E3 2006: The RPGs

24 Aug 2006

After taking a year off from E3 for the birth of my son, I was back on the show floor fighting my way through an army of fellow gamers. My appointments this year included private demos of Dungeon Siege II: Broken World, Gothic III, Hellgate: London, Jade Empire PC, Mass Effect, Neverwinter Nights 2, The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar, The Witcher, Titan Quest, and Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning. I'll be writing about each of these games in the order that I saw them at the show, starting with...


Jade Empire PC

Following on the success of Jade Empire on the Xbox, BioWare has teamed up with LTI Gray Matter to port the RPG over to the PC. LTI is actually handling the entire conversion process, while BioWare will be doing all of the new content and QA. Aside from the obviously different control scheme, the new version will feature major graphical enhancements and all-new content.

BioWare explained that they are focusing on making the PC controls very natural by using the standard W, A, S, and D keys and a mouse-driven interface, though the game will also support a gamepad if you’d rather retain a console feel. As far as graphical enhancements go, the ported version will support a much higher resolution, as well as enhanced textures and special effects. And, learning from their mistake with the PC port of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, BioWare is also making sure the interface will scale to whatever resolution you’re playing the game at.

We won’t be seeing any new areas added to the game for the ported version. Instead, BioWare has decided to add new styles and weapons, and allow all players to choose Monk Zeng as their starting character (the character previously only available on the Limited Edition Xbox version). Two styles we were told will be included were Iron Palm and Viper, the latter of which strikes an opponent at five critical points on their body and unleashes poison with each successful hit.

Additionally, the game’s AI has been revamped, therefore making the game more challenging. The game’s “easy” setting will actually be comparable to the normal difficulty on the Xbox, therefore making the “normal” and “hard” settings that much more challenging for veteran players. If you’re playing the game on a PC equipped with hardware well above the minimum requirements, you’ll also notice that all of the game’s areas load much faster from that of the Xbox version. Speaking of minimum requirements, we were also told that they’re shooting for a minimum of 256MB of RAM, a GeForce3 or higher video card, and a DirectX 9-compatible sound card.

Though they have yet to choose a publisher, BioWare is currently planning to release Jade Empire for the PC by the end of this year. Barring any unforeseen issues, we should be playing the martial arts RPG over the holidays.

Mass Effect

It was surprising to see no mention of Dragon Age at this year’s E3, but at least we were able to get our eyes on BioWare’s highly anticipated demo of Mass Effect. The sci-fi RPG is about a year away from release, and it’s looking good. Damn good, actually.

Mass Effect puts you in control of Commander Shepard, an elite Spectre agent that you’ll be able to fully customize during character generation. While you won’t ever be able to change your name, you will be able to alter skin tone, facial features, gender, abilities, class, and background story. Background story is something relatively new to a BioWare game, and works somewhat like traits or perks in other RPGs. BioWare’s Jay Watamaniuk explained that this choice will ultimately affect how NPCs perceive you as you make your way through the storyline.

The demo began in a bar on Citadel, a 30-mile-long space station that will serve as the game’s introductory location. The first thing we noticed is the game’s finely detailed graphics, including facial animations that have been tailored to show specific emotions (even on aliens!). While The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion may have set a new standard for graphics on the Xbox 360, Mass Effect may just be the first game to meet and even exceed that standard. In addition to facial animations, Jay also pointed out the lengths the team has gone to in order to make the NPCs that inhabit the universe more realistic in their day-to-day duties. Even characters that have no bearing on the storyline will go about their lives, carrying on conversations with one another and performing small tasks like ordering their own drinks from the bartender.

When we approached the Salarian bartender to track down an Assari diplomat, he didn’t want to relinquish any information. At this point, we were able to see just how different the dialogue system is. You don’t actually choose a full sentence of dialogue like one might expect after playing any of BioWare’s previous RPGs. Instead, you’re given a short menu of “gut instinct” responses. Each response is just a few words that convey what sort of response you’re going to give, though your character’s actual speech will be much more elaborate. We chose the threatening response and Shepard whipped out his rifle and pointed it at the bartender’s head. This convinced him to reveal that the diplomat was in the casino up the stairs.

As one might expect, the threatening choice we made above would shift our character toward an “evil” spectrum. Additionally, the two companions with Shepard offered their own reactions to our threatening gesture while we made our way to the casino (“Was that really necessary?” and “Hey, it worked, didn’t it?” if I recall correctly). The whole occurrence reminded me of what one might expect from a similar exchange in Baldur’s Gate II, though it all occurred in real-time rather than stopping the action to show a companion’s response.

The conversation with the Assari diplomat was considerably longer, and we were able to see just how advanced the dialogue system will be. Instead of waiting until she was finished talking before choosing our response, the menu would appear just before the end of her last sentence. This allowed us to choose our next response before she was done talking so that the conversation had a non-stop cinematic quality to it. It’s something I’ve never seen before in any other game and it worked exceptionally well. During the chat, we learn that the Protheans were wiped out by a race of machines that visits the galaxy every 50,000 years. The time is ripe for another visit from the machines, and the diplomat expects that all organic civilizations will be wiped out this time around. You don’t actually know it yet, but preventing this destruction will become the goal of Commander Shepard and his or her squad.

Pursuing this goal will take your character across the galaxy via a ship called Normandy. We didn’t actually get to peer inside it to see how it compares to KotOR's Ebon Hawk, but we were shown an interactive galaxy map that can be accessed within it. The map grants you the freedom to navigate the ship to any one of a selection of planets, barren moons, derelict ships, and even asteroids in several different star systems. When you arrive at your destination, you’ll also have a combat ATV at your disposal that can be upgraded with better armor, enhanced firepower, or even additional horsepower.

