The History of Computer Role-Playing Games Part III: The Platinum and Modern Ages (1994-2004)By Matt Barton
Welcome back, brave adventurer, to the third and final installment of my history of our favorite computer game genre--the Computer Role-Playing Game, or CRPG for short. If you are new to this series, I'd suggest you stop now and read The Early Years, which covers the dark origins of the genre, such as Richard Garriott's Akalabeth and Sir-Tech's Wizardry series, and of course early mainframe CRPGs like dnd. You should then check out The Golden Age, which picks up from 1983 and extends all the way to 1993, a period which represents the peak of CRPG development.
Hundreds of games and dozens of series appeared during this time, several of which extend into the Platinum and Modern Ages. The Golden Age includes classics like SSI's Pool of Radiance (1988) and Phantasie (1985), or Interplay's The Bard's Tale (1985) and Wasteland (1988), and plenty of highly innovative titles like Sierra's Hero's Quest (1989) and Masterplay's Star Saga (1987). Without a good grounding in the CRPGs of these earlier periods, you might suffer from the all-too-common delusion that recent games like Diablo, Neverwinter Nights, and Oblivion came out of nowhere.
“CRPGs are natural extensions of their traditional pen-and-paper games or table-top miniatures. Instead of simply imagining monsters and moss-covered labyrinths, computer games burst with ethereal life, thanks to ever-evolving graphics and sound effects. Hard-liners may complain that the real magic has been lost; for the rest of us, however, CRPGs are the realization of our dreams - or more often, our nightmares.”
–Scott A. May in Compute!, Jan. 1994.
Instead, these games can all trace their lineage back to Golden Age games, which can in turn trace their lineage back to the late 1970s. Indeed, although it's a commonplace in game history to blurt out things like, "We've sure have come a long way since Akalabeth!", at one level we really haven't taken more than a few timid steps.
Sure, there have been enormous changes in graphics, sound, interface, and so on, but much of what we cherish in a modern CRPG was already present in games like DynaMicro's Dungeons of Daggorath and Texas Instruments' Tunnels of Doom (both 1982). Furthermore, many games that come fairly late in the time line actually seem to some critics to be steps backwards. For instance, although FTL introduced Dungeon Master in 1987, which featured real-time, 3-D graphics in full color, other developers continued to release best-selling turn-based and tile-based games well into the 1990s. And even in 2007, many critics argue that ASCII or ANSI games like Rogue have never been surpassed, since snazzy graphics and intricate story lines just distract from what they think makes CRPGs fun to play.
In short, rather than view the history of CRPGs as a neat time line that begins with total crap and just keeps getting less crappy all the time, I see it as a treasure-filled, monster-infested dungeon. While you can get from one point on that path to any other, you'll never travel in a straight line--and you never know what's waiting for you around the next corner. Let's just hope you brought your loquacious old pal Lilarcor!
To my mind, the games that really represent the best of the genre appeared during the period I've termed the "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), Troika's Arcanum (2001) and Sir-Tech's Wizardy 8 (2001).
The single-player, standalone CRPG reached its zenith during this period, and I've begun to doubt if Baldur's Gate II will ever be surpassed. Even in many of these games, though, the presence of online, multi-player options signaled the impending doom of the old CRPG we knew and loved. At the end of the platinum age, the Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, or the MMORPG, dominated the scene, and, at least to this critic, the future of the CRPG is grimmer than anything ever dreamed up by Lord British.
Not all that glitters is platinum, however. It’s during the early 1990s that we really begin to see games marred by sloppy code, particularly on the DOS and Windows platforms. Many otherwise impressive games were doomed at the start by hundreds of game-crashing glitches, which infuriated gamers and united critics against them.
The likeliest explanation for the preponderance of bugs during this era is an industry-wide shift in development methods. Instead of just a handful or even a single person in charge of the coding, games were being built by increasingly large teams of specialized programmers, who would work on individual parts and then jam everything together. While this process occasionally went smoothly, more often that not bits of the code were incompatible, and finding bugs in such massive piles of code was like finding the proverbial unassigned pointer in the memory stack.
Another key issue was the lack of industry standards among early graphic and sound card manufacturers; developers had to slap together code to support dozens of different standards—or risk alienating hordes of money-waving gamers. While it's now relatively easy to download and install a patch to address such issues, most people weren't online until well after many of these bug-infested games had passed out of circulation.
The period I've termed the "Modern Age" begins in 2002 with the publication of BioWare's Neverwinter Nights, and includes games like Microsoft's Dungeon Siege and Troika's The Temple of Elemental Evil. Although these games have probably sold many thousands more copies than games from earlier periods, they seem to represent more of a looking back than a looking forward, and I'm increasingly worried by the large number of CRPG fans migrating towards MMORPGs. In fact, I don't even consider these games to be part of the same genre, a point I'll get to towards the end of this article.
Up to now, I've tried to simplify things by postponing my discussion of MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons) and MMORPGs (Massively Multi-player Online Role-Playing Games), which can actually trace their history as far back as the stand-alone CRPG. I'll explain why at the end of this article.
Let's pick up our story, then, in 1992, a year which culminated in Origin's Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, a progressive game that demonstrated new and exciting possibilities and would set the tone for much of what would follow.
Towards the Platinum Age
The early 1990s saw the publication of dozens of CRPGs from many different developers, many of whom are virtually unknown today. Although the DOS and later Windows platforms would soon dominate the computer game industry, for now both the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga were going strong.
Although highly polished, many of the CRPGs developed during this time are highly derivative and offer little innovation, but a few have managed to attain cult classic status.
“A thousand years ago, tucked deep in the beautiful woods to the southeast of Lyramion, there was a small village called Forkbrook. The people who lived there were blond haired and good natured; they lived by fishing and hunting and traded with the nearest town which lay two days travel to the west. In this village lived a small boy named Tar.”
– from the Amberstar manual.
Several of these early 1990s games were German imports. One such game, Amberstar by German developer Thalion, features good graphics, a great auto-mapping tool, and a huge world to explore. It seemed to offer much promise, but even a well-known soundtrack by chipmaestro Jochen Hippel was not enough to win it much fame in the US. The sequel, Ambermoon, was only released in Germany, and the third game (the series was planned as a trilogy) was never completed. Nevertheless, Amberstar is among the best CRPGs for the Amiga platform.
In 1992, Sir-Tech published an English translation of Realms of Arkania: Blade of Destiny, another successful German game based on the RPG system Das Schwarze Auge (The Dark Eye). The Dark Eye system was a strong competitor for Dungeons & Dragons in Germany, and offered gamers a viable alternative to TSR's rules. One nice innovation is that characters suffer from a variety of negative attributes, such as fear of the dead or a hot temper, which have direct effects on gameplay.
The game sold well enough to warrant two sequels, Star Trail (1994) and Shadows Over Riva (1996), both of which were only available on the DOS platform (the first was available on the Amiga and Atari ST platforms). The last game took advantage of the by-then widely adopted CD-ROM, and boasted SVGA graphics, but all of the games switch between 3-D, first-person perspective in exploration mode and isometric view in combat mode ("isometric view" or "3/4 perspective" is a way of portraying a 3-D object on a flat surface; consider the familiar line drawing of a cube). The combat system is highly tactical and turn-based (reminiscent of an SSI Goldbox game). Of the three, most critics agree that Shadows over Riva is the most excellent, and I'll have more to say about it later.
Other interesting games of the early 1990s are Imagitec's Daemonsgate, Microprose's Darklands, and Flair's Whale's Voyage. Daemonsgate (1992) seems to be an exercise in poor design, and is only noteworthy for its unusual marketing gimmicks. It suffered from a ghastly interface, and its most noteworthy characteristic is that it shipped with a VHS tape. The tape contained a goofy video entitled "Travis Sewerbreath" that had only a tenuous connection to the game. Daemonsgate also featured a "conversation system" allegedly capable of understanding over 70,000 words (few critics seem to believe this blurb on the game's box).
If Daemonsgate is all hype and no substance, Darklands, a meticulously historical CRPG set in medieval Germany, is all substance without enough hype. Indeed, it is undeservedly obscure despite its mind-boggling attention to detail. For instance, not only does the game include historically accurate arms and armor, but even the weights and relative effectiveness are incorporated into the gameplay. It also boasts of a huge gameworld with over 90 German cities and towns, all with historically accurate place names.
The goal of the game is simply to win fame and fortune; the game is quite open-ended and avoids many of the stale D&D clichés. Magic, for instance, is based on the ancient art of alchemy and is quite intricate, and clerics can call on 140 different saints, each with a unique personality.
Many gamers appreciated its intelligent character generation system, which involved adding years on to the character's starting age in return for valuable skills. Unfortunately, the game's code was riddled with show-stopping bugs, and gamers found the save game system irritating at best. Nevertheless, it remains a cult classic with a small but highly dedicated following.
Whale's Voyage is perhaps best described as a combination of Firebird's epic space-trading game Elite and SSI's Eye of the Beholder, and vaguely reminiscent of Binary System's earlier and much more successful Starflight series (1986, 1989) and Electronic Art's Sentinel Worlds (1989). Whale's Voyage did not fare well among critics, many of whom bashed it for its cumbersome control scheme, which required dozens of mouse clicks just to get one of the player's four characters to attack.
The game does feature a unique character generation method involving eugenics and DNA manipulation. After choosing an appropriate set of parents, players can "mutate" their characters' DNA in exchange for better stats. The trade-off, however, is greater susceptibility to disease. Players also get to choose which schools and universities their characters attend. In any case, the game was not a hit, and although there was a sequel released in Germany, an English version never arrived on American shores.
