One of the more unusual looking role-playing games currently in development is "Arcanum : Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura", which (as the rather lengthy title suggests) mixes technology and magic in an off-beat steampunk setting.
Developers Troika are no strangers to this kind of game - although Arcanum is their first game, the company was founded by the core of the team behind "Fallout", a classic RPG set in post-apocalyptic America, and other members of the team have contributed to more traditional RPGs such as "Stonekeep" and "Icewind Dale".
Arcanum is set in a fantasy world with a twist, a familiar world of dwarves, elves and orcs, but one in which the emergence of technology is starting to challenge the dominance of magic. A world where you will find airships, steam trains and pistols alongside the undead, wizards and magical potions.
At the heart of the game is the conflict between the traditional art of magic and the growing use of technology, which provides for an explosive mix. After all, even the most rudimentary technology depends on the fundamental laws of physics to function, but magic relies on bending or even breaking those laws.
The result is that people with a strong affinity for magic can actually bend physical reality as we understand it, which in turn makes it harder for guns and other technological contraptions to effect them. On the other hand, the "technologists" reinforce the rule of science around them, making it harder for magic to effect them.
This delicate balance between science and magic has obvious consequences for character development, as creating a character which is proficient in both science and magic will leave you with a jack-of-all-trades who is master of none.
Luckily this doesn't limit your choices though, as the game is based around a completely classless system similar to that used in online role-playing games like Asheron's Call. Instead of forcing you to choose your class and then be restricted by that throughout the game, Arcanum uses a more open system which allows you to spend points on any of a wide range of stats and skills as your character develops.
And although you will still have to make a choice between following the path of magic or technology unless you want a character who is fairly ineffective at both, the two powers in the game can often be used in different ways to achieve much the same result.
For example, a mage casting a "stone missile" spell is essentially the same as a more technology-oriented character firing a gun. Both result in a solid projectile being flung through the air at their target, it's just that one of them materialises that projectile out of thin air, while the other launches it from a metal tube using a small explosion.
Even necromancy is no longer limited to magicians - technologists with the appropriate skills can emulate Dr Frankenstein and bring the dead back to life.
As with any good role-playing game, Arcanum has a fairly linear central story to keep the player involved, as well as a large number of smaller quests and sub-plots to sidetrack them and provide some much needed extra experience and equipment along the way.
There is also more than one way through each of the quests which make up the main plot though, and the player's actions, stats and skills will have a big effect on how the game is played out. This should provide plenty of replay value if Troika can pull it off successfully, as different characters and different approaches to the same situation could lead your party off in completely different directions each time you play through the game.
For example, other people's responses to your characters when you talk to them can depend on any number of factors including your reputation, charisma, intelligence, race, alignment, skills, how rich you are, and which side of the magic-technology divide you stand on.
Even if you get sick of the single player game, naturally there is also full multiplayer support built in, with up to eight players currently able to play together over a LAN, or online through the WON.net service.
But while games like the "Baldur's Gate" series allow players to battle their way through the single player campaign online, with sometimes mixed results, multiplayer Arcanum is based around a series of seperate "modules" - shorter adventures with their own maps, quests and characters, designed specifically with online play in mind.
And because the game has a continuous world rather than being split up into smaller zones, players don't necessarily have to stick together in the same area - they are free to wander off and do their own thing, or split up into smaller groups to explore. So hopefully we can finally say goodbye to those annoying "you must gather your party before venturing forth" messages...
Another of the strengths of the homebrew engine that powers the game is its dynamic lighting, complete with day and night cycles. Whereas in most games the changing light levels throughout the day are just there to look pretty, in Arcanum it has a very direct effect on the gameplay. For example, hiding in the shadows and sneaking around is easier in the dead of night, while the darkness will make it harder to aim your weapons should you get into a fight.
Now due for release early next year, Arcanum might not have developed quite the level of hype that "Baldur's Gate II" and "Diablo II" have enjoyed, but with a novel new setting, a strong single-player campaign, innovative gameplay and an experienced development team behind it, the game is certainly well worth a closer look. And that's exactly what we'll be doing later in the year as it nears completion...