We weren’t actually shown how vehicular combat will work, but we did get to see Commander Shepard and two companions on foot within a set of ruins on a distant planet. Before long, the team was ambushed by a small army of machines. For those of you looking for more twitch combat, I’m sorry to disappoint you. While Mass Effect isn’t entirely turn-based, the combat is considerably more tactical than the real-time-with-pause combat systems we’ve seen in BioWare’s previous games. Before combat begins, you’re able to give instructions to your squad members, including the option to place highlighted areas on the battlefield where you’d like each squad member to station themselves.

If you’d rather not play as Shepard during combat, don’t worry. You can assume a vantage point from any of your squad members if you’d like. You won’t have to worry about trying to target your opponents using a crosshair, either. The game features a “lock on” feature that automatically points your weapon at the opponent and the character’s skill set takes over in determining the accuracy of your shots. You can also make use of the environment. During the demo, we watched as Shepard fired his weapon at an area of crumbling ruin above a machine and, as a result, it was crushed by the falling debris. To further enhance the abilities of your character during combat (or elsewhere), Jay also explained that the game will feature “biotics” that will allow a character to achieve superhuman abilities.

BioWare has a trilogy of Mass Effect titles planned, but Jay assured me that each one will have a definitive ending. They’ll also be making downloadable planets and such available on Xbox Live, so we most likely have several years worth of Mass Effect content coming our way. No complaints here.

The Witcher

I’m happy to report that CD Projekt’s The Witcher continues to look amazing and hasn’t veered from its course as a combat-heavy RPG set in an gloomy, dark, and unforgiving fantasy world. Andrzej Sapkowski’s setting is a grim one, and, from what we’ve seen, the team has done it justice.

The game places you in the role of the witcher Geralt, a powerful warrior that was trained since childhood to utilize both sword and sorcery to slay the creatures inhabiting the world. Geralt also possesses superhuman abilities that greatly enhance his combat prowess and grant him other advantages like night vision. And with only five witchers left in the world, you won’t be meeting many people in the game capable of the same feats.

The demo we were shown during E3 showcased the game’s combat, graphics, and compassion/cruelty spectrum. The combat in The Witcher has become much more advanced since we last saw it in 2004. There are now over two hundred combat animations and all the related maneuvers have been broken down into six different combat styles. Once you have access to a maneuver, the timing of your mouse clicks ultimately affects how devastating it is. Get the timing down right and Geralt will perform a nasty combination that will do everything from a knockdown to a beheading. If your opponent falls to the ground, you’ll also get a window of opportunity to run your sword through its chest for an instant (and very gory) kill.

There’s more to combat than just clicking the mouse, however. The team has added a tactical feel to it as well by greatly increasing the damage done from an attack executed from behind an opponent. Geralt has the same weakness, though, so you always want to make sure that you’re facing an opponent. In the event that you are surrounded by multiple opponents, you can make use of a group maneuver that will cause Geralt to whirl around during combat and swing his sword at each opponent. If that doesn’t do the trick, you also have evasive moves at your disposal, such as rolling and sidestepping. Should an opponent be using a bow, you can use Geralt’s sword to deflect the arrows, as long as you’re facing the opponent and standing still.

When you see the game up close, it’s hard to believe that The Witcher uses BioWare’s Aurora engine at its core. CD Projekt has enhanced the engine in nearly every respect by including a physics engine, day/night transitions, thermal vision, and amazing water and weather effects. The demo allowed us to see each of these enhancements firsthand, and I can honestly say that they were all very impressive. The physics engine shines in both combat and non-combat situations, where both bodies and barrel fragments sail through the air and bounce realistically off the environment. Sunrises and sunsets look spectacular, with the amount of illumination easily revealing what time of day it is. Geralt’s thermal vision is reminiscent of what we saw in the movie Predator - standard objects and dead bodies will glow with a “cold” blue/green tint while living creatures and fires will glow a “hot” red/yellow, even if they’re behind a wall. Rain droplets make tiny splashes when they hit a water source, and if you submerge yourself in a river, expect to see the water realistically curve around you and leave a long ripple in the direction that it’s flowing.

In addition to the above features, the team has also added over one hundred different emotions, gestures, and facial animations that characters in the game will make use of. You’ll also see other special effects, one of which we were shown during the demo. After taking a few swigs of alcohol, Geralt started to stumble and the environment around him became very blurry. The more he drank, the more distorted his vision became until finally the master swordsman fell onto his back and passed out. According to lead designer Michal Madej, alcohol has both detrimental and beneficial effects. Assuming we hadn’t drank ourselves into a sleep, the alcohol would have caused us to become less accurate in combat but would have given us enhanced social skills that may or may not have allowed us to glean more information from certain NPCs.

The game’s compassion/cruelty spectrum is similar to what we’ve seen in other RPGs like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic or Jade Empire, but it isn’t quite as predictable. To illustrate this, the team provided us with an example. After capturing a bandit that had attacked the secret witcher stronghold, Geralt is given several options, including a choice to simply kill the man, torture him for information, or let him ago. Each of these options is perfectly valid, but each has different consequences. Killing the man might give you immediate satisfaction, but without getting any information from the bandit, one of your friends will eventually be killed. Torturing him will get you the information needed to save that friend in the future, but it might cause another team of bandits to assault the stronghold again and/or cause alternate deaths. Letting him go might gain you some respect from the bandit, but it allows him to return to his camp and alert other bandits of the stronghold’s whereabouts and defenses. Decisions like these will need to be made throughout the game, which should ensure that playing through the game multiple times can result in totally different experiences.