While we're on the subject of rotten tomatoes, we should probably mention Cybertech's Spelljammer: Pirates of Realmspace, which almost certainly contributed to its publisher SSI's fall from grace. Although TSR's Spelljammer universe was successful among tabletop role-playing gamers, Cybertech's effort to bring the world to DOS failed just as miserably at Cybertech's, and for much the same reason. Besides lackluster graphics and the lack of a good plot, the game was not properly play-tested and frustrated gamers with bug-infested code.
Ultima and Ultima Underworld: Who's the Dungeon Master Now?
We saw in the last installment how FTL's Dungeon Master represented a significant breakthrough for 3D CRPGs. Although there had been plenty of other 3D, first-person perspective CRPGs before (including the real-time game Dungeons of Daggorath), turn-based games were by far the majority. However, even though Dungeon Master was the best-selling game of all-time for the Atari ST platform, and achieved remarkable success on other platforms like the Commodore Amiga, many gamers and developers seemed reluctant to jump on the real-time 3-D bandwagon.
The first big developer to do so in major way was Westwood Associates, who developed an extremely successful series called The Eye of the Beholder, published by SSI (their so-called "Black Box" games). However, although these games were set in real-time, movement was not fluid but discrete. For instance, if your party turned left, the perspective instantly shifted 90 degrees, cutting rather than panning to the new viewpoint.
Nevertheless, many Dungeon Master clones were published in the early 1990s, such as Raven's Black Crypt, ArtGame's Abandoned Places: A Time for Heroes, and Silmaris' Ishar: Legend of the Fortress (all 1992), a highly-polished game that was successful enough to spawn two sequels (Messengers of Doom in 1993 and The Seven Gates of Infinity in 1994).
Another popular game from this period is Virgin Games' Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos, developed by Westwood Studio--the same company that produced Eye of the Beholder. Throne of Chaos was noted for its excellent graphics, music, and interface; Westwood was an experienced CRPG maker at the height of their game. Westwood developed two sequels, Guardians of Destiny (1997) and Lands of Lore III (1999), which we'll discuss later.
Origin's Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss was the first 3D CRPG to finally achieve fluid camera movement (and is said to have inspired id's famous first-person shooter engine). Developed by Blue Sky Productions (later Looking Glass Technologies), The Stygian Abyss is a spin-off of Origin's celebrated Ultima series, but its gameplay focuses more on quick physical reflexes than its predecessors.
On the surface, it seems like Origin's attempt to mimic Dungeon Master. It's set deep in a dungeon, and the Avatar needs to constantly search for food and light sources (e.g., torches). Even the magic system is similar; spells are cast by arranging sequences of "rune stones" found sprinkled throughout the dungeon. However, unlike Dungeon Master, Ultima Underworld features fluid 3-D movement. Players can not only turn left and right smoothly, but also look up and down, climb up, and even swim.
Players also have more direct control during combat: The type of attack (slash, stab, hack) is indicated by the position of the mouse pointer, and the strength by how long the player holds down the mouse button. Many gamers and critics argued that these innovations made the game realistic and thus more immersive, as though players were actually in the game rather than simply controlling it from a distance.
Another nice feature was a "map," which not only tracked movement but allowed players to enter notes. In any case, you don't have to be a game historian to see how this game paved the way for the Elder Scrolls series.
The storyline is fairly straightforward. Somehow, the Avatar has found himself back in Britannia just in time to witness a creature carting off a Baron's daughter in a sack. Naturally enough, the guards suspect the Avatar of being an accomplice. Fortunately, he's spared the noose, but only on the condition that he enter a fearsome dungeon called the "Great Stygian Abyss", and return with the Baron's daughter.
Soon enough, the Avatar encounters some survivors of a failed colony, and eventually learns that the kidnapping is only part of a much more sinister plot. It's a good storyline that makes the game more than just a 3D coding feat.
In designing the Underworld system, one of the things we attempted to do was to merge traditional fantasy RPG elements, such as quests and combats and explorations, with a sophisticated three-dimensional simulation of a sensible and believable world.
– from the Ultima Underworld II manual.
Origin followed up in 1993 with a sequel named Labyrinth of Worlds. The sequel made few innovations other than the implementation of digital sound effects and an expanded viewing area. The storyline is also more complex and more closely related to the main Ultima series. A magical crystal of "blackrock" has formed over Lord British's castle, isolating the land of Britannia from its foremost defenders. Fortunately, the Avatar can use a smaller crystal to travel to eight different dimensions in search of a solution to the dilemma. It's a massive game, and the alternate dimensions allow for many intriguing scenarios, such as a fortress floating in the sky, an icy wasteland, and a surreal "Ethereal Void."
Surprisingly, the Ultima Underworld series is not as well known today as later games of its type, such as the Elder Scrolls series. Perhaps the key reason for this is that the games demanded more computer power than most PC gamers could afford in 1992. It's a rare case of when a lengthy production delay could have resulted in better sales.
Stygian Abyss was released for Sony's Playstation in 1997 and was ported to Windows Mobile by Zio Interactive in 2002.
Ascending Pagans at the Black Gate
We might expect that Origin would have incorporated Ultima Underworld's 3-D engine into its main Ultima series, but this was not the case.
Ultima VII: The Black Gate, released the same year as The Stygian Abyss, featured much better graphics than its predecessors, but still relied on the familiar top-down perspective. Perhaps the biggest interface change was a switch to real-time gameplay, which drastically altered the way combat is handled. It was also the first game in the series that can be controlled entirely by the mouse--the manual indicates that mouse play is "highly recommended by Lord British."
We might not think much of this issue today, but this was at a time when many PC owners didn't even own mice, much less see them as a game device.
Even though Black Gate didn't take the leap into 3D, it is still widely hailed as the best Ultima game, rivaled only by Ultima III in terms of popularity. The key assets are the game's gripping plot, well-developed characters, and painstakingly-detailed environments. Much was made of the game's high level of interactivity. How many CRPGs do you know that will let you milk cows and change a baby's diapers just for the heck of it?
To put it mildly, The Black Gate is
an unforgettable experience to those who have taken 60+ hours required
to complete it, and will probably always enjoy a loyal and dedicated
fan base. Unfortunately, the original games exploited some memory
routines that render them incompatible on modern Windows-based systems. Thankfully, gamers can play Ultima VII using Exult, a GPL-licensed program that attempts to recreate the game on modern operating systems.
The Black Gate's plot is quite sophisticated compared to most games of the era, and like most other Ultima games, it has plenty of references and allusions to religion and politics. As the game opens, the Avatar is taunted by the infamous Guardian, then whisked away to the land of Britannia some 200 years after your visit, just in time to investigate the scene of a ritualistic murder. Eventually he learns about a cult called "The Fellowship," which some critics argue satirizes the Church of Scientology.
Perhaps more endearing than the plot are the characters, who are far better developed here than in almost any other CRPG. Instead of merely standing in one place for all eternity just to offer you a thinly disguised hint or geographical tidbit, the characters are shown walking about, engaging in their daily activities--they even to go to bed at night. Conversations with these characters are also more convincing, and can speak about several topics.
The game is also praised for its open-ended gameplay. There are very few guard rails in The Black Gate, a
fact that can either thrill or intimidate inexperienced players. It's
quite easy for players to end up wandering about the game without the
faintest clue what they're "supposed" to do. Obviously, this lack of
clear direction wouldn't bother players weaned on Rogue and
other "sandbox" style games, but players more accustomed to "Do X, Y,
and then Z" type games may find themselves quite disoriented.
Just to give you some idea of how intriguing the world of Black Gate can be, I'll quote a bit from Oleg Roschin's detailed review of the game on Mobygames. At one point in the game, Roschin's party met up with a unicorn, who, as legend has it, can only communicate with virgins. The first time around, Roschin's Avatar was, in fact, a virgin, and admitted as much to the unicorn, who then talked to him.
later visit, however, the Avatar had slept with a harlot at Buccaneer's
Den, and the Unicorn refused to speak with him. As usual, we see that
Garriott subtlety; sure, you can do sinful things, but you
won't always get away with it. Later on, Bethesda would capitalize on
this high level of interactivity in its celebrated Elder Scrolls series.
Origin released an expansion for the game called The Forge of Virtue later that year, but it wasn't until 1993 that Serpent Isle appeared. Instead of calling this game Ultima VIII, Origin chose to label it as Ultima VII: Part Two. This odd naming convention seems to arise from Garriott's principle that no two Ultima games should share the same game engine.
Serpent Isle may have shared the same game engine, but was much more linear and story-based than The Black Gate, a fact which divided critics pretty evenly between the two games. The story begins 18 months after the first part, and involves traveling to a land named "Serpent Isle" to restore the balance destroyed there by the Guardian.
Apparently, the game was rushed through production by Origin's new owner, Electronic Arts, and thus contained many dead ends (players who found themselves in one had to restore to earlier saved games). Origin's struggle with Electronic Arts bear an uncanny resemblance to Garriott's earlier conflict with Sierra On-Line. That conflict had also led to a lackluster entry in the series, Ultima II. Origin did release an expansion to the game called Silver Seed in 1993.
On a side note, in 1997 released its Ultima Collection for DOS and Windows, which includes the first 9 games (including a PC port of Akalabeth)
and both expansions. Unfortunately, not all of the games run properly
in Windows, but with a little work and a tool like DOSBox can run them
In 1994, Origin released Ultima VIII: Pagan, a game with a somewhat controversial title that aroused even more controversy among long-term fans of the series. Again, Garriott seems to have returned to the drawing board and decided that what players really needed was more physical than intellectual challenges. Thus, like so many console hits of the day, in Pagan the Avatar can run, jump, and climb across moving platforms.
