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2003: The Year in Review

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2003: The Year in Review

Editorial - posted by Spazmo on Fri 23 January 2004, 02:08:59

Tags: The Year in Review

2003: The Year in Review

All in all, 2003 was a pretty rotten year for the CRPG genre. There just weren't really any great CRPG titles, the only real exception being Spiderweb Software's excellent sequel Geneforge 2. Beyond that, almost everything was a disappointment. Let's have a look at the important events, people and products of 2003 and explain just why they sucked--or didn't.

BioWare continues to unabashedly be horrible

Since the opening of the RPG Codex, BioWare has been a favourite target of ours simply because the Neverwinter Nights Official Campaign (OC) was pretty awful. That didn't stop the gaming press from praising the hell out of it, though. 2003 saw three releases from BioWare: Shadows of Undrentide and Hordes of the Underdark were expansion sets to Neverwinter Nights while Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was a cross-platform game set in the Star Wars universe.

The two NWN expansions were, of course, roughly as awful as the original OC. Hordes was supposedly somewhat better even if it did include such horrors as epic levels, prestige classes and--terror of terrors--epic prestige classes. Then again, there's no reason to be surprised that legendary munchkin enablers BioWare would pounce at the chance to implement such horribly overpowered rules.

Knights of the Old Republic, however, was something different. The RPG Codex staff agrees on this: it is a remarkable step forwards for BioWare. But let there be no doubt: it's still not terrific and certainly not worthy of the endless parade of awards and high scores it has received. KotOR claims to be a true role-playing experience as it allows you to finish the game in all of two ways (light side and dark). Never mind that the big plot branch comes all of one or two hours before the end of the game. Most of the game plays exactly the same way no matter how you act. KotOR does present a number of situations in which choices must be made, but there's only one choice in the entire game that affects the actual plot.

Add to that terrible combat that's laughably easy (hint: get the force wave power), an interface that reeks of console influence, an inventory system that's not great no matter what platform you're on and Bastila's contant whining and you have a pretty mediocre game--but, hell, it's still a decent title.

Overall, BioWare didn't perform terribly well in 2003. The NWN expansions were the same old thing and while KotOR shows that the potential for really good games is there, BioWare isn't exploiting it. If BioWare continues to get better, they might be making some great RPGs someday. In the meantime, do we have the patience to wait?

Troika disappoints... kinda

BioWare being horrible to mediocre is pretty much par for the course, really. But while we can just laugh at the Canadian developer's stumbling first steps towards CRPG design, it's harder to accept that Troika Games, a staff favourite, might make some mistakes too. Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura was a great game, but it had its flaws (which I won't go into here--I'm not talking about the games of 2001). The same can be said about (take a deep breath) Dungeons & Dragons: The Temple of Elemental Evil - A Classic Greyhawk Adventure.

Expectations were high for this dungeon crawler D&D title inspired by the old-as-dirt module by older-than-dirt D&D progenitor Gary Gygax. The game we got was certainly a terrific dungeon crawler--the game that Icewind Dale by Black Isle Studios (more--lots more--on them later) should have been. But in some respects, it disappointed us.

The dialog was generally fairly bland. The starting area of the game was full of pretty boring people with generally dull problems and awfully annoying quests to solve these problems. The voice acting was generally mediocre and downright awful at times. And, of course, it was generally a pretty buggy game. At release, many spells and feats were broken and several users experienced constant game-stopping crashes. The extent of the bug problem in ToEE has been grossly exaggerated, but it certainly did exist. It was so bad that industrious fans--including Codex staff members Ian "Exitium" Miles Cheong and Pawel "Ausir" Dembowski--set out to make their own patch.

Using the ToEE fansite Circle of Eight as a place to meet and develop things and exploiting past experience modifying Arcanum (it should be noted that several bits of code were salvaged from Arcanum for use in ToEE, allowing modders to use much the same tricks as when tinkering with Troika's first title), the Circle of Eight team released a fan patch that fixed many problems with the game before Atari and Troika ever got around to releasing their own patch.

Despite numerous problems with ToEE, it's still a great game. Troika's upcoming Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines looks like it could be neat and there's always the mysterious secret projects Troika is working on.

Indy games continue to be pretty damned good

With the big commercial companies not producing enough games to keep us busy all the time, we often have to turn to indy game developers for entertainment. Besides the plethora of roguelikes that exist, two big indie titles grabbed us this year: Geneforge 2 and Escape Velocity Nova.

The former is the sequel to 2002's CRPG hit Geneforge. It's just as good as the first game and once again is worth every penny of the low, low price. But we weren't really surprised by GF2's goodness. Spiderweb is a proven developer with years of experience making great games.

