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

April 11, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 8 of 12 Next

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.

Dungeon Siege looks great, but many critics panned the "click and watch" gameplay.

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.

Few games are as aesthetically pleasing--and disturbing--as Fallout. Besides, ain't it cool to kill rats with brass knuckles?

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).

However, 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.

Article Start Previous Page 8 of 12 Next

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