Two Worlds II Review

03 Aug 2012

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:TopWare Interactive
Developer:Reality Pump Studios
Release Date:2011-02-04
Genre:
  • Role-Playing,Action
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Third-Person,First-Person
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay
The original Two Worlds debuted back in 2007. Billed as an alternative/competitor to the colossally popular Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Two Worlds was unfortunately a victim of its own marketing and its lower-budget production, as it was perhaps better known for its poor voice-acting than anything else. Nevertheless, Two Worlds endured thanks to some solid open world RPG gameplay, and went on to produce a sequel.

Two Worlds II was released in 2011. Created by Reality Pump, a Polish developer previously known for the Earth 2100 series of games, Two Worlds II offers a similar open world experience. Two Worlds II is, in some respects, literally a game of two worlds. On the one hand, it has some of the best visuals I've seen in an open world RPG, it has a fantastic soundtrack, it's mechanically quite sound, and when the game tries for it, there are some surprisingly involving sub-plots and quests. On the other hand, the lack of polish and several design flaws become evident immediately, and never let up throughout the entire game.

At its heart, Two Worlds II is an enjoyable open-world RPG that has several good ideas and entertaining sequences; whether it's worth putting up with the game's many shortcomings and frustrations, however, will come down to personal preference more than anything else.

Clichés Upon Clichés

Two Worlds II is a direct sequel to the original game, but doesn't require much in the way of background to understand what's going on. As the unnamed hero of the first game, your protagonist is imprisoned in the dungeons of the dark lord Gandohar, along with his scantily-clad sister Kyra. A rescue attempt by some orc rebels leads to the hero's freedom, but Kyra is left in Gandohar's clutches. Naturally, this is a bad thing, especially as Gandohar wants to use Kyra as a vessel to summon the imprisoned god of fire, Aziraal, and use his power to (what else?) take over the world. Working with the orc rebels, the hero travels throughout the "central" continents of Antaloor to research Gandohar's history and put a stop to his reign of terror.

If this is sounding like the most generic setup imaginable for a story, that's because it is. Two Worlds II is hardly original, but unlike some games that take their fantasy worlds completely seriously, it's clear Reality Pump intend Two Worlds to be at least a little tongue-in-cheek. Despite the satire, as the story goes on, it becomes surprisingly self-serious, and there are a lot of late-game twists and turns that managed to maintain my interest.  It's a pretty odd mix, and it's hard not to feel like there were two different stories being written at the same time, then were mashed together at the last minute.

I was also taken aback by some of the game's moral ambiguity. While some other RPGs bill their moral choices as a big selling point, Two Worlds II actually has quite a few situations without ideal solutions, or parties that are happy to manipulate you to their own ends. One section of the game, for instance, revolves around a string of murders committed by rebels to Gandohar's regime - is it right to support the rebels, even if they're violent criminals, or is order brought by the guards more important? While there's little in the way of consequence, these choices are still often quite interesting. The writing itself is not always great, having been translated from Polish from what I can tell, but it's generally good enough to get the characters and plot events across clearly.

Still, Two Worlds II's story is more a framing device for its huge selection of quests and content, and save for the bizarre, self-. The entertaining parts of the game come in the smaller moments, and much of the game's satirical bent comes out in these moments, ranging from simple tasks like saving a saleswoman's clients from killer umbrellas, to a full-on parody of Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade's final sequence (complete with arbitrary Monty Python references). At times, it breaks the fourth wall, but this is also when the game is at its most enjoyable.
Open World, Linear Story & Cut Corners

Unfortunately, the story highlights one of Two Worlds II's biggest internal contradictions: that while it's billed as an open-ended game with freedom to explore, the reality is that the game is actually quite linear. Part of this is due to the focus on telling its story, but that only tends to highlight that the open world gameplay itself is rather wasted. It might be tempting to compare Two Worlds II to other popular games featuring open-world gameplay, but truth be told it has far more in common with The Witcher and other more structured RPGs.

