I thought I’d write a little about my thoughts about the 2 most recent PC games I bought - both happening to be RPGs although the style and age of the titles being quite far apart.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
This is an old game that I never had time to pick up at the time it came out, but eventually caught up with. It’s an excellent game, there’s no doubt - among the best RPGs I’ve played. Why? 2 things - characterisation and quality of writing. Not since Planescape Torment, System Shock 2 or perhaps Eternal Darkness have I come across a game where this much attention has been paid to characters and storyline - most games are incredibly primitive in their storytelling, despite what many game developers claim. I’ve lost count of the number of times game developers have said how their latest game will evoke a strong emotional reaction, because of the incredible story they have to tell and the realism of their characters, and yet they continue to rely on the most hackneyed, derivative, game-designer written scripts and back stories that any real author would have been ashamed of in high school. Writing is a completely different skill to game design and it’s incredible how many studios / publishers don’t seem to realise that.
The Star Wars license in this case is just another bonus - it would have been so easy for Bioware to be a little lazy and rely on the SW license to prop up an unremarkable game, but that categorically hasn’t happened here. I’m now right at the very end of it, after about 35 hours play over 5 months, and it has rarely been dull. Occasionally I’ve resented the amount of tiresome running about that’s been required (Tattoine is a particular case in point), and the occasional repetition (no, I really don’t wanna play Pazzak again, or run another swoop race, thanks) but I’m really just being picky there, since the experience has been overwhelmingly positive. The characters are deeper and have more interesting back stories than any other RPG I can think of, and the voice acting trumps even System Shock 2 for absolute believeability. The story is compelling, yes it draws on many common Jedi themes - it would have to, really - but it’s not a lazy attempt at all, with lots of interesting sub-plots and twists; I personally was genuinely invested in the story at most points through the game, something I can’t say about very many games. As you get nearer the end the challenge wanes for a while, until the part I’m on now where it’s wall-to-wall dark Jedi which is causing me a few problems, but it’s never dull. The environments are extremely well realised and I for one don’t notice that this is a 3-4 year old engine, it looks just fine. Overall, I feel quite happy having invested an average of 7 hours a month on this one. 😉
Neverwinter Nights 2
I enjoyed the original NWN, and like that original I’m playing it entirely co-op with my wife, which is one of the benefits. I’ve always liked co-op play, and it’s good to see more games these days (like Halo and Gears of War) recognising that co-op is worth designing specifically for. I actually find co-op more rewarding than competetive most of the time now, since the youthful need to endlessly polish my performance in a game until I can beat everyone else has long since left me - I just have better things to do. 😀Anyway, NWN2 clearly wears its heritage on its sleeve and plays very much like the original, just prettier, with more character types and a newer rule system.
We’ve only played for a few hours so far, and it’s been fun. The new interface takes a little getting used to, especially the mini-map which I think is something of a disaster of visual design. The original NWN’s minimap rotated with your viewpoint, but now they’ve seen fit to keep the map on a fixed axis, and to represent your view heading with a highlighted wedge. That makes orienteering harder in my view, and it’s made worse by the fact that they’ve made the character markers chunky arrows - whose size makes a mess of the relative positioning when you have lots of characters, and whose frequently conflicting directionality with the view wedge confuses the orienteering issue even more. The direction my character is facing versus the camera direction is irrelevant and they really should have got rid of that, and a rotating minimap would have been much better.
The writing is a double-edged sword too. The dialogue between your NPCs is frequently very good, but the plotlines and quests so far have been about as pedestrian and unimaginitive as you could probably get. Clear the docks of a rampaging thieves guild. Save the village from marauding lizards. Deal with marauding orc bands in the wilderness. Rescue X from Y. Fetch item Z for Q. Whilst there is some ability to affect the end outcomes of these quests (you can for example work for the thieves instead, or choose to kill the opposing group or negotiate), it’s a shame the scenarios are so clichÃ©d. I realise this is a ‘regular fantasy’ RPG, but come on guys, that’s really no excuse. It’s hard to remember that the developers Obsidian also developed Planescape Torment, probably the most inventive RPG ever - but then I guess they don’t have the same writer on board as they did then.
Performance is a problem too, as I’ve mentioned. It really underperforms for the quality it’s displaying on screen, and I think it’s because they’ve littered the levels with lots of detritus and small objects, none of which you can typically interact with. Sure it looks quite pretty, but not nearly pretty enough for the frame rate it runs at. My machine isn’t a beast by any means (512Mb 6800 / 3Ghz single core / 1Gb) but it’s capable of better than this.
So my verdict on this one so far is ‘fun but predictable’. I might not be so interested in continuing with it if it wasn’t for the novelty of the co-op play. But then, like NWN this is actually a longer term investment, since some really quite good content emerged from the community over time with the last one.