E3 2003: The RPGs

This year's E3 had much to offer for RPG enthusiasts. Unfortunately, I was on a limited schedule, so I was only able to see a handful of the more popular massive multiplayer and single player role-playing games. On the top of my "must-see" list were BioWare's Neverwinter Nights: Shadows of Undrentide and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Mythic's Dark Age of Camelot: Trials of Atlantis, Troika's Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, and Blizzard's World of Warcraft. Here's a recap of what I saw:

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

Luckily, BioWare was gracious enough to give me a private showing of both Star Wars: KotOR and Shadows of Undrentide. The first half of the presentation was of KotOR, which is being developed for both the Xbox and PC. For those of you who haven't been following this game, it is an RPG set in the Star Wars universe, 4000 years before the popular movies. The game is completely based on Wizards of the Coast's D20 system, which makes character creation and advancement very similar to previous BioWare RPGs.

Baldur's Gate fans will be happy to learn that you will be able (and are encouraged) to assemble a group of NPCs and form a party to adventure with. There are nine NPCs in all, but you can only have a maximum of three characters (including the protaganist) at any time in the game. Fortunately, any NPCs that you decide to leave behind will station themselves in the Ebon Hawk, your personal ship that you travel the galaxy with. The NPCs provide a wide array of different skills & feats, so you may find yourself returning to the Ebon Hawk to try different combinations of characters for specific obstacles or battles in the game. In addition, every NPC has his or her (or its!) unique quest to embark on, so you'll want to try different party configurations if you want to experience every aspect of the game.

In addition to interacting with the various NPCs, you will also be able to alter and upgrade your equipment within the Ebon Hawk. For example, your character can insert different crystals into their lightsaber, which can provide new colors to the blade and/or upgrade the stats of the weapon. BioWare assured me that the lightsaber crystals will be vital to the game and that the most powerful crystals can only be obtained from difficult battles or quests. One other option available to you within the Ebon Hawk is a turret battle simulation. Because some battles will be fought from the seat of the Ebon Hawk's turret, you will want to utilize the simulation to learn how best to defend against incoming enemies.

Controlling the Ebon Hawk's turret is not the only mini-game available in Star Wars: KotOR. There are three mini-games in all, including turret defense, swoop racing, and a card game similar to Blackjack called Pazzak. Swoop racing will be available at more than one planet during your travels, and typically involves controlling your swoop bike through a series of obstacles while making sure to land on acceleration ramps. Each ramp will send your bike increasingly faster through the course, so missing even one ramp will hurt your overall time. For example, in the course I was shown, the protaganist had to beat a 27 second record in the race, which made the acceleration ramps very important.

The choices you make throughout the game determine how far your character will shift towards the Light or Dark side of the Force. For example, during dialogue you may be presented with the option to use the "Choke" Force Power on the individual in order to coerce more information out of him or her. Obviously, choosing this type of action will undoubtedly move your character further towards the Dark side. BioWare has always paid attention to detail, and this aspect of the game is no different. Depending on where your character is on the Dark/Light spectrum, their appearance will change. A protaganist that has committed one too many dastardly deeds will find themselves covered in hideous tattoos and their upper body menacingly hunched over.

Combat in the game reminded me a lot of the Infinity Engine games, due to the fact that all battles take place in real time, but can be paused whenever you would like to issue different commands to your party members. An interesting addition to this game, however, is that the developers took the time to choreograph a lot of the melee fighting in the game. Therefore, whenever your opponent blocks or parries your lightsaber, you will actually see them do so along with a flurry of sparks from the collision. Should you decide you would rather not fight with a lightsaber, you can select from an assortment of other weapons or any of the Force Powers you have learned instead. One final note about the combat that should make Baldur's Gate II/Icewind Dale II fans happy is that dual wielding a set of lightsabers *is* possible.

Overall, Knights of the Old Republic is set to please both Star Wars and RPG fans alike. Incorporating the talent of both BioWare and LucasArts with the depth and intricacy of the Star Wars universe is sure to make the game a solid hit. Luckily, the Xbox version should be available within the next month or two and the PC version will follow sometime in the fall.


Neverwinter Nights: Shadows of Undrentide

Both BioWare and Floodgate Entertainment are collaborating to bring Neverwinter Nights fans their first official expansion, Shadows of Undrentide, which was demonstrated to me during the second half of the meeting. Before I explain what I was shown, however, I'd like to share some news that should make NWN fans even happier. Upon entering BioWare's private booth, one thing that stood out as odd to me was a poster on the wall entitled "Hordes of the Underdark". After some investigating, I learned that this is the name of the previously unannounced expansion for Neverwinter Nights. Unfortunately, that was all I could learn about it, but since BioWare themselves are developing it, one can hope that their representation of the Underdark rivals their previous work in Baldur's Gate: Shadows of Amn.

