Thursday, October 29, 2009


My head hurts, I'm having trouble focusing my eyes, and I think I'm developing carpal tunnel syndrome. This is what happens when I get addicted to a computer game and lack the self-restraint to limit my exposure.

The game in question is Gothic 3. It's your basic quest-based fantasy game, in which you wander around a world full of castles and ogres, collecting gold and artifacts, upgrading your weaponry and skills where possible, helping the occasional friend and smiting your many enemies. I haven't played the first two games in this series, but I seem to have picked up the basic gist of things anyway.

Call me shallow, but one of the things I'm really enjoying is the simple beauty of the world. Whoever designed the graphics for this game is a genius and a true artist. The meadows are sparsely scattered with wildflowers, providing tiny bursts of bright colour, but occasionally you'll wander into a dell or a hillside that's thick with them, just as it would be in nature. The landscape slowly evolves as you walk along, going from wild meadow to deciduous forest so gradually that you barely notice. As the sun goes down it turns the landscape golden and the sky sinks from blue to purple to black. The stars twinkle and the light of the full moon ripples in the water. The next morning as the sun rises it turns the sky a pale orange, and birds begin singing in the trees to herald the dawn. It is completely enchanting.

Unfortunately it's unwise to give in to temptation and run through a field of sunlit wildflowers like some medieval Maria Von Trapp, since it's pretty much guaranteed that there's a pack of wolves lurking in there. Virtually everything wants to kill you and is easily capable of doing so. Step beyond the gates of any town or village and you'll be attacked before you can say, "Is that a boulder or a drowsy troll?" On the plus side, unlike certain games (yes, Bioshock, I am looking at you) the enemies in Gothic 3 do not respawn or repopulate: once you clear all of the danger out of an area, you can galavant around it with impunity.

I've barely scratched the surface of the game and already I've fought at least twenty five different monsters and wild animals, all lavishly rendered with their own mechanics of movement. All of them are dangerous; even the dodo-like Scavenger can kill you if you drop your guard. At this early stage there are whole areas that I've had to avoid because there are creatures there who will kill me within seconds. The only way to deal with them is to turn around and run like hell, hopefully without colliding into their mates in the process. Eventually I'll have the weapons, the skills and the armour to come back and clear them out, but it will take a while.

Experience points are pretty easy to come by, but experience is worth jack squat without gold. Gold IS hard to come by, at least in the quantities you need to properly equip yourself. If you kill a monster with a weapon, then take their weapon, you'll find it's usually worth between 5 and 15 gold pieces. By contrast, a set of heavy armour costs 70,000 gold pieces. I like slaughtering goblins as much as the next guy, but do I really need to kill 14,000 of them just to get some decent armour?

It doesn't help that the trading system is badly designed. You can't just stroll up to a bloke in the pub and offer to sell him your Magic Sword of Awesomeness for 500 gold pieces. You can only trade. If you need gold, you must put all of his gold on one side of the ledger, then hunt through your inventory finding enough gold, weapons, spell scrolls, rare herbs, random pieces of hardware and the occasional lute to match that amount. So I often seem to find myself in the position of needing 1000 gold pieces, having 800 in gold and 2000 worth of spare stuff, and not being able to buy what I want because everyone I meet has a minimum of 5000, which is 2200 more than I can raise. It's rather dispiriting to go into a town and discover that every single person there is way richer than me.

The internet tells me that Gothic 3 is widely reviled. Apparently the earliest versions of the game, released in 2006, were more bug-infested than a picnic in a swamp, and the lush graphics taxed ordinary computers beyond their limits. Now that the bugs appear to have been fixed, and my reasonably high-end 2008 computer is hosting the game, these faults are no longer relevant. True, the voice acting is mediocre, the combat design is primitive, the quests occasionally contradict each other and the game momentarily but jarringly pauses to refresh the scenery if you run in any direction for more than a couple of seconds. But it looks beautiful, it's fun to play, and hey, everyone likes being able to spend an evening or two butchering their way across a fantasy ecosystem.


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