Wednesday, December 31, 2014

TGG GOTY 2014: "Two Worlds" (PC-GOG)

I am sad to report my crack team of Genetically-Engineered-Artificially-Intellectually-Enhanced-Cyborg-Super-Chimp-Helpers (TM) took a look at my gaming library for 2014 and promptly formed a short-lived religious cult, which ended with me spending two days cleaning my basement.

As such, I have decided to reconsider my Game of the Year for 2014 (and probably the rest of my life, lest I want to keep wasting a year's salary on soap, chlorine solutions and sponges). My GOTY is one of few games I've managed to play this year, whatever their original release date. This isn't an official publication and I don't have the resources to keep up with new releases (I had to Kickstart that monkey project previously). Besides, what's the point of a boatload of GOTY lists for this or any calendar year in an industry so bloated and with an audience so catered to that reviews alone often become post-play confirmation of bias and opinion rather than a buyer's guide?

This dawned on me last year, when I ended up awarding Bioshock Infinite as my GOTY, even though I had played far more enjoyable games in 2013 (one of them being Ultima IV, of all games). If Bioshock Infinite wasn't the most fun game I'd played that year, why the hell should I call it my "Game of the Year", as if I'm an industry mouthpiece that exists to signal-boost new releases that are already promoted all over the Internet? My fondest gaming memories in 2013 were not in playing Bioshock Infinite and, in the end, that's what I'm taking to my deathbed.

Also, I have around 400 games in my backlog and I think that a good game from five years ago trumps the next broken, buggy, overwritten, over-designed, unoriginal, cinematic travesty from Ubisoft or Bioware that hits the market for each year's Holiday season.

For context, games I've played this year include: 

Two Worlds (Reality Pump, Southpeak/Topware Entertainment, 2007, PC)
Shadow Warrior (Flying Wild Hog, Devolver Digital, 2013, PC)
THIEF (EIDOS Montreal, Square Enix, 2014, PC)
Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance (Platinum Games, Konami, 2013 PC - original console release 2012)
The Witcher 2 (CD Projekt RED, 2011, PC)
Planescape Torment (Black Isle Studios, Interplay, 1999, PC)
Baldur's Gate (Bioware, Interplay, 1998, PC)
Home (Benjamin Rivers, 2012, PC)
Transformers Universe ( Jagex, Hasbro, 2013, PC)
Infinite Crisis (Turbine, Warner Bros, 2013, PC)
Insurgency (New World Interactive, 2014, PC)
Natural Selection 2 (Unknown Worlds Entertainment, 2012, PC)
RIFT (Trion Worlds, 2011, PC)
Champions Online (Cryptic Studios, Perfect World Entertainment, 2010, PC)
DC Universe Online (Sony Online Entertainment, 2011, PC)
Runescape (Jagex, 2005, PC)
Alpha Protocol (Obsidian Entertainment, SEGA, 2010, PC)
Jade Empire (Bioware, 2Κ Games, 2007, PC - original console release 2005)
Mass Effect Trilogy (Bioware, EA Games, 2007-2012, PC)
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios, Zenimax, 2011, PC)

Some are replays (e.g. Skyrim) or MMOs (RIFT, CO, DCUO) and are almost instantly disqualified. Having said that, I enjoyed all of the games listed above to different degrees; the selection is based purely on which one I've had the most fun with, which one left me with the generally best of impressions and which one I spent my time wishing it wouldn't end.

So no, Two Worlds is not technically a better game than Mass Effect 2, The Witcher 2 or even Jade Empire, but though I really enjoyed them all (and I adore the Witcher series); Two Worlds was the game I came out of after almost 30 hours wanting even more of. Take this quantifier for what you will.

Two Worlds (developed by Reality Pump and published by Southpeak in North America and Topware in Europe) was a 2007 RPG that was not received well upon its release. An open-world RPG taking place in a country full of green forests, it was seen as trying to capitalize on the success of the high-profile Elder Scrolls series (TESIV: Oblivion, in particular, released the prior year) and was unfairly compared to Bethesda's juggernaut. The irony is that the game doesn't resemble that series in the slightest and it's closer to a title following in the tradition of the much older Gothic series.

