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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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.