Summary: One of our (thankfully) final E3 articles, featuring the ever-excellent Witcher and ... FREE games from NCSoft. That's right. Free, just like going commando.
As always, the game’s definitive feature is the idea of consequences. Every action the player takes, or doesn’t take, has a consequence. Most often, there is no good choice or wrong choice, just shades of gray. How you treat a prisoner will have immediate and long-term effects. You can kill him swiftly and mercifully, but not find out that a friend is in trouble and needs rescue. If you choose to be “persuasive”, there are varying degrees of sadism – torture, or a potion that will make him talk but drive him insane. Or, finally, you can do the naïve and honorable thing by letting him go, and he’ll help you of his own accord.
However you may find that letting him go will mean that the location of your secret base becomes known to your enemies, who will attack it and keep your friends from joining you in the future. How you torture him can reveal different information about friends who may be in trouble, and then you’ll find out that you could have saved one but not another. Since the results of your decisions may take many hours into the game to be fully realized, this isn’t a matter of saving and loading until you reach your optimal gaming experience.
Another unique feature of The Witcher is that it has a fully mouse-driven control scheme. In the game there is no need for keyboard controls, even during combat. Attacks are driven entirely by clicking, but there is method to it rather than mere Diablo-style madness. Proper timing of clicks, as indicated by the cursor, will set off combos on your foe. You also have the choice of styles – fast, strong, or group – and should choose appropriately based on your situation in combat. The mouse even permits defensive tricks like diving away to dodge with a mere double-click. Being an RPG, the key is character progression in stats as well as story, and Geralt, the central character in the Witcher books as well as the game, can improve his skills for longer combos, power attacks and even deflecting arrows with his sword. Combat is quite fluid, thanks to roughly two hundred different combat animations, though we’re not certain if these are exclusive to Geralt, human characters in general, or all beings in the game.
Despite the fact that the game’s major advances seem to be in the gameplay department, the developers seem just as proud of the improvements to the game engine. Based on BioWare’s Aurora Engine that powered Neverwinter Nights, the renderer powering The Witcher’s graphics has been completely rewritten. Gone is the tile-based terrain in favor of traditional hand-designed settings that feature multiple lightmaps that adjust as dawn changes into noon, dusk and finally night. Pixel shaders, bump maps, specular light and more technobabble than we care to repeat are also featured. More interesting in itself is the water, which not only ripples (even from rain!), but has current.
Speaking of which, weather conditions change from day to day and even hour to hour. Characters also have schedules and will be found doing tasks appropriate to the time of day and weather settings. Don’t expect much traffic in the streets if the skies are pouring water, or if it’s late at night. On the other hand, certain monsters may only be found in specific conditions – like foggy days or night time.
The Witcher has progressed well from the last time we saw it at E3, and we can’t wait to test out the game, to see if all the features – especially the delayed and inevitable consequences – live up to the hype. There is no final release date, though CDProjekt assures us that development is far enough along that the major issue at hand is scheduling with a publisher, rather than worrying about development delays.
The first game in the demo was Dungeon Runners, essentially a Diablo-style game brought to 3D and secure servers. It sounds simple, but when you consider the Diablo and Diablo II cheating issues, who could want more? Like Diablo, it generates content on the fly, meaning that whenever you enter a level, it is different from before. The game aims to minimize downtime and will offer plenty of potions, teleports, and no death penalty. The graphics aren’t stellar but did portray the lush environments in an attractive fashion. One key difference from most MMOs is that it is an action RPG – you can maneuver around and avoid attacks.
Exteel is the second free game demonstrated by NCSoft. It focuses on combat between mecha (giant robots), but in the fashion of Gundam rather than MechWarrior. Perhaps the best comparisons for Exteel are the cult classic Virtual On series from Sega. Action was equally fast-paced and will feature up to 16 players per match, engaging in a variety of game modes. The fights are very dynamic, with melee combat using swords, or ranged fights. Jet packs and jumps add a vertical element to spice the scenarios up.
Soccer Fury is perhaps the most original game we saw at the entire show. Best described as combat soccer, it is almost as much about curb stomping your opponent as it is about scoring goals. Well, curb stomping may be extreme, but this form of soccer is so violent we doubt it’s played even in Russian prisons.
Smash Star is the working title of a tennis game that’s already been released in Asia. It has more in common with Mario Tennis than Top Spin, with cartoonish kiddie characters who are set on gaining powers and gear. The gear will give bonuses and abilities, presumably like Hot Shots Golf on the PSP. In fact, the neat little PSP game is perhaps the best comparison for this quirky tennis title.
Even in instances the combat never lets up, with constant reinforcements of friendly AI fodder coming through drop ships, to damage and distract the smaller and bigger baddies out there. The instances provide the player with the opportunity to battle and feel like the hero, as if it were a singleplayer RPG, while the shared areas give the MMO experience.
There are some interesting design choices with Tabula Rasa as well. While the game shuns the true action-oriented gameplay where the player’s actual aim and dodging ability matters, it does simulate the experience fairly well considering the game mechanics are all dice rolls. Also, there are seven classes in the game, but character cloning permits the player to make a copy of his character at certain levels before he has to choose a class, so he doesn’t have to start over if he wants to experience every character style. Clan-based PvP is planned, but it will be consensual and it is undetermined what kind of effects it will have, if any.
Of course, Tabula Rasa promises much, but how it turns out remains to be seen. How deep is the front? Is full control of any world by either side actually possible? What kind of variety can be expected in instances, and will there be repetitive instance grinding?
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