In all fairness to the game's critics, Two Worlds was also severely flawed and couldn't, objectively, rise higher than its direct or indirect competition. The visuals were extremely dated even by 2007 standards (and, in fact, a lot closer to Gothic II than any modern game had the right to be), the voice acting was over-the-top cheesy, delivering overwritten medieval English dialogue, controls were stiff and there were bugs and crashes all over. Innovation or polish weren't big parts of the equation either, which ironic considering where the developers come from. The combat system was fairly unintuitive and the game was seemingly on sale two builds before the final.

Where Two Worlds did succeed was content; the dated gameplay mechanics were just engaging enough to be addicting and, most importantly, the developer's genuine love for the project shines through the entire game, despite its technical hiccups. Yes, some quests do bug out, the AI is occasionally inconsistent, but none of its problems betray laziness or lack of attention and none of them are really a deal-breaker.

So, here are the primary reasons why Two Worlds made my personal Game of the Year and why I believe it's worth a try from every classic PC RPG gamer:

- Return to basics

A medieval world with Tolkien-inspired fantasy themes and an easily digestible society of 1400s values and traditional gender roles. It's not very imaginative or progressive; women tend to their homes, men work the fields and protect the towns. It works, because the protagonist is not a hero, but rather falls entirely within the "adventurer" trope; he's a mercenary with little personality, an avatar for the player to explore the world and actively look for jobs that pay well with little filter of right, wrong and heroism. It's immersing, because it shifts attention to the actions (i.e. the gameplay) with little regard for operatic stories and overly dramatic characters. The fantasy elements exist, but at its core, it's a medieval society of superstition, politics and dangers lurking outside the city gates.

- A living world

There is an odd lack of avian wild-life in Two Worlds. One quest had me pluck some birds to make arrows and not once did I run into a single one of those birds. There are some rabbits and chickens around, but not much else. Most of the flora is grass and trees with the occasional flower and herbs for alchemy and there is no noticeable ambience when travelling.

The devil is in the details, but the game balances the lack of those with a constant stream of violent animals and creatures (from wolves and bears to small dinosaur creatures called Reapers). Groms, Orcs and bandits are all over the place. The world is significantly smaller than Cyrodiil or Skyrim (and a lot smaller than Morrowind and most MMORPGs), but it's just large enough to enjoy without burdening the player's natural inclination toward exploration. A common complaint of mine in TES is that the locales feel empty, too spread out and far too safe. In Two Worlds dangers are many and travelling from one city to another doesn't feel like busy-work or boring downtime. There are teleportation devices all over the country that can be very useful, but I found myself favouring the horses, because I was extremely immersed in the game's world and wanted to experience the feeling of riding from town to town for work.

Also, the world is very varied. Skyrim has this funny feature that walking past a certain line the landscape suddenly becomes covered with snow; it's ridiculous and pulls you out of the game. In Two Worlds, there are British forests, French fields, far-eastern vegetation, African and Middle-Eastern deserts, Japanese and Roman cities and the haunting Orc-controlled territory, where life is fleeting and the skies at night are blood-red. Dungeons are small, full of terrifying creatures and make the player feel claustrophobic. I spent much time exploring random caves, clearing out bandit camps and riding my horse, because I enjoyed every minute of what the world had to offer me. In many ways, this is a defining feature for RPGs and it's Two Worlds's second biggest success.

- A breathing world

The lore is derivative, but solid; it's also, however, rarely touched upon within the game. The grand story lasts for a total of one hour (but can't be tackled until after several, because enemy levels don't scale like they do in TES). The main character is a bore and there is no option for a female player character. This is to the game's detriment, as heroes are supposed to be exceptional and outside the rules (and as such despite the world's framework, a female character would work fine) and it's worse, because the player character's sister is the most interesting character, with depth, but with few appearances and no agency. The main character also lacks Geralt's protagonist status, as he feels like a tool to play the game instead of a fully-fledged, predetermined character.