Aside from the above innovative features, The Witcher will also contain all of the standard RPG elements that one might expect, including upgradeable equipment, a vast assortment of spells and potions, and an advanced automap feature for navigating the world. The team plans on releasing the game in the spring of 2007, and if the demo was any indication of the final product, this is one RPG you don’t want to miss.

Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning

I’ve played a lot of MMORPGs in my life, but few have kept my interest like Dark Age of Camelot has. So when Mythic Entertainment acquired the rights to develop a massively multiplayer RPG using the Warhammer setting, it definitely piqued my interest. In my opinion, if the developer could integrate its successful realm vs. realm formula into the war-torn universe of Warhammer, they’d have a serious hit on their hands. To see how things were coming along, I made a point of stopping by Mythic’s booth to get some hands-on time with the game and to have a one-on-one conversation with community relations director Sanya Weathers and content director Destin Bales.

Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning builds upon the role-playing franchise’s extensive twenty-five year heritage. “War is everywhere,” as Sanya tells us, and it certainly looks that way watching her play the game. She’s in a small Orc camp that was recently under siege by dwarves. The camp is littered with bodies and vultures have begun feasting on their bones. After speaking with the camp’s Orc Warboss, she receives a new task to fend off the vultures and recover some of the meat still left on the dwarven carcasses. It’s not just this single camp that gives the “War is everywhere” impression, either. Everywhere we look, the land has been battle-ravaged and blood-soaked, and contributions are constantly being made to the ongoing war effort.

Mythic has broken out the game’s land mass into thirty-three zones, eleven for each of the three different conflicts – dark elves versus high elves, orcs versus dwarves, and chaos versus humans. However, any player can venture outside of their conflict area, meaning a high elf could take part in the human war effort or an orc could take part in the chaos war effort. Every zone will feature some sort of PvP and PvE content, though each area may be heavier in one than the other, depending on its location. If you accidentally cross over into a PvP area, don’t worry. You won’t be flagged as participating in PvP for a specific amount of time (currently about 10 seconds). The opposite effect holds true too, though. Even if you leave a PvP area, players can still attack you for a set of amount of time while your character remains flagged. This whole process is designed to avoid accidentally getting yourself killed and to keep players from simply jumping over a PvP border after killing someone to become impervious from the attacks of his or her avengers.

Quests have been broken into four different types – Public, Conflict, Branching, and Christmas – though that last term is just an internal title until the team comes up with a more appropriate label. Public quests allow anyone in the area to participate toward a mutual goal. The example we were shown involved taking care of some Squig harassing a giant and, afterwards, bringing the giant booze so that it will get drunk and you’re your team against the dwarves. Conflict quests are unique in that they pit two groups against one another to achieve different goals in the same area. For example, as an orc, you may be asked to collect the beards of dwarves that have fallen in battle. On the flip side, as a dwarf, your objective would be to bring beer to your fallen comrades in order to give them the sustenance they need to return to battle. Branching quests provide you with a decision during the quest that will ultimately affect its outcome. To explain this, Sanya and Destin told us that there may be situations where you can either turn in an item for experience or, instead, bring it to a shady merchant that will buy it off you for gold. The final quest type, currently called “Christmas,” describes those quests that you’ll just happen upon during your travels. Nobody actually leads you to these quests – you must find them while exploring. For example, you might come across a goblin and his wolf companion. The animal is in dire need of food, and the goblin will proclaim that he’d “give his right arm” if you could help him feed the wolf. If you simply hack off the goblin’s arm and feed it to the wolf, you’ll reap the quest’s reward.

Obviously, you’ll come across quests of all four types virtually anywhere in the game. According to Mythic, 85% of the quests are considered “green,” or completely safe from any sort of PvP. The remaining 15% are broken up into “yellow” quests, meaning that you must enter a PvP area but don’t actually have to participate in PvP combat, and “red” quests, meaning you must actually do battle with other players in order to complete them.

One feature that I thought was really impressive is Mythic’s journal system, which they call the “Tome of Knowledge.” As you participate in quests, kill monsters, and collect equipment, Warhammer history and other general information will begin to show up in the journal. If you do battle with one giant, you might get to view some concept art of the creature. However, once you’ve slaughtered a small army of them, your journal will become more fleshed out and may contain a full history about the creature and even tactics for defeating them in future skirmishes. The same holds true for quests, loot, landmarks, and just about any other topic of interest.

When the demo was concluded, we were given some hands-on time with the game. After completing a couple of simple quests as greenskins, we were brought to a small PvP area where we had to battle some dwarves for control of a central waypoint. It was during this battle that one of Mythic’s staff pointed out my morale bar. The longer you participate in combat, the higher your morale bar climbs. As it rises, powerful abilities are unlocked for use. For example, after a short period of time, my greenskin was able to get access to an ability that blasted all of my opponents in the entire area. Using an ability depletes the amount of morale required to gain access to it, so if you’re patient and can avoid being killed, you’ll eventually unlock even more powerful abilities. The demo version I was playing had a total of five different morale abilities, though this number could certainly change before launch.

I really think that Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning is headed down the right path. It has a lot of competition to contend with in the MMORPG sector, but after seeing its unique approach to questing and PvP/RvR combat firsthand, I think it has a great chance of winning over many people’s subscription dollars.

