You're on an urgent quest to rescue your beloved sister from a shadowy cabal of powerful men who are holding her hostage for your co-operation in their nefarious scheme. The long-lost powers of an ancient god are being brought into the world once more, emboldening marauding orcs in their raids on the kingdoms of man. As the unwilling hero at the centre of this maelstrom, your quest could not be more important.
But on the other hand, there's a man here who needs a hand with some bandits. And if you kill a few more of those bears, you might be able to make a nice cloak or something out of their hides. Oh, actually, you also need to run over to a nearby village to pick up some stuff for a trader. Hmm, and while you're at it, if you hang around here for a while, until it gets dark, there'll be cool zombies to fight! Or perhaps you could forget it all and embark on a life of crime for a while - that open window looks like it's within reach...
Sod it, your sister can wait. Shouldn't have gone and got herself kidnapped anyway, should she?
If you've ever fallen in love with an open-world game, you'll be able to identify with that. It could be anything from Shenmue (I'll deal with my father's killer after I stalk this schoolgirl and play with these kittens) to Grand Theft Auto (sure, I'll sort out that rival gang just as soon as I've driven a truck off this high ramp) to Oblivion (I know there's a Daedric Lord trying to take over the mortal plane, but I can make a damn fine living as a mercenary in the meantime). The idea is the same; here's a world, and here's a storyline you're more than welcome to ignore. Go off and have fun.
Developed by Polish studio Reality Pump - whom you may recall as the creators of Earth 2160 - Two Worlds is the latest fantasy world to be sandboxed up for your procrastinating pleasure. In a canny bit of platform selection, it's on its way to the Xbox 360 as well as the PC, just in time for former Oblivion addicts to forget the pain of fantasy cold turkey and start searching for another hit.
Within minutes of dipping into the world of Antaloor, comparisons with Oblivion are very obvious - and not particularly misleading. While Two Worlds eschews the first-person perspective of Bethesda's seminal role-playing title in favour of a more traditional third-person view, the two share many similarities both in terms of the world and the tone, and the gameplay.
For starters, Two Worlds sits slap bang in the middle of mainstream fantasy lore, just as Oblivion does, when it comes to the setting of the game. Black bears and leather-clad bandits who haven't encountered a Gilette Fusion Razor in their lives roam the hillsides between rural villages full of honest and not-so-honest folk with plenty of sub-quests for you to undertake. Ancient ruined temples are home to unpleasant zombies and feral bands of orcs and half-men. Cities are surrounded by tall walls and gates, and ruled by factions with whom you must curry favour to gain entry. There are greedy nobles, shadowy priests and cruel monarchs to contend with, and skill with swords goes hand in hand with a flair for magic and alchemy.
Like Oblivion, Two Worlds also offers a vast world to explore - with your progression restricted not by the need to pursue a linear plot, but rather by your character's ability to survive the local fauna. After the opening level, where you need to kill a couple of unpleasant half-orc types called Groms in an old temple, you meet with a villager who informs you that a messenger is waiting back in the town; from there on, what you do is entirely up to you.
As far as we could gather, there was nothing to stop you from playing for tens of hours, exploring the entire world, building up your skills to a massive level and becoming feared or renowned across the land without ever bothering to speak to that messenger. Admittedly, you'd be missing out on what seems to be a very interesting, if somewhat clichéd (gosh, you mean you're really one of the only people who can wield this ancient power? How surprising!), storyline, but the point here is freedom of choice, and Two Worlds delivers that in spades.
The Xbox 360 version of the game we're playing is still a little rough and ready, and there are plenty of hangovers from a PC mouse-driven interface which need to be sorted out. Dedicated RPG fans can actually take heart in that, though; it's obvious that Reality Pump has no intention of watering down the game for its console debut, and the range of options available to you in terms of customising your character's abilities, equipment and stats is as vast as any fan of the genre could hope for.
Of particular note is the alchemy system, which allows you to combine items you've picked up to make more powerful items. For example, you might combine two axes of the same kind into a single, more powerful weapon - and mix in something nasty harvested from a foul creature to give it a poison effect, to boot. The only downside of this approach is that while it results in some great equipment, sometimes the final piece of gear you produce is too high level for you to actually use, which has the potential to be rather frustrating.
Graphically, the game doesn't live up to the standards set by the Xbox 360's flag-bearers - including, unfortunately, Oblivion, which doesn't bode well for the inevitable comparisons gamers and reviewers alike will make. However, the artwork is by no means actually bad, with the possible exception of the spectacularly ugly human characters. The various beasts and non-human foes in the game are particularly nice, including some very impressive dragons, and the environments themselves are perfectly serviceable, if a bit uninspired. Of special note, though, is the great draw distance, which looks set to entirely eliminate unsightly fogging and pop-up from the game world.
Also still in need of some work in the version we've played is the combat system in the game - which presently veers wildly between being a very dull and straightforward button-bashing exercise, to displaying occasional moments of real flair. The weakest part of the game is the melee combat, which is reduced to tapping a single button by the fact that most of your defensive abilities and other special skills are passive abilities determined by the game in the background. Opening up new combat options with these skills could be more interesting - although that, arguably, is what the magic system is there for. Magic combat is similarly underwhelming on a per-encounter basis, though. We expect that many players will favour it simply because the spell effects look lovely, but it's going to take a much longer session with a more finished version of the game to determine whether the magic and melee combination yields enough combat variety to satisfy demanding players.
Even if the combat remains a little weak, though, we're intrigued to explore one other element of the gameplay - namely a fairly comprehensive multiplayer mode, which will allow up to eight players to take part in the adventure over Xbox Live. This seems to work by saving the state of the world on one "host" machine, so you can save the game and then reconnect to continue playing with your friends later on. It's essentially a very clever way of implementing co-op play, in other words; and given that we've always fancied the idea of adventuring through games like Oblivion with other players in tow, this could turn out to be a seriously impressive feather in Two World's cap.
The Xbox 360 version of Two Worlds offers Reality Pump a chance to streamline the interface, while retaining the complex game system, and perhaps to fix some problems with the PC version of the game already on sale in Germany - which, as our pals at Eurogamer.de have noted, suffered from serious imbalance issues later in the game, with players essentially being given superhero powers that removed all of the challenge. We've not journeyed far enough into our somewhat buggy alpha version of the game to see whether that has been fixed, but with the game (supposedly) out in mid-July, we should hopefully see updated code in the relatively near future.
Despite our reservations about some parts of the game, then, we're certainly looking forward to throwing ourselves into a longer session with Two Worlds. With just a few scant hours spent in a very early build of the game, it's already obvious that the world and storyline on offer here is rich and interesting, with a freedom of choice and action which will appeal to anyone who enjoys role-playing gaming. If Oblivion stole away plenty of your chilly winter evenings last year, then Two Worlds could be just the thing to occupy some of your hot summer nights.