Arcania: Gothic 4
What Is It about the Germans and their technical questions? When Michelangelo unveiled the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to the assembled press, did a German art journalist stick up his hand and ask how many tins of paint it took? Seems unlikely, but when Germans are involved there's always some earnest berk who seems obsessed with how many pixels and polygons a particular game has. They don't realise it doesn't matter.
Thankfully, the German press couldn't make it to the unveiling of Arcania, which was held at the offices of Spellbound, its developer, in a bleak industrial estate on the banks of the Rhine, where the obligatory yellow Ferrari sticks out like a sore thumb. Welcome to Kehl, where the best thing is the bridge to Strasbourg, and the second best is the 24-hour McDonalds.
The obvious question is why are Spellbound developing Arcania, given that the puntastically-named Piranha Bytes made the first three instalments. If it's somehow passed you by, the Gothic series consists of what used to be known as 'real ale' RPGs, where ores and goblins stroll a mystical fiddle-de-de land, and dungeons full of unspeakable beasts await smiting from a suitably hirsute hero. All beards and bluster, Gothic was littered with monsters, swords, sorcery, leather, barrels, magic and everything else that makes the genre so derided. Yet despite near Hasselhoff levels of popularity in its native Germany, this hardcore RPG series has yet to make an impact elsewhere, and is largely known for being riddled with serious bugs.
New Dev, New Start
Either way, Piranha Bytes are off the case, and Spellbound are in, selected from some 30 budding developers largely on the basis of a demo of forthcoming orc-'em-up, Ravendale. Development on Arcania began around three years ago and has been somewhat chaotic, with key personnel leaving, a number of name changes, and the game almost being canned at one point. With the release date extended, it would appear to be back on track, and is presented in what is referred to as midalpha stage. Given the heritage of the series, this must be like stepping into a dead man's shoes, but the key message is that Arcania is still a Gothic game that will remain respectful to the series' history.
"We wouldn't want to completely copy Piranha Bytes," says lead designer Andre Beccu, "because they make their kind of game. We make Spellbound kind of games. We are different culture-wise, what we like, what we are, what we embody. So we just make our kind of game and we try to stay true to the atmosphere, not to disappoint the fans, but at the same time of course we are trying to capture a new audience, so of course changes have to be made." Superficially at least, one of the key changes is that of the lead character.
The Nameless Hero of the previous three games is no more. Arcania continues from the specific ending of Gothic 3 where that hero became king. Instead of shoehorning in a storyline whereby he loses his throne and becomes a weakling (possibly by the triple blows of a coup d'etat, amnesia and plague), Spellbound decided to stamp their mark on the series with an all-new hero, and as such you begin the game 10 years after Gothic 3's end as a lowly shepherd boy living in the paradise island of Feshyr. This green and pleasant land largely acts as a tutorial before you're thrust into the markedly darker island of Argaan, part of the Southern Islands mentioned in the previous games. There you find swamps, jungle, mountains, desert, cities and dungeons, all delivered in a seamless streaming experience, with no loading time between regions.
Without getting too technical, Arcania looks to have a decent engine, delivering vast panoramas and impressive draw distances. Basically, if you can see the outline of a city on the horizon, it exists and you can walk there.
Tiny Is Better
There shouldn't be too much aimless wandering about though, as in a buck with tradition, Spellbound is claiming that their game will be smaller than its predecessor, which focus groups have revealed to be simply too unwieldy even for seasoned goblin-fanciers. This Gothic should be more tightly packed, with far less to-ing and fro-ing between quests, and each route allegedly offering new stuff to do. If you know what you're doing, Spellbound reckons you'd be able to plough through the core quests in 15 to 20 hours. However, if you want to get stuck into the side-quests, you can probably double that again.
As for the story, it's the time-honoured business of your peaceful idyll being shattered by the ugly spectre of war. Coming home to find your village looted and pillaged, and the aggressors making good their escape by boat, it's down you to man up and get involved. There's also a mysterious love interest, and familiar characters will reappear, including stalwart Diego, who's similarly intent on revenge. Some of the classic weapons from the series will reappear, enabling melee and range combat, along with the trademark fireball and a whiff of magic. Pinpointing the combat as one of the weaknesses of the previous games, sizeable improvements have been made in that area.
'The combat is way more fast-paced," said Beccu. Tn previous versions it was more like waiting until there was a gap in the enemy's defence. Right now it's about initiative, choosing strategy, adapting to what kind of enemies there are and changing it on the fly if it doesn't work."
While you can specialise in particular areas, Spellbound are being careful to ensure that you don't paint yourself into a corner, and you should be able to comfortably progress through the game whatever your talents. There's also the obligatory crafting, enabling you to make a fancy weapon or simply knock up a delicious feast. And you may have to appease the Gods of Earth, Wind and Fire (or something), choose sides in an epic battle and make some soul-searching moral decisions.
This Is Hardcore
So far, so RPG. Unbelievers won't care, and Gothic aficionados will be wary of the new developer, and particularly the "new audience" they speak of.
A sizeable bulk of those newcomers will be enjoying the game for the first time on an Xbox 360, but we're assured that the game will remain loyal to its PC roots. We are shown both versions, with a key difference coming in the combat. Whereas console owners will be able to lock onto enemies, the mouse and keyboard brigade will be offered a more skill-based affair requiring precise timing. Spellbound make a comparison with Modern Warfare 2, whereby the console controls in that game snap to the target and those of the PC requiring manual aiming. That's probably the only time MW2 will be compared to Arcania, which looks to be, like its ancestors, a defiantly niche experience, albeit not overwhelmingly so. Despite the simultaneous Xbox release, Spellbound are quick to dismiss any notions of their game being designed to appease a console audience.
"If you want it to be a challenge it definitely is a challenge,1' says Beccu. "It's got a completely PC only interface. If you want to be as 'Gothic' as possible, you simply disable all the help, choose the highest difficulty and it will be really hard. The difference with the previous titles is that it will still be pretty fair so it doesn't expect you to know things from the first or second playthrough. You can beat it on the first one without dying 50 times in a row, but it will be extremely hard nonetheless."
In Germany, Gothic is almost a byword for hardcore and Spellbound concede that the core values that make the series popular in its homeland are precisely those that make it unpopular elsewhere else. Nevertheless they're remaining true to those values, and, in a nod to hardcore fans, will be including help-free quests where you'll simply have to wander around aimlessly, talk to everyone you can, and presumably remember what they said. Furthermore, there will be some well-hidden items that you can only gain access to by solving puzzles, finding levers to open secret rooms, and generally being busy.
Even during our extensive first look at Arcania, we would appear to have only scratched the surface. The game's true depth will be revealed later this year, but the franchise would appear to be in safe hands, mainly belonging to a bunch of blokes sat in windowless rooms punching ones and zeroes into a bank of computers. Hopefully they won't make too many mistakes and turn it into a bug-riddled mess, something wo jovially mentioned as an icebreaker. The deadpan Germanic response: "That is not something we are trying to emulate."
Download Arcania: Gothic 4
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP