E3 2002: The RPGs

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Although I have been a crazed fan of computer games for the majority of my life, this was my first visit to the Electronic Entertainment Exposition in Los Angeles, California. Typically referred to as E3, it is the game industry's most important trade show, this year drawing in approximately 60,000 visitors. I really didn't know what to expect, even though I have always read through the extensive coverage the event has received over the years throughout the internet.

The event is held in the Los Angeles Convention Center, and is absolutely enormous in its size. There are literally hundreds of exhibits and thousands of games to feast your eyes upon, all of which are accompanied by loud music, spectacular lighting, and in some cases, a celebrity or two (I met both Carmen Electra and Mr. T, for example). In fact, the event is so vast that there are many games I unfortunately didn't get to spend much time with. I did my best to focus a majority of my attention on role-playing games, especially those that we cover here on GameBanshee. So. without further ado, let me tell you a little bit about the RPGs I spent the most time taking a look at:

Neverwinter Nights: I had scheduled an appointment with Bioware before leaving for E3, so I was lucky enough to get a private one-hour showing of NWN on the very first day I was at the event. The room where the demo was given was filled with all sorts of Bioware trinkets, as well as several computers all sitting at the NWN splash screen. Each computer was pre-loaded with a different type of character, allowing the four of us that were present to fill our adventuring party with an array of different classes. I sat down at one of the computers as Tom Ohle, Bioware's community coordinator, began explaining how to enter the game.

Initially, we entered a large arena filled with several dummies in order to practice combat, spell-casting, and other functions. My particular workstation was configured with a Dwarven Fighter, so it didn't take me more than a minute to become familiar with how to swing my axe. Combat, dialogue, inventory management, and skill execution are made extremely easy with the streamlined interface. It takes very little time to get comfortable with, which is exactly what one would expect after playing Bioware's previous games. Once everyone had their fill of dummy destroying, Tom loaded up a module for us to adventure within.

During this module, I began to realize just how graphically advanced the game is, even though it has been in development for almost 5 years now. As usual, Bioware has paid close attention to detail, with each weapon and piece of armor adjusting the look of your character. In addition, all of the animations are extremely fluid and the spell effects are simply unbelievable. The wizard was stationed right next to me, so I was able to get an eyeful of several spells, including both low and high level ones. Tom suggested that the wizard try out the spell (Weird), which conjured in a gargantuan creature with tentacles. Needless to say, it drew quite a few oohs and ahhs from all of us in the vicinity.

Once we completed the module, Tom allowed us to try out the Dungeon Master role. With a few mouse clicks, you can literally do just about anything, from the placement of weapons and armor, to the spawning of any creature in the game. At first, I just conjured in a few different dragons and forced them to fight one another, but then I found the (Planar Creatures) list and started spawning in demons like the Baalor. Awesome in their power, these things are about the coolest looking creature in any game I've seen. Not only can you spawn them in, but you can actually take control of them as well, allowing you to wreak havoc on any adventurers in the area.

Before concluding our private showing, Tom gave us a few minutes to hone our module building skills. Similar to other Windows-based editors, the module creator comes with its own wizard to simplify the creation process, which proved to be extremely useful since I had never even seen the editor before. In about 5 minutes, I put together one floor of a castle by key-entering its size, choosing a graphical template, and then placing several objects (including weapons and armor) within the level.

Even though I have only experienced an hour's worth of Neverwinter Nights, I can honestly say that this game is by far the most impressive and advanced role-playing game I have ever seen in my gaming lifetime. Without a doubt, the game is going to be a serious detriment to the amount of sleep I get and will definitely take its toll on my social life once released. Something tells me that I will not be alone in my addiction.

Shadowbane: Ubisoft and Wolfpack's upcoming MMORPG was one game I did not want to miss while I was walking the floor. I spent almost an hour watching one of the developers (I never did get his name.) go through various aspects of the game, including character creation, spell-casting, crafting, and training.

Character creation grants you a great deal of customization, allowing you to choose your base class, race, hair type, hair color, beard type, beard color, skin color, and more. You are allotted a certain number of points (depending on your choices) that you can distribute among your different attributes. Differing from other MMORPGs, you can also distribute points among a plethora of different starting skills such as (Eagle Eye), which grants a 5% bonus to your ranged weapon skill. This ensures that virtually every character's starting attributes and skills will be unique.

With Shadowbane's strong focus on PvP, an intuitive and efficient interface is a definite must. From what I saw, the game allows for quick execution of both melee and spell-casting commands, and training your character as he or she increases levels couldn't be easier. While watching one of the developers train his character, however, I inquired whether or not they would be implementing a way for players to reallocate their character's points if they were not happy with some of their training choices later on. Unfortunately, the answer was, (No, not in the initial release anyway.)

The transportation system in Shadowbane will incorporate a couple of ideas from previous MMORPGs. Those of you who may have played Ultima Online will remember the spell (Recall), which allowed you to teleport to virtually any area in the game, as long as you had a rune marked there previously. Although not entirely finalized, Wolfpack will be allowing characters similar teleportation abilities, but only to a city under your control. Since I was impressed with Mythic's implementation of horses in Dark Age of Camelot, I asked if something similar would be available in the initial release of Shadowbane. According to the developer I spoke with, Wolfpack (plans on implementing horses, but not until sometime after release.) Hopefully they'll find a balance that reduces any tedious running around, yet allows one to appreciate the enormity of Aerynth.

