Arx Fatalis

Preview - "the game Ultima Underworld fans have been waiting for"?

Where Am I?

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The short introduction doesn't really offer much explanation as to why you start the game shut away in a dingy cell guarded by a skulking goblin, and the loss of your character's memory certainly doesn't serve to clue you up much either, although a quick natter with another prisoner reveals that you belong to the population of a medieval city called Arx, which was driven underground as the sun disappeared from the sky and the landscape above was turned into an icy wasteland. As your character has no idea who he is or what he's doing locked up in a dungeon cell, this sets the scene for a fascinating and intriguing story which slowly unravels as you progress. Your first priority is, of course, to escape your captor and get out of the jail. The small series of tasks you need to perform to do this serve as a fairly minimal tutorial into the control of your character and an introduction to your inventory and combat systems. Picking up and storing items is pretty straightforward, with any item you can pick up drag-and-drop-able into your inventory. Movement is much as you would expect from a first person shooter, except that it requires you to hold down a button to alternate between the mouselook combat functions and the pointer interface which lets you interact with objects. This feels overly complex and clumsy compared to something like System Shock, Deus Ex or Thief, and it's baffling why Arkane went for something that feels so .. primitive. Combat involves holding down the right mouse button whilst charging up your attack with the left, and simultaneously avoiding your enemy and attempting to line up a decent attack. Frankly, it all proves to be more of a chore than it should be, and I began to think that escaping from jail and beating a goblin to death with a bone would actually be easier in real life.

Spellbinding

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One part of the control system that does work splendidly, however, is your character's spell-casting ability. Throughout the game you can find magic runes with shapes inscribed on them, which are stored in your spellbook. Once you have memorised the combinations of shapes, you merely hold down a spell button and draw the shapes in the air to cast the appropriate spell. The system is fabulously easy to pick up and is extremely forgiving should you be particularly dreadful at drawing with the mouse, unlike the similar method used in Black & White. Arx Fatalis is also an extremely good-looking game. It's hard to explain just how well Arkane have managed to recreate a menacing underground world; the feeling of dread and uncertainty as you tread your first steps through the catacombs is thanks to an astoundingly atmospheric darkness, punctuated only by flickering torchlight, which envelops you and draws you into the game. The textures are also absolutely superb and serve to compliment the extraordinary detail, which is consistent throughout the levels. It looks like Arkane are onto a winner here. It's unlikely that they're going to make any fundamental changes to the interface at this late stage, but as long as the rest of the game lives up to the promise of the opening sections then any niggles with the controls are likely to fade into insignificance. I urge you to keep your pennies aside for its scheduled second quarter release. Update - Many of the control niggles we experienced with this early beta of Arx Fatalis apparently will be remedied in the final version after all, including the ability to toggle between the combat and adventure interfaces, rendering the control of your character in both modes decidedly easier.

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