The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar

Securing the license for a Dungeons & Dragons MMORPG was quite a feat for Turbine, but obtaining the rights to create one based in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth was nothing short of monumental. The development studio has been working on The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar for over three years now, and it finally appears that the team might be nearing the end of the tunnel. With beta signups now being accepted and a tentative release date being set for the end of this year, it won’t be long before many of us are adventuring through Middle-Earth firsthand.

The demo began when Turbine executive producer Jeffrey Steefel loaded up a platemail-equipped Dwarven Guardian named Thorvald in the town of Bree, the same town where Frodo first met Aragorn/Strider during a visit to the Prancing Pony Inn. We watched as the Dwarf undertook a low-level quest for Strider to help a fellow Ranger named Andulin overcome a stabbing by a Ringwraith’s blade. As you may recall from the books or movies, anyone stabbed by such a weapon begins a process of turning into a Ringwraith themselves. The quest ends without Andulin being saved, after which Jeffrey warps Thorvald to a higher level quest in which he actually has to do battle with the former Ranger who is now a red-robed initiate undertaking the final steps to become a full-fledged Ringwraith.

During these initial quests, Jeffrey pointed out that Shadows of Angmar fits within the timeline of the first book but will not actually place your character alongside the two hobbits headed to Mount Doom in Mordor. The book mentions fierce battles taking place across Middle-Earth during the hobbits’ journey, and it is this war that your character will be participating in. Therefore, you will technically be aiding their cause in destroying the One Ring, but you will not be directly involved with it. As mentioned above, though, there will be times when you may participate in quests for other members of the Fellowship (Gandalf, Aragorn, and Gimli were all mentioned), but don’t expect to lend Frodo a hand in killing the great spider Shelob. In fact, all of the game’s content at launch will be located in the region of Eriador, which only includes those areas that the hobbits traveled through before entering Moria.

Jeffrey also told us that the game will have a level cap of 50 and that there will be some sort of consensual PvP, though they still haven’t hammered out any specifics. It really doesn’t make sense to have a full PvP system at launch, simply because only the four “good” races will be available for players to choose from. Other features currently planned for the game include mounts, crafting, kinship/guild housing, instanced dungeons (10% instanced, 90% open zone), and soloable content at all levels, though grouping is obviously encouraged for many of the game’s more difficult quests.

Toward the end of the demonstration, Thorvald was brought to the home of Tom Bombadil, where the character received a quest ultimately leading him into the instanced Barrow-Wight dungeon to find the Witch-king. The final battle with the undead in this quest was unbeatable, though, until Tom himself showed up to lend a hand and then skip away singing after the creatures had all fallen. After his departure, the dungeon begins collapsing, opening deeper areas that can be accessed in future quests.

At the demo’s conclusion, we were able to glean a few more tidbits of information out of Jeffrey with some properly placed questions. First, the game will be broken out into multiple “shard” servers rather than placing everyone on one central server. Secondly, there will be ways to instantly travel to and from major areas, though the players will miss out on merchants that have set up shop along the roads. These merchants will be a valuable asset for those players who don’t want to return to town in order to buy needed supplies or sell excess equipment. Finally, as with Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach, we can expect to see regular content updates to Shadows of Angmar. Right now, the team is planning to release a major update every quarter.

This was the first time we’ve actually seen The Lord of the Rings Online firsthand, so it’s difficult to gauge just how well the game will play or how easily it will warrant a monthly subscription fee. There doesn’t appear to be anything holding the title back from certain success, though, considering the massive popularity of both the books and Peter Jackson’s recently released movie trilogy. If all goes as planned, we should be adventuring in Middle-Earth by the holidays.

Titan Quest

It seems very strange to me that over the course of a decade we’ve only seen a handful of big budget action RPGs on the PC, especially considering the massive success of Blizzard’s Diablo series. The demand for another well-designed franchise is definitely there, which is exactly why Age of Empires co-creator Brian Sullivan decided to open a new studio called Iron Lore Entertainment and go to work developing his own action RPG. That game is Titan Quest, and after five years of development, the studio is finally gearing up to release it unto the masses.

Titan Quest might seem very similar to Diablo at first glance, but once you start playing it, you realize just how unique and more advanced it is. The game sheds the typical fantasy setting we’ve grown accustomed to and places your character in mythical versions of Greece, Egypt, and Asia. Instead of going up against orcs and goblins, your character will be doing battle with satyrs, centaurs, minotaurs, and cyclopes. Beyond the setting, the game features the most advanced graphics offered in an action RPG to date, multiplayer support for up to six players, a massive assortment of collectable equipment, twenty-eight character class combinations, and several other welcome refinements such as the ability to compare newly found equipment against what you’re wearing simply by hovering the mouse over the new item.

When we reached THQ’s booth at E3, we were surprised to find that Brian Sullivan himself would be narrating our Titan Quest demonstration while another developer ran the controls. Before starting our adventure, Brian explained that one of the team’s primary goals for the game was to make it easy to jump into. Character generation only involves picking your name and then choosing your gender and tunic color. All of the skill mastery customizations you’ll need to make don’t appear until your character starts to make their way through the game and begins to advance in level. Each time the character gains a level, they receive attribute and skill points that can be assigned to a multitude of options in the character and skill interfaces.

There are eight skill masteries in the game – Defense, Earth, Hunting, Nature, Rogue, Spirit, Storm, and Warfare. Only one mastery can be chosen at the beginning of the game, but a second mastery will become available as your character grows in power. Skill points can be assigned within each mastery to further enhance your character, though Brian is quick to point out that the entire mastery system is completely optional. You don’t ever have to pick a skill mastery if you don’t want to, though you’ll probably never make it through the game without at least one. Your character’s class is ultimately determined by which masteries you choose. For example, a character specializing in just Earth would be a Pyromancer, but a character that decides to specialize in both Earth and Storm would be an Elementalist.