I had always been a little skeptical of the game's graphical quality, but after seeing a character run through a burning city, it looks like it might yet put up a good fight against its competition in the (eye candy) department. However, the graphics did become fairly choppy when there was a considerable amount of animation on the screen, and I am a bit worried that large-scale battles might be laggy, even on the fastest computers. Aside from the graphic lag, another aspect that bothered me was the numerous crashes (a half dozen or more in less than an hour), some which even required rebooting the computer. Obviously, Wolfpack has a few bugs to work out, but hopefully we'll be seeing a finished version of Shadowbane in the near future.

Dark Age of Camelot - Shrouded Isles: Unfortunately, Mythic really didn't have a whole lot of information to share about their upcoming expansion just yet. During my meeting with Sanya Thomas and Scott Jennings, I was shown two cities - Avalon City and Trollheim. In comparison to existing cities such as Camelot, Tir Na Nog, or Jordheim, these new cities had a lot more features that caught my eye. Trollheim, for example, contained a network of bridges above a vast pit that provided the transportation throughout the different areas of the city.

One of the aspects of the expansion that I personally can't wait for is the enhanced graphics engine (NetImmerse 4.0 - the same one used in Bethesda's Morrowind). Not only will the new engine enhance existing effects, such as water reflections and lighting, but both Sanya and Scott assured me that large-scale battles will be much more fluid. In addition to those enhancements, anybody who has played DAoC is well aware of a bug that causes your screen to be practically unreadable after a period of time. Will the expansion fix these types of graphical errors as well? According to Scott, absolutely.

Icewind Dale II: On the second day of the event, Black Isle's Josh Sawyer gave me a lengthy tour of Icewind Dale II. I have always been a huge fan of the cinematics in the original Icewind Dale, so I requested that he start off by showing us the game's opening trailer. As I had hoped, the trailer is very similar to its predecessor's, with the story progressing as each page is turned within an ancient tome. This method always made me feel a lot more engrossed into the storyline, with the deeds of my band of heroes chronicled as I completed them.

Using the notorious Infinity Engine cheat codes, Josh teleported his party throughout the game, showing off many of the new 3rd Edition skills and the ease of the new interface. From what I saw, the inventory screen looks a lot easier to manipulate than it was in the original Icewind Dale, and allows you to switch between your quick weapons much more efficiently. In addition, the spellbook screen is refined and contains a whole slew of new spell icons.

When I asked Josh if Icewind Dale II would incorporate a lot of the puzzles and decision-making that Heart of Winter and Trials of the Luremaster did, he showed off quite a few areas. One in particular allowed you to disguise your party in stolen robes and make your way through a Yuan-Ti temple unharmed, with the occasional priest asking questions to ensure that you are not an imposter. Another such area was a vault that required a series of stones to be depressed in order to enter it. As some of the stones were pressed, others would return to their original place, making the puzzle very tricky and time-consuming. If you're not interested in gaining entrance that way, however, you can use some of the new 3E skills to convince one of the nearby guards that the vault is under siege, which gets him to open the vault for you.

Once we had seen several of the above areas, Josh brought his party to Kuldahar, which has changed quite a bit since the original game. A new druid now makes his home there, and Oswald, the alchemist with the airship, continues to flourish in the city. That's not the only face I recognized, however. Josh teleported his characters once more, bringing them face to face with the mage Malavon. He didn't tell us specifically why Malavon is still alive after you snuffed his life away in the original IWD, but it looked as though there was quite a bit of storyline to go with the encounter.

Overall, I think the sequel looks to be a huge step ahead of the original Icewind Dale, both in terms of functionality and gameplay. We can certainly expect a game that encourages a lot more thinking with all of the puzzle and skill-oriented areas, and it sounds as if we're going to get a much lengthier game this time around. When I asked how many hours of gameplay he felt would be available in the finished product, Josh boasted that Icewind Dale II would be longer than Icewind Dale, Heart of Winter, and Trials of the Luremaster put together. Needless to say, I'm excited =).

Lionheart: Interplay's press release that Black Isle would be announcing a new RPG at this year's E3 had everyone wondering just what to expect. There was quite a bit of speculation that they would be continuing the Fallout series, but instead BIS decided to develop an all-new medieval game based in a historically skewed 16th century Europe.

What do I mean by (skewed)? Well, according to the producer, Chris Parker, Lionheart will take place in a Europe far different than the one that *really* existed. Sometime within the 12th century, a cataclysmic event occurred that released sorcery and demonic creatures onto the earth. Even with these changes, however, many of the great historical figures that are found in today's history books will play a part within the game. For example, Chris mentioned that players may run into Leonardo da Vinci during their adventures. In fact, not only will he make an appearance, but some of the inventions he never built may come to life in the world of Lionheart.

The game uses the two-dimensional Velocity engine from Reflexive Entertainment, which reminded me a lot of Bioware's Infinity Engine, but with better graphics overall. Because the engine is 2D and not 3D, the system requirements are a lot lower than one would expect from a brand new game. Regardless, the areas in our demonstration looked very good and should make for an excellent environment for the kind of RPG Black Isle is used to making.

Although the announced RPG is not a continuation of the Fallout games, fans of the series should be happy to hear that Lionheart will use the SPECIAL system, the same character development system used in both Fallout and Fallout 2. Essentially, the SPECIAL system uses statistics, skills, perks, and traits to define a character, rather than a class, and makes for a very robust method of character development.

After the demonstration was over, I left with the impression that Lionheart has a strong storyline, a unique setting, and a refined method of character development. If the overall gameplay is as good as Black Isle's previous RPGs, I think Lionheart will easily live up to our expectations. I guess we'll have to wait until Lionheart gets closer to release, which, according to Parker, should be towards the end of the year.