Arcanum: Steampunk and Magick
Black Isle wasn’t the only company releasing brave new CRPGs that were willing to abandon the old swords and sorcery formula.
A company named Troika scored a triumph in 2001 with Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscure, a
game published by Sierra that quickly gained a large and devoted cult
following. It certainly wasn’t the first CRPG to try to marry magic and
technology; many of the early Ultima and Might & Magic games blended the two quite freely, but SSI’s Spelljammer: Pirates of Realmspace is probably a more direct precursor. At any rate, Arcanum is the game people think of when they hear the word “steampunk,” and deservedly so.
most often praised for its open-ended gameplay and intriguing game
world, which is best described as an industrial revolution taking place
in the midst of a high fantasy setting. Usually, magic and technology
are pretty strange bedfellows, but when done right (as in Arcanum),
the result is “magical realism,” in which objects that would ordinarily
look familiar are placed in settings that make them seem strange and
It can be quite exhilarating, for instance,
for a dwarf to draw a flintlock pistol rather than the clichéd old axe
or hammer. The outcome of the game depends on whether players follow
the magical or the technological path; the choice is left to the
"If you're serious about
role-playing games--so serious that you don't care about graphics but
instead just want to immerse yourself in a different world and try to
explore it, perhaps even exploit it, as fully as possible--then Arcanum is well worth the investment of time, money, and effort.”
–Greg Kasavin on GameSpot, Aug. 21, 2001.
Unfortunately, Arcanum is
not without its flaws, particularly in the all-important criteria of
combat. As we’ve seen countless times, the combat system is often
enough to make or break a CRPG. Although the game offers three
different modes (real-time, turn-based, and “fast” turn-based), none of
them are perfect, though the third comes the closest.
The key problem is the way experience points are doled out; the player only wins them by hitting rather
than defeating enemies. This fact makes strength and dexterity
all-important, thus ruling out many of the more exciting possibilities.
The difficulty also seems a bit skewed towards the magical path;
technologists had a tough time finding equipment and surviving long
enough to use it. Thankfully, there are usually alternatives to brute
Arcanum has much in common with the Fallout series,
no doubt due in part to sharing some key members on the development
team. Both games also share the same wonderful sense of irony and
humor, and the aesthetics are guided by a coherent and refreshing style
that helps balance out the bugs and difficulty issues. While not as
polished and playable as Fallout, Arcanum nevertheless stands out as a viable alternative to the standard formula.
BioWare: The New SSI
We've seen how TSR's valuable license had fallen upon hard times after SSI's last "Black Box" games, the Eye of the Beholder series
created by Westwood Studios. SSI's own efforts went from bad to worse,
ultimately costing them their exclusive license with TSR, and other
companies fared little better despite plastering AD&D all over their products.
Nevertheless, cherished AD&D franchises like the Forgotten Realms were just too promising to remain out of sight for long, and many CRPG fans longed for a return to those halcyon days of Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds, games
with great stories and gameplay set in the familiar and beloved worlds
of high fantasy. The problem was how to "update" these hallowed games
for the late 1990s. Two possible models existed in Elder Scrolls and Diablo, but these action-oriented games seemed to have little to offer fans of the hardcore, stat-tastic games of the 1980s.
The development team that would finally succeed in winning players back to the Forgotten Realms would
not be SSI, Interplay, or Sierra, but rather a trio of Canadian medical
doctors turned game developers: BioWare. BioWare created what is
perhaps the greatest CRPG engine ever designed; the famous Infinity Engine, an isometric engine used in some of the greatest CRPGs of all time.
Like Blizzard, BioWare's first foray into CRPGs was a critical success: Baldur's Gate, released in 1998. Like Diablo, Baldur's Gate features
isometric perspective and allows players to create only a single
character. Both games feature real-time gameplay, but with one key
difference: Baldur's Gate switches to a hybrid turn-based mode for combat, which allows for much more tactical-style battles than Diablo.
engine is designed to allow most battles to be fought by a highly
configurable artificial intelligence system; the player need only sit
back and watch. However, players can always hit the space bar to pause
the game and manually assign actions, then resume the game to see them
carried out. This compromise between real-time and turn-based combat
resulted in very compelling gameplay, and has much to offer both
novices and aficionados of the genre.
entire game is played exactly like a true game of AD&D with savings
throws, armor classes and to-hit rolls and combat range and speed all
computed with every scrap the party gets into. The thing that makes
this all so impressive (and very different from SSI's Gold Box series)
is that it all goes on behind the scenes where it belongs...Baldur's Gate is, simply put, the best computer representation of Dungeons and Dragons ever made." --Trent C. Ward on IGN, Jan 18, 1999.
Furthermore, Baldur's Gate turns
what fans of SSI's Gold and Black Box players might see as a
limitation--creation of only a single character rather than a
party--into a key story-telling asset. Although players can only create
and directly control one character, they can allow up to five other
characters to join their party. These characters not only have greatly
varied skills, but unique personalities and implications for the plot.