The inventory system will be familiar to anyone who has played the Diablo or Dungeon Siege games. Much of the loot you find is randomly generated, though the team has gone through and created over 1000 hand-crafted unique and legendary items, each of which feature their own artwork and statistics. With over 500 pieces of artwork being used for the randomly generated equipment as well, Titan Quest looks to offer one of the most impressive arrays of collectable equipment we’ve ever seen in an action RPG. To hold on to their equipment, a character receives a standard backpack at the beginning of the game and has the ability to add up to three additional packs later in the game. All of the equipment stored in these add-on packs is accessed through tabs on the character’s inventory screen, so you won’t have to return to town and rummage through your “stash” in order to bring along an item you’ve kept stored for awhile.

One thing different about gaining loot from the creatures in Titan Quest is that you will receive exactly what the creature had equipped. If a satyr is firing an oak bow at you, then that’s what you can expect to find after it’s slain. There may also be times when you see a monster wielding a powerful weapon or an enchanted piece of armor, and the same concept holds true. The creature might be more difficult to kill with a magic item at their disposal, but the battle will typically be worth the extra effort because the spoils will always contain the item being used against you.

According to Brian, there are over 85 types of creatures in the game, with multiple variations available for each creature type. Of course, there are “boss” creatures as well, and the team has worked to give each “boss” their own specific AI. This should help ensure that each major battle will be unique and potentially more dangerous than anything the player has faced previously. To make the game even more challenging (and to reap more frequent and powerful rewards), players can choose to progress through the game in its Epic and Legendary difficult settings. Brian tells us that the game currently has a level 65 level cap and that most characters will typically top out when they reach the middle of the highest difficulty setting.

Titan Quest was the closest to release of any game we saw at E3, and it showed. The demonstration ran flawlessly and everything from skill animations to the lush, detailed landscapes appeared to be ready for the public’s eye. In fact, the team even released a downloadable demo the same day we saw it at the show, which can only mean they’re getting close to a gold candidate. If you like action RPGs whatsoever, pick this one up as soon as it’s released. You’ll be glad you did.

Neverwinter Nights 2

The title “Neverwinter Nights” has been used for two of the most ambitious RPGs ever created for the PC – SSI’s original “Gold Box” version that launched on America Online in 1991 and BioWare’s massive five-year endeavor that finally debuted in 2002. BioWare’s version continues to sell very well even after four years, and something tells me that if SSI’s version hadn’t been taken offline in 1997, many of us would still be playing that as well. Given the success of the Neverwinter Nights brand name, it comes as no surprise that Obsidian Entertainment (the company started by a handful of ex-Black Isle developers) is currently developing a sequel designed to improve upon BioWare’s version in nearly every aspect.

If you attended E3 this year, you couldn’t help but notice Neverwinter Nights 2. A massive banner advertising the game was draped across the front of the Los Angeles Convention Center, and the game was on display at both Atari’s and Microsoft’s “Games For Windows” booths. It was from a PC-controlled arcade cabinet in Atari’s booth that we actually received our demo from an Obsidian staffer.

Character creation looks somewhat similar to the original Neverwinter Nights, with a few extra additions. Three different tints can be assigned to your character’s hair, allowing for more customization and the ability to give them some funky highlights if you wish. The prestige classes haven’t been finalized yet, but the demo showed the following selections: Arcane Archer, Arcane Trickster, Assassin, Blackguard, Divine Champion, Duelist, Dwarven Defender, Frenzied Berserker, Harper Agent, Neverwinter Nine: Agent, Neverwinter Nine: Magus, Neverwinter Nine: Warder, Pale Master, Red Dragon Disciple, Shadow Dancer, and Weapon Master. Many of these will be familiar to those of you who played the original Neverwinter Nights, though all three Neverwinter Nine prestige classes are totally new. Apparently these are buffing classes that are available if/when you become Lord Nasher’s bodyguard in the game. The team originally tossed around the idea of making everyone start with an alignment of True Neutral (just as the Nameless One does in Planescape: Torment), but they’ve since opted to allow a choice between all nine standard D&D alignments. Your alignment will shift during the game based on your actions and dialogue choices, though, so this choice won’t necessarily last your character’s lifetime. Toward the end of character creation, you can also choose a pre-designated background that adds a little extra depth to your character and may affect his or her statistics, skills, or feats. If your character is a magic-user, then you must also choose a familiar. Instead of providing a selection of exotic familiars like the original NWN did, Obsidian has limited the choices to common farm animals (pig, rabbit, spider, cat, etc.) to reflect your character’s simple history before beginning the game.

After breezing through the game’s tutorial, the demo jumped to the Temple of Seasons, which is about mid-way through the game. While the graphics obviously look better all around, it was this area that really showed how much more advanced they are from the original game. The Electron Engine is capable of all sorts of cool visual effects, which we saw firsthand while moving around to the temple’s different trials. Rain, snow, and ice all looked very realistic, but the heat displacement effect coming off of the floor in the Trial of Summer was by far the most impressive.

We also were able to see a bit of how the control scheme has been refined while visiting the temple. What’s surprising is that the team actually went all the way back to Ultima VII to come up with a few ideas for how to set up the mouse. Right now, right-clicking moves your character, and double left-clicking attacks a creature or activates an object. On top of that, the radial selection menu in Neverwinter Nights is gone, replaced by an interface that looks somewhat like the one you’d find in World of Warcraft. A mode bar now allows you to select between options like “taunt mode” or to take advantage of feats like Combat Expertise at the click of the mouse. There are also ten “hotbar” rows that can be switched to using the number keys. The W, A, S, and D keys for movement have been improved upon and more-or-less mimic what you’d use to control a character in a modern MMORPG. Even the minimap is getting overhauled so that it works much like WoW’s does, including the ability to use feats like Track and have your prey show up on the minimap itself.

