Written by: Stoo

Date posted: June 13, 2011

Field raiders were my arch enemies early on. Bastard things.

So our RPG-playing machine rumbles into action once more, on a mission to fill out the still somewhat-meagre looking section on this site. Today we’re looking at an action RPG of the sort with a wide open world, a central story and also plenty of options for side-quests, exploration and random goofing around. A good point of reference, i.e. a game of a similar sort, from around the same time, might be the better known Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind. In fact I first heard of this one when reading forum discussions, where serious RPG fans were comparing this one favourably to Bethesda’s game.

Of course I probably should have started my journey into the world of Gothic by playing the original. But I haven’t. Sorry! Jumping into a series in the second instance is a recurring bad habit of mine.

The setting is the island of Khorinis, of which I believe a smaller portion featured in the first game. Its features include a port town, mines vital to some distant empire, and malcontent landowners and mercenaries on the verge of rebellion. Unfortunately there’s also a massing army of Orcs, that has everyone quite worried. You step into the shoes of the nameless hero, returning from the original, who was originally a prisoner in the mines but rose to be a mighty hero and defeated some great evil. He was greatly injured in the process though, which handily explains why you are, for gameplay purposes, knocked back down to level 1 wimp status. You’ve been recuperating under the care of a secretive mage, who tells you that evil is on the march again. It’s up to you to tackle it, of course, but you’re going to need some help, perhaps from that order of paladins garrisoned in town.

There’s no choosing of character classes right at the start, or other such RPG details, so you just grab a few provisions, find a rusty sword, and head on out on your journey through the hills. And possibly get murdered by the first bandit, wolf or oversized beetle you encounter. But we’ll get onto that in a sec. For now just run for the first sign of civilisation.

There’s one main, large town, which soon will come to feel like a welcome sanctuary. There’s a lot going on here, and in proper RPG fashion you can buy supplies, sell loot, and take care of business. You might visit some fighting trainers, or do some crafting of potions or weapons. Also you’ll pick up a lot of quests, be they key events that advance the story or just running errands for cash, like carting supplies out to farmers. As any aspiring hero tends to do on his path to greater things, of course.

Also you could just get to know the characters, as it does make errand-running a bit more worthwhile at least. They tend to be square headed and samey looking and the voice acting is more enthusiastic than professional. However they’re also quite well developed individuals, with their own personalities and agendas. Rough and ready mercenaries are sometimes friends and allies, that you might want to do a favour for (some are recurring from the first game). And sometimes bastards who need their asses kicked, if you feel tough enough. Paladins are good guys but kind of stuffy. The old sea captain longs for one more voyage. And so on.

Oh and a nice touch is that people have a bunch of scripted routines when not interacting with you. Some go from their shops, to the tavern in the evening. Most will head to bed at midnight. Soldiers practice with their weapons. One guy goes and pisses on a tree in front of everyone first thing in the morning (you get to knock him out if you like). Passers by exchange a few lines. Sure it’s not a lot, but it does help bring these places to life a little. I bring this up, because I recall mentioning in Morrowind how lifeless NPCs were.

Also if you need extra cash, you can pick up thieving abilities and go sneaking into peoples’ homes after dark. Or you go pick fights down at the docks, for practise or just for the sake of being a bastard. Point being, there are a range of ways to interact with the people in this game, all quite convincingly implemented. When a town is more than a collection of vending machines and exposition-delivery, it helps make a game like this feel all the more immersive.

oh shi-

Moving on, outside the town walls, the most important features are the bases of operations for the fire mages and mercs. Quite soon into the game, you start on a path to joining either one of those, or the militia\Paladins back in town. I went for mercenaries myself, and a major subplot is gaining their respect, either doing missions (kill bandits, collect payment from farmers) or just beating the crap out of the obnoxious ones, to join their ranks. Whichever choice you take has a big influence in your path through the story, and your relationships with some key characters.

Venturing outside these landmarks, you’ll find this doesn’t have the sheer square mileage of wilderness or multiple towns of an Elder scrolls game. Still there’s plenty of exploring to do – the game has some large forested areas, farms, hunter camps, haunted caves and abandoned wizards towers. Once you’ve made it to the end of the first chapter in fact the area roughly doubles in size, with the (orc infested) valley of mines becoming accessible. I went on several lengthy trips lasting a few days game-time, and it was a pretty rewarding adventure to go seeing what lay beyond the next hill.

I should mention the visuals now we’re talking the great outdoors. To be sure the game is showing its age nowadays, lacking various fancy tricks with shading and textures. Still the plainness is offset by great scenery and architecture, and it doesn’t skimp on the detail. Terrain is rolling and varied, with paths twisting over high windswept hills and down through forests and swamps. Pleasant looking streams trickle their way past and look great on a sunny day. Alternatively, head out through the trees and thick undergrowth, you can almost feel the damp earth under your feet. And it can be genuinely disorienting if you haven’t yet gotten a map, doubly so if you’re stumbling around in the dark, as the game has a proper day\night cycle and weather effects too.

So that’s the world of the game, turning to the hero himself you’ll be wondering how he develops. Completing quests or killing stuff nets experience points, quite standard for the genre. Get enough of these and you gain more health (always good) and ten “learning points”. These can be put into weapon skills, or raw attributes like strength. Also though they are what go on what you might call “utilities”, like thieving, potion brewing or the ability to take trophies from beasts. So, especially early on, that might force a choice between being a bit more badass on a levelup, or increasing your revenue.

