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Gothic 3 Preview

2006 has been a pretty good year for fans of sprawling, nonlinear RPGs. In March, Bethesda shipped The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (X360, PC), the latest and greatest in its long running open-world series, and late this fall, German developer Piranha Bytes will finish up the third entry in its own RPG franchise, Gothic. The original Gothic was released in 2001 as Piranha Byte's debut game, and was followed by Gothic II in 2003. Both games were well received by gamers and critics, mainly for the huge range of possibilities offered by the open ended gameplay. With Gothic 3, Piranha Bytes plans to deliver its biggest game yet, while attempting to improve various interface and combat complaints that have been leveraged against the first two games in the series. I recently had the chance to take a look at an in-progress version of the game to see how it's shaping up, courtesy of publisher Aspyr Media's Eric Duncan and Chance Copeland.

Gothic 3's plotline is a direct continuation of the events in Gothic II. The series' archetypal heroic protagonist finds himself off of the prison island of Khorinis from the first two games, and onto the mainland of Myrtana. Vast Orc forces from the Northern lands have swept down into the Midland and enslaved much of human civilization. Some humans operate as mercenaries performing the Orcs' dirty work, while other rebel humans ally themselves with the beseiged human king, holed up in the former capital city. In addition to the humans and Orcs of the Midland and the Northern territories, Southern Myrtana is home to peaceful Varrant nomadic race as well as a brutal race of slave traders who kidnap humans and sell them to the Orcs. Aspyr's Eric Duncan was quick to point out that the Orcs of the Gothic world are not the irrational and dumb-witted orcs common in many fantasy settings. Rather, they are calculating and methodical--"more like Klingons," Duncan pointed out. This distinction becomes more important as the player completes quests and explores the world, as apparently not everything is as it seems in Myrtana. The Orcs have their own motivations and histories that explain why they have chosen this particular path, and depending on how the player chooses to play the game, more and more of this backstory will come to light.

This is a crucial part of Gothic 3, and it gets to the root of the game's basic concept. The player does not create a character, assign attributes, or choose a class at the beginning of the game, a crucial distinction between this game and other similar games such as The Elder Scrolls. Here, the human hero is a defined character with a particular history and his own set of baggage that comes along with living in this conflict-ridden world. The roleplaying aspect comes not from creating a character, per se, but by exploring how a particular character will interact with and influence the existing properties of the world. So, from the start of the game, the world perceives you in a certain way. Orcs have little respect for you, and human rebels will try to bring you over to their side. However, these attitudes can always be challenged, depending on how you choose to achieve your objectives, or even what objectives you choose to achieve.

For example, you might gain the trust of a particular Orc leader of a particular enslaved human town. This leader explains to you that for some time now he has been trying to hunt down a group of human rebels. He has been unable to keep tabs on them, but you may be able to help. He suspects that a human paladin knows of the whereabouts of this band of rebels, and if you can convince the paladin of your friendship as a fellow human, you may be able to report back to the Orc leader and stamp out the pesky rebels for good. Performing this task will raise your esteem in the eyes of the Orcs and allow you access to areas or training you may not have otherwise been able to attain. Alternatively, you may choose to betray the Orc leader and secretly confer with the enslaved human residents of the town, having learned of the paladin's location. They may help you organize a rebellion and retake the town from the Orcs. From that point on, the town would actually become a human-controlled settlement, and your respect among human rebels will rise--of course, it also becomse significantly more dangerous to hang around major Orc-controlled areas. Of course, the game is not restricted to these two paths. Players may wish to become more of a mercenary free agent, helping either humans or Orcs--or, perhaps, other as yet unrevealed factions--depending on the needs of the moment. "There is no good versus evil," explained Duncan; it's all a matter of perspective. Some potential missions are a bit more straightforward. In order to get into a large and well-protected Orc castle, the player may look to curry favor with the guard leaders. After a bit of asking around, you find a human brewer also looking to raise his status with the Orcs. Helping him distribute beer to the guards proves beneficial to both of you, and helps you get inside the castle.

Like its alignment system, Gothic 3's class system is very nonlinear. Over the course of the game, the player never chooses a defined class or role. Rather, the player chooses skills and abilities by learning them from trainers located throughout the world. As the player gains levels, "learning points" are awarded, and these can be spent at trainers in order to level up acquired skills or learn new skills. Since the character is the same character that has already survived two Gothic adventures, some skills are granted at the beginning of the game, but in the interest of character development, the player is still essentially "starting over" in most respects. The alignment system ties into the skill system to a fairly high degree. Lower level skills are easily attainable and common to trainers throughout the world. However, the more unique and high level the skill, the more difficult it will be to find. This is not always a geographical issue. Sometimes, you may know exactly which trainer possesses the skills you desire, but if you are on bad terms with that trainer's factions, he may refuse to teach you. Other trainers have more obvious barriers. For example, Orcs respect strength above all else, so they are more likely to take a chance with a human who has put a lot of points into warrior-oriented skills, or they may require you to show off your talents in an arena fight before they deem you worthy of tutelage.