Combat was reduced (or, enhanced, depending on your perspective) to a series of rapid-fire mouse clicks, requiring more dexterity than strategy to win. As you might expect, the game gravely disappointed some fans and thrilled others, but the general consensus was that the game wasn't up to the Ultima standard. Many of the key innovations that had made The Black Gate so successful, such as a realistic night and day system, were abridged or altogether omitted.
As if these faults weren't enough to commit Pagan to the flames, a plethora of bugs surfaced, frustrating even fanatical Ultima fans.
Again, Garriott blamed the problems on Electronic Arts and a rushed
production schedule. However, the worst was yet to come.
The last and worst of the single-player Ultima games, Ultima IX: Ascension, was published in 1999, and fans were even more disappointed than they had been with Pagan. The problem this time seems to lie mostly in a bait-and-switch game played by Garriott, who had promised a game more in line with the classic Ultima games, and went to fans for advice—who provided it, diligently. Unfortunately, the production cycle hit gravel early on, and the code went through at least four different versions and no small amount of drama.
Ultima Online was
also in production as this time, and no doubt added to the chaos (I'll
have more to say about that game in a later section of this article).
The end product was a buggy and even more action-oriented game than Pagan, and abandoned the by-then conventional isometric perspective for a fully 3-D world in 3rd-person perspective.
Most Ultima critics bitterly dismissed Ascension out of hand, but the game has managed to attract a small but dedicated fan base. The complaints and defenses are many. One of the most often heard is that it's really more of an "action adventure" than a true CRPG, a claim based on Ascension's rather limited "leveling up" capabilities and rather linear plot structure. Fans of The Black Gate were also irritated by the rigidity of many of the game's events, such as a love story that some felt was "shoved down their throats."
At any rate, no one complained about the game's lush graphics, and the day/night cycle returned, and the music is quite excellent. There is also a high level of interactivity with objects. However, a combination of poor voice acting, lackluster dialog, and rather banal characters certainly haven't helped the game win over diehard Ultima fans, much less large audiences.
Indeed, even a special "Dragon Edition" large-box version of the game that included several trinkets--a nod towards older and more revered Ultima games--wasn't enough to win over jaded fans. Needless to say, Ascension was a sad way for this grand old series to end. It was as if George Lucas had died just after rushing Jar Jar and the Ewoks Save Christmas into theaters.
Transcending Ascension: The Gothic Series
Even though Ascension failed miserably, German developer Pirahna Bytes was able to follow more successfully in its footsteps, pushing the “action” and “adventure” boundaries even further. The Gothic series debuted in November of 2001, and features a real-time, 3D world set in 3rd-person “over the shoulder” perspective. Gameplay focuses on inventory-based puzzles as well as a difficult arcade-style combat system.
The game is most noted for its dark, realistic ambiance and open-ended gameplay, which seems similar to that found in the Elder Scrolls series but with more focus on character interaction. Despite some irritating interface problems and bugs, the game attracted a loyal and dedicated following. Pirahna Bytes followed up with Gothic II in 2003 and just released Gothic 3 in 2006. Both games offered graphical and interface enhancements over their predecessors.
“When the scenery looks like a postcard, but the Hero wears his shield inside of his humerus, there are some major quality control issues going on.”
– Tim Tackett reviewing Gothic 3 on Game Revolution, Dec. 18, 2006.
In some ways, these games hark back to those aforementioned German imports, the Realms of Arkania series. The games have much to offer, but for some reason haven’t received the attention they deserve. While the strong competition has undoubtedly been a factor, there are other rationales for Gothic’s mediocre ratings. The second game suffers from bad voice acting and poor translations, and the third game has enough bugs to make an entomologist’s career.
Critics have remained unwilling to forgive the awkward combat system, though there doesn’t seem to be any hope for a general consensus on the overall quality of these games.
SSI's Utterly Forgettable Realms
If the Ultima series was showing its age by 1999, SSI had entered a much steeper downward spiral by 1993. Although the publisher and developer had triumphed during the Golden Age with its TSR-licensed "Gold Box" and "Black Box" titles, unimpressive games like Spelljammer: Pirates of Realmspace turned fans away in droves.
Nevertheless, SSI trudged on for several more years, though they would eventually shift their focus back to strategy games before officially entering the "Where are they now?" file.
SSI developed and published other TSR-licensed titles after their Gold and Black Box heydays, but none seemed to command the respect of their earlier games. In 1993, SSI published Dark Sun: Shattered Lands, a top-down CRPG based on TSR's post-apocalyptic Dark Sun campaign. Despite an intuitive interface and intriguing setting, the game's mediocre graphics, jerky animation, typos, and buggy code kept it out of the limelight.
SSI released a sequel called Wake of the Ravager in 1994, but even though the graphics were improved, the bugs were back. One particularly bad one was quickly dubbed "The Bug" among the many players who encountered it. The Bug would suddenly prevent monsters from attacking the avatar, making the game a cakewalk rather than the intense experience it was supposed to be.
Although such bugs would be easily enough addressed today by downloadable patches, such a practice wasn't widely practiced in the early 1990s. If you were unlucky enough to buy an early version of the game, you just had to live with the bugs.
SSI also published games based on TSR's horror-themed Ravenloft campaign. The first of these, Ravenloft: Strahd's Possession, was developed by DreamForge and published in 1994. Like Ultima Underworld, Stradh's Possession is a first-person perspective, 3D game with smooth scrolling, though a "step" mode is available. A sequel named Stone Prophet appeared in 1995, offering enhanced graphics and some new abilities like flying and levitating.
of these games are based on "Gothic" themes and seemed poised to take
advantage of the vampire fad spurred by Neil Jordan's Interview with the Vampire,
which descended into packed theaters on November of 1994. Why these
games didn't receive more recognition is a bit hard to determine.
Perhaps they were damned by faint praise from critics, who couldn't
find anything particularly good or bad about the series. In any case,
these games are surely better than Take-Two Interactive's Iron & Blood: Warriors of Ravenloft, a truly rotten fighting game published by Acclaim in 1996 for DOS and Sony's PlayStation.
The last TSR-licensed game SSI published was the infamously wretched (and hard to spell) Menzoberranzan, which appeared in 1994 for DOS. Another first-person, 3-D game in the style of the Ravenloft games, Menzoberranzan seemed to have all the ingredients necessary for a hit. It featured one of TSR's most famous characters, Drizzt Do'Urden, a dark elf of the Underdark popularized by the novelist R.A. Salvatore. Furthermore, the developer (Dreamforge) had responded to earlier criticism and improved the game engine considerably.
Nevertheless, gamers quickly complained about the endless number of boring battles that dragged out the game and ruined its pacing. This is particularly noticeable in the crucial first stages of the game; the game requires considerable patience before anything remotely interesting happens.
The lack of strong sales in these games, and SSI's two dismal console action titles Slayer (1994) and Deathkeep (1995)
were no doubt the straw that broke SSI's lucrative licensing agreement
with TSR. TSR decided to eschew exclusive licensing and extended the
franchise to several rival companies, most notably Interplay, who along
with Black Isle Studios published BioWare's Baldur's Gate in 1998. I'll discuss some of these games in a moment.
SSI also published several other CRPGs during this era, mostly developed by Event Horizon (later Dreamforge). These include The Summoning (1992) and Veil of Darkness (1993), both isometric games that again met with faint praise from gamers and critics. SSI released Alien Logic in 1994, an isometric game developed by Ceridus software based on the tabletop Skyrealms of Jorune RPG. Despite being praised for its innovative premise and gameplay, critics complained about the difficult install procedure and steep learning curve of the game's interface, and the game has faded into obscurity.
In 1995, SSI developed World of Aden: Thunderscape and co-developed (with Cyberlore) Entomorph: Plague of the Darkfall. Both of these games are based on a world similar to the one found later in Sierra's Arcanum; it's swords and sorcery meets "steampunk." The first game features first-person perspective, but the second reverts back to the familiar isometric perspective.
Sadly for SSI, these well-crafted and highly playable games seem to have attracted little interest from CRPG fans then or now.
The story of SSI's slow but steady demise can probably be summed up in one phrase: Death by mediocrity. The company just couldn't seem to develop or publish another masterpiece like Pool of Radiance or Eye of the Beholder.
Games like Menzoberranzan and Shattered Lands just lacked the glamour of games from rival companies, and even better graphics and updated interfaces couldn't disguise the old engine under the hood. Sloppy coding and play-testing nailed the coffin shut.
AD&D Gets Dumber and Dumberer
Although TSR was likely correct in their assumption that SSI was no longer the best company to represent their interests, they didn't exactly strike gold with their next few licensees. Many of these games were action or strategy titles, but there were a few CRPGs in the mix, such as Sierra's Birthright: The Gorgon's Alliance (1996) and Interplay's Descent to Undermountain (1998).
developed by Synergistic Software and is a mix of adventure and
strategy as well as more conventional CRPG elements. It’s based on
TSR's highly successful Birthright game, and features a great
story about a menace named "The Gorgon," who is hellbent on killing and
extracting the divine blood of kings to secure his power. The game
promised plenty of political intrigue and many multifaceted characters,
and players can control not just single heroes but an entire kingdom.
Finally, Birthright had Sierra's powerful name recognition behind it, which included their stunningly successful and highly innovative Quest for Glory series.
Unfortunately, Birthright: The Gorgon's Alliance failed for rather banal reasons. Yet again, a promising game was stymied with game-crashing bugs that irritated even the most forgiving players, but the bigger problem is that the game is a "jack of all trades, master of none."
Birthright wasn't content with being a strategy, CRPG, or adventure game--it tried to please fans of each of these genres. The result was a learning curve steeper than Mt. Everest, a fact that eliminated all but the most dedicated gamers right from the start. The so-called "adventure mode" is also rather tacked-on, and isn't well integrated into the gameplay as it should have been.