There are also three different ways to fight – melee (1 or 2 hand options), bows (regular or cross-) and magic. If you join the fire mages, you will of course spend points building ability in that last one. Mercernaries meanwhile are purely about weapons, whereas Paladins are mostly weapons to start, with some magic thrown in later.

So then, ready to get going? Head out into the forest on a great adventure and righteously slay hideous beasts? Well, no, despite the opportunities for exploration actually I’d suggest not going too far off the beaten path at first. Stay in sight of safety. That’s because combat can be pretty damn unforgiving for a new player and you may end up very dead very quickly.

There are a few factors at play here. For one the system for melee fighting draws on your own dexterity as a player, more than I was used to in an RPG. You can’t just spam attack, or hide behind a block. Enemies have various attack patterns, and you have to learn how to counter them. For armed humanoids that means finding a rhythm of blocking their attacks then getting in a counter-swing. Beasts on the other hand cannot be blocked, so fighting them is more about dodging and warding them off, and looking for an opportunity to get a solid hit without leaving yourself open.

This can be complicated by the controls, which by default use a system of “move direction plus action button” to carry out various actions. An alternative is offered, where main attack and left\right swings are mapped to single keypresses, and this might be easier to pick up. On the other hand, Gothic veterans often speak highly of the original, citing it as being more fluid and flexible, especially if you want to pull of the multi-swing combo-moves that later become available.

running errands in the town

Also though, it’s quite easy to stumble into a fight that’s simply out of your league, even if you’re getting the hang of the controls. One wolf might be do-able, but a pack of them is at level two a problem. What’s more, there are other monsters out there that will gleefully one-shot-kill a lowbie character. So you have to pay attention to your surroundings, and be prepared to run, a lot. If you hear the scching of a weapon drawing, and guttural orc cries, it’s not yet time to be a hero. Cowardice is acceptable. Leg it!

Presented with all this, and knowing I have no manual dexterity to speak of, I went more for bows. That’s not necessarily an easy option for the early stages though – you have to do a lot of hit-and-run, made harder by inability to fire whilst moving. You can also try scrambling out of reach onto ledges and firing from safety, which actually works too well sometimes, to the extent of feeling cheap. But that assumes you manage to find a safe spot in the first place.

At this point I realise I might have made the combat out to sound a bit daunting. But here’s my tip – stick with it. Really, it’s worth it. At first there’s the thrill simply of getting out alive – I have fond memories of creeping through those forests terrified of what was behind the next tree, or running like hell for the mercenary camp with packs of wolves braying for my blood. Then around the mid-stages, you have the joy of killing your first orc. You bandage your wounds, say something contemptuous to the foe you once thought utterly invincible, then hope to god he doesn’t have any friends nearby.

With increased level the combat becomes more forgiving – basically because you’re up against foes you’ve been encountering from the start, but the balance of power has titled – you swing faster, can do stronger combos, shoot with more accuracy, and take more hits. In fact you’re a goddamn killing machine, lizardman corpses piled around you. In a sense this feels like odd pacing, with the final third or so of the game being the easiest, but but after all those hours spent as a wimp fleeing for his life or barely surviving a fight with goddamn velociraptors, at least you feel like you’ve earned it. Really I just wish the “boss” fights were a bit more demanding.

This might be a good time to mention the expansion, Night of the Raven, which integrates with and alters the original game as opposed to being a standalone piece. I’ve not played it, but I hear that along with adding a lot of content, it ups the difficulty by slowing acquirement of learning points (and so slows your increase in power). If you’d suggested that to me when first playing I’d have called the idea madness, and I do think “vanilla” might be a better bet for newcomers. but now I’m done I can see the appeal for veterans.

Anyway as you rise to become a mighty hero, you can progress through the game’s story, with key objectives advancing it through six chapters. It’s a bit generic in places, especially having a magic macguffin as a key objective, and the enemy being faceless evil-for-the-sake-of-evil. Still events along the way are more involving, like that way you have to prove yourself to a faction to gain the support needed to embark on such a quest, or your adventures helping out a besieged and doomed castle, a key feature in the second chapter. There’s also a character who seems to be on your side, whilst being a member of what’s supposed to be the bad-guy-mages sect, and he kept me moderately suspicious throughout.

If you want to progress in the ranks of the Mercenaries, you want Torlof on your side.

Also you really shouldn’t be sprinting through the story anyway; an open world game like this offers so much more. Do every optional quest you can find, talk to every NPC to learn their own sides-stories. Climb every hill and see what the lizardmen are guarding. That’s how you can come to feel involved in the extensive and detailed experience. My own moment of realising I’d truly immersed myself in Gothic was when a fight with a band of orcs spilled over onto a farm, and a shepherd I’d known since level 1 was hacked down in the confusion. A roaring rampage of revenge was clearly called for.

Before I close this one, I mentioned Morrowind at the start so here’s the quick versus rundown. Morrowind has greater scale, more content and more exploration. It does though rely to some extent on cut-and-paste repetition. It also has the visual updates that come with a large modding community. It has a more exotic world, as compared the more generically medieval one here, and a more intelligent story, albeit one rather drily told. Gothic 2 however feels like it packs in more detail, and is feels more genuinely alive. Also, the challenging combat will be preferred by many to Morrowind’s mix of clicking and invisible dice rolls.

Ultimately they both hold a high place in my regard. This one might have felt a bit rough starting out. But with some perseverance it’s highly rewarding, providing excitement, adventure and a good dose of freedom. What’s more it’s one I find I want to play through again, joining one of the other factions and opting for a different style of combat, just to relive it all in a different manner. Which to me is a good sign of a successful RPG. It’s not really one for casual hack-and-slashers, but for serious genre fans it’s well worth a look.