It's the day-to-day stuff that works, though. The main storyline involving the war of the gods gets little exposure (and makes no sense without reading the manual), but the regular people living with the threat of war, under the heel of kings and aristocrats and trying to tend to their everyday needs, really flesh the world out. Side-quests are simple, but tie well with the societal framework the game has set-up and the over-the-top cheesy medieval English dialogue, hard as it is to listen to at first, ends up adding to the uniqueness of the world.

- Good soundtrack

Composed by Harold Faltermeyer (who did the "Top Gun Anthem", one of the most iconic movie themes in he '80s), it combines standard orchestral music, rock beats and guitar riffing, Asian and middle-eastern sounds. It's a great soundtrack that makes it stand out from the sea of "epic fantasy scores" found in any other fantasy RPG and it's particularly important for this game as it's a constant companion throughout exploring the world and overcoming frequent threats.

- Old-school Action-RPG Gameplay 

Gameplay is Two Worlds' strongest feature, as well as the hardest thing to defend about it. Movement and controls can be stiff and clunky. Sometimes the game refuses to register actions if they overlap (like moving and attacking at the same time), which is annoying when trying to get in quick bow shots while attempting to put some space between you and the hordes of charging enemies. Almost all fights come down to exchanging blows and moving away to evade incoming hits. Especially in the early levels, there is a lot of running in circles and gulping down health potions until the enemies drop.

But there is also something delightfully retro about it. I'm not big on "retrophilia", I don't think that "NES-hard" is better than "Playstation-player-friendly" (and I have no time for those that think otherwise, honestly). There is, however, addiction in a game that makes you work for results without being too demanding or punishing.

Two Worlds features no classes in the traditional sense. Players start with 1 point in each of four stats: Health, Strength, Dexterity and Magic. Dexterity is the primary stat for most classes, except Mage and Tank (though why one would tank a solo, no-party, single-player RPG is beyond me), as it is the stat that's responsible for all weapons regardless of type. It's perfectly possible to play a balanced character, but naturally, specialization offers better results.

A bowman will be hard to play at first, but on higher levels, the bow can take down enemies with a single shot. A two-handed barbarian has both strength and range and is extremely fun to play. A sword/shield combo isn't as enjoyable, but demands more attention and strategy when enemies tend to surround you. Magic relies on basic spells, staffs that shoot projectiles and magic cards for the higher level spells.

Players start with basic skills and more can be learned from trainers for a fee. Some skills are odd; the player can neither ride a horse nor swim if at least one point hasn't been spent on either of those skills. Other skills shouldn't exist at all, for example: there is a skill for dismounting enemies from their horses using spears and lances, but mounted enemies never made it into the game (at least I never saw any) making that particular skill a waste of money and time.

The game's terrible UI presents a minor challenge, as it's hard (if not impossible) assigning skills to the action hotbars-- it seems the game does it on its own and doesn't always do it well.
Balanced classes are easier than in most other RPGs. I started as a thief and ended up an armoured Ranger, wielding a poison-coated bow and a fire-runed claymore. I also had proficiency in lock-picking, had just enough of a magic skill to self-heal and could even set-up some traps in narrow passages. There are restrictions, of course: I couldn't be a hardened warrior if I wished to keep using the bow. Top-tier armour prohibits certain features, like firing a bow, a noticeable set-back in my build whenever I had to switch to melee and withstand the extremely powerful arrows of the enemy snipers posted far away from me. Heavy armour would've protected me, but would have taken away my bow. Medium armour allowed me to try and pick them off first, but required me to remain vigilant, lose the snipers and lure enemies behind cover when locked in melee combat. 
Early combat is basic and kind of off-putting, but once more skills are unlocked, strategy enters the picture. It matters whether or not the player uses the "piercing shot" ability (which allows the arrow to pass through enemies and hit more than one) or the "disarming shot" ability (which disarms melee warriors rushing toward the bowman, causing them to retreat). A berserking warrior gets a significant bonus in damage, but takes a far bigger hit to constitution and the player would do well to remember that against large groups of enemies. It makes a difference what kind of weapon the player uses on what type of enemy; never use a poison-enchanted weapon on Skeletons; the poison may as well be life-force to them, for it will only replace their health-bar and never kill them. Always have at least one alternate weapon that is enchanted for spirit damage, as ghosts tend to show up often at night and they can't be hurt otherwise (save for magic).
Alchemy is innate, but its proficiency is trained. It's the method to create potions, traps and runes. There are some insane combinations. Where Skyrim returns "Potion Failed" after mixing ingredients that don't agree, Two Worlds crunches the numbers and returns entirely new concoctions. I've seen potions that buff up stats at the same time that they sap all your health and kill you on the spot. Not very useful, but fascinating nonetheless.

