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The History of Computer Role-Playing Games Part III: The Platinum and Modern Ages (1994-2004)
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The History of Computer Role-Playing Games Part III: The Platinum and Modern Ages (1994-2004)

April 11, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 10 of 12 Next

The Joys of Planescape: Torment

If there's one thing we can say about the Platinum Age of CRPGs, it's that it has its fair share of cult classics. I doubt you could find any group of CRPG fans that didn't contain at least a few died-in-the-wool fans of Fallout and Planescape:Torment.

Both games are wildly different than the typical "high fantasy" game like Baldur's Gate, and both offer more introspective gameplay than Diablo, Mandate of Heaven, or Daggerfall. Indeed, although I've played my share of CRPGs, I can think of very few that manage to rise above the status of "game" and into something approaching "art." Like Fallout, Planescape: Torment pushes at the boundaries and reclaims the AD&D rule set to serve its own ends. Although Torment was not as successful as the more conventional CRPGs available at the time, it's nevertheless a true classic and one more good reason to call this era the "Platinum Age."

BioWare realized that its marvelous Infinity Engine was the best of its kind, and it made sense to license it out to Black Isle, the elite CRPG division of Interplay that had brought us Fallout 2. Black Isle wasted no time, and in November of 1999 released the cult classic Planescape: Torment. The game is set in the Planescape campaign setting, a complex setting involving several interrelated planes of existence. The game's strange story and surreal ambiance lent the game considerable appeal among gamers who were ready for a darker and more metaphysical CRPG. Indeed, several reviewers have commented that this game is really more of a graphical adventure game than a CRPG.

With masterpieces like Planescape: Torment on the shelf, how can we not call this the Platinum Age of CRPGs?
"People who have traditionally shied away from Tolkeinesque fantasy RPGs may find the Planescape world a little daunting at first, but may find that the game's incredible script and powerful characters will help them understand why the rest of us are so addicted to this type of game." --Trent C. Ward on IGN, Dec. 17, 1999.

Like any good story, the majority of Torment's appeal comes from its unique setting, plot, and characters. The game is set in a "multiverse," or interconnected planes of existence. The city of Sigil serves as a sort of "portal port" to these other planes, but the player must find the "doors," which can be disguised as any object. Furthermore, the different planes are home to beings who tend to belong to the same "faction," or political groups towards which they are extremely loyal (e.g., the "Anarchists" and "Godsmen.") The player may choose to join one of these factions, though doing so will win him enemies as well as friends. There is no clear black and white division between the good guys and the bad guys here; the point is to really get the player thinking deeply about morality. It's an interactive Inferno, and it doesn't take a Dante scholar to see the many allusions to that famous poem.

The story begins when the Nameless One, the player's character, awakes on a slab in a giant mortuary. He's suffering from near-total amnesia, and the plot is concerned mostly with his rediscovery of who--or perhaps more accurately what--he is. It's a nice contrivance that gives the player considerably leeway in role-playing the character, but it soon becomes obvious that the Nameless One's past deeds have won him no small amount of animosity from the bizarre characters he meets. Thankfully, there are also plenty of characters willing to join the Nameless One, including the infamous Morte, a floating head that becomes his wise-cracking sidekick. Then there's Fall-from-Grace, a succubus who's turned from sex to philosophy, opening the "Brothel of Slaking Intellectual Lusts." There's even a robot named Nordom, a rather nerdy crossbow on legs. No doubt, part of Torment's enduring popularity is the mix of serious and comedic themes running throughout.

Another feature of Torment that sets it apart from most CRPGs is its heavy reliance on dialog not only to build the story, but to offer alternatives to standard combat. Many potential conflicts can be resolved via intelligent conversation. These conversations also help develop the characters into far more than just "henchmen." There are plenty of other innovations I could mention, such as a truly unique "tattoo" system that can boost stats as well as document the player's progress, or the way the world changes according to the Nameless One's actions and beliefs. Suffice it to say, there is no other game like Planescape: Torment, and I doubt there ever will be. It's the perfect CRPG for gamers who prefer wit and wisdom to hacking and slashing.

Fighting for Your Right to Party: Icewind Dale

Most of the best games of the Platinum Age allow players to create only a single character. Even though games like Baldur's Gate and Fallout let players add characters to the party later on, these were pre-generated characters, often with their own personalities and agendas. While this system allowed for more tightly controlled narrative and story-telling opportunities, some fans of old classics like Pool of Radiance and Eye of the Beholder felt cheated. They wanted to create their own party of adventurers from scratch and control them directly. Black Isle heard their prayers, and in 2000 released Icewind Dale, another game based on BioWare's Infinity Engine and set in an arctic region of TSR's Forgotten Realms. It boasted great graphics, sound, and a score by Jeremy Soule that is one of the finest musical scores ever composed for a video game. All this sounded like a dream come true for old-school fans like yours truly.

More characters means more dynamic party management; get the balance right.