Shadows of Undrentide is not being designed to carry on where the Neverwinter Nights campaign left off - it is a separate entity all on its own, which means that you'll need to start a new character when you begin. You won't necessarily have to choose from the original set of classes, however, because the expansion is introducing five new prestige classes: the Arcane Archer, Assassin, Blackguard, Harper Scout, and Shadowdancer. These classes bring a nice mix of abilities, and should appeal to new and veteran players alike. For example, the Arcane Archer will have the ability to fire a seeking arrow or an arrow that can slay even the largest foes in one hit, and the Assassin is capable of creating and resisting powerful poisons, as well as casting spells that assist in stealth (such as Invisibility).

Original classes are getting a few upgrades, too. Barbarians, Druids, and Rangers, for example, will be able to determine the whereabouts of a person or monster by searching for their footprints or even speaking with animals in the vicinity. These abilities were demonstrated to me during my meeting, when the character needed to track down some Kobolds. A nearby dog helped us to determine that the Kobolds had moved toward a particular building, and tracks in the snow verified that they had entered through one of the doors.

In addition to the new prestige classes and class upgrades, Shadows of Undrentide will add nineteen new creatures to the game, over fifty spells, and over thirty new feats. As an added bonus, the expansion will also grant you the ability to control your henchman's inventory. This will allow you to give your right-hand man (or woman) a particular weapon or set of armor, as long as their class can use it. In fact, you will have full control of their inventory, allowing you to maximize their effectiveness with any magic item at your disposal.

Shadows of Undrentide looks to be a welcome addition to the original game, providing more functionality as well as a brand new campaign. BioWare is estimating that the expansion will add over twenty hours of gameplay to Neverwinter Nights, but with a handful of new tilesets being included, there will most likely be new fan-created material released as well. SoU should be on store shelves sometime this spring.


Dark Age of Camelot: Trials of Atlantis

Mythic Entertainment's Dark Age of camelot will be getting its second expansion sometime towards the end of 2003. This new expansion will introduce players to a whole slew of new content, including a full island and underwater levels to explore. Differing from Shrouded Isles, Trials of Atlantis will not feature entirely different zones for all three realms in the game, but instead provide a similar version of the same zones for all players. This will allow Mythic to spend more time defining each new zone, since they don't have to come up with three realms worth of content.

Mythic provided me with a private showing of ToA during my E3 visit. Visually, the expansion looks absolutely fantastic. The underwater levels are easily the most graphically advanced areas of the game to date, thanks to a new version of the NetImmerse engine that will be coupled with the expansion. Aquatic life moves throughout the underwater caves, seaweed sways with the current, and unique objects like an old shipwreck litter the ocean bed. Mythic explained that this new engine will take advantage of many new DirectX9 features, with little or no performance hit.

The new underwater areas definitely look like they will give players a vast area to explore, with a seemingly endless amount of terrain to cover. Currently, there is no set way for players to breathe underwater, but Mythic assured me that they have many ideas on the table. However, one method of fast underwater travel has been decided - instead of riding a horse, players will be mounting a Hammerhead Shark to get from place to place.

Although many areas in Trials of Atlantis will require some old fashioned hack n' slash, Mythic is incorporating some new ideas that will put players' minds to the test. They have developed an entirely new language that players must decipher in order to solve particular riddles in the game and figure out exactly what happened to Altantis. For example, during the demonstration I was shown a ruined temple with several tablets full of this new runic language. This new element should add even more depth to the ongoing storyline in Dark Age of Camelot.

To conclude, let me just say that Trials of Atlantis looks to add a considerably large amount of content and features to Dark Age of Camelot that no consistent player will want to be without. Rest assured, I'll be taking my characters into the deep.

Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines

Just before this year's E3, Activision and Troika announced that they would be creating a new RPG that will be based on White Wolf's PnP game, Vampire: The Masquerade. This game, entitled Bloodlines, is being developed using Valve Software's Source engine and is the second game created using the Vampire setting (Nihilistic's Redemption being the first).

On the second day of E3, I had the chance to sit down with one of the developers for a lengthy demonstration of the game. During character creation, you are given the choice of seven different clans for your character to join (Nosferatu, Malkavian, and Ventrue to name a few), with this decision drastically affecting many aspects of the game, including which skills and abilities you can acquire. The statistics screen is filled with your different attributes, abilities, disciplines, and feats, each with its own set of five "dots" to show where you stand with each. As you advance in the game, you will be able to allocate points to any of these areas in order to further develop your character.

