention the landscape has lots of cliffs? Watch your step.) And the inhabited areas are full of generic NPCs. The player will hardly ever interact with these profession-named nobodies, but the game still has to calculate AI and index dialogue and inventory for them. Don't get me wrong, these little touches do have merit- but at the price of such pitiful performance? Forget it.
I guess you could say that Gothic 2 is a tragic hero. It scores high marks for innovation, for execution, and for variety, and then loses them all due to overlooking the fact that not everyone has 512MB of memory. Even with the lag, it was still a fun game with inventive ideas and an attention to detail, enough to persevere to the end. But I'm sorry, when your time is dominated by periods of waiting for the hard drive to stop thrashing and the lag to pass, all the enjoyment is sucked out of the game. Gothic 2 simply asks more then most PCs can give. If you can get it to run well, you'll find a worthwhile RPG experience, but chances are it will not be worth the frustration.
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