Although it has its moments, Birthright amounts to little more than a few freckles and a mole.
Interplay's Descent to Undermountain is an even less satisfying game than Birthright. Descent to Undermountain attempted to ride some of the hype surrounding their immensely popular Descent series by modifying its 3-D, first-person shooter engine for use in a CRPG. The plan may have seemed like a good one, but an apparently harried production schedule resulted in one of the worst CRPGs of all time.
The task of transforming Parallax Software's brilliant FPS engine into a CRPG platform proved far more formidable than anyone had assumed. Besides sloppy coding and countless game-stopping bugs, the game suffered in general from a lack of polish. The levels were dreary and looked too much alike, and many players didn't appreciate their confusing, maze-like arrangement.
Poor graphics coupled with worse artificial intelligence added up to what we might expect--the game promptly descended into the landfill. Undoubtedly, TSR was beginning to wonder if it hadn't been better off with SSI!
Fortunately, things would soon take a major turn for the better with the publication of Baldur's Gate, the game that finally returned TSR-licensed CRPGs to the public eye. I'll return to this game momentarily.
The Dawn of the Platinum Age
So far, I've painted a pretty bleak picture of CRPG development in the early to mid 1990s, but things were not all bad.
Perhaps the key problems developers faced was how to bring the CRPG "up to date" after id's Doom and Cyan's Myst hit the scene. These two games had taken the industry by storm, and publishers were frantic to rush anything that looked like them onto the shelves.
By 1996, almost all serious PC gamers (and plenty of not so serious ones!) had upgraded their computers with the latest game hardware, which included CD-ROMs and expensive graphics and sound cards. Furthermore, what was formerly a forbidding mess of incompatible cards was solidifying into a few recognized industry standards, and a huge market was opening up for games that could really push this advanced hardware.
The publisher's creed was simple: Real-time, first-person perspective 3D or shareware. Origin's Ultima Underworld series fit the bill, but was too far ahead of the curve for most gamers to appreciate. Therefore, the field was open for some talented newcomers who could bring Doom-style graphics and gameplay to the CRPG, and a company named Bethesda soon had their foot in the door.
Bethesda and The Elder Scrolls
Bethesda entered the fray in a really big way with its Elder Scrolls series, which is still going strong today. The fourth game in the series, Oblivion was
just released in 2006 and is selling quite well. However, those new to
this fine series might not know much about its origins, or that it
played an important role in the ongoing development of the genre.
The first Elder Scrolls game, Arena, was published by U.S. Gold in 1994 for DOS. Like its many sequels, Arena features real-time 3-D graphics in first-person perspective. It also boasts of a huge gameworld with over 400 cities, towns, and villages, all of which can be explored--it's a veritable cornucopia of CRPG delights.
Although it is not as well known today as Morrowind or even Daggerfall, you don't have to look too hard to find fans who rank it as not only the best game in the series, but the best CRPG, period. While I wouldn't go that far in my praise, it's hard to deny it a venerable place in the CRPG canon.
One way of thinking about Arena is as a combination of two Ultima games: The Stygian Abyss and The Black Gate. While Arena offered real-time, 3D, first-person perspective like The Stygian Abyss, it also features a realistic game world like The Black Gate's. Not only do players observe the passing of time from night and day, but it even rains and snows according to the season!
Indeed, it's really the sophistication of this virtual world that makes the game so notable. The plot--find the eight missing pieces of the "Staff of Chaos" and use it to rescue the Emperor from a dimensional prison--is hardly original. What impressed gamers was the incredible size of the world, the open-ended nature of the gameplay, and the supposedly high replay value (starting a new game reset the locations of quest items--though it's truly debatable how much this added to the game's replay value).
Though the game offers considerably more freedom of action than most games of its type (particularly regarding stealing items from merchants), players hoping to win still need to perform a fairly linear sequence of quests. Arena also has a nice combat system, in which the position of the mouse pointer determines which of eight types of attacks the avatar performs.
Nevertheless, the game is far from perfect. Like so many other games of this period, it suffers from bug-infested code. The battles are also quite a bit tougher than some gamers could handle, and the game's formidable specs limited its appeal to those with cutting-edge machines.
In any case, the game set a new standard for this type of CRPG, and demonstrated just how much room was left for innovation. Bethesda has been kind enough to re-release the game as freeware, and currently offers it for free download on their website. I only wish more CRPG developers would follow their lead!
"No longer forced to play the way The Man wants, we are now free to ignore the pleadings of the princess, wander off, and get involved in other complex tales that change and evolve in response to our actions!"
- Trent C. Ward in GameSpot, Sep. 26, 1996.
Bethesda followed up the modestly successful Arena with Daggerfall in 1996, a game that is still widely regarded as one of the most immersive CRPGs ever designed. Players were offered Tamriel, one of the largest gameworlds ever seen in a CRPG, and almost limitless possibilities for gameplay. The leveling system was also made more dynamic; players improved their skills simply by practicing it. Furthermore, the old rigid "class structure" was abandoned in favor of a much more open-ended guild system.
Players can customize their characters however they see fit, letting their creativity run wild. There is even an Ultima-style morality quiz option for players who don't want wish to muck about with statistics. In fact, many (if not most) players soon forgot all about the game's storyline and devoted their time simply to exploring Tamriel and honing their character.
were again presented with irresponsibly buggy code, though by this time
they could probably use the net to find and install a patch to fix the
worst. Another big problem is the lack of balance in the game's
difficulty. It doesn't take experienced players long to gain enough
experience to simply walk through the game, obliterating even the most
powerful enemies with ease.
Bethesda developed and published two spin-offs before releasing the third entry in the official Elder Scrolls series. These were An Elder Scrolls Legend: Battlespire (1997) and The Elder Scrolls Adventures: Redguard (1998). Battlespire is in many ways a simplified version of Daggerfall, and is often described more as a first-person shooter than a true CRPG.
Redguard departs from the first-person perspective of the other games in favor of a third-person view, with the player's avatar visible on screen. If Battlespire leans towards the FPS, Redguard leans towards the traditional adventure game. Completing the game requires conversing with a great many characters and plenty of backtracking, but also some Tomb Raider-like action sequences including climbing, jumping, and swimming.
both games have their good points, neither seems to have won over as
many fans as the main series. In any case, it's likely that Bethesda's
team used these games as an opportunity to experiment with different
interface and gameplay techniques.
Perhaps the best known of all the Elder Scrolls games appeared in 2002: The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. Morrowind combined the first-person perspective of the earlier Daggerfall with the third-person of Redguard--for the first time, players could choose between the different perspectives as they saw fit. Players soon discovered that each mode had its advantages. For example, third-person perspective makes it easier to dodge ranged attacks.
The leveling system had also been revamped a bit, and split into two: Primary Stats (speed, personality, luck, etc.) and Secondary Abilities (combat arts, magic arts, etc.). Primary stats only rose when the character gains a level, but secondary abilities improve with use. The system may sound complicated, but it's actually quite intuitive. Characters who run and jump often will see a spike in their acrobatics score. Characters who wield an axe will see their "axe" score raised, and so on. Besides just practicing a skill to gain experience, characters can also buy training or read special books sprinkled throughout the game.
"No matter what your preference, there's no right or wrong way to play Morrowind."
- From the Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind Manual
Indeed, there have been very few CRPGs as complex and flexible as Morrowind's. Even after I had completed the main quest, I still hadn't explored but maybe 60% of the incredibly massive and diverse game world.
Unfortunately, Morrowind has its problems. Like Daggerfall, players will eventually reach a level of experience that reduces even the game's most formidable foes into pushovers. There are also many ways to exploit the game's leveling system, such as standing in one place and casting the same spell over and over again. Nevertheless, the game continues to attract gamers and is still actively played today.
Bethesda produced two expansions for its third game: Tribunal (2002) and Bloodmoon (2003). Both expansions met with fairly good reviews, though the latter is perhaps the better of the two. I'll discuss the fourth game in a later section of this article.
Although Bethesda's CRPGs didn't necessarily bring anything new to the genre, they did introduce a nice alternative to the highly linear, story-based games that dominate CRPGs. Even though each of the games has a plot and a "main quest," players could choose to entirely ignore it, and many did so. More importantly, players were invited to indulge their creativity when selecting and developing their characters; the fun of these games is in customization. You build your character, not play someone else's.
Some critics argue that this degree of freedom puts these games closer to the original D&D tabletop game, in which good dungeon masters encourage players to take a more creative role in the unfolding of the adventure. Why not let a player dash past the monster, grab the treasure, and make a run for it? Why not let her swipe that armor when the merchant’s back is turned? Most games would require players to do the “right” thing, but Elder Scrolls let the player decide.
Other Real-Time 3-D CRPGs
Naturally, other developers weren't content to let Bethesda dominate the real-time sector of the CRPG market. As soon as games like Arena and Daggerfall demonstrated the technical and commercial feasibility of real-time 3D graphics and the immersive potential of first-person perspective, several other companies jumped on the bandwagon.
Some of these games we've already mentioned, such as Shadows Over Riva and the last two Lands of Lore games. Shadows Over Riva hedged a bit; although exploration takes place in first-person perspective, combat is offered only in a somewhat cramped third-person isometric.
A more ambitious (though perhaps more misguided) effort was Westwood's Guardians of Destiny, the second game in their Lands of Lore series. Released in 1997, the game tried to take ride the wave of full motion video games and is loaded with live action scenes (think The 7th Guest or Gabriel Knight II). It also incorporates many arcade elements, including some timed sequences and lots of running and jumping.