A game that did surprise us, however, was another indie title fresh off the boat from Macland. Escape Velocity Nova is a real little gem. For a mere $25 bucks, you get a huge game brimming with possibilities and gameplay. Want to be a space pirate? Go for it! Want to be a merchant? Sure, just watch out for the aforementioned pirates. Want to save the universe? You can do that in six different main plots, taking a number of shorter mission arcs along the way. It is a game of nearly limitless potential and gains exponentially more all the time thanks to the editors the developers have provided. If you’re looking for a game to really pour the hours into, EVN is a good pick, especially since the first two games in the Escape Velocity series have been reissued as mods for ,i>Nova. Plus, it comes with some really neat obtuse jargon.

It's not perfect, though. EVN is an all around fun game, but not a terrific CRPG.

Another goddamn Morrowind expansion

During the summer of this year, the people at Bethesda Softworks saw fit to inflict upon us another expansion to The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind.Bloodmoon has you investigating werewolves on the snowy island of--oh, who gives a shit? It's the same old hopelessly dull Morrowind gameplay. You run around fairly pretty countryside beating the tar out of hordes of stupid cliff racers doing completely pointless quests that involve murdering people for no real reason and occasionally 'talking' to the walking search engines the game calls NPCs. Morrowind is a terrible game and the expansions for it don't seem to fix any of that horror.

Sea Dogs 2? Sorry, cancelled. In totally unrelated news, we're announcing a totally new pirate type game called Pirates of the Caribbean. Movie tie-in? Never! Well, okay, yeah.

Akella is a Russian developer who made the piratey CRPG Sea Dogs. It was apparently successful enough to prompt a sequel and Akella was hard at work on Sea Dogs 2.

Then came Disney. Yeah, the Mickey Mouse people. You see, they had this movie called, shockingly enough, Pirates of the Caribbean coming out that summer. A video game tie-in seemed like a good move to them, so they approached Akella, saw Sea Dogs 2 and said "we want that." So Disney tossed money at Akella until they changed the name to Pirates of the Caribbean and tossed in a couple elements from the movie so it'd fit at least a bit. The game is essentially the same damn thing except in name. Just goes to show: money is apparently more important than your game.

Lionheart--I just can't say it without laughing

Interplay is, of course, a mess. Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader is a significant factor in that mess and belongs under the entry for Interplay below, but it's dumb enough to be by itself.

Let me set the scene for you: corporate boardroom. A dozen of people in suits are sitting around a fancy table staring at a couple of guys from Reflexive. These guys are pitching an alternate historical CRPG set hundreds of years ago in an Earth where magic is all over the place. The suits patiently listen to the presentation. At the end, one of them leans forwards and says, "Sounds good. Now how about this? Make the game with Fallout's SPECIAL system--that's the one that doesn't work altogether well in a fantasy setting. Also, make the combat real-time and full of particle effects. Finally, make sure the last third or so of the game sucks colossal ass, because we don't plan to pay you for that part of the development."

In all fairness, Reflexive managed to surpass what was expected of them. A full two thirds of Lionheart sucks ass. This game is probably the biggest disappointment of 2003. At least we already knew BioWare's titles would be pretty bad, but this one seemed to have some kind of potential. Sadly, no. Beyond simply being terrible (and, oh, my goodness was it ever terrible!), it was as buggy as Battlecruiser 3000 A.D. Sadly, without a Derek Smart-like character to leap to the defense of this train wreck of a game at the mere utterance of its name, Lionheart simply has no redeeming qualities.

Dungeon Siege--the game that managed to mess up clickfest action RPG gameplay

If there's one thing the RPG Codex hates more than BioWare, it's probably Dungeon Siege. We got a hearty helping of Dungeon Siege expansion late this year. Dungeon Siege: Legends of Aranna made smart gamers throughout the world cringe when it hit shelves with a wet splat.

Legends of Aranna manages to provide exactly the same point-and-don't-click-because-your-party-is-doing-just-fine-without-you-thanks gameplay as the original game with the added boost of not requiring you to drink potions for your party anymore. This game has reduced player interaction to smashing crates in search of loot. You don't need to do anything else as the, ah, "streamlined interface" (bad game, great euphemisms!) plays the game for you.

So if you're looking for a game where you can just curl up in front of the computer under your favourite blankie with a hot mug of cocoa and watch the fun, Dungeon Siege is for you. Sorry, does that sound like a movie? Well, heck, that's basically what Dungeon Siege ends up being. To add insult to injury, an actual Dungeon Siege movie is being made!

And as an added bonus, completely free of charge, no purchase necessary, Legends of Aranna serves as a heart-chilling reminder that Dungeon Siege 2 -- Game Plays YOU (working title) is coming later this year. I'll go hang myself!

Nobody, but nobody fucks up like Interplay does

Without any doubt, Interplay is King of the Shits for 2003. They've been fucking up a lot over the years, but they seem to have developed a chemical process for extracting the essence of fuck-ups from undistilled time and have taken a fatal dose this year.

