First-person role playing games have something of a patchy history, with examples ranging from the superb Deus Ex through the arguably mediocre Morrowind to the lamentably bad Kings Field series. Created by continental developers Arkane Studios, Arx Fatalis is the latest addition to this genre; the question being whether it scales the heights of Deus Ex, or plumbs the depths of the execrable Kings Field.
Up your Arx
While Morrowind immediately impressed players with graphical excellence, Arx Fatalis starts off rather less promisingly, with our hero character bashing his bonce and ending up in a murky prison cell, lacking both clothing and his memory. Not exactly an innovative backstory, although the high concept of the game - a world whose sun died, leading to the construction of huge underground cities beneath the mountains while the surface is locked in perpetual ice and darkness - is an interesting one, bringing to mind particularly Brian Aldiss' fantastic Helliconia novels.
After breaking out of your cell, the game leads you around by the nose for a couple of hours, learning the ropes of the world into which you have been introduced. The level of interaction is certainly better than most RPGs, with potential uses for just about everything in the world, and your character skills are very open to adjustment, allowing you to learn handy tricks such as lock picking, powerful magic or better persuasion when bartering for goods. All the statistical staples RPG fans will expect are present and correct, while the first person setting is used to good effect in terms of puzzles and hidden areas.
Wanted: Dark God, GSOH, for fun and maybe more
The primary plot of Arx Fatalis is a complex one, and has the obligatory raising of Dark Gods and Terrible Evils Which Threaten The World (TM). Interestingly, though, Arkane has opted to make the plot quite linear, and while there's always plenty to do on the side, the main path of the game is always fairly clear. In many ways, we prefer this to the open-ended nature of something like Morrowind, which seemed very clever for a few hours and then became quite dull once we realised that although things were happening, they were happening very slowly indeed. Arx Fatalis keeps the pace up and keeps the progress of the story interesting, which is in many ways a vital feature of a good RPG.
Other vital features, of course, are good magic and combat systems - of which Arx, sadly, delivers only one. The combat system is vastly disappointing, making almost no use whatsoever of the first-person mechanics available to the creators, with shockingly poor collision detection and physics. Obviously RPG combat is inherently stats-based, but in this instance you might as well be clicking on your enemies with a mouse pointer a la Diablo, rather than waving a sword in first-person mode. To be fair, no first person RPG with the exception of Deus Ex has really managed this problem particularly well, but it's disappointing nonetheless that combat is so lacklustre.
It's a kind of magic
What isn't lacklustre by any means is the magic system, which takes its cue from the mouse gestures used to cast spells in Black and White. Spells are built up from a collection of runes, which are generally hidden away in hard-to-find places around the game, and are cast by doing the correct series of rune-gestures onscreen. Cleverly, you can pre-cast a certain number of spells and store them as hotkeys, which is a very useful ability for combat, although once you've become proficient at casting you probably won't bother. Each new rune you find opens up a variety of new possibilities for spells, making this into one of the most interesting systems in the game.
Graphically, Arx Fatalis won't be challenging the throne of Morrowind any time soon, but it's certainly acceptable in terms of rendering impressive, gloomy indoor environments. The game's creatures and characters are also nicely drawn - a little too nicely in some cases, with this (mildly arachnophobic) reviewer finding the giant spiders which infest certain areas of the game a little bit too realistic for his liking. Yes, I know, I'm a big girl's blouse... The audio is also good, with a generally high standard of voice acting and sound effects. Sadly, the main characters voice is downright annoying, but the incidental characters more than compensate for this mistake.
Does my Arx look big in this?
Arx Fatalis is a huge, sprawling game, with loads of sub-systems to explore and master and a compelling plot to drive you forward. In many ways this game is superior to Morrowind; although it doesn't have the initial appeal offered by that title's graphical splendour, it has a lot more depth and far less time is spent walking from place to place aimlessly. As a dungeon-crawling RPG, it's a lot of fun, so if that's your sort of thing - and you don't mind dealing with the quirks of an occasionally poorly-implemented first person viewpoint - then it's definitely worth checking out.