The last game in the series, Lands of Lore III, ditched the live action actors for motion-captured animation and voice acting, but most critics consider it the weakest of the three. You are not allowed to create your own character, and critics complained about the repetitive gameplay, unbalanced graphics, and constant need to find food for the main character. It was also plagued with bugs, which certainly didn't improve the game's reputation.
Might and Magic: The Pinnacle and the Precipice
By far the best known company to follow in Arena's wake is New World Computing, which adopted Bethesda's model starting with Might and Magic VI: The Mandate of Heaven (1998).
No doubt, Might and Magic fans were glad to see a new installment after some five years of waiting, and the game's coherent storyline and slightly more structured gameplay offered a viable alternative to Daggerfall. The box and manual sport beautiful artwork by the famed fantasy artist Larry Elmore, whose work graces many an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons product. Unlike the Elder Scrolls series, however, the player controls four characters instead of one (with the option to add two non-player characters later), and combat can be played in either turn-based or real-time modes.
Mandate of Heaven also gave players considerable leeway in how they developed their characters; after an initial choice of class, players decide how to expend "skill points." Skills are divided into four basic areas: Weapon, Armor, Magic, and Miscellaneous. This last category includes some über-skills like learning, which affects all the other skills by boosting the experiences points awarded after a battle. All in all, it's an intuitive and highly customizable way to handle the "leveling" issue.
I should add that the Might and Magic series also adopted the age-old convention of requiring players to first win enough battles to qualify for training, and then come up with enough cash to hire a trainer (many games simply "give" characters a level when they gain enough experience). Since cash is relatively hard for new parties to come by, players have to make strategic decisions about how to spend it--does it make more sense to buy a new weapon, magic scroll, or level up a character?
Although the combat system isn't perfect--all four characters are always on the front line and susceptible to frontal assaults--the game nevertheless won high praise from critics, and for good reason. Who can forget the first time their wizard cast a "fly" spell, sending the party soaring high above Enroth?
"It doesn’t matter what you call these instruments: crystal ball, computer, the Scry of Silicon; the Ordered Runes of Binaria, a keyboard, the Abacus of Turing. A rat, a mouse, the Rodent of Parc. They are Artifacts of Trans-Dimensional Manipulation and, with knowledge, you can command them to do your bidding.”
– From the Mandate of Heaven manual.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Might and Magic VI was
blissfully free of bugs. At a time when almost every other major CRPG
was so riddled with errors that manuals advised players to routinely
save the game every thirty minutes, such stability is nothing short of
remarkable. Unfortunately, New World's quality assurance team soon
lowered their standards to match the competition.
New World's next entry in the series, For Blood and Honor, is often hailed as the last good Might and Magic CRPG, even though it offers few innovations over its predecessor. Only a year had passed since the previous game, but the graphics engine was already looking dated. Moreover, the voice acting is more ingratiating than enduring, particularly after hearing the same few digitized samples for the ten-thousandth time. However, the sound is redeemed by an excellent operatic score by Paul Romero, produced by Robert King. The game also offers more races to choose from and a few other nice features, such as two possible endings.
After For Blood and Honor, the series entered a steep downward spiral. The next game, Day of the Destroyer, was released in 2000, and New World again decided to rehash the Might and Magic VI engine. The result of that decision was a game hopelessly behind the times graphically, but that wasn't the only problem. At least for old fans of the series, there was little thrill in starting over once again with a new set of characters and taking them through the motions once again.
Although the earlier games had certainly had their share of dull moments, Day of the Destroyer is almost painfully repetitive. Even the surprising decision to allow the player to create only one character (the rest of the party must be recruited later) does little to affect the monotony, since the additional characters are almost entirely devoid of personality and impact on the story.
The ability to add a dragon to the party might have been a nice feature, but doing so ruins the game's balance, reducing it to an unbearably dull walk through. As if these problems weren't enough to doom the game, other features like a three-tiered teacher system (expert, master, and grand-master) made long-suffering virtues out of note-taking and tedious back-tracking. Needless to say, very few fans were pleased with the game. Sadder still is the unforgivably buggy code, of which random crashes are some of the least irksome.
"It's a safe bet that nobody will ever wax nostalgic about Might and Magic IX."
- Brett Todd in GameSpot, April 12, 2002.
Day of the Destroyer may have destroyed most fans' faith in New World, but the company must have figured the horse was still worth one more beating. Perhaps it's a testament to the 9th game's overall lack of ambition that it lacks a proper name; it's simply Might and Magic IX.
The box promised "stunning" 3D graphics, and they were--indeed, who could believe that the company would release a game in 2002 with graphics that looked little better than Mandate of Heaven's, published four years previously. The game world also feels cramped compared to its predecessors. Applying the term "artificial intelligence" to the game's non-player characters results in an oxymoron.
Finally, there are more show-stopping bugs in the code than there are blocky polygons in the game. Suffice it to say, Might and Magic IX is just as tragic a way for a grand old CRPG series to end as Ultima IX: Ascension.
One fascinating aspect of the Platinum Age is how many companies managed to reach both their apex and their nadir within such a short span of years, but for different reasons.
From my vantage point, Origin's Ultima series ultimately faltered because Garriott and his development team kept attempting radical revisions to the game engine. During each transformation, more and more fans felt betrayed, until at last they could no longer acknowledge a game like Ascension as part of their beloved series.
New World Computing, on the other hand, were a bit too comfortable with their engine and gameplay mechanics and kept recycling them, much like Sir-Tech had done nearly a decade previously with its first three Wizardry titles. Eventually, even dedicated fans of Might and Magic grew bored with the repetition, and new gamers weren't likely to be won over with graphics that looked over five years old at release.
Thus, we might sum up this part of the story as a "Tale of Two Developers," noting how the first was defeated by ambition, the second by its lack. Only Bethesda seems to have found the right balance of innovation and repetition required to keep a series going strong over a period of many years, though only time will tale if The Elder Scrolls survives as long as Ultima and Might and Magic.
Blizzard Blows In
So far, the best Platinum Age innovations in the CRPG genre have been in two realms: The rise of real-time, 3D graphics in first-person perspective, and the development of huge, highly interactive game worlds.
CRPG developers had climbed aboard the bandwagon begun by first-person shooter games like Doom and Quake. The usual refrain heard from fans of this type of game are that they are inherently more "immersive." You don't just play a character; you enact a role.
If this were true, you might expect that all successful CRPGs released after Ultima Underworld and Arena would
follow their example. However, three of the most celebrated CRPGs of
all time that emerged from this period offered only an isometric,
third-person perspective: Diablo, Fallout, and Baldur's Gate.
Blizzard is probably better known today for World of Warcraft MMORPG, which is loosely based on the company's best-selling real-time strategy series, Warcraft, which launched in 1994 with Warcraft: Orcs & Humans. Blizzard also made gaming history with the release of StarCraft in 1998, which was immensely successful and is widely regarded as the finest real-time strategy game ever developed.
Nevertheless, the publication of Diablo in 1996 remains one of the most divisive moments in CRPG history. Even today, nearly a decade later, no other game has polarized CRPG fans more than Diablo. Are Diablo and its sequel the best CRPGs ever made or the worst? At least among experienced fans of the genre, the jury is still out. Let's take a closer look and see if we can understand the source of this contention.
Diablo is usually described as an "action" CPRG, set in real-time. It's also features a vastly simplified character development system compared to most CRPGs. The player only controls a single character, who can be one of three basic types (Warrior, Rogue, and Sorcerer). The differences among these types are somewhat superficial; warriors can cast spells and sorcerers can wear armor. However, the choice of class does determine the best strategies for surviving battles, and, as usual, it's the magic-using class that starts off weakest and ends up strongest.
Each time the character gains a new level, the player receives five points to distribute among the four attributes: strength, magic, dexterity, and vitality. Although seemingly quite simple on the surface, Blizzard's genius was doing more with less. Instead of baffling players with a complicated skill system like those in the Elder Scrolls or latter Might & Magic games, Diablo offers fewer choices but made them more significant.
The result was a game that met the grand old qualification, "Easy to learn, hard to master." To put it bluntly, if you can click a mouse button, you can play Diablo. Even gamers who had never played a CRPG before found it intuitive and addicting. Furthermore, the production values were high, with great graphics, impressive cut-scenes, and a magnificent musical score. The game quickly became a best-seller, and is still being sold as part of the Diablo Battle Chest!
"Diablo is the best game to come out in the past year, and you should own a copy. Period. If you like PC games, you should go out right now and experience what is likely to be the clone maker for the next two years."
-Trent C. Ward on GameSpot, Jan 23, 1997.
Diablo is also noted for its high degree of randomization. Everything from the dungeons, monster locations, and item capabilities are randomized, ensuring not only surprises but also upping the game's replay value. Of course, readers of this series will be thinking back to my earlier discussion of Rogue and games like The Sword of Fargoal, which also offer relatively simple "hack'n slash" fun in randomized environments. Indeed, one of the most common epithets given to the game is "a Rogue-like for the 90s," though there are plenty of Rogue fans who would object to this comparison.
SSI had tried something similar with its Dungeon Hack game and editor back in 1993, which tried to marry the venerable old mainframe classic with its Eye of the Beholder engine.
Again, one has to wonder why so many developers seem to miss the point
that it's precisely the lack of distracting graphics and complex
interfaces that make the classic Rogue games so novel and playable.
Another aspect of Diablo that set it apart was its support for multi-player, which ranged from the by-then common LAN party setup to a new internet server named Battle.net. Although not without its flaws (cheating was rampant), Diablo's multi-player capability remained a significant factor in the game's long-lasting popularity.