Icewind Dale lets players create and control six characters, and since the game is so focused on combat, building a properly balanced party is of paramount importance. Furthermore, combat can be a very difficult affair, requiring careful coordination and team-work. For example, one favorite strategy is to have a stealthy thief stride ahead, attract a few enemies, and lure them into an ambush. As usual, the magic-users function as artillery; they dole out the most damage, but are virtually helpless in physical combat and must be protected. Major battles can get quite complex and intense, with a nearly infinite number of variables, especially during the preparation stage (Which potions to give whom? Should the mage learn enhancement or attack spells?). The only serious problem with the interface is keeping the six characters aligned in a sensible formation; it's easy to slip up and have a mage striding forward in a vulnerable position, or to unknowingly leave a character trapped behind an obstacle several rooms back.

Unfortunately, Icewind Dale is no masterpiece. The heavy emphasis on combat and party dynamics came at the expense of an intriguing storyline or meaningful interaction with non-player characters. This is a linear "hack and slash" game set in a somewhat dreary world of snow and ice. Indeed, the game it reminded me of the most was SSI's utterly forgettable Secret of the Silver Blades. The general consensus among reviewers was good, but not great, and it certainly didn't help to be competing with mega-hits like Diablo II and Baldur's Gate II, which were released the same year. Black Isle developed an expansion pack called Heart of Winter the following year, which adds five new areas and plenty of new items, skills, and spells. It also features higher resolution and better artificial intelligence. It's a quality expansion for fans of the first game.

In 2002, Interplay published Icewind Dale II, which differs from the original in several ways. Perhaps most noticeable is the switch to AD&D 3rd Edition rules, which greatly affect how characters are created and developed. Gone is the old random dice throws for stats; players instead are given a certain number of points to distribute as they see fit. However, the catch is that pushing a stat above "average" requires a greater share of points; it's an exponential system that works quite well. There is also a new "feats" system, which is a terrific innovation that seems ripped straight out of Fallout. Nevertheless, the "feats" system makes leveling up a much more interesting and customizable process, and adds greatly to that "just one more level, then I'll stop for the night" kind of thinking that keeps you playing until your alarm clock goes off.

There is also a skill system that allows further customization and trade-offs; a thief who puts too many points into "open lock" may be rotten at disabling traps or moving stealthily. Finally, players can "multi-class" their characters however they wish, even to the point of giving each character a level in fighting or thieving just for kicks. However, again there's a trade-off; really cool abilities are available only to very high-level members of a certain class. Too much hybridization results in a "jack of all trades, master of none" type character that is mostly worthless.

"Is your Wizard looking a little unhealthy, with that sallow skin coloration that comes from lack of physical exercise? Give him a level or two as a Fighter, buff up his weapon feats, and watch that cauldron belly vanish! Is your Druid's winter wolf form guilty of unsightly molt in battle? Give her a level of training as a Barbarian, and watch her wolf tear each of those yetis a new ice hole after summoning forth her Rage!" -- Barry Brenesal on IGN, Sep. 5, 2002.

Icewind Dale II offers other enhancements as well, particularly more meaningful interaction with non-player characters and better diversity in settings. The voice talent is also top-notch, an important aspect that tends to get overlooked by many reviewers (unless it's bad, in which case it becomes the focus of such reviews). Although the story is slightly more nuanced than the original, this is still primarily a "hack and slash" game more concerned with combat tactics than dramatic tension. Tellingly, most contemporary reviewers spend far more time talking about the feat and skill system than the story arcs.

The new "feats" system made leveling up much more interesting than the old rule system.

Of course, the other big game of 2002 was BioWare's Neverwinter Nights, a fully 3-D game that threatened to make Icewind Dale II look old-fashioned before it even hit gamers' hard drives. I'll have more to say about Neverwinter Nights later in this article, but suffice it to say, Icewind Dale II is the last of the great Infinity Engine games that brought so much joy to CRPG fans.

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Shawn Yates
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"Platinum Age," which begins in 1996 with the publication of three very important games, Origin's Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss (1992), Blizzard's Diablo, and Bethesda's Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall (both 1996). Other high points of the age include Interplay's Fallout (1997), Black Isle’s Planescape: Torment (1999), BioWare's Baldur's Gate (1998) and Baldur's Gate II (2000),

Man those titles combined to waste a lot of my youth. How come they dont make them like they used to? Absolutely fantastic article, made for a fascinating read!

catus joquth
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Anybody know where the World of Warcraft European servers are located? Someone said they are all in Britain but I am not sure. Would they have some in Germany, some in Finland etc?

I am trying to do a business plan for my own massive multiplayer game and was wonder how they spread out the resources.

WoW Europe Gold

David Schwarz
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This is a fantastic series of articles.

The comments on Diablo really resonate with me. It came out during a relative drought of RPGs in the mid-'90s, and with all the rave reviews and RPG of the Year awards, I decided I had to give it a try. I remember sitting there playing it in my college dorm room and thinking, "This is fun and all, but it's not an RPG. It's Gauntlet with bosses and a mouse interface." I was disappointed in the amount of subsequent CRPG development effort that was sunk into Diablo clones, and for a long time avoided anything described as an "action RPG."

