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PC Review - 'Gothic 3'

by Keith Durocher on Dec. 19, 2006 @ 1:54 a.m. PST

In the third chapter of the Gothic saga, the situation is desperate: The orcs have beaten King Rhobar’s troops and are ruling the most important parts of Myrtana, enslaving the human population. Only the tricky inhabitants of the south and the wild barbarians of the icy north are holding against the orcish domination.

Genre: RPG
Publisher: Aspyr
Developer: Piranha Bytes
Release Date: November 13, 2006

In escaping the imprisonment of cruel King Minos, the son of Daedalus did learn the terrible cost of hubris. Alas, if only Piranha Bytes had paid heed to the melted wax of Icarus’ wings when they set out to craft the latest version of their much beloved Gothic franchise, perhaps they might have avoided the sting of critical reproach. However, they flew to close to the sun and their feathers fell off. One could look at their latest release, Gothic 3, as the mangled corpse that hit the ground after flight failed. Is my metaphor losing poignancy yet? Never mind, never mind, I do tend to get carried away when I dance with pretension.

The observant among you may have determined from my opening salvo that I am exceptionally unimpressed with this title. It’s true, I admit it. This is a terrible release. However, it’s not 100-percent-terrible, and the straight dope on Gothic 3 is that it may very well be a fine example of fantasy gaming, eventually. For this reason, I think I’ll go with a “good news/bad news” style critique, whereby I’ll detail what’s worth paying attention to, before I tear this to shreds over the flaws.

For the uninitiated, the Gothic franchise is essentially analogous to the Elder Scrolls series by Bethesda. It’s a high-fantasy concept world with a completely open-ended play style that is intended to allow as much freedom as you wish. “Here is your lush sandbox with goblins included, go have fun.” Gothic 3 is the largest of its ilk, and continues the tradition of letting you do more or less whatever you want, so long as it doesn’t involve knitting or breeding exotic species of hairless cats. You can suck on a water-bong if you want though, so it’s not all bad news.

The story that underlines the world is one of a conquered nation under the thrall of murderous orcs, who are in turn under the control of a quite-capable necromancer who has chosen to not use necromancy to rule the lands. You play “Nameless Hero” (that’s not my embellishment, that’s really what he’s called), an adventurer who for some reason keeps forgetting everything he knows in between versions of Gothic. This time around, you’ve just arrived back on the mainland via schooner, only to discover that humans fall into one of three categories now: orc slaves, mercenaries under the thumb of non-human armies, or rebels who just hang out and camp in the woods. This situation simply will not do, and thus you venture forth to eke out your place in history! In the course of your travels, you can learn how to wield steel, use elk-gut bowstrings to maximum effect, do your best Robin Hood impression and five-finger-discount everything in sight, or cast arcane magic spells. The choice is yours; your only limitations are your imagination and perhaps the shocking number of flaws buried within the Gothic 3 program code.

Gothic 3 is ultimately identical to Gothic 2, just with upgraded graphics and a bump forward in the storyline. The play mechanics are more or less the same, with the only significant change being the combat controls, a tweak that is certainly for the better. Instead of a combination of mouse buttons and key-strokes, melee fighting is now a combination of mouse clicks. Much, much smoother. Other than this though, you move the same way, interact with the world in the same way, level up the same way, develop skills the same way, boost faction the same way, and ultimately have fun the same way. This is a hard thing to judge, it can be looked at as ‘refusing to fix what isn’t broken’ or it can be seen as a ‘stubborn refusal to push the envelope further’. Speaking personally, I found the interface of Gothic 2 somewhat on the clunky side, so to see it used exactly as it was before was a letdown.

Alright, I’ve been semi-kind to this so far, how about I start getting into the meat of what’s wrong with this game? Let’s start with graphics, which are the most significant change to the series. The visual style Piranha Bytes has adopted for Gothic 3 is supposed to be one of high realism and detail. They have succeeded only on two fronts, everything else is terrible. The textures I will admit look great from a medium distance, and the lighting is gorgeous. Shadows cast from sources such as torches or even magic ore look amazing. Here endeth the praise. The character models are lumpy and misshapen. As a result, everyone you meet looks like they’re wearing at least four layers of clothing.

The texture clip-plane doesn’t extend far enough, can’t be tweaked, and isn’t blended at all into the rendered textures in your field of view. Thus, about a half mile in all directions of your avatar, all you can see is a fog-like coating that is sharply cut off by detail. The over-use of bloom lighting is appalling; everything in the game glows with that soft-focus effect so heavily abused by soap operas. I like tasteful use of bloom, but in my experience leather shoulder pads don’t usually exude a soft mist of light. There is frame-rate lag like I’ve never seen before; I felt like I was playing a slide show. I would postulate that about a third of all my play time consisted of me just sitting in front of my monitor waiting for the game to finish thinking about whatever it was stuck on.

Finally, the options do unholy things to the game when tweaked. There are only three choices for detail: low, medium, and high. By default, Gothic 3 chose medium detail for me. This provides the textures with some crispness, but the choppy frame rates were frustrating so I decided I’d see what improvements the ‘low’ setting would provide. For starters, this setting looks really, really bad. Generally, one can get over some simplified models and textures, but in this case everything becomes so ugly it’s unplayable. Amusingly, this hideous wash doesn’t actually improve performance in the least; every ounce of chop was as prevalent with no texture detail as it was with medium. From there I thought, “Well, if the performance between the choices doesn’t change, let’s push this baby to the max!” This was unwise. At high detail, the usually-invisible box that surrounds every model in the game (defining it as a physical object in the world) became black. This means that every NPC, monster, tree, house, or pebble became a cube of inky night, sans-stars. The cumulative effect was a monitor full of darkness, with a few spare lines of terrain texture showing. In effect, I have no choice but to play Gothic 3 at medium settings.