Yet despite strong sales and praise from many prominent reviewers, Diablo was not without its naysayers. Not surprisingly, the game's popularity with "virgin" CRPG gamers drew sneers from long-term fans of the genre, particularly those who'd cut their teeth on venerable old titles like SSI's Pool of Radiance or Interplay's The Bard's Tale. Blizzard had seemed to reduce the often intimidating CRPG genre to its bare essentials, then poured on the eye-candy.
Oldsters scoffed, dismissing the game as a "clickfest." Meanwhile, fans of games like Sierra's Quest for Glory were turned off by the lack of characters and interesting scenarios; for them, the constant clicking and killing brought little more than tedium. Other players complained about the "dark" graphics, which were occasionally hard to make out. The on-screen automapping tool helped with navigation, but frequently obscured the battle sequences.
some players complained about the game's relatively short duration;
gamers accustomed to the hundreds of hours required to slough through
an Ultima weren't happy about a game that could be completed in a mere two days.
What happens next in the Diablo story is quite perplexing. Rather than release a sequel or their own expansion, Blizzard let Sierra On-Line publish an expansion named Hellfire, which had been developed by Synergistic Software (the same team responsible for Birthright: The Gorgon's Alliance). This expansion appeared in 1997, and added two new dungeons, new creatures, spells, items, and a Monk character class.
Reviewers weren't nearly as enthused about Hellfire as they had been about Diablo, and the lack of multi-player support vexed many players. Many fans of the series don't consider it an "official" expansion.
It wasn't until 2000 that Blizzard finally released the true sequel, Diablo II. This game was more complex and larger than its predecessor, and the updated graphics were as impressive as Diablo's had been in 1996. Now, players could explore outdoor areas as well as dungeons. More importantly, the randomized quests were replaced with more linear ones, which allowed for a more tightly integrated storyline and cut-scenes.
The class system had also been reworked, with five (Paladin, Barbarian, Amazon, Necromancer, Sorceress) classes, each with their own unique skills. Leveling up is also a bit more interesting with a graphical "skill tree" system that helps sustain a player's long-term interest in developing a character--there's always some new amazing new ability just a few levels away.
Multi-player mode was better supported this time, and cheating was rarer. Nevertheless, their Battle.net server was prone to lag, though that didn't seem to slow the onslaught of rabid Diablo II fans desperate for online play--a fact that rankled many gamers who had just plunked down $60 or even $70 for the game. Finally, some of the Carpal Tunnel-inducing mouse clicking was alleviated. Players could simply hold down the mouse button to have their character repeatedly attack or move around.
Blizzard decided to make their own expansion this time, releasing Lord of Destruction in 2001. Besides many new items and quests, this expansion offered heightened screen resolution (800 x 600), and two new character classes (Assassins and Druids).
Reviewers were pleased with the improved graphics, as well as many improvements to the Battle.net server that improved the online multi-player experience.
If the only criteria we needed to evaluate a CRPG were its sales figures and enduring popularity, Blizzard's Diablo would represent one of the best (if not the best) CRPG ever designed. The game brought new blood to the genre, introducing it to thousands of gamers who had never played any of the classic CRPGs, much less a tabletop D&D game. It sent hordes of badly behaved teenagers (and middle-aged men, no doubt) scampering to Battle.net, "pwning" each other and seeking out the latest cheats and hacks to gain an unfair advantage.
Diablo and Diablo II are truly CRPGs for the masses. At the risk of sounding like a jaded old curmudgeon, I can't help but feel a pang of regret about the overwhelming triumph of this series, since it seems to have come at the expense of the older, more sophisticated CRPGs of past eras.
Diablo and the Rise of "Action Role-Playing Games"
Given the unmitigated success of Blizzard's Diablo, even the dimmest market analyst could predict the inevitable rush of clones that would follow in its wake.
Many of these games were just flashes in the pan. These include Silver Lightning's Ancient Evil series (1998, 2001), Iridon's Dink Smallwood (1998), Strategy First's Clans (1999), and Sierra's Throne of Darkness (2001). Though each game has qualities that set it apart from Diablo, none have matched its success.
Dink Smallwood was programmed by Seth Robinson, whose Legend of the Red Dragon game we discussed in the last installment. Like that game, Robinson loaded up the game with humor and satire, but it failed to make much impression on the market. Clans introduced more adventure-style puzzles into the mix, whereas Throne of Darkness is set in Japan's Middle Ages, just as Pixel Studio's later Blade & Sword (2003) took players to ancient China. Rebel Act Studios' Blade of Darkness (2001) is known only for its outrageous gore.
Better known Diablo clones include Gathering's Darkstone (1999), Electronic Art's Nox (2001), Irrational Games' Freedom Force (2002), Larian's Divine Divinity (2002), and Encore's Sacred series (2004). Darkstone introduced 3D graphics and the ability to control two characters, though only one at the time (the other is controlled by the computer). The ability to zoom and spin the camera around eliminated many of the problems introduced by Diablo's isometric view (such as objects getting lost behind structures.
Nox, developed by the famed Westwood Studios, met with good reviews and enjoyed modest success. Westwood even offered an expansion for the game, Nox Quest, and in a surprising move made it available for free download. Freedom Force introduced comic book style superheroes and is probably the best of the bunch. It offered a viable alternative to the "dark" fantasy of Diablo and more tactical combat. Vivendi published the sequel in 2005, Freedom Force vs The 3rd Reich. Divine Divinity and its sequel, Beyond Divinity (2004), are essentially Diablo on steroids, with huge worlds and a massive number of skills (500!). These games also improve on Diablo's sometimes confusing navigation interface. Reviewers tended to scoff at their derivative nature, but praised them for their addictive gameplay and attention to detail.
Sacred goes a step further, offering full 3D views and a world that take hours to cross. This game met with plenty of praise from critics as well, who applauded its more open-ended structure, but its bugs haven't gone unnoticed. In any case, Sacred seems to be the best action CRPG going, even if its depth and complexity go far beyond the model established by Blizzard's Diablo.
No doubt it will be interesting to see how far developers can continue to push the boundaries of the action CRPG, since each layer of complexity alienates the type of gamer who was so strongly drawn to Diablo, where the only thing you needed was a fast button finger.
Taylor has, in essence, reinvented the fantasy adventure by creating a world that isn't attached to stereotypical races and archetypes that are often more, than merely, inspired from the works of Tolkien or Dungeons & Dragons.
– Peter Suciu on GameSpy, Apr. 12, 2002.
Perhaps the best known of the more recent action-CRPG is Gas Powered Games’ Dungeon Siege series, which debuted in 2002. Conceived by Chris Taylor and published my Microsoft Game Studios, Dungeon Siege features a large, diverse gameworld rendered in real-time 3D. Furthermore, the game’s custom engine allows the gameworld to “stream” rather than pre-load, which helps make it feel more like a coherent whole rather than a collection of discrete areas.
Dungeon Siege’s leveling system is determined by the character’s actions rather than a pre-selected class, an innovation also seen in the Elder Scrolls series. Although the player can only create one character, he or she can add up to eight other pre-rendered adventurers or loot-carrying mules to the party.
Although critics appreciated the lack of loading times and open-ended leveling system, they chided the simplistic “hands off” gameplay and straightjacket plot. An expansion called Legends of Aranna followed the next year, introduced a new campaign and several improvements, such as a global map tool, but was greeted with lukewarm reviews.
Gas Powered Games released the first full sequel, Dungeon Siege II, in 2005. Although the bulk of the gameplay is similar to the first game, a new Diablo II-like skill tree system gives players more refined options for leveling their character.
The first expansion to this game, Broken World, was published by 2K Games in 2006. Although it’s a bit early to tell what impact these games will have on the genre, along with Sacred they are at least keeping the “action CRPG” alive and well on the PC.
Interplay Goes Platinum
After Daggerfall and Diablo, the typical CRPG fan probably assumed that real-time gameplay, whether 3D or isometric, was the way of the future. However, as we saw in the last article after the publication of FTL's Dungeon Master, the evolution of CRPGs is anything but linear.
Ultimately, craft trumps innovation, and even though Dungeon Master demonstrated as early as 1987 the feasibility of first-person perspective in real-time, SSI's turn-based Gold Box games sold well into the 1990s. Therefore, there's really nothing surprising about Interplay's breakthrough success with Fallout, a turn-based isometric game set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Wasteland Revisited: Fallout
Let's cut right to it. Fallout and its sequel, Fallout 2, are two of the finest CRPGs ever made, and if the era that produced them isn't worthy of the name "Platinum," I need a new dictionary. Like Interplay's previous masterpieces The Bard's Tale and Wasteland, Fallout is one of those preciously rare games that represents more than just the sum of its parts.
I'll offer the standard disclaimer--Fallout is one of my favorite games, and my love for it has no doubt blinded me to at least some of its flaws. My advice is that if you suspect that my praise is overblown, seek out the game and try it yourself. These are tremendously creative games that continue to win over new players nearly a decade after they first appeared on the shelf.
But what is about Fallout that makes it so great? Haven't there been plenty of other post-apocalyptic games, such as the aforementioned Wasteland, Origin's Autoduel, and even Interstel's Scavengers of the Mutant World? Doesn't it also rip its leveling up system from games like Mandate of Heaven and Daggerfall?
"Welcome to Vault-13, the latest in a series of public defense works from Vault-Tec, your contractor of choice when it comes to the best in nuclear shelters. Vault-Tec, America's Final Word in Homes."
-from the Fallout manual.
If I had to sum up Fallout's appeal in one word, it'd be "style." The governing aesthetic is a surreal mix of cheerfully morbid 1950s Cold War imagery and movies like Mad Max, Planet of the Apes, and Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. There are even hints of The Evil Dead tossed in for good measure.
