Summary: PC RPGs this year were pretty light on quantity but heavy on quality. Jakub does a round-up, from NCSoft's MMOs to Elder Scrolls: Oblivion and the highly anticipated Witcher!
Also coming in updates will be a Broadcast Observer mode, meaning that thousands of people will be able to view battles between two guilds. ArenaNet is obviously expecting that this will continue to foster competition and drive the userbase to continue playing. Combined with live tournaments held around the world that are leading up to the international finals this fall, complete with prizes, we expect that there may be a market for it after all.
Little - actually nothing - was said about the first paid expansion, other than Chapter 2 is expected in the first half of 2006.
Auto Assault's buzz seems to have come as a bit of a surprise for NCSoft. After a small showing last year which created the hype, the publisher has gone all out this year in promoting their vehicle-themed MMOG.
Environments are destructible and the game makes use of physics for those as well as the driving code. In fact, stunt driving carries its own rewards and there are even special missions for stunters. Gameplay revolves around taking missions which create instances, this gives a very player-oriented feel rather than being just one of a hundred groups in line for the Magical Tooth Fairy Wand. The missions are rather specific and feel as good as anything made for a singleplayer game, what the development team demoed was a very action-oriented fight to get in position and call an orbiting laser on an enemy facility.
Auto Assault should be shipping this fall.
The AI is very active in the game, with NPCs going after objectives on their own. These objectives are rather involved as well - the player can choose to isolate one by taking down its defenses, or go straight at it if he feels he can muscle through.
Though dubbing itself a first-person shooter style MMO, Tabula Rasa is still more RPG than action game, with the results of combat being decided by dice rolls. Player actions, movement and weapon choice of course have effects on the rolls, but this isn't World War II Online or PlanetSide where it's all in the hands of the player. Still, from the demo it actually feels as if the game has struck a good balance and shouldn't alienate all but the hardcore shooter fans.
City of Villains
City of Villains is City of Heroes, but now you play a villain instead of a hero. It takes place not in Paragon City but in the Rogue Isles, though NPC heroes from CoH will be spotted in CoV, particularly in some missions.
Take, for example, the 50 hours of recorded dialogue. Even common NPCs will talk rather than print up dialogue. There are 200 hand-built dungeons, complete with traps that can be sprung on the player or that players can turn around on the enemies within.
And yet, this isn't even the tip of the iceberg. Where Oblivion really takes the cake is in the technology department. It is easily the most impressive game we saw this E3, right along with the Unreal 3/Unreal Tournament 2007 demos. Much of Oblivion is spent in the woods and for once, forests actually look like forests. Bethesda apparently had a geologist or other kind of scientist explain the nature of a forest, and the game engine generates it by itself. From slopes and hills and kinds of rock and bushes, to how trees are arranged - it is mind-bogglingly beautiful. Take out the monsters and you could probably sell it as a hiking simulation, it looks that incredible. It is even populated dynamically.
On top of that, the Radiant AI also takes care of NPCs. The non-player characters in the game are given a rough schedule, at which point the AI takes over and fills in their daily tasks. Characters not only work, eat, relax and sleep, but also practice skills and react to the environment around them.
An AI character, if she likes the player, can invite him to a private room for more talking, and she will practice her archery skills. These, being bad to start with, will damage her home, so she will quaff a potion to improve her skills and start hitting bullseyes on her target - and celebrate. She'll eat and feed her dog, then berate him when he gets energetic from the food and won't stop barking. A paralysis spell is her next step, followed by - believe it or not - a fireball. Now this perhaps isn't the most realistic example of Radiant AI, but given that most attendees saw this, we suspect that the developers were just having a little fun with the audience. Though not shown, we're relatively certain that the presentation mentioned that NPCs also need to acquire food for themselves, and will do this in the best way they know how - by trading or through theft. The same AI of course controls the many monsters in the game.
The interface has been greatly improved, with fewer menus and less fooling around with dialogue options, as answers the player has already received are automatically marked as such. The game also permits automatic travel to locations that have already been visited, greatly reducing the hiking time in the game.
For those who didn't enjoy Morrowind or Daggerfall, this is obviously not an improvement, but fans of the series will absolutely love it. It is really just more Morrowind, but bigger, better and looking absolutely stunning.
The most tantalizing, something that's been hard to find outside the long-gone Fallout games, is that of ambiguous morality. There's no clear-cut good and evil. It's not necessarily always particularly well obscured, but often the decisions are much more complicated than they seem. An example from the demo was that a king sends the player out to hunt down a monster in the sewers beneath his castle before granting him an audience. The player hunts his way through various minor monsters, encounters the final beast itself only to learn that it can talk and used to be a human being. OK, standard-enough fantasy fare, right? Well, the problem is that the player needs this monster's head before he can see the king, and to make matters even more complicated, the monster was actually someone that many of the townsfolk are glad to be rid of - because when he was a human being he wasn't exactly the nicest guy in town.
Story quests can also move on by themselves. Going back to the king example, after the player has the monster's head he arrives at the castle only to find out that there's been some sort of disturbance within, perhaps assassins. He can rush in and try to save the king, or let the guards handle it. If you chose to spare the monster, perhaps it's best to let the assassins do their job. Depending on player actions, not only will quests be affected, but the game will end one of three ways - and it counts cumulative actions, not just one final choice at the end.
The game engine has really been updated, with spectacular weather and background effects. The tile-based nature of NWN has been replaced with a standard mesh and 3D objects, making it more like Gothic than Neverwinter Nights. The outdoor environments are truly haunting, especially at night time or when a storm passes through. NPCs have schedules, which helps make the environments even more realiastic.
Character leveling and customization is skill-oriented. The player can not only improve the level of many of his skills, but also add customization qualities to those skills. An example would be from sword combat, where improving the level of the skill chains together more moves, but the customized attributes can add special abilities to a certain move in the combo, like extra damage or a stun.
The Witcher looks like it could be the best traditional RPG to hit the PC since Baldur's Gate 2, if it lives up to the promise.
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