This might sound like a good thing at first - a compelling story, but freedom to explore - yet it becomes clear that this is actually a hindrance. Open-world games revolve around sandbox-type gameplay, exploration and a player-driven sort of experience. However, Two Worlds II doesn't really reward exploration. Almost every cave or dungeon to explore is locked until its associated quest is provided, and thanks to map markers, you'll rarely be lost on where to go or how to get there. This means that, rather than strike out on your own in search of adventure, you'll need to rigidly follow the quests provided.

Another issue that reveals itself after a while is that Two Worlds II is simply too big for its own good. Like many sandbox-style games, it provides a massive world and hundreds of quests. The bad part is that this world is mostly empty of anything but enemies to kill and randomly generated loot to grab, and despite the inclusion of teleport pads to zip between, travel, especially early on, can sometimes take a very long time.  There are horses to ride and boats to use, but the horses in particular don't control very well, and it's easy to lose them if you go wandering off, so I stuck to going on foot most of the time.

This also becomes a problem with the quest design. Two Worlds II is stuffed full of dozens, if not hundreds of fetch and kill quests, and most of them aren't at all interesting. Many of them seem purposely built to make you run into remote territory, back and forth, just to waste time. While other "hiking simulators" like Skyrim can be criticized for being mostly devoted to traveling the world, the key difference is that Two Worlds II largely lacks any interesting locations to stumble across, random encounters to take part in, and so on. The point of these simple travel-based quests in open-world titles is to give incentive for exploration, and Two Worlds II pretty much has none to make doing those quests worthwhile except for the experience and loot.

Last, Two Worlds II is quite clearly rushed. The first continent you visit, Erimos, is a massive savannah-type location that's bigger than the entirety of many open-world games - I spent about 25 hours in it. The second continent, Eollas, isn't even half the size, features more corridor-like areas, and has significantly more filler combat, especially in the Swallows area. The massive final continent, Eikronas, is teased on the map, but you only visit a tiny fraction during the endgame, where the open-ended gameplay changes to a short and linear (albeit well-executed) story sequence, which is marred by even more filler combat around every corner.  There's also various elements that are introduced halfway through and abandoned, like boats the player can sail, which have literally no use in the game at all. While Two Worlds II is not lacking for content, it's clear that a lot of corners were cut and they become more and more apparent as the game goes on.
Character System & Crafting

Fortunately, Two Worlds II has some surprisingly robust and enjoyable mechanics that flesh out its RPG feature set. For starters, it features a fully open, classless character system. This means that it's possible to make pretty much any character you like, at least within the confines of what the game offers, and it encourages mixing and matching rather than sticking to one specific role.  The game also has just the right number of attributes - Strength, Willpower, Endurance and Accuracy - and pretty much every single skill you can pick up is useful, from various crafting skills, to pickpocketing and assassination, to elemental arrows. Leveling up is pretty quick early on, but late in the game you'll be getting most of your experience points from quests instead of combat.  There's some satisfying character progression on tap, although like a lot of other titles, Two Worlds II does have a strong inverse difficulty curve.

Crafting is probably the thing most people will remember from Two Worlds II. Personally, I've never been a big fan of crafting, mostly because the systems are never that well balanced, or are overly complicated. Two Worlds II is different. There's no "standard gear" or "crafted gear" - rather, crafting serves as a way of enhancing your existing equipment or recycling stuff you don't need. Literally any piece of gear can be upgraded with slots to place magic gems in, or deal more damage, or provide more protection. Furthermore, since every piece of loot can be broken down into fundamental components, every single item you pick up can be reused and turned into something you might want.

This also applies to alchemy. Like a lot of RPGs, Two Worlds II has a robust alchemy system that allows you to brew your own potions. Ingredients can range from flowers, to food, to the entrails of monsters, and pretty much every single one you find is worth picking up. Potions have very, very powerful effects, even with no investment in the Alchemy skill, and many will make the difference between a death and a victory, though some are just a bit too powerful for their own good - gaining a 60% bonus to your attributes, even for a minute or two, can make some of the game's bosses comically easy.