This juxtaposition makes for some of the most compelling moments in gaming history, and I doubt there is anyone who doesn't get goosebumps the first time he witnesses the introductory cut-scenes. Furthermore, the aesthetics run all the way through the game, including the interface.
Most games switch to a boring menu screen full of numbers when it comes time to level up. Fallout presented skills on "information cards" complete with chillingly cheerful illustrations to keep up the disturbing ambiance. Even the game's manual stayed "in character," presenting itself as a "survival guide" designed to look like a government publication.
Indeed, the manual refers to the game as a "simulation" to help long-term Vault-Dwellers more comfortably prepare themselves for a return to the outside world. It even includes some "survival recipes" for "Mushroom Clouds" and "Desert Salad." It's more than obvious that the development team had a blast creating Fallout, and their enthusiasm radiates throughout.
The story is an intriguing blend of alternate history, dystopia, and science fiction, and good enough to keep the wheels of your imagination spinning long after you've completed the game. It goes something like this. Some 80 years ago, a nuclear holocaust wiped out most of the civilized world, but your people survived by moving into a giant underground vault, where they eventually developed their own society and culture (think Logan's Run).
now the vault's water purification chip has worn out, and it's your
character's job to find a new one, fast. That means leaving behind
everything you've ever known. What seems like a fairly straightforward
fetch quest soon becomes much more, and I'm not going to ruin the story
here by giving away any of the many twists and turns. Suffice it to
say, no one who has played this game will have trouble remembering what
happens when you complete this mission.
Fallout 2 was developed by Black Isle Studios, Interplay's new division that specialized in CRPGs. The second game is set 80 years after the conclusion of the first game, and has echoes of the movie Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome running through it. Your avatar's tribe is on the verge of extinction, and has been assigned the task of hunting down the G.E.C.K. (Garden of Eden Creation Kit).
Once again you quickly find
yourself immersed in a moving and captivating story, and it's hard not
to get personally invested in its outcome. The game culminates in one
of the most heart-pounding (and difficult) climaxes of any game I've
ever played. Fallout 2 also offered better dialog options and
plenty of new items and characters. However, the bulk of the game's
engine was left intact.
Although both Fallout games were critically acclaimed and beloved by fans, Interplay did not produce a third game. Fallout Tactics: Brotherhood of Steel (2001) is a strategy game based on Fallout's combat mode, though it does have some CRPG elements. A Diablo clone called Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel appeared for the PS2 and Xbox in 2004, but most fans of the first two games don't care to acknowledge it.
According to an official 2004 press release, Bethesda is currently developing Fallout 3, though it may sadly turn out to be only radioactive dust in the wind. In any case, it would be nothing short of a miracle for another team to match, much less surpass, Black Isle's post-apocalyptic masterpiece.
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.
Arcanum is 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 exotic.
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 player.
"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 force combat.
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.
The 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.
"The 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 juncture.
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 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 and back.
"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 gameplay.
It just doesn't get better than Baldur's Gate.
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.
"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.
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.
Other TSR-Licensed Games of the Platinum Age
Although by far the most popular TSR-licensed games were of this era were based on BioWare's Infinity Engine, there were other contenders: Stormfront Studio's Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor (2001) and Troika's The Temple of Elemental Evil: A Classic Greyhawk Adventure (2003).
Neither of these games were very successful, though at least the latter
achieved some fame for being the first computer game to allow gay
characters to marry.
Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor, published by Ubisoft, is perhaps the most disappointing game in CRPG history. It's one of those games whose sheer wretchedness is hard to describe to the uninitiated, who assume the critic has some grudge or personal motivation for launching a stream of flaming vitriol.
No doubt, part of my own distaste for this game stems from its title, which represents a brazen attempt to lure unwary fans of the legendary Gold Box game to this uninspired, insipid, and downright unplayable travesty. Indeed, my contempt for this game tempted me to omit it entirely from my history. I'd heard about the game months before it was released, and counted down the days until I could re-enter Phlan and challenge Tyranthraxus once again.
down $70 and playing the game for several hours, I kept telling myself
that eventually it would get better. Just a few more battles with those
slow-mo skeletons, and surely my party would emerge from those drab,
look-alike dungeons and the game would start to get interesting.
Eventually I realized that it wasn't going to get any better, and that
I had wasted some twelve hours of my life that I would never get back.
What makes Ruins of Myth Drannor so terrible? Besides the utterly boring sameness to all but a tiny fraction of the gameworld, swarms of bugs (the game actually reformatted some gamers' hard drives!), and fatiguing, repetitious battles--this is one of the slowest games ever in a literal sense.
The turn-based combats quickly become agony as the characters and endless sea of skeletons lethargically plod into position. Heck, the skeletons look about as lively as the player! I was frustrated enough to download a hack to speed up the combats, which eased my frustration, but I can only blame my willingness to actually complete this game as evidence of masochistic tendencies.
I hereby grant Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor the
distinction of being the worst CRPG of all time. More importantly, it's
a grave insult to the legacy of its namesake, and I can only hope that
any gamers unlucky enough to play this game first will do themselves a
favor by playing the original. Even though the older game has
"obsolete" graphics and interface, it has one vital advantage over Ruins of Myth Drannor: It's fun.
Troika's Temple of Elemental Evil is a much better game, and was certainly designed with the old-fashioned CRPG gamer in mind. Troika had distinguished themselves in 2001 with the steampunk masterpiece Arcanum, but Temple turned out to be too "hardcore" for gamers weaned on Diablo and even Baldur's Gate.
Like Ruins of Myth Drannor, Temple of Elemental Evil is
a party-based game set in 3rd-person isometric perspective, and
features turn-based rather than real-time battles. Although it suffers
from a somewhat cumbersome interface, the pace is much improved and the
combat is sophisticated and challenging enough to keep players on the
edge of their seats. Unfortunately, the game is riddled with bugs, and
the lack of a really gripping storyline and interesting characters kept
it out of the spotlight. Indeed, even the surprising twist of allowing
two male characters to marry (see my earlier article Gay Characters in video games) failed to draw much attention to this title.
Obviously, not just any developer has what it takes to produce an outstanding CRPG out of a TSR license. Getting it right involves more than just having an outstanding engine; significant craft is involved in creating a compelling story that makes the player's actions meaningful. The best games (Curse of the Azure Bonds, Baldur's Gate II, Planescape: Torment) offer far better rewards than just experience points and gold coins. They draw the player in, suck away days of his life, and leave him desperately wanting more. On the other hand, games like Descent to Undermountain and Ruins of Myth Drannor demonstrate that these licenses are worth nothing without a solid team behind them.
Miscellaneous Highlights of the Platinum Age
There are several other worthy CRPGs released between 1997 and 2001, even if they do tend to get lost in the shadows of juggernauts like Diablo, Elder Scrolls, and Baldur’s Gate. One such game is Bullfrog’s Dungeon Keeper (1997), which turns the CRPG on its head by letting players assume the role of dungeon master. It’s a rare but startling instance of a developer making a game out of game development itself. Although Dungeon Keeper is probably closer to a strategy game than a conventional CRPG, it still offers an invigorating new perspective on the old dungeon crawl. How do those evil archmages manage to keep so many orcs and dragons fed and under their control? The game was praised by critics, and Bullfrog wasted little time producing an expansion, The Deeper Dungeons, later in 1997. Dungeon Keeper 2, released in 1999, borrowed the bulk of its gameplay from its predecessor, but was still popular among gamers and reviewers.
The Platinum Age also saw the end of three prominent Golden Age series: Krondor, Wizardry, and Quest for Glory. Return to Krondor (1998) brought players back to Midkemia, Raymond E. Feist’s fantasy world. This series is one of the more baffling in CRPG history, since the second game, Betrayal in Antara, is not actually set in Feist’s world at all. For various reasons, Sierra lost its license and had to generate an entirely new world in what felt like a last-minute affair. However, they were able to resolve their differences, and the next year Sierra published the third and final chapter in this disjointed saga.
Return to Krondor is often hailed as the best of the three, with a good story (as if you’d expect anything else from Feist) and lovable characters. Although more linear and straightforward than most CRPGs, players are still given plenty of room to develop their characters and decide which skills to emphasize. The combat system is a highly intuitive turn-based procedure that offers a nice balance of ease and precision. Unfortunately, the game suffers from a rather repetitive magic system that is poorly represented on-screen. A somewhat promising alchemy system is made redundant by a plentitude of pre-made potions littered about the game world. In short, Return to Krondor is a game with a great story and characters marred by a less-than-satisfying game engine.
With Wizardry 8, Sir-Tech was able to finish up its series smelling much rosier than Origin or New World had with their final Ultima and Might and Magic games. Released in November of 2001, Wizardry 8 finally let players squash their old nemesis, the Dark Savant, and for most fans represents the best game in the series, and it’s as fully loaded as a Cadillac. It contained a mix of sci-fi and fantasy themes, and let gamers make real decisions that affected the story. Like the late Might and Magic series, Wizardry 8 is set in real-time, with first-person perspective and fully realized 3-D environments. However, the party size was a full 8 characters, selected from 15 classes. It also offers real-time and turn-based combat modes, and a fairly sophisticated spatial system (i.e., the party can attack or be attacked from all sides). The production values are quite high, with excellent graphics, voice acting, and dialog.
What Wizardry 8 does well is gives the player a solid role-playing experience. If you’ve ever sat down with pen and paper dungeon and dragons, created your own characters, and led them into countless battles, this game will simulate that experience perfectly. – Scott Jelinek on Just RPG, c. 2001.