The demo then moved on to the toolset. While it was loading up, we were told that the toolset supports dual core processors, but the NWN2 client does not. This essentially means that if you’re using a dual core AMD or Intel processor, you can expect a performance increase while creating a custom module, but the game itself won’t run any better than a single core processor running at the same clock speed. After loading up the Highcliff module, the Obsidian staffer showed us how the toolset now makes use of a tabbed design, as well as dockable windows. He then went on to show a few of the advancements they’ve made to the toolset, including the ability to adjust the height for all placeables, set waypoints for NPC patrol areas, and change the tint of creatures. Additionally, module creators can now place static “cameras” on a module and assign dialogue to them in order to create their own full-fledged cutscenes. Since the in-game camera now allows for more freedom, Obsidian has also added ceilings to interior tilesets so that players won’t be looking up into a void when they rotate the camera to the base of their character. I’m not very familiar with how the scripting worked in the original Neverwinter Nights toolset, but Obsidian tells us that they’ve added a few enhancements to how scripting works this time around as well. You never actually have to look at the scripting code if you don’t want to, as there are now hundreds of global scripts that can be set up through a wizard.

Before the demo was complete, I also had the chance to sneak in a few questions. The main campaign will feature ten different companions that you can add to your party, but only three can adventure at any one time (including the protagonist). There is technically no limit to the amount of companions one can have in a custom module, though, so module creators will most likely only have to worry about hardware constraints when expanding this limit. Most of the spells from BioWare’s Neverwinter Nights have been brought over to the sequel, though the team did have to cut Time Stop for various reasons and several of the spells have made exclusive to the new Warlock class. Much of the equipment is being brought over and plenty of new items have been added to the list, such as matched armor sets for each core class. And for those of you concerned about the number of gameplay hours available in the campaign, I was told that players can expect a minimum of 20-40 hours of gameplay, but as many as 40-60 hours could be spent playing if all side quests, etc. are taken advantage of.

Overall, I’d have to say that Obsidian’s Neverwinter sequel looks to be just as ambitious as its two predecessors. The team has made numerous enhancements to both the toolset and campaign, and the technology running the game has been revamped and modernized. I wasn’t a huge fan of the single-player campaign in BioWare’s Neverwinter Nights, but the campaign Obsidian is creating looks top-notch and even includes an influence system for your companions similar to what we saw in Star Wars: KotOR II. Mark your calendars for September, because this is one visit to the Forgotten Realms you won’t want to miss.

Hellgate: London

In the summer of 2003, just as Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne was headed to retail, Blizzard Entertainment watched as many of the talented developers at Blizzard North left to pursue employment elsewhere. Included in the exodus were four key members: Erich Schaefer, Max Schaefer, David Brevik, and Bill Roper. Erich, Max, and David were the original founders of Blizzard North (or Condor, Inc., before Blizzard acquired them), and all four developers had a major role in the success of Diablo, Diablo II, and their expansions. Rather than just parting ways, the small team founded Flagship Studios and began work on a new action RPG called Hellgate: London. Since that time, the team has grown exponentially and now lists a total of sixteen original Diablo II developers. To put it into a better perspective, Flagship Studios more or less is Blizzard North, creators of the Diablo franchise.

This year’s E3 marked the very first time I was able to see Hellgate: London firsthand. The latest build of the game was up and running on the show floor at both Namco and NVIDIA’s booths, but it was next to impossible to sneak onto one of the computers given the amount of people waiting in line to give the game a try. Luckily, I had an appointment to see the game, so it wasn’t long before I was staring at a huge widescreen monitor with Erich and Max Schaefer ready to start the demonstration.

The demo started off in a small “town”, or hub, located below the city of London. With the city crawling with every type of demon imaginable, humans have been forced to find solace in whatever underground areas they can find. Max explains that the towns you’ll visit in Hellgate: London are persistent, meaning that they’re very similar to those you might see in a standard MMORPG. Players can meet up in a town to chat, assemble groups, trade items, and participate in a variety of other social activities. Once a player leaves the town, though, the server creates an instance and you and your group on your own. The team has yet to determine the optimum number of players per instance, which will largely depend on how the game’s multiplayer performance holds up during testing.

The game’s levels are randomly generated as players visit them, though the team has placed London’s major landmarks in somewhat static locations. The streets leading up to Big Ben, for example, will be randomly generated, but the clock tower itself will always stand in the relatively same location. Each of the game’s major regions contains a number of random “events” that may or may not be available to players each time they visit. These events can include anything from a side quest to a major battle, or both. The example I was shown featured a group of casters that needed the player’s help in finding a scroll so that they could complete a ritual of summoning. After finding the scroll, the group summons in a demon, and the player ends up having to do battle with it. These events are in addition to the game’s main objectives, though neither Erich or Max were willing to give too much away about the game’s primary storyline. What I did see in this instance, however, was a large hellrift that the player was tasked to destroy. I didn’t actually get to see what was beyond the hellrift, but Max explained that there was a “boss” monster inside that the player would have to destroy, after which a device would need to be planted that would ultimately close the rift.