Last, and most interesting (especially for Elder Scrolls fans), Two Worlds II has a pretty interesting and original magic system which revolves entirely around creating your own spells. By using magical cards with different properties, it's possible to summon various creatures, apply buffs, throw around elemental bolts, and just about anything else you'd expect from an RPG, but with the added flexibility of being able to choose how you use those base components to your advantage. While not as flexible as Morrowind's spell creation, it allows for a lot of experimentation, and lets you decide how to spec your spell list, unlike some RPGs, which saddle you with dozens of fixed spells that grow obsolete over time or are simply useless.
Combat

It's a real shame, then, that Two Worlds II doesn't have very good combat, especially as there's so much of it. On the surface, it's functional. Melee combat has blocking, parries and power attacks, and revolves around breaking the guard of enemies. Ranged combat (archery) lets you imbue your arrows with magic effects, like fire and ice, and you can use "sniper mode" to queue up targets and fire multiple arrows at once. Magic has potentially hundreds of spell combinations available, and potions are useful for any character.

It all falls apart for a few reasons. First, character movement can be clunky due to the fact that it's tied to the physics engine. Momentum, terrain and other factors influence how you move, which is fine for exploration, but in combat it means that movement can feel sluggish, or floaty, such as when making sudden turns or running up or down hills. Many of my deaths could be attributed to the controls, and sometimes I was killed because the ragdoll corpses left behind by enemies blocked my retreat path. In fact, just about every game over screen was a result of enemies stun-locking my character, or surprise-attacking out of nowhere without giving a chance to evade them, or extremely confined quarters with no room to move (not so good considering I focused mostly on archery throughout the game).

Second, the enemy AI is atrocious. There are only about two attack patterns - enemies will rush you blindly in melee, or stand still and attack from range. However, despite the simplicity, frequently I encountered monsters getting stuck on even fairly simple terrain, like small ledges or fences, or standing oblivious as I peppered them with arrows, or firing their own arrows blindly into walls without ever repositioning to get a clear shot at me. I am not exaggerating when I say I don't think I've seen enemy AI so lazy and oblivious in many, many years, and frankly even older games known for poor AI, like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, are still much better.

Third, there's just too much combat. There are many, many dungeons that are full of the same copy-pasted enemies, and it's hard to explore for more than a few minutes without fighting something. As I mentioned above, many corners were cut towards the end, and the deeper you go, the more and more combat appears, almost none of it avoidable, unlike the early game. There are, for example, extended sections where enemies will spawn in a circle around you every 10 seconds' worth of travel, requiring you spend a minute or two dealing with them and slowing you significantly - I think it goes without saying that this is not fun at all. I could certainly tolerate the poor combat if I had more chances to avoid it, or if there was simply less of it, but instead the game does the opposite and it becomes a frustration towards the endgame.

Multiplayer

Two Worlds II also comes equipped with an online mode, and this portion of the game is decently fleshed out. Unlike the single-player campaign, you're able to create a character of varying races and genders, and compete in a variety of different challenges. These range from the Adventure mode, which provides a series of mission-based levels that range from more open-ended areas to dungeon crawls, standard deathmatch, capture the flag and other related game types, and Village, which is sort of a management game which allows you to build a town and generate more money for the other multiplayer modes.