Unfortunately, even Wizardry 8 isn’t perfect, but suffers from some pretty nasty bugs caused by the infamous Safedisk “copy protection” program. This problem prevented several CD-ROM drives from running the game, and led to other less predictable crashes. Some reviewers also complained that the battles became repetitive after awhile, and slowed the game’s pace to a near stand-still. Nevertheless, it’s one of the last truly epic-sized party-based CRPGs, and a fitting end to a long and historically vital series.
In 1998, Sierra released the fifth and final Quest for Glory game, Dragon Fire. The previous game, Shadows of Darkness (1993), met with mixed reactions from critics and didn’t sell well, but fans pleaded with Sierra to let Lori Cole put an end to the much-loved series. Unlike the previous games, Dragon Fire places much more emphasis on conventional CRPG elements (such as a wider variety of arms, armor, and magic items). Critics tended to be kind to the game despite its dated graphics, occasionally bad voice acting, and awkward combat interface. Much was made of Chance Thomas’ musical score, which lasts over 3 hours.
The Dawn of the Modern Age
The Platinum Age certainly had its share of ups and downs, and gamers enjoyed a wide variety of diverse games and game engines. However, by 2002, CRPGs had lost most of their shelf space to the steadily encroaching MMORPG and RTS genres, and the latest round of games seem (to this critic, at least) to be more about looking back than looking forward. CRPG development hasn’t ground to a halt, but the grooves have worn deep. Most of the CRPGs published in the past five years have either been unimaginative sequels or games so derivative they may as well have been. To put it bluntly, we’ve entered a stage where games are one of three types—Diablo-inspired “action” games, Morrowind-style “FPS” games, and the endless sea of me-too MMORPGs.
Perhaps the two most important games we’ve seen so far in the modern age are BioWare’s Neverwinter Nights (2002) and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003). Although the long-term impact of these games is hard to predict, they seem (to me, at least) to be the most direct heirs of traditions going back at least to Baldur’s Gate, and perhaps even to SSI’s Gold Box games.
Neverwinter Nights and Knights of the Old Republic
Neverwinter Nights features BioWare’s Aurora Engine, a fully 3-D engine that promised more advanced graphics than the beloved old Infinity Engine used in Baldur’s Gate. For the first time, players had a free-moving camera they could position however they wanted. BioWare also included a toolset to let players easily create their own Neverwinter Nights campaign. Like Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights only allows players to create and control a single character, though they can add “associates,” such as familiars and up to two computer-controlled characters. Neverwinter Nights also followed the 3rd Edition AD&D Rules seen in Icewind Dale II, with a fun and intuitive leveling system based on skills, feats, and stats.
Although the two games have much in common, there are many important differences between Neverwinter Nights and Baldur’s Gate II. Perhaps the most significant is that the player’s avatar isn’t woven so integrally into the plot. Instead, the player’s character starts off as a “blank slate” adventurer who has responded to a call by Lady Aribeth to help the city of Neverwinter. Neverwinter has come under a deadly plague. It doesn’t take the player long to learn that the plague is only part of a much larger conspiracy to take over the city of Neverwinter, and the roots of treachery run deep. The player is allowed some leeway in directing the avatar’s action; he or she can be a saintly type, a ruthless mercenary, or a hell-bent sociopath. These choices are mostly played out in dialog options, but also in which side-quests the player accepts or rejects.
Expansion packs for the highly successful game were not long in coming. The first was Shadows of Undrentide, developed by Floodgate Entertainment and published by Atari (Infogrames) in 2003. Shadows of Undrentide wasn’t what most players expected at the time; rather than extending the original campaign, it added an entirely new one that was recommended for new characters. Besides the addition of five new “prestige” classes for advanced characters, the expansion met with generally favorable (but not over the top) reviews from critics. The next expansion, Hordes of the Underdark, appeared a few months later. Thankfully, this trip to the drow’s homeland fared much better than the aforementioned Descent to Undermountain. Besides a few epic battles that no player will likely forget, Hordes of the Underdark also added plenty of new assets to the game, including 50 new feats and 40 new spells. The massive expansion was met with good to great reviews from critics, some of whom consider it an even better game than the original campaign. Kingmaker, an expansion released in 2005, offers three additional “premium modules” for Neverwinter Nights.
BioWare’s most celebrated game of the Modern Age is Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, published in 2003 by LucasArts. As the title implies, this game is based on the Star Wars franchise and the Star Wars Roleplaying Game developed Wizards of the Coast (the heirs of TSR). It’s a highly ambitious game based on a highly modified Aurora engine called Odyssey, and offers round-based combat. Although Neverwinter Nights had impressed critics, Knights of the Old Republic knocked them off their feet, with several claiming it as one of the best CRPGs ever made.
On my second day of playing, I sat down at my desk and started playing the game at 10 am. From then on, I didn't get up for anything until 6 pm that night. Not lunch, not even the bathroom. That's how good Knights of the Old Republic is. – Allen Rausch on GameSpy, Nov. 23, 2003.
Knights of the Old Republic is set some 4,000 years before the movies, but this is still a Jedi thing. Indeed, the player can decide which side of the Force to follow. Much like Neverwinter Nights, players are allowed to select among side-quests, many of which help identify them as good or evil. The game is drenched with detail and story, and some thirty odd hours of highly addictive gameplay. Critics raved about the excellent writing and dialog, which any CRPG gamer knows is quite rare indeed. It won countless awards, and is probably the most celebrated CRPG of the Modern Age.
The sequels to Neverwinter Nights and Knights of the Old Republic were developed by a company named Obsidian Entertainment, which formed after the demise of Black Isle Studios. Both games were created with BioWare’s Odyssey Engine. Unfortunately, neither Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (2005) nor Neverwinter Nights 2 (2006) have attracted the fanfare of their prequels.
Concluding Thoughts on CRPG History
Although the CRPG has certainly suffered its share of ups and downs over the decades, history shows that when things are at their bleakest, there is always a new company poised to spring onto the scene with an amazing new title that brings every true CRPG fan back to the table. Perhaps we’re at such a point now; major CRPG titles have slowed to a trickle, and some critics seem all but convinced that online games like Blizzard’s World of Warcraft are the logical heirs of the “oldskool” CRPG. However, rather than trace the lineage of games like World of Warcraft or EverQuest back to CRPG classics like Ultima or Wizardry, I see them more as the descendents of another genre called the “MUD,”or the multi-user dungeon. MUDs appeared on the gaming scene almost simultaneously with text adventures and the first CRPGs, but were mostly played by college students and others with access to a mainframe (or subscribers to services like America Online or CompuServe).
Although it’s beyond the scope of this article to discuss MUDs in any detail, suffice it to say that the appeal of these games is based far more on the thrill of playing with other people than anything else. A case in point is the original Neverwinter Nights, an online game available on AOL between 1991-1997 that was based on SSI’s Gold Box engine. Rather than get excited about stories or quests, players spent time creating and participating in a player-created “guild” system; the bulk of the game’s appeal consisted in socializing and building up one’s social status. In short, the difference between the typical MMORPG and the traditional CRPG is as sharp as that between attending a Renaissance Fair and reading a good fantasy novel.
Although both offer no small share of delights, it just doesn’t make sense to claim that people should prefer one to the other, or that they are somehow equivalent. Just as self-respecting RPG fan might wish to avoid a crowd of drunken nincompoops at a “Ren Fair”, a CRPG fan may have aspirations beyond being “pwned” by rapacious adolescents.
Of course, there is the question of whether the single-player, stand-alone CRPG is still commercially viable as a genre, and many “oldskool” fans take a cynical view. No doubt, the culture of PC gaming has changed drastically since players were crawling through Wizardry, The Bard’s Tale, or Curse of the Azure Bonds. These games had steep learning curves and required long attention spans—aspects which make them seem quaintly “old-fashioned” compared to games we find on the shelves today. Many modern gamers find even Baldur’s Gate II simply too contemplative; it fails to provide enough rapid-fire bursts of instant gratification to keep them from awake. Can you imagine these folks taking the time to map out a dungeon on graph paper or reaching the level of tactical expertise necessary to complete Wizard’s Crown?
There was a point in gaming history when the CRPG was viewed as the “hard” genre; the genre that required the largest investment in time and energy but which offered the greatest rewards. These were games for the “hardcore,” the computer geek who was proud of her esoteric knowledge and superior intelligence. Some cynics claim that this began to change with the increasing dominance of console RPGs, which by the late 90s were influencing CRPGs more than the other way around (indeed, several RPGs originating on consoles were later ported to PCs, and with much success). Naturally, adapting the CRPG for use on a console required making concessions in almost every area, particularly the interface, which had to be simple enough to work with a handheld controller.
Likewise, these games had to appeal to a much wider demographic than PC games, whose developers could expect much more technical knowledge and sophistication than their console counterparts. Although the difference between consoles and computers has been steadily narrowing since the “fifth generation” or PlayStation era, many old-fashioned CRPG fans still resent the marked Japanese influence on their beloved genre (see my earlier article, Kawaisa!: A Naive Glance at Western and Eastern RPGs).
Yet, there are plenty of gamers out there still playing Rogue and running the classics on emulators or via nifty new services like GameTap (see this list of GameTap’s RPGs). Games like Oblivion, Dungeon Siege II, and Neverwinter Nights II continue to show up on the charts, and an undisputed masterpiece like Knights of the Old Republic is still enough to win over old fans and introduce hordes of new gamers to the genre.
My guess is that the next big revolution in CRPGs is just around the corner, though it’s impossible to tell from which company it might arise, or what form it might take. However, I can’t emphasize enough that the best CRPGs of all time have been far more a matter of craft than revolution, of paradigms coming together rather than breaking apart. Like Pool of Radiance, Baldur’s Gate, or Fallout, the next big CRPG won’t be so much about doing something new, but doing something right.
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