Characters of different political and ethical outlook may not get
along; a few characters may actually betray the party at a critical
In short, the gameplay changes
considerably depending on which characters the player adds (or doesn't
add) to the party. Rather than simplify or dumb down battle tactics,
the real-time aspect adds a new dimension to them--the time it takes to
perform an action (casting a spell, quaffing a potion, switching
weapons, etc.) may leave a character more vulnerable. I lost track of
the times I started casting a powerful magical spell, only to see it
wasted on enemies who'd already died or fled. Finally, to further
sweeten the pot, BioWare offered a multi-player option which let
players trade the non-player characters in their party for friends.
Although somewhat buggy and not perfectly integrated, this option
helped the game compete against Diablo, whose Battle.net servers had become a swirling vortex for daddy's money.
Like any great CRPG, Baldur's Gate features
a rich, nuanced storyline that resists easy summary (and, indeed,
reading such a summary would ruin much of the fun of the game; the
point is to learn what's happening as you play). The basic gist is that
something (or someone) has been causing a serious iron shortage, which
has led to widespread banditry across the countryside. Meanwhile, two
young wards of a mage named Gorion (the beautiful rogue Imoen and the
player's character) have been separated from their guardian and left to
fend for themselves. Gradually, the player learns of a large conspiracy
involving a secretive organization named the Iron Throne. By the end of
the game, the player learns that both the avatar and Imoen are much
more than what they seem. It's a complex but not plausible story of
political intrigue, and offers much more than the standard black and
white view of morality that runs through most CRPGs.
Baldur's Gate was followed up one year later with the Tales of the Sword Coast expansion
pack. This pack added new areas, spells, weapons, and made some minor
improvements to the gameplay and interface. More importantly, it added
four new quests. The general consensus among reviewers was that the
pack offered "a little more meat to chew on," but was certainly not to
be mistaken as a full sequel. Some gamers resented the lack of true
story developments, but others were just glad to have a little more Baldur's Gate to whet their appetites.
The true sequel, Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn, appeared in 2000 and became an instant best-seller. While the game continued to use the Infinity Engine, the
graphics were overhauled (800x600 as well as the old 640x480) and took
advantage of the new 3D accelerators that were all the rage among Windows gamers. Shadows of Amn also
added new classes, specializations, and cool skills like fighting with
two weapons simultaneously. Furthermore, several of the beloved
characters are back from the first game, including Imoen, and this time
personality (and even romantic) conflicts among party members are even
more instrumental to the gameplay. Contemporary reviewers fell over
themselves praising the game and giving it the highest possible marks;
it didn't take an orb of true seeing to know this game was platinum.
For what it's worth, I consider it the finest CRPG ever designed.
The second Baldur's Gate is even better than the first, and is widely acknowledged as the best CRPG ever made.
The story picks up where the first Baldur's Gate leaves
off (which is all the more reason for new players to start with the
first game). Unfortunately, it's a bit difficult to talk about the
story to Shadows of Amn without giving away the shocking
ending to part one, so I'll just briefly state that it's mostly
concerned with the sinister blood running through your avatar's veins.
Unfortunately, your quest for answers is rudely halted by one Jon
Irenicus, a wicked mage who captures you and your friends in an effort
to steal your powers for himself. The story quickly gets much more
complicated and involved, but suffice it to say you'll be going to hell
"There's little doubt that Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn deserves to stand among the very best games of the era, or indeed among the greatest games of all time." -- GameSpot Editorial Team, Mar. 27, 2006.
One of the most-praised aspects of Shadows of Amn is
the degree of freedom it presents to players. Many quests are optional,
and there are many different paths through the game that substantially
alter events. Players can either "stick to the main plot" and ignore
these many diversions, or get so involved in them that they might lose
track of the main story altogether. And, as with the original game,
party dynamics play a huge role in the gameplay that goes far beyond
just simple combat tactics. Mixing and matching characters with
differing ethics and values can lead to some very interesting "drama"
that everyone should experience at least once--particularly in a game
with such good voice acting. Multi-player is also supported, so gamers
with a few similarly-devoted friends can get even closer to the old
tabletop experience via their home network.
In 2001, BioWare released an expansion for Baldur's Gate II called Throne of Baal.
This important expansion represents the final chapter of the saga, and
required playing for any fan of the other games. It also adds new
items, spells, and even more class abilities. The expansion also adds a
dungeon named "Watcher's Keep" that can be accessed during certain
chapters in the Shadows of Amn game. However, perhaps the
aspect most people remember of this game is the degree of god-like
power your avatar has achieved by the game's ending. It's a fine ending
for a fine series.
What makes the Baldur's Gate games so great? Again, I think it's clear it's more a question of craft than genius. With Baldur's Gate we
get good stories, fun characters, meaningful quests, high-stakes
combat, and an intuitive interface. The graphics, sound, and music are
appealing and add much to the game's subtle ambiance. Perhaps the best
testament to the game's lasting appeal is that no single element seems
to rise above the others. There are no gimmicks; just solid platinum
It just doesn't get better than Baldur's Gate.