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Skills fall fairly in line with what one would expect from this sort of game. There are a variety of combat skills pertaining to different types of weapons and fighting styles, offensive and defensive spells, production skills such as alchemy and crafting, and so on. Unfortunatey, Aspyr has not yet revealed the skill roster in any great detail, though it seems to be broad. Many objects in the world require player skills in order to be used effectively. For example, a player may come upon a grindstone for sharpening blades, which will be significantly more helpful if equipped with weapon crafting knowledge. Players can learn to use weapons such as swords, axes, polearms, bows, and others, and can acquire styles such as dual-weapon fighting. Spells range from small fireballs and personal healing spells to huge area of effect spells, such as a tentatively named "rain of fire" that calls down a column of flame from the heavens, showering the vicinity with burning meteors and turning the sky blood red.

Gothic's combat system has been a frequent point of criticism for the series, and with the third entry Piranha Bytes has attempted to make the fighting more streamlined and intuitive. Now, the game uses a two mouse button system with a soft target lock. When fighting multiple enemies, the game will automatically target the one over which your cursor tends to hover, and to attack with the currently equipped weapon or spell you simply click the left mouse button. Melee weapons have context-sensitive attacks assigned to both the left and right mouse buttons. For example, swords have a vertical slash assigned to the left button and a quick horizontal swipe assigned to the right. There are also various other options. Holding the left mouse button winds up for a strong vertical attack, while holding the right mouse button blocks. Blocking then clicking the left mouse button performs a slow but particularly powerful blow. Other weapons have different systems, though most them seem relatively similar. The setups for longer weapons such as staves take advantage of those weapons' crowd-control potential by having large sweeping strokes for the powerful attacks, and so on. From what I can tell, most spells and bows do not have these multiple attacks, as their functions tend to be more specialized. Combat, as well as the rest of the game, can be played either in first or third person, depending on player preference. It's tough to get a sense for how the combat holds up over time based on a relatively short preview session, what with the game's emphasis on unique skill development. Right now it seems like the streamlined point and click aspects may make it too simplistic. Hopefully later hands on impressions will provide a more thorough understanding.

One interesting aspect of combat is that if you are fighting sentient beings rather than monsters, you must be very deliberate in order to actually cause a death. After winning a battle with an Orc or a human, your opponent will be renderedunconscious. To actually complete the kill, you must execute a finishing move, complete with special animation. The reason for this extra step is that, because of the open-ended allegience system, you'll always want to be sure that you want the reputation that comes along with killing whoever it is you're killing. Offing another human in front of some Orcs is likely to have no more effect than the Orcs having a laugh at the other human's expense, but killing an Orc leader is liable to put your life in serious danger. Of course, if you're trying to aid the human resistance, killing that same human slave won't help either. Causing death can be very useful, depending on who you want to impress, but it can also be very dangerous, so the game's designers want to make sure you've committed to the ramifications before following through.

The world of Myrtana is quite large, which befits this sort of game. Piranha Bytes pegs it at about 7.5 square miles overall, which consists of a range of environments including deserts, forests, plains, snow-capped mountains, and more. "It's not quite Oblivion," admits Duncan in reference to the total area of the game world, but he also pointed out that the independent studio operates with only about twenty developers--the biggest it's ever been. At a certain point, the player will learn a teleportation spell in order to actually traverse the world in a reasonable amount of time, a necessary amenity given the game's lack of mounts. Aspyr promises that there will be no loading times anywhere in the game, with the likely exception of when the program is launched.

When I saw the game, no English voice acting was present, though the team apparently just finished the recording sessions a matter of days ago. Gothic and Gothic II took some flak in the past for less than pristine localization, so this time around the localization team has gone over the script with a fine tooth comb and hired some top shelf voiceover talent. Accomplished animation and video game voice actor Crispin Freeman voices the hero, and film and TV actor Ron Canada plays an unspecified role.

The Gothic 3 build I previewed definitely needed some work in the presentation department, with fluctuating framerates, some missing NPC AI, and so on. Still, the overall world and game systems seem very much on track. If Piranha Bytes can deliver on their ambitious goals, the company is likely to please existing Gothic fans as well as attract a substantial portion of the substantially growing open-world RPG audience.

Asypr Media currently plans to ship Piranha Bytes' Gothic 3 for PC in late fall 2006.