As if this wasn’t enough of a deal-breaker, we next have the load times. I can honestly say these are the worst I’ve ever seen in any game. This includes loading out as well as loading in. If anything, it takes longer to exit Gothic 3 than it does to get in, with the current record holder being 10 minutes. I actually thought it had frozen my system, but after I went and made some coffee it had finally returned to the desktop by the time I was done. I cannot stress how frustrating the molasses-slow load times are. If you die (and you will, oh yes, you will) you’ll have to reload the entire world all over. Even if you save the game, swing at an NPC who can kill you in one strike and die in the same spot you saved at, you’re still looking at another four or five minute load-screen extravaganza. Cached textures and models? Forget about it.

Could it get worse? Yes, yes it could. Gothic 3, like its predecessors, has no system by which you can gauge an opponent’s strength. The only way to tell if an enemy will destroy you in one shot is to run up to it and attack. It doesn’t help that Piranha Bytes haven’t scaled the monsters according to area. There are two dragons not even a mile from the village you start the game in. Perhaps you are meant to feel safe merely because they can’t actually get out of the cave they’re in? (Not unless they can shape shift, at least. There are no openings large enough for them to fly out of, but why let logic interfere with the placement of a cool mob?) In this particular case, it’s pretty easy to figure out “do not touch”, and you can always go back later and try your luck after you’ve eaten your wheaties and pumped up a bit.

However, this same cave also houses goblins (one shot, one kill, they’re just as wimpy as they always are in fantasy settings) and ogres. The former lull you into a false sense of security and the latter are nothing like Shrek. In fact, they can swing their massive stone clubs so fast and with such force that even if your character is in the mid-20’s for level, you’ll still die with all haste. This is an area you’ll likely be exploring at around level six. Remember what I said about the load times? What a fantastic combination, monsters that are outrageously overpowered liberally placed in locations you don’t expect them to be leading to repeated death and then another long period of no play time at all because you need to reload the entire world.

There is an ace up our sleeve however that helps us overcome such unfair obstacles. While the developers were busy stacking the deck with imbalanced enemies, they forgot to make sure the pathing scripts were bullet-proof, and as a result virtually every monster in the game can be killed by exploiting a shocking number of glitches that render each creature moot. Using our above examples again, I managed to kill five ogres just by standing behind a rock they couldn’t walk around. 100 or so arrows later, they were dead I was planning out how I was going to spend their gold on hooch at the local inn. Those two dragons? No worries whatsoever. One of them liked the cut of those ogres’ jib and got stuck on a rock as well, which somehow also blocked its ability to breathe fire. ‘Twas naught but a pincushion by the time my puny bow was finished. The second one got stuck behind a stalactite, but it forgot to fold in its wings and once again my arrows saved the day. To be fair, if you actually engage an opponent in a fair fight, they do display an impressive set of AI scripts. They actually move out of the way of attacks! Why risk it though, when you can let gravel protect you from harm?

I almost feel bad, like I’m kicking Gothic 3 in the junk even after it’s been beaten down and is just laying on the ground bleeding a little bit and weeping sadly. If only there weren’t so many things tangibly wrong with it. From a design perspective, all the orcs (and there are lots of them, they did invade the world after all) are identical. Apparently they reproduce via cloning, with the only differences between them being equipment and sometimes they’re white instead of custard coloured. They all sound like muppets too. In fact, all the voice acting is cheesy at best, poorly delivered at worst. The inflections are usually off, giving the speech a strange cadence that is often too slow. In some cases, the dialogue is simply missing. Woe be to anyone who hasn’t turned subtitles on, you’ll miss plot points.

Finally, I have one last observation. Gothic 3 strives to replicate a realistic experience. Almost every aspect of the game is designed to be “the way it actually would happen if such a fantastic world were to exist.” With one exception: encumbrance. There is none. Your character can carry 30 tonnes of metal with no effort whatsoever. Consider as well that many massive weapons can’t be wielded unless your strength is high enough, yet you can carry an unlimited number of them. By my way of thinking, if I can carry 11 two-hander bastard swords and not be in the least bit weighed down, then I’m strong enough to swing one of them in a fight. Obviously Piranha Bytes doesn’t think the way I do. It’s also interesting to note that, despite your godlike ability to tote bulk amounts of tempered steel around without breaking a sweat, even a gentle incline will slow your characters movement to a crawl and in most cases you can’t even traverse a three foot hill. Back-tracking is fun, you can make a game of it; see how many mounds of dirt you need to find a way around in an hour, then try to break that record!

After all is said and done, I’m left with the impression that Gothic 3 could have been an amazing game if at least another full year had been put into it’s development. However, even that estimate is cutting it close. I am at a complete loss as to how this game was given the green light to press and ship; it’s a beta build at best. That said, virtually every flaw is patchable; the most severe problems aren’t buried in the core of the play mechanics and thus can be fixed without having to start from scratch. If the developers give us some heavy handed code-bandages, I predict that one day this will be at the very least an enjoyable RPG, if not the epic and sprawling adventure it was supposed to be. As a viable alternative to The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Gothic 3 fails utterly. As a solid follow-up to Gothic 2, it only fails insofar as the glitches are concerned. For now, I say avoid playing this until Piranha Bytes have had a chance to fix it. You’ll save more than just your hard-earned pennies; you’ll also save yourself a considerable amount of stress.

Score : 4.5/10

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