Written by: Stoo

Date posted: December 13, 2009

Trollocs are basically Wot's version of orcs.

argh oh christ get away from me

A couple of years ago I got hooked on Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series of fantasy novels. Which meant embarking on a journey that took me the best part of a year, because it’s more or less the polar opposite of the concept of “concise storytelling”. With multiple plot threads running in parallel, swarms of secondary characters and no particular sense of urgency, the series sprawls through eleven (so far) doorstoppers. Each of which is 800ish pages in length. That’s a hell of a lot of lunchtimes.

Still it’s been worth it. I’ve greatly enjoyed following the journeys of the protagonists, as they rise from humble origins to become mighty lords, generals and mages. There’s been masses of adventure and battle to keep me gripped until the small hours. And plenty of plotting and scheming from some of the myriad factions, to provide tension. Sure it’s glacially paced sometimes (book 10 was a bad offender), but it’s still pretty much perfect escapsim.

Anyway once finishing book eleven I’d become so immersed that I felt a void in my life. Sadly Jordan died before writing the final tome. Currently some poor sod who got roped in is still in the process of the task of trying to bring it all together to a conclusion (word is, that last book has become three). So with a need for a bit more Wheel of Time in my life, on a whim I idly typed the title into Mobygames.

After all there’s some rich gaming potential. Jordan created a meticulously detailed fantasty world that’s just waiting to be visited in an interactive manner. There’s a comprehensive magic system, a whole continent mapped, and some widely varying nations and cultures. Also while it’s quite generic fantasy in some ways, at least there are no elves. On the other hand though the books are just that, books. There have been no TV or movie incarnations to raise the series’ profile. So my blind search was a long shot and wasn’t really sure what, if anything, I’d come up with. Certainly nothing really notable or I’d have heard of it already. Maybe an obscure, interesting-but-flawed RPG?

Well no, of all things I found a first-person shooter. Which seems an odd choice at first but hey, it had to be worth a shot. Also from our retro-gamer perspective fantasy settings are rare for this genre, heavily outnumbered by scifi and modern warfare. The only major fantasy name in the field is Raven’s Heretic-Hexen series which (not counting the 3rd-person final installment) last had an entry in the Quake days. This one is Unreal powered so represents the succeeding generation of shooter technology. So I hastily headed over to ebay to find a copy.

So here’s Wheel of Time. It puts you in the role as an Aes Sedai, that is, a member of a female-only order of what are essentially wizards. Ruling their own city-state and wielding great political influence along with their mastery of magic, they’re distrusted by most and outright feared and hated by some. They are however key to defending the world should the Sauron-esque Forces of Darkness ever rise again. So far so good, say the Jordan fans, so how does this fit in with the story in the books?

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The White Tower looks pretty spectacular.

Well here’s the thing: it doesn’t. Which is why I haven’t bothered explaining that story in any detail. It’s the same world, and the same institutions and factions exist. However there’s no mention of any of the events in the books, or of any of the characters apart from a brief appearance by one of the villains. It doesn’t even have background references to the WoT story. Given your character’s status and location, you’d know if any of those events were taking place. Presumably then, this is set some years before the rise of the Dragon Reborn.

To be fair I wasn’t expecting a book to be retold in shooter form. Surely though one of them could have been tied in somehow. The later books see the protagonist becoming a mighty ruler of several nations and waging campaigns against others. So there’s plenty of potential to have you sent off on missions related to furthering his goals. Or you could team up with his friends who tend to go off on their own lengthy quests around the world. There would have been plenty of opportunities to weave your own story into the adventures of the key heroes, without treading on the established narrative.

So then, does the game at least tell a decent story of its own? Well, no. Detached from the WoT plot except for the fundamentals of the backstory, this one fails to build much by itself. There is an appealing theme of a shy bookish woman stepping up to a challenge – and incidentally, kudos for giving us an unglamorous and sensibly dressed heroine in a fantasy game for once. Just not a lot else. Given that the Aes Sedai are known for scheming as much as spellcasting, it does feel like a missed opportunity.

It is still a trip into Jordan’s world though. Often, it manages to look very authentic. One of the highlights is a set of levels White Tower, Home of the Aes Sedai. Here the Unreal engine is shown off to its fullest potential, as it all looks really gorgeous. With stunning architecture, marbled walls and richly detailed chambers, it’s great just to walk around and appreciate the surroundings. Well, when not being hacked by axe-wielding monsters anyway.

Otherwise though I often found maps a little uninspiring. What I wanted to see was more variety, and more of the cities, towns and and cultures of Jordan’s world. I’m sure a fan would love to go hunting spies in Tanchico or helping Elayne secure her throne in Andor. Or how about helping Villagers in the two rivers fend off a trolloc attack alongside Perrin. Or encountering wary Aiel at an encampment in the waste. Instead though get some generic fortress and dungeon maps. Again they’re very well rendered in Unreal-o-vision. Just, not using the opportunities for something moree thematically interesting, that the source material presents.

Anyway let’s talk combat as it is a little different to the shooter norm. For weapons you have Ter’Angreal, which basically means “magic bauble that channels a spell”. You start with a puny gust of wind thing, then upgrading to a fast zap, fireball and so on. The ultimate weapon is more or less a beam of death. However there’s a wide range beyond that, of defensive and utility spells like shields, traps and freezing foes in ice. So it’s good selection that doesn’t feel too much like just “magic guns”.

Sometimes it works pretty well. You feel you have to conserve your spells, especially early on. Also enemies are challenging right from the start, and are fast enough that running is rarely an option. So you might have to think what approach you’re going to take for best effectiveness. In fact one level – one of the best – really pushes that with you defending allies from successive waves of attackers with limited resources. If you have AI allies, be sure to fight alongside them. If you see a handy pit or channel of boiling water, try the whirlwind spell to drop someone in it.

It can be really tricky though. Once an enemy is on the attack they can be damn hard to both hit and run away from. It can be fiddly also to pull out the correct countermeasures in time, especially if something leaps out in your face or you’re under attack from enemy spellcasters. Some spells feel far too puny and the beefier fireball will hit you too with splash damage if the enemy is too near. Which they often are.

So I often ended up backed into a corner mousewheeling in panic looking for the right shielding spell. Then dying. There can be some great moments of satisfaction – especially when you drop those damn Black Ajah. Just also moments of God Dammit, especially given how freely they can fling their own fireballs.

Lurking around the haunted city of Shadar Logoth.

Lurking around the haunted city of Shadar Logoth.

Few more points to note. One is, the soundtrack isn’t great. Well, it’s got a pseudo-folk-rock feel that would be listenable in other circumstances. It just doesn’t quite work here. Also, there’s an extensive multiplayer side to this game. It apparently involves holding and attacking forts, expands the use of traps and allies etc. I’ve not played it though and not factored it into this review. Sorry!

So overall you can probably sense the mixed feelings here. WoT never really raises itself to excellence. I could have forgiven annoyances in the combat, but it also doesn’t do justice to the source material which could have really brought it alive. I really wanted to experience Jordan’s world first hand, to meet his heroes and to feel like I was playing my own part in the saga. Ultimately though I was just zapping monsters around some impressive scenery.

So if I’m throwing out a lot of criticisms, it’s cos I was (unfairly?) approaching this with high expectations for something more than just another competently-made shooter. Certainly it’s not a bad game, or a lesser experience than the likes of Unreal. If nothing else it’s our only chance so far to see the White Tower and Shadar Logoth up close. And as mentioned, there’s not a lot else out there for first-person fantasy action. So if you spot it for a few quid on ebay, by all means have a look.