For those players looking to compete with other nationally or even globally, you’ll be happy to learn that there will be some sort of ladder system introduced for the game. The current build of the game primarily focuses on cooperative multiplayer (and you cannot be hurt by friendly fire), but the team is not ruling out PvP just yet. A more important decision for them right now is to decide on how much of a death penalty to incorporate into the game. One option they’ve been tossing around is afflicting the character with some sort of resurrection sickness that would reduce the experience they gained for a period of time in half. For players who think such a penalty is too easy, though, the game will also feature a “Hardcore” difficulty setting. If a character dies while playing at this difficulty setting, they are gone for good. Adios. Sayonara.

If you’ve been following Hellgate: London for awhile, then you’re probably already familiar with the two classes that Flagship has announced so far – the Templar and the Cabalist. The Templar is a holy warrior of sorts that excels in the use of various ranged and melee weapons. The Cabalist, on the other hand, wields black magic and arcane weaponry when battling the demons. I didn’t actually get to see the Templar firsthand, unfortunately, as the E3 build was focusing on the recently unveiled Cabalist. All of the skills are still being hammered down, but from what I saw, the Cabalist seems to have an assortment of supernatural abilities and spells at their disposal. Using what appears to be some kind of focus orb, the Cabalist can launch bolts of energy that lock on to an opponent (or a group of opponent) and deliver some serious damage. They also have the ability to summon a small army of demons to their cause, though how many they’ll be able to control at once is still up in the air. As for announcing the game’s third class, Max tells me that “we need something to talk about next year.” After a little more questioning, though, he does confirm that the game will feature a handful of unique core classes (3-5) as opposed to a large selection (6-8) that tend to overlap one another.

Moving further into the demo, our character receives a video transmission on their PDA-like device that another soldier is holed up nearby and needs help. It’s here that Erich and Max point out that the most important words in any dialogue will always be displayed in bold so that the player can understand what they need to do for the next task simply by skimming through the bolded text. Additionally, I’m told that any event like this will always show up on the automap so that you can easily navigate to the next destination, though that feature hasn’t been implemented into the game yet. Erich leads the character through a nearly pitch black level, fighting hordes of demons the whole way. It’s at this point that I realize how well the game seems to work in both first-person and third-person view. In a game like Oblivion, I’ve always felt more comfortable playing from a first-person viewpoint, but I’m not so sure that will be the case in Hellgate: London. With the ability to zoom out a considerable distance and lock on to monsters simply by firing in their general direction, the game’s third-person view actually looks a little easier to handle and will most likely be the camera view of choice for veteran action RPG players. As we approach the area where the soldier is holed up, Erich decides to switch to a HARP Pistol capable of freezing enemies while the weapon in his offhand lays waste to them. He tells me that there are at least 100 base weapon types, with a large number of legendary, unique, mutant, and broken versions of each. To make a weapon more powerful, you can also add different modifications to them, including relics, rockets, fuel mods, and tech mods. These mods are interchangeable at any time, so you won’t lose a valuable mod if you decide to change weapons.

When the demo finished, the two brothers were willing to answer a few more of my questions. As I mentioned above, the team is planning to release news about the game into 2007, so it’s unlikely that we’ll be playing it anytime this year. The infrastructure they’ll be using for the game’s multiplayer is still being worked on, but I’m told that it will have 24-hour live customer support. There will also be more than one online hub for players to congregate in, and the team is planning to implement some sort of auction system within the game so that item trading doesn’t need to happen elsewhere. Finally, for those of you who like collecting items, I’m also told that each character will have a “stash” where equipment can be stored, much like we saw in Diablo II.

I was a little worried that Hellgate: London was focusing too much on action and not enough on RPG, but my time with the game at E3 eased my fears. Between the large number character customization options, detailed skill trees, story-driven quest system, and an arsenal of modifiable high-tech and arcane weaponry at your disposal, Flagship looks to be implementing more role-playing elements in Hellgate: London than we saw in the Diablo franchise. If the team is able to implement all of the features they have planned and give the whole thing a nice coat of polish when they’re finished, we just might forget all about a Diablo III. But then I suppose it would eventually turn into an insatiable need for a Hellgate: New York, wouldn’t it?

Gothic 3

Pirahna Bytes’ third installment in the Gothic series taught me a tough E3 lesson: don’t schedule too many appointments. I had already attended a dozen demonstrations by the afternoon of the second day, which left me practically sprinting to my scheduled Gothic 3 demonstration so that I could, in turn, make it to my Dungeon Siege II: Broken World appointment. I was late, unfortunately, so Aspyr had already begun the Gothic III demo for my particular time slot when I arrived. I didn’t miss a whole lot, and I was able to ask a few questions, so it didn’t turn out to be as disappointing as I thought it would. Regardless, next year I’ll definitely be limiting my schedule to only a few appointments per day. Anyway, on to what I did see.

The first thing you notice when you’re staring at Gothic 3 in action is just how believable the environment looks. Sure, the excellent graphics add to the realism, but everything from the surrounding mountains to the diverse buildings shows a great amount of detail. Aspyr producer Blaine Christine tells me that this is because the team has hand-crafted every area in the game, all the way down to the foliage. Absolutely nothing is tiled, which is an impressive feat for a relatively small development team working on such a large game world. In fact, the continent where Gothic III takes place spans over 75 square kilometers, making it three times the size of the island we ventured on in Gothic II. The continent has also been broken out into three distinct regions, including a cold Viking-like mountainous area (Nordmar), a lush coastal area, and a dry desert region on the south side of the land mass. Players will obviously need efficient means of traveling across such a large area, so the team is implementing "journey stones" that allow the player to teleport from one location to another.

