While Gothic has already been released in its native Germany (and picked up a number of awards from local magazines and websites in the process), the third person action-adventure / role-playing hybrid has yet to see the light of day in the rest of Europe. We took an English language press demo of the game for a spin to see what we've been missing out on...
Gothic is set in a dark medieval fantasy world ravaged by war between humans and orcs. The whole thing takes place within a vast forced labour camp which has been taken over by the prisoners, giving it something of an Escape From New York feel at times, and your character is himself a convict. But before you are thrown through the magical barrier that surrounds the camp you are given a sealed message to deliver to a group of magicians stranded within.
This is easier said than done, as the penal colony is split into rival camps. The old camp continues to mine ore for the king in exchange for food, booze and women, while the new camp is made up of a bunch of pot-smoking new-age types who worship an entity known as The Sleeper which is apparently about to awaken and deliver them from servitude. Meanwhile the wizards are planning a magical ceremony of their own which might break the barrier they created and free them (and the prisoners) from the colony.
The prison is also a decidely hostile place. Before the game has even started you have been punched in the face by a gang of toughs, and once you get to the old camp you soon discover that the locals run a kind of mafia-style protection racket. Refusing to pay your dues will not only put you in danger from the thugs, but will also annoy your fellow prisoners, who have to give extra to cover what you won't pay. Then there are the giant insects, raptor-like scavengers and lumbering mole-rats to watch out for...
With so many potentially hostile inhabitants, combat obviously plays its part in the game. Sadly I found the controls a little clumsy during fights, and the game lacks some of the variety found in an out-and-out action game like Severance or Rune. But with a little practice it's enjoyable enough, even if you are limited to basic thrust, parry and dodge moves.
Combat is also lethal. In the early stages of the game taking on your fellow prisoners or more than one monster at a time is a good way to get yourself killed, and until you can afford a better weapon than the rusty old swords you can find lying around the place, it generally pays to avoid trouble if possible.
Later on you will be able to purchase armour and more powerful weapons from merchants using a simple barter system. You will also develop your abilities throughout the game, with lock-picking, stealth and magical skills as well as combat practice to brush up on. It's a fairly straightforward role-playing system which doesn't require you to track sheets of statistics, but still adds depth and character development to the game.
You Scratch My Back, I'll Scratch Yours
Although there are plenty of monsters to slay and abandoned mines to explore, it's not all about fighting, and if you run around with your sword drawn you will tend to annoy the locals. Starting fights inside one of the camps is generally not a good idea.
Instead much of the game is spent exploring the penal colony, talking to its inhabitants and carrying out subquests for them. For example, if you want to be accepted as a member of the old camp you will need to get some of its more influential inhabitants to speak out on your behalf, which in turn requires you to do them favours. This can range from something as simple as gathering ingredients for a stew to locating a missing guard suspected of defecting to the new camp.
There are literally hundreds of prisoners scattered throughout the colony, each with their own individual memory. Annoy or attack somebody and they will not only remember it, they will also warn their friends about you, while on the other hand you may find their enemies warming to you.
Prisoners and monsters alike have their own lives within the game, and as the sun sets you will find some monsters bedding down to sleep while in the camps many of the convicts will retire to their huts to sleep, or sit around a fire smoking dope, drinking beer or cooking their dinner.
The graphics are more than adequate for this kind of game, with impressive scenery, a full day and night cycle, and the occasional treat of spectacular lightning storms sparking off the roof of the magical barrier far above you. The only real gripe is that even with the visual range set to maximum there was still some scenery pop-up in the more open areas, with mountains fading in and out of the sky in the far distance. As the game runs perfectly smooth at 1024x768x32 on my GeForce 2, it would have been nice to have the option to increase the drawing distance even further to avoid these annoying little glitches.
The sound and music are also above average, with plenty of short snatches of conversation to overhear in the camps and reasonably good voice acting for the main dialogue. It all adds up to produce an immersive and believable world which helps suck you into the game.
Gothic reminds us a lot of Outcast, but without the voxels and alien mumbo-jumbo. The combat is a little hit and miss, but the game offers a nicely detailed world to explore, an interesting story and setting, a wide range of characters to chat with, and plenty of missions to carry out for them. If the rest of the game lives up to the standards of the demo, we can only hope that a publisher picks it up soon so that the rest of Europe can get a taste of what the Germans have been enjoying for the last few months.
In the meantime, if your German is up to scratch you can download the demo from the Gothic website. Unfortunately the English language version we played won't be available to the public until after a publisher has been found.