Gothic, from German developer Piranha Bytes Software, is a 3D action-oriented role-playing game. It takes place in a world where orcs have started a war against the humans, and where the human king is so desperate for ore, he turns a mining facility into a penal colony, and forces every convict to become a miner. To prevent the miners / convicts from escaping, twelve wizards get together to create a magical barrier around the area -- but then things start going wrong. The barrier expands to include the wizards within its shell, trapping them inside, and the convicts take advantage of the confusion to turn on the prison guards and take over the colony. And so the king has to barter with the convicts, supplying them with goods and even women, to get the ore he needs.
As Gothic opens up, you take on control of a nameless convict who has just been thrust through the magical barrier. (The barrier works like a Roach Motel: convicts go in but they don’t come back out.) The first people you meet beat you up, and so it doesn’t take long to discover that the colony isn’t exactly a friendly place. But there is at least some order in the place. The convicts have divided themselves into three camps -- the overbearing Old Camp, the more laissez-faire New Camp, and the religious Swamp Camp -- and your first order of business is to decide which camp to join. From there you’ll have to prove yourself to your camp so you can rise in its ranks, and then discover that something evil is brewing in the colony, and then, maybe, even find a way to escape.
Since you play a specific (although amorphous) character, there isn’t any sort of character creation system in the game. You don’t get to pick the character’s name or gender or race -- you’re just stuck being a nameless twenty-something male -- and there aren’t any classes to choose from. Each time you gain a level, you simply receive some “skill points,” and you can spend those points on things like ability scores, weapon proficiencies, and skills. I tend to enjoy classless systems like the one used by Gothic (or Fallout or Arcanum), since they allow you to modify your character in any way you want, but Piranha Bytes made a game balance mistake here. There isn’t a level cap, and it’s too easy to gain levels, and so you can eventually make your character the master of everything, even if you don’t strive to gain as much experience as possible. That hurts replayability, and it makes the game too easy by the time you get to the end.
But while character development has some problems, the game itself is a lot of fun to play. Gothic is an action-oriented role-playing game, meaning that you don’t just click on opponents and then watch your character fight. You actually have to attack or parry on your own, but the system isn’t so complicated that you come to dread combat. My advanced “flail wildly” technique did pretty well, and there are enough different types of creatures to kill that things never get boring. Plus, you have the option of leaving human opponents unconscious (while still getting experience, and still being able to loot them), and there is a minimal amount of gore, so Gothic could even be considered family friendly.
Plus, Piranha Bytes did a nice job with the game’s quests. They’re integrated well with the story, they’re (usually) more advanced than the simple “fetch” quests used by most other role-playing games, and a few even have adventure style puzzles to them. What’s more, Piranha Bytes actually made a nice quest log so you can keep track of what you’re supposed to do. Quests are divided into current, completed and botched, and every time you do something related to a quest or hear something related to a quest, the information is added to the quest entry, and so the information is always easy to find. I wish Black Isle Studios would figure out how to create a log like this, instead of the crappy journal systems they’ve used in the past.
And if that weren’t enough, Gothic’s world is wonderfully interactive. You can jump and climb and swim -- even underwater -- but these skills aren’t there just to support some annoying action sequences. They’re there because the world has mountains and streams and ladders, and you can move along them just like you’d be able to in the real world. Plus, you can do things like cook raw meat (from killed creatures) over a fire, and take steel bars and forge them into swords.
It’s a wonder then how Piranha Bytes could make so many good decisions in terms of gameplay, but then make so many bad ones for the game’s interface. To put it bluntly, Gothic has the worst interface I’ve ever seen. For starters, it’s almost entirely controlled through the keyboard. Gothic is one of those 3D games where the camera follows along behind the main character, and so a mouse isn’t very useful for movement or combat, but for some reason Piranha Bytes didn’t include support for gamepads or joysticks, and the only thing the mouse does is move the camera. Plus, the interface is terribly drab, the inventory and trade windows are a mess, the magic system is clunky, and combat requires that an enemy be targeted. Why is that last one a problem? Because only targeted creatures can be hit by melee attacks, and so fighting multiple enemies can be a disaster (it’s hard to tell which creature you have targeted, and that’s only one of the problems). But, luckily, most combat in Gothic is one-on-one, and so it remains fun despite the interface.
The graphics, in an odd way, are also fun. Gothic doesn’t have the best graphics in the world, but it has interesting graphics. For example, the game’s world is a little blockier than I would have liked, and the textures aren’t the greatest, but it’s still fun to explore. There are underground passages, towers on high hills, and even caves behind waterfalls. Plus, there is lots of nice detail. As far as I could tell, every tree is unique, the three camps are modeled realistically (so every NPC has a place to sleep), and the sky is amazing, from the moving clouds to the shooting stars to the rising and setting sun. Plus, the characters look pretty good for how close they are to the camera, the hundred or so types of weapons and armor are individually modeled, and the spell effects are impressive.
The sound can’t keep up with the graphics, but at least it’s not bad or anything. In fact, the background music and ambient sounds are rather nice. It’s the voice actors who have problems. They sound like they were just given lines to read without being told how the lines fit into conversations. And so while the actors read their lines cleanly, they often put the emphasis on the wrong words, or otherwise act them badly.
Overall, Gothic has its ups and downs, but it’s mostly fun to play. It takes 50-100 hours to go through the game once, and I could see playing a second or third time since the quests change slightly depending on the camp you choose to join. And while the interface is bad, and there are more than a few crash bugs, they’re not things that kill the experience, and so Gothic is a nice enough game to play while you’re waiting for Dungeon Siege to arrive.