Shortly after I sat down, the demo moved into the courtyard of a large fortification where several NPCs were bustling about. These NPCs weren’t just wandering aimlessly, either. They were carrying on conversations, sharpening weapons, and generally keeping themselves busy. The AI seems very similar to that of Oblivion, but from what I saw, it even looks more realistic. How many NPCs in Oblivion sharpen their weapons? None. They just move from place to place on a time schedule, and that’s not what I witnessed here. In addition to the AI advances, Blaine demonstrated how many interactive options will be made available to the player. If you want to pick up the large stone lying on a nearby slab and do some weight-lifting with it, you can. If you want to walk over to the set of bongos and give them a whirl, you can. If you want to cook some food at the village’s cooking fire, you can. You certainly aren’t required to take advantage of these small details, but it’s nice to see that the team is going to such great lengths to make the world interactive.

The character advancement system is still just as open-ended as the one we worked with in Gothic II. When your character increases in level, you’re provided with learning points that can be allocated to either your attributes or skills. However, Blaine also mentioned that there will be some sort of perk system that characters can take advantage of when they visit a trainer, though he didn’t share a whole lot of details about how the system will work. He did mention that characters could gain access to over 40 different spells, though, after which he demonstrated a devastating spell called “Rain of Fire.” When the incantation was finished, clouds began to roll in and the sky turned blood red as a number of fiery meteors bombarded the whole area.

Once the dust settled, the demo was officially over. While I didn’t get to see a whole lot, I can say that everything that I did see was very impressive. Aspyr and Pirahna Bytes plan on releasing Gothic 3 this fall, and, according to Blaine, the game will be released in both the U.S. and Europe simultaneously. After all the waiting we did for an English version of Gothic II and its expansion pack, I certainly hope he’s right.

Dungeon Siege II: Broken World

Dungeon Siege II: Broken World picks up a year after the defeat of Valdis, the heavily armored villain that terrorized Aranna in the second installment. The events that took place at the end of the sequel have opened a rift in Aranna, tearing the world into two pieces. The cataclysmic land is now cracked and twisted, shaken by periodic earthquakes and general chaos all around. Since all of the destruction taking place is your fault, you’ll need to pick up your weapon once more and fix what you’ve broken.

The cruel landscape has lead to the return of the Dwarven race and the availability of the Blood Assassin and Fist of Stone character classes. The Blood Assassin takes on a much darker role of the Elf we played in Dungeon Siege II, and is created by leveling up both Ranged and Combat Magic lines. The Blood Assassin’s skills include being able to battle multiple creatures at once and the ability to enhance their combat prowess at the expense of health. The Fist of Stone, on the other hand, is a Dwarven class created by leveling up both Melee and Nature Magic lines. Each class has access to a variety of new skills, spells, and powers, two of which I was able to see in action - Eruption and Chant of Stone. Eruption is an area of effect power that inflicts massive damage to a group of creatures, while Chant of Stone is a defensive buff that allows a character to take more abuse. Both of these had their own unique graphical effects and fit into the expansion’s overall look very well.

Gas Powered Games lead designer Daniel Achterman tells me that the disastrous world contains a lot more gore and adult subject matter, too. Some of the monsters I was shown, for instance, were wearing leather facemasks designed to hide the grotesque deformities caused by experimentation. The floor of the dungeon we were exploring was strewn with body parts and stained with blood, providing a much more grim and dark atmosphere than we ever witnessed while adventuring through the original storyline. Daniel also tells me that the expansion’s overall difficulty has been greatly increased, mainly due to popular request from fans. The five new “boss” monsters each have some sort of dynamic tied to them that will keep players from simply launching a brute force attack on them. Additionally, the team has made an effort to implement what they call “conditional monsters” into the expansion, which means that they produce some sort of effect after they die. This may include an explosion that damages any character nearby, or some other detrimental effect altogether.

The entire expansion takes place as Act IV and is designed to provide 10-20 hours of gameplay, depending on how many of the new side quests you take advantage of. The expansion is geared for level 39+, though any character that has finished the main game can be brought into the add-on. If you don’t have such a character available, the expansion will have six pre-made characters that you can choose from instead. For those of you who do have a character that meets the requirements, but would like to try something different this time around, you’ll be happy to hear that the expansion’s first town will feature an NPC that will allow you to completely respec your character… for a price. You’ll also be able to pick up a couple of different pets for your party, including the Packram and Kohl Beast. The Packram is fairly self-explanatory, while the Kohl Beast is a vicious bird that even comes equipped with plate armor to protect it.

The add-on will also be featuring plenty of new equipment. The team has created around 100 new unique and set items, as well as 50 new “recipe” items. Daniel explains that recipe items are essentially unique items that are created by adding a reagent to an existing item, though the recipes themselves have been scattered around for players to find. For a little added variety, the expansion will also feature new class-specific armor sets, each of which has a unique graphical look to it.

Overall, Dungeon Siege II: Broken World really looks to be shaping up well. The team’s current plans are to release the expansion sometime in August, so it shouldn’t be long before we’re all enjoying these additions firsthand.


And there you have it! Ten RPG demonstrations attended, ten RPG previews written. What’s amazing is that I could have easily written another ten if I would have had the time to make it to more meetings. Everywhere I looked, another role-playing game was being showcased. Granted, most of them are massively multiplayer titles, but it’s good to see that the genre as a whole isn’t in a decline.

For next year, I’m really hoping that I’ll get a chance to see Fallout 3 and Dragon Age firsthand, assuming neither one ends up being released before May. Who knows, maybe there will even be a Star Wars: KotOR III or Diablo III in development by then. One can only hope, anyway.