The first setting I was shown was a run-down strip club, where we spoke with a shady bartender. Since I haven't followed Valve's new engine whatsoever, I was quite amazed at just how powerful it is. As we went through dialogue with the bartender, his mouth and other facial expressions mimicked his words exactly. The demonstrator explained that the Source technology allows characters to lip-synch all of their dialogue dynamically, which will definitely raise the realism notch a level or two for even the most seasoned gamers.

After we were finished in the strip club, we hit the streets of a very dark and gloomy Los Angeles. Here, we were shown some of the different clothes you can don your vampire with, ranging from almost naked to a large white fur coat and a crazy-looking tophat. The engine allows you to change your viewpoint at any time, so we would usually switch to a third-person view to get a good look at our character's appearance. All of the garb is very realistic and fluidly moves with your body as you run around the city.

Heading down a desolate alleyway, our demonstrator showed how you can manipulate some of the surrounding environment. Using the mouse, he grabbed a large pallet and barrel against a wall and moved them out of the way to reveal a previously hidden area of the city. Through this opening, we proceeded down into the sewers. Deep within the sewers, we encountered a "Vozhd", which resembled a female human with spider-like legs. She made quick work of us by hurling various corpses that were strewn about the floor, which demonstrated the unbelievable physics of the engine. As the bodies hit the walls or floor, they would bounce and flail realistically, knocking over any obstacles in their way.

An interesting aspect of Bloodlines is that you gain no experience points for defeating an opponent. Instead, Troika is designing the game to only give you experience for completing particular missions. This will allow for an open game experience and give players the choice of either bluffing their way through via dialogue, using their character's skills to sneak through, or simply killing all resistance in their way.

Troika is looking to provide about eighty hours of gameplay with Bloodlines, and has set the release date to "some time in 2004". If the E3 demonstration was any indication, RPG and action fans alike should find the final product to be well worth their time and money.


World of Warcraft

Blizzard is set to become a serious contender in the MMORPG department by bringing its well-known world of Azeroth to life in World of Warcraft. Unfortunately, they aren't really giving a good indication of when the game will be ready for release (although a public beta is scheduled for fall), but let me assure you that it is already looking extremely polished. Who would expect anything less from Blizzard?

There really are a lot of aspects of WoW that set it apart from the oodles of other MMORPGs on the market. In Warcraft tradition, the graphics are not designed to make you feel that the game is "real", but instead portray an alternate digitized world. Some people describe the world and its characters as "cartoonish", but that term really does not give justice to just how fantastic and fluid the graphics look. Characters, monsters, buildings, and the surrouning landscape are extremely detailed and full of vibrant colors. This gives the MMORPG a lot more depth, and the intricacy allows you to tell where you are in the world simply by looking at a plant or tree.

There are two primary concerns that most MMORPG fans have with these types of games: how bad will the leveling "treadmill" be, and how fast can a player travel from one point to another? To help address the leveling issue, World of Warcraft will reward players experience for utilizing their tradeskills. This allows players an alternative way to advance instead of fighting the same group of monsters continually. Travel throughout Azeroth can be done by foot, but Blizzard has also implemented boats, land mounts, and gryphons. Depending on what race your character is, certain mounts may be more difficult for you to learn to ride. For example, Orcs will have a much easier time learning to ride a wolf than a Human or Dwarf. And, to take mounts even further, Blizzard has given them the ability to learn skills and increase in levels as well. While teleportation might be something Blizzard adds down the road, Gryphons are currently the fastest means to travel large distances. Once mounted, players can create points on a map that the Gryphon will automatically fly to, which means you won't be required to stare at the screen during travel to make sure you arrive at the correct destination.

Gaining experience through tradeskills will definitely appeal to many players, but there will be times when combat will be inevitable, and it won't always involve a computer-controlled opponent. Blizzard is making sure that player vs. player combat will be available, but in a controlled state to avoid massive player killing. For example, players can pay an entry fee to a large gladiatorial arena and participate in a tournament. If you'd rather not pay to partake in PvP, you can also challenge other players and fight it out in designated combat areas.

To limit the amount of "twinking" (high level players giving hand-me-downs to low level players) in the game, Blizzard will be imposing level restrictions for particular magic items, similar to how they limited twinking in Diablo II. You can still freely trade money from character to character, but Blizzard plans on making money extremely important in skill advancement to make sure players will want to horde as much as they can.

After three years in development and seven months in alpha testing, World of Warcraft easily stands out from the rest of the MMORPG crowd. With the mistakes of past MMORPGs to learn from, and Blizzard's talent behind the wheel, this is one game to keep your eye on. See you in Azeroth!