Crafting is similar. There is no weapon and armour crafting in the traditional sense, but Two Worlds offers a really cool feature, which allows identical items to merge and raise the item's stats. The tool offers versatility: it turns duplicate items into an upgrade instead of backpack baggage, it balances the economy and it creates some really tough gear choices. Switching to an armour with the potential to be more powerful is a risk, if you can't find more of that armour later in the game. Upgrading your gear for hours, only to find something better in another dungeon poses an interesting dilemma. Replacing a weapon, when you've sacrificed all your magic runes on it, is an option you may wish to skip.

I genuinely feel a little guilty not giving it to Witcher 2. CD Projekt's -otherwise- fantastic entry lost points with me, because of its inevitable comparison to the original. Despite improvements in writing, acting and visuals, the gameplay felt watered down and unbalanced, trying to do too many things at all times and feeling like a smaller, more mechanically bare game than its predecessor. It lacked the scope of the first game and it shows exactly for the middle child of the series that it is, with no clear beginning and no definitive ending. I realize it's unfair, but in the end, there was an air of slight disappointment throughout my play of the Assassin of Kings, because it felt like things were missing from it in the first place.

Two Worlds isn't technically the better game, but its simplistic approach to gameplay mechanics and the immediacy of the game world proved far more addicting. I found Geralt's odd sword-ballet combat less engaging and the countless bombs and potions felt like a burden I never thought I needed to use. I never felt like anything in my inventory was ignored or wasted in Two Worlds and everything, from potions to traps, came in handy at one time or another.

In addition, the world of Witcher 2 is a succession of isolated maps that feel removed from the major events taking place in that game's storyline. Both Geralt and Two Worlds' Burly McOpportunist watch and slightly affect the bigger political conflicts from the sidelines, but it's only the latter that does it from within society, who experiences the world on a day-to-day basis, not entirely separated by the major events at hand. The Witcher 2 was bad in fleshing out its disconnected locations, especially in comparison to the first game, which was very good at establishing the lore with no prior knowledge of the series.

I can't promise everyone will love a game as flawed as Reality Pump's first pure RPG. I went in expecting the worst, with the intention of spending a couple of hours on it before playing the sequel (which is regarded as "Two Worlds Done Right") and I ended up spending several hours a day, missing dinner and sleep, ignoring human contact and building up on days of sexual frustration; I regret none of it.

It's very rough around the edges and it takes some patience to master, but once it gets going, it's a blast; a game showered with love from its developers, the fire to create something old-school not to cash in on retro-nostalgia, but to appreciate the lost mechanics of old. The result is oddly appealing in its low-budget, "B-movie"-style amateurish production and, most importantly, it's just very, very fun. This is the game I enjoyed the most in 2014 and considering the competition (particularly Witcher 2, Mass Effect 2, Shadow Warrior and Revengeance), I'd recommend checking it out, especially as it goes on sale very often.

For the complete picture album of my Two Worlds play-through, visit my Facebook Group.

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