Muliplayer isn't bad, but it suffers from the same problems as the single-player game. The Adventure mode, which I'd consider the most compelling part of the package, is serviceable, but all the missions are pretty linear and straightforward, and they're focused almost exclusively on combat. As I've mentioned above, combat isn't the game's strong suit, although playing with friends, as is the case with most online titles, helps make up for it. There's nothing especially wrong with the multiplayer, and it's another bullet point on the game's feature list to take into consideration if you're interested in getting bang for your buck - it's just that there are probably better online RPGs you could be playing instead, and it's certainly no MMO.
Presentation & Technical

If you're going to be spending a long time with a game, a good presentation makes it a lot easier. Fortunately, Two Worlds II is visually stunning. It has some of the more impressive open-world landscapes I've seen, with tall grass blowing in the wind off into the distance, animals grazing, and just about every technical bell and whistle available today. The game runs very smoothly on my slightly aging gaming PC, and doesn't suffer from any hitches, stutters, low-resolution textures and effects or any other compromises you'll often see in open-world RPGs, and there are few load times, all of them fast. Some of the character models leave a bit to be desired, and animation during cutscenes can be a bit poor, but otherwise there are few complaints to make. Two Worlds II doesn't really have a unique art style, but the technical proficiency and variety in settings add up to great results.  I encountered almost no major bugs while playing, and the game only crashed once or twice, and only then after it had been running for many hours.

The soundtrack is also fantastic, and is probably one of the reasons I kept playing the game for longer sessions. Composed by Glorian' MusicMarks, the same company behind Knights of Honor, Gothic 3 and Crysis 2, it's suitably orchestral, with a folkish and worldly bent. Unlike some soundtracks, there are actually quite a few themes, many of which vary from area to area, and never get old. Voice acting, perhaps the thorn in the side of the first game, is of mixed quality. The protagonist's gravelly voice is a bit monotone for my tastes, and many minor characters are either over-acted or outright bad, but most of the lead characters are handled well, especially the orc rebels. Sound effects are pretty much stock standard, though there are some nice atmospheric effects like reverb and echo when in dungeons and caves.

There are two big downsides that hinder the game's presentation. The first is the user interface. Frankly, it's just not very good. Even though it was designed for gamepads, it's still a bit cumbersome when played with one, and with a mouse and keyboard, I had a lot of trouble navigating things until I completely changed the key layout to more conventional standards. Even then, it suffers from a number of flaws - overly large inventory icons that take up far too much space (though there are mods that fix this), ugly and hard-to-read fonts, poor color choices, extremely cumbersome alchemy and crafting screens that require dozens of clicks to sort through, and other similar problems.  Additionally, I found the default over-the-shoulder camera nauseating, and had to use console commands to center it - once I did, the game became much more playable for me.

Second, DRM. I bought the Steam version of the game, and despite this, the first thing I saw upon starting the game was a request to enter a serial number. Two Worlds II has just three activations per user, and there is no automated way to get that limit reset, not even by uninstalling the game. I suffered unrelated computer problems as I reviewed it, and with only three activations, I might have to jump through hoops to get the game working in the future. While I don't think Two Worlds II should be judged on its DRM, it's unfortunate it doesn't feature a more user-friendly method of activation and renewal.

Conclusion

Two Worlds II is a very hard game to give a definite opinion on. It has good ideas, but the execution can be sloppy or even outright bad. The story is both banal and entertaining, serious and satirical, often all at once. It's got tons of lore to read, but the universe isn't interesting enough to make those books worth reading.  The environments look great, but the world is probably too big for its own good, and many areas are empty and devoid of interesting content.  For every moment I had fun, there was another where I found myself frustrated, usually due to simple design oversights.

It's a shame, because I think Two Worlds II could have been up there with the likes of Risen and Divinity II as my favorite open-ended RPGs from the last couple of years, if it had simply had a bit more time in development for Reality Pump to clean up the rough edges.

In the end, I can give my recommendation for Two Worlds II - on the condition that you're willing to overlook a lot of problems. Although it's not a game I'd personally buy at full price, if you're able to find it on sale, especially the Velvet Edition that includes the expansion pack, it will give you more than enough value for your money. Either way, I'm eagerly awaiting Two Worlds III, as I'd like to see the good ideas explored in Two Worlds II come to a more refined, developed, and polished form.