When we first heard about "Arcanum : Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura" last year expectations were high. This was to be the debut game from Troika, a company founded by veterans of Interplay who had helped design role-playing games ranging from Stonekeep and Icewind Dale to the popular post-apocalyptic Fallout series.
The press demo which we've been playing for the last couple of weeks includes just a fragment of the game, but with everything from an elven burial site to an entire city to explore it is still enough to provide several hours of gameplay and give us a taste of what we can expect from the final product. But after the recent delays, can it live up to our high hopes?
Vorsprung durch Technik
As Arcanum's rather awkward sounding subtitle suggests, the conflict between magic and technology is at the heart of the game, with an industrial revolution turning the traditional fantasy world on its head. And as soon as you start the game and select the race, background, statistics and skills of your character you are faced with deciding where you stand between the two arts.
Technological skills include the ability to build and repair firearms and make herbal remedies, while magic lets you cast spells ranging from summoning or charming creatures to healing your comrades and hurling stone projectiles at your enemies. In all there are 16 schools of magic, each featuring five spells which must be learnt in sequence, while the more technically minded will have access to eight disciplines, each with seven "degrees" to learn.
The catch is that the two are mutually exclusive. A character with a strong bias towards magic will find it difficult to operate mechanical devices, and my mage character was even refused entry to the steam-powered subway system in the city of Tarant on the grounds that my magical aura would foul up the machinery. On the other hand, areas or characters which are biased towards technology will make spell casting and the use of magical items harder. It's an interesting balance, and the game's class-less skill system means that (in theory) you can combine combat, thieving, technical and magical skills in any way that you like. You can walk a fine line between magic and technology, but you will become more powerful if you choose a side.
The Dark Side
The conflict between magic and technology isn't just an abstract part of the skill system though, it is also at the heart of many of the quests which you will be asked to carry out, and forms an important part of the storyline.
Early on in the game you will uncover conflict between a village magician and the local constable, whose steam engine is interfering with his spell casting abilities, and as you arrive in the first major city of the game the headline in the local newspaper is "technology protest claims 3 lives". As technology spreads its influence across Arcanum the magicians are becoming increasingly militant, and this forms the backdrop for your own problems, which begin in spectacular fashion with a zeppelin crash of which you are the sole survivor.
As well as being asked to decide between technology and magic you will also find yourself having to balance good and evil, and convenient meters on your character sheet will show you how far you have swayed in either direction on both issues. The reaction of other people towards you will vary depending on your reputation, and although it is far easier to play a "bad" character in Arcanum than in many more traditional role-playing games, you may still have to face the consequences as the game develops and people hear of your questionable exploits. Other characters in your party may get sick of your actions as well if they don't agree with them, and at least once (when I .. ahem .. accidentally attacked a little old lady) my own companions turned on me and bludgeoned my "hero" to death even before the city guard arrived...
Although the storyline and setting mark a welcome change from the traditional "Dungeons & Dragons" fantasy worlds found in the majority of computer role-playing games, Arcanum in its current state is far from perfect. But with at least a couple of months before we expect the game to be released, the developers still have time to fix at least some of its shortcomings.
Combat can be something of a disappointment at the moment, with neither the real-time nor the turn-based battle systems proving particularly effective. In real-time mode many of the creatures simply move too fast for you to click your mouse on them accurately enough to target them before they reach you, and in the heat of battle it is far too easy to accidentally hurt a friend. Meanwhile the turn-based mode is too slow and plodding to provide any kind of excitement, and doesn't allow the kind of rapid fire spell casting and shooting which is possible (whether intentionally or not) in the real-time mode.
The interface could also use some work, as currently the status bars at the top and bottom of the screen take up about a third of the screen. The camera is very close in as well, which allows for large detailed characters but also means that you have a very restricted view of the world. This is made worse by the auto-map system, which only records a tiny area around your lead character as he or she moves around. You can't even zoom out of this map to get a wider view of the areas which you have already visited, and navigating the map is frustratingly slow and awkward, making exploring something of a chore.
By far the biggest problem though, and one which it is far too late to do anything about this close to release, is the graphics engine. There's no polite way of saying this - the game looks blocky and outdated.
In stark contrast to the colourful hand-painted backdrops seen in games like Baldur's Gate and the glorious 3D accelerated world of Evil Islands, Arcanum relies on a decidely old school tile-based system. Because of this everything from roads and buildings to rivers and mountain ranges are oddly rectangular, with so many right angles that the whole world feels like a cubist nightmare. Terrain looks unnatural and repetitive, which is a shame because those areas which are custom-drawn, such as the zeppelin wreckage at the beginning of the game and the mansion at Tarant, look impressive despite the limitations of the engine.
The other problem with the graphics is that Troika seem to have taken a leaf out of id Software's book (circa Quake), with a policy of "any colour is fine as long as it's a shade of brown". Most of the world is surprisingly drab, a cacophany of browns and greys marred only by the sometimes gaudy clothing of its inhabitants and the faded green of its plants. On the bright side (sorry, bad pun) the day and night cycle and real-time lighting effects help give the game some much needed atmosphere, with street lamps coming on in the evenings to brighten up the cities and your own lantern casting a tiny circle of light around you. Character sprites are mostly large and readily recognizable, and the spell effects are colourful if unremarkable. But overall the graphics are rather disappointing in this day and age.
Arcanum is not a bad game, it just looks rather dated. The setting and story are refreshingly different, the characters are involving, the dialogue is at times very funny, and the skill system that underlies it all seems solid. If you can look past the relatively poor presentation there is certainly a lot here to like, and with a little tweaking of the interface it should be well worth a look for the tree-hugger in your life. Just don't expect anything too revolutionary.
Arcanum preview (August 2000)