But let's have a bit of background on Interplay here. At the start of 2003, Interplay is basically two studios: Digital Mayhem (which hasn't existed in name for some time now) handles console action games. They made Run Like Hell (Grab your Bawls And...), Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel and had a significant part in both Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance games. The other studio is, of course, Black Isle Studios, prolific and often poor purveyors of CRPGs. At this time, Interplay was already in the crapper. Their last releases, namely RLH and Icewind Dale II weren't selling--at all. So after IWD2 was released, Black Isle started work on the ambiguous Jefferson Project. It soon became clear thanks to subtle and not so subtle hints from lead designer J.E. Sawyer that Jefferson was, in fact, Baldur's Gate 3. It wasn't going to have anything to do with the previous Baldur's Gate games. It only bore the BG name because Interplay wasn't allowed to make D&D games outside of the Baldur's Gate or Icewind Dale names.

Development was progressing swimmingly on Jefferson. It was looking to be a pretty neat little game that would implement a heap of neat ideas Sawyer was toying with. They had developed a whole new engine for the game which meant they'd finally gotten rid of the archaic Infinity Engine developed by BioWare in the mid to late 1990's for use in the original Baldur's Gate. In fact, the game was nearly finished. So then why hadn't it been announced yet? The answer should be obvious to anyone who's been around this block a few times--Interplay is really dumb.

The excuse given for a long time was "licensing issues". Nobody expected the "licensing issues" to turn into "game put indefinitely on hold". The deal Interplay had with Atari--who currently hold the rights to publish any D&D game they want to--was this: Interplay paid buckets of cash to Atari and Atari let them make Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale games on console and PC. Now here's where it gets dumb as hell. Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance 2 had been in development for Xbox and PS2 for some time during Jefferson's development. Interplay decided that there was more money for them in waiting until January of 2004 to release a game that might do fairly well than to release a PC RPG right now that was sure to make them tons of money. So instead of paying Atari to renew both the console and PC BG licenses for a while, they paid double to extend the console license until 2008. That's right, they essentially torpedoed Jefferson and the years of work that had gone into it in favour of BGDA2. You think that's bad? Hell, that's only the tip of the shit iceberg.

BIS was, obviously, stunned by this decision. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth on the Interplay Boards when the news broke. With Jefferson locked in a "so close, yet so far" kind of place, the folks at Black Isle did nothing for a while. Eventually, those who hadn't been assigned to work on BGDA2 got it together and started work on the Van Buren Project. It was also roughly around this time that the resignations started. People had been fleeing Interplay in droves as far back as 1998 when a bunch of BIS staffers quit to form Troika Games and now the last glimmers of real talent were leaving. Everyone was stunned when Mister Chris Avellone quit Interplay to follow Feargus. Yup, Feargus Urquhart, head honcho at Black Isle since the dawn of time (eh, 1998) and basketball player extraordinaire (well, he makes a lot of SLAM DUNKS!. Sorry. I'm required to make that joke by law) also quit the company. Not long after, Feargus, MCA and three other big names from Black Isle (Chris Parker, Darren Monahan and Chris Jones. surfaced at their new company Obsidian Entertainment.

Anyways, work on Van Buren grinded onwards. As the team started asking fans silly questions on the Interplay boards, hints started to emerge as to the nature of Van Buren. Add to that some concept art discovered at a BIS artist's personal site and J.E. Sawyer's constant tidbits and it wasn't long before it was common knowledge that Black Isle Studios was finally working on Fallout 3. Once again, development of the game was proceeding smoothly. Even if it might not please all the fans due to its plot, Fallout 3 was bound to make some money for Interplay.

But, of course, it was not to be. Any Fallout fan worth his salt really hates Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel, known as "FOPOS" or "Fallout: Enforcer" in referece to the action spinoff that killed X-Com. But beyond FOBOS being horrible, there's an extra good reason to hate it:

It killed Fallout 3.

Once again, the Powers that Be at Interplay decided that consoles = money and favoured the console title over the PC one. Jim "Darth" Molitor, Creative Director and Chief Ruiner of All Good Things at Interplay, was constantly grabbing artists and designers from Van Buren and tossing them onto FOBOS in order to get that out the door earlier (didn't work--FOBOS still missed the essential holiday season release). This, naturally, slowed down Fallout 3's development. So when Darth Molitor saw that Van Buren wasn't progressing as quickly as he wanted it to, he--brace yourselves, this will knock your fucking socks off. This is motherfucking Scrooge level corporate evil, except no ghosts are going to come along and kick Molitor's ass--cancelled Fallout 3 and laid off most of Black Isle Studios (those employees not working the console titles BGDA2 and FOBOS two weeks before Christmas. Don't bother trying to create new villains for your games, designers of the world. They'll never be as evil as Darth Molitor.

So now, of course, Interplay is flat-out fucked. They've got fuckall money in the bank and one title on shelves that won't put any more in there. BGDA2 is likely to sell for them, but that profit can only delay the inevitable: Interplay is going down. When it'll happen is a matter of time. Interplay is a perfect example of karma coming to bite you in the ass and conclusive proof that there is some justice in the world.

Now if only EA would go ahead and die, too.

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