About the Ultima series, one thing that wasn't mentioned in the article was Origin's tendency to lock themselves into the wrong technology while developing yet another cutting edge game engine. Ultima VII was produced at a time when games were starting to push the 640 KB conventional memory barrier of MS-DOS. Rather than use one of the emerging standard extended/expanded memory managers, Origin "rolled their own." Their Voodoo memory manager made the game a nightmare to get running, and impossible to run on later operating systems without an emulator.

Years later, they made a similarly bad call with Ultima IX, optimizing it to work with 3dfx's Glide graphics API. The graphics looked great if you had a 3dfx Voodoo3 or better graphics card. Anyone with a card optimized for the now-standard Microsoft Direct3D API was in for a slide show at release.

But that's not what killed Ultima IX for fans, nor was it the multi-year delay (apparently due to Origin and Garriott's focus on the emerging MMO market--indeed, all indications are that Garriott was barely involved in the production of Ultima IX), nor was it even the repeated engine rewrites. It was that the game was jarringly inconsistent with the rest of the series. Elements of the plot and dialog were blatantly, factually irreconcilable with the history established by the previous games, and the linearity of the game progression flew in the face of every single previous game of the core series. The world was far less interactive, and felt much smaller. It was as if the game had been designed by a group who either did not know or did not like the rest of the series.

Andrey Dyumaev
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Face it, guys, we're just too far along the way of trading in our Acne Cream for Extra-Strength Rogaine...

The game industry figures we're too old.

HOWEVER, despite my lack of a proper education in the field of marketing, having worked a bunch translating tens of thousands of pages of generic market research and hopefully amassed some grasp of the theoretic and the practical - I'm just plain old baffled at the lack of anything past occasional low-budget late sequels or crappy remakes in the Nostalgia Market or Mature Adult (no, NOT pron) Category.

WE'RE HERE. WE'RE OLDER, SO WE ACTUALLY HAVE *CASH*. WE GO AND GET WHATEVER EXCITES US YEAR-ROUND, NOT JUST FOR CHRISTMAS. It's like the car industry - 16yos may salivate over convertibles with monstrous engines, but it's the older guy coughing up the cash for a lease on a ride he's wanted since he was 16. That's why $40-100k+ convertibles come with lots of leather, but no gigantic plastic spoilers. Hell, if older guys stopped buying sweet cars, chances are that the teenagers would stop dreaming about them - it's part of what makes or breaks the appeal. Smoking is cool because adults smoke, gas guzzler phallic symbols are cool because prosperous adults drive them, and since EVERYONE knows that the computer game is also the work of The Devil, what's so different with games??


Seems like the entire industry should be falling over themselves, salivating over the prospect of such a target audience. They're not, although it's really a no-brainer. What gives?

John Ingrams
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Surprised Matt didn't mention the one thing has has kept the Elder Scrolls alive - and that is the Construction Set that came with Morrowind and Oblivion. For example, if Oblivion had not had a Construction Set I believe it would have only sold 1/3 of the titles it actually did on PC.

I think the cRPG die has been cast. You want a console style 'action-RPG' with each subsequent title having more 'action' and less 'RPG' for your PC - then you get U.S. developed games from companies like Bioware or Obsidian or Bethesda with their Mass Effects and Alpha Protocols and Borderlands and Bioshock, etc.

You want 'old-school' RPG's designed for PC first and then (maybe) console - you buy games from European developers like CD Red Projekt or Piranha Bytes or 1C, with their titles like The Witcher Risen, Two Worlds, Drakensang and Space Rangers 2. All bonafide old school cRPG's.

The fact is, the large North American publishers seem wedded to their $30 million production costs, meaning they have to sell 3.5 million units to break even. 80% of AAA titles don;t make money, and so we have a downward spiral.

Europe on the other hand, can bring PC games to market for under $10 million. Meaning a STALKER, selling 3 million units, was making profit at under 1 million units! This means while North American cRPG will be of the Mass Effect 4 5 million unit sales on PC and console variety, European developers will be able to go for the niche markets of old school cRPG's on PC that sell in the 1-3 million range.

This is how the cRPG market will break down. Many U.S. gamers will have to work harder to get the European cRPG's, but the half of the market that is in Europe will get used to the fact they are buying more and more 'local product'!!

cam smith
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The repeated assertion that in Baldur's Gate (I and II) one could only control one 'main' character is incorrect.

By selecting 'multiplayer' instead of singleplayer' anyone could create a full team of 6 original custom characters. In point of fact, it was 'normal' to start any new game as multiplayer, as the game remained the same in every aspect with the exception that one could at any time introduce custom characters to the party.

This information was available from any basic walkthrough at the time.

Furthermore, the inbuilt NPCs could also be easily customised via third party programs.

Icewind Dale (I and II) pale in comparison to the BG series of course, even without this non existent advantage, as these games really lacked any of the lateral storylines typical to most Bioware games.

PS: This website's account information requirements are completely out of control. I guess that's why no one has corrected this error in the comments section for 3 years, despite this article being referenced in Wikipedia.

Seriously - asking for addresses and job descriptions is absurd and intrusive.