Written by: Stoo

Date posted: May 28, 2014

I didn't get many screenshots as I realised until too late, Fraps was screwing them up. My bad!

I didn’t get many screenshots as I failed to realise until too late, Fraps was screwing them up. My bad!

This fantasy action-RPG came to us from Westwood, which is a little surprising, as they were much better known for pioneering realtime strategy gaming. MY usual extensive research (reading the Wikipedia page) tells me it was conceived originally as a kind of wizard battle game, with characters flinging spells according to series of button presses, a bit like special moves in Streetfighter. When picked up by Westwood it moved in an RPG direction, and I wonder if the management had their eye on the Diablo series. Blizzard’s first entry was a major success, updating the old rogue-style dungeon crawler for a 90s audience, and the by 2000 the sequel was eagerly anticipated.

The intro to the game is pretty clearly played for laughs, and looks like a parody of Ultima’s theme of a regular guy from our world becoming a hero in a magical land. Our protagonist is Jack, living in a trailer park and sat watching TV and waiting for his dinner. Turns out, he unknowingly owns a magical orb belonging to the evil sorceress Hecubah, from the magical land of Nox. When she casts an incatation to reach across universes and retrieve her trinket, she flubs some of her lines, Jack is inadvertently pulled through to Nox with it. He’s then left standing looking a bit confused and dopey on a vaguely steampunk-looking airship, clutching his TV. Under the guidance of the ship’s captain it’s up to Jack to somehow get that orb back, before Hecubah uses its power to seize control of Nox.

The game handles in a manner that should be pretty quickly familiar to those of you who have played Diablo and its followers, with a few subtle differences. You move not by clicking but rather holding one mouse button down and moving the pointer in the direction you wish Jack to run, whilst the other button makes him use the equipped weapon. Spells and abilities are then fired off with hotkeys, and can be arranged in multiple sets with any one set active at a time.

(Interesting aside – casting a spell causes your character to shout a bunch of syllables, with little icons for hand gestures appearing around him. I believe that’s a holdover from earlier incarnations of the game – each syllable corresponding to a key press perhaps?)

The game gives you a choice of three character classes, and in fact has a different first chapter for each. The wizard was the original spell-flinging star of the game; the warrior of course is based aroudn hitting things with a sword and has a few unique attacks like a headlong charge. I have to admit I only looked at them briefly. The class I played most extensively is the Conjurer, who offers the most variety in combat, as he’s kind of a mix of what RPG-veterans would call ranger and druid classes. He has quite a selection of spells – some offensive, some stuns, some defensive. He’s also pretty handy with a bow, but most entertainigly he can bind monsters to his will (and later summon them from nowhere). That’s something I always enjoy in gaming, standing back and letting some pet monster do the hard work of killing stuff. Or at least, distracting enemies and taking the resulting beating on my behalf.

Those details aside, the structure is very by the numbers action-RPG. Your job here is to kill your way through dungeons and fortresses, and gather loot. You get a respite at towns and camps along the way to sell and equip, then it’s onto the next monster-slaughtering session. While you should cover each map in full and keep an eye out for secrets, the game is totally linear and any side-routes off the main path are pretty brief. The attempts at storytelling are fairly minimal and there’s not a lot of actual roleplaying going on. Your interactions with characters mostly amounts to being given a series of objectives to gather and assemble magical trinkets.

For the most part it all comes together in something quite fluid and well-paced. Monsters fall, loot them, move on. Sometimes new types provide a speed bump, until you find yourself better equipped to tackle them. Boss fights I found to be rather panicked affairs, largely because I found if I took hits I died extremely fast, or even got 1-shotted. Against a melee-only knight I could use a stun spell and then line up crossbow shots. However one or two other fights I have to admit I mostly just ran in circles a lot firing off the homing-shots spell, since it didn’t need me to stand still to properly aim, and hoping I didn’t get lightning-blasted to bits. Which isn’t particularly heroic, really!

You also find yourself sometimes facing off against traps. Pressure plates in the floor, visible but only if you look carefully. Floors crumble dropping you into caverns below. Lasers mean instant death. To help get past some of these your character can jump, which I don’t recall seeing much in later arpgs. It’s a small change from Diablo’s pretty much pure focus on monster-killing, and does put me in mind of more old-school RPGs.

As the game progresses there is, I suppose, a decent variety of levels to fight through. Mines, forests, a Troll encampment, a necropolis. Somehow though the world of Nox does tend to feel rather bland. The graphics are totally adequate but very standard 2000-era isometric stuff. No locations are all that memorable. Also, while there probably is some further backstory to explain what’s going on here, I never felt interested enough to look it up. Let’s look at Diablo for a moment – sure the first game was all dungeons but between the artwork, the soundtrack and the tales of a mighty clash between heaven and hell, it managed a gloomy, doom-laden atmosphere. The sequel meanwhile expanded its reach to cover a bunch of of more exotic locations. Nox in comparison comes across as very generic.

Conjurer and his ogre buddies.

Conjurer and his ogre buddies.

The intro suggests it’s unique aspect could have been comedy, parodying the usual tropes of fantasy heroics. Outside of the cinematics, though, this angle seems pretty much abandoned. Unless the awful voice acting for the town shopkeepers is meant to count. It does make me wonder if the intro was scripted some time after most of the rest of the game was written.

I realise as I’m writing this that I’m not sounding super enthusiastic. Then again I’m not launching into some angry deconstruction either. Taking a thousand or so words to say “yeah I guess I had fun?” might not make for the most interesting reading. so perhaps it would be best to round up by further pondering how Nox was quickly forgotten, whilst Diablo 2 enjoyed years of popularity and had sigifnificant influence on western arpgs that followed.

I can throw in couple of factors. One would be, Nox doesn’t have all that much content to it. I’m fairly sure it’s a lot shorter than Diablo 2 . Also there’s not a huge range of loot. aRPG fans love checking through loot chests and monster drops to see if there’s a +2 Sword of Zombie Burning or a Cloak of Greater Nimbleness., and are constantly on the look out for those more rare, super-powerful items. Nox pretty much keeps all its gear to a few core types, that vary in numerical quality and take one from a small list of enchantments (mostly resistance to a spell type).

Also, Blizzard found a great innovation in the form of Talent trees. These allowed the player, by allocating points to activate and upgrade various abilities as they level up, to customise their character from a wide range of options. So, even within a single character class, a frost mage has rather different abilities to a lightning mage. Also though, one frost mage might be rather more optimally built than another. This appeals to the geek desire to tinker and experiment, and compete with other geeks online, to try and produce a hero that churns out the maximum possible damage. I’m sure this feature was a major part of the lasting appeal.

Nox then is left as a fairly unremarkable, minor note in gaming history without a whole lot in the way of distinguishing features. I have to wonder how the original “wizard-battle” idea might have turned out. Still, I had my fill of Diablo 2 years ago, even if I never made it to the higher difficulty levels or multiplayer. Ultimately that game still comes down to endless hours spamming a couple of chosen abilities over and over. So I’m not sure I would have enjoyed revisiting it, yet again, more than I did giving this one a chance. Nox is quite competently executed, that it’s not super-long isn’t really a point against for me these days, and it at least gave me a chance to look at something outside the formula that we saw run through Diablo, Titan Quest and Torchlight. Although I’m thinking next time I should play something that inspires me to write more, be it historical analysis, effusive praise or just a rant.