Reviewed: January 24, 2004
Released: October 28, 2003
Ultima 9 “done right” or a less formidable Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind, Gothic II is the RPG that many gamers have been waiting for, whether they realize it or not. After a long wait, Atari has brought Piranha Bytes’ largely freeform RPG to the US shores. Although little hype seems to have spread, Gothic II is just as deserving of gamers’ time and attention as any of 2003’s major RPG releases.
Picking up a few days where Gothic ends, the main character, a man with no name, goes through a resurrection of sorts and is told of a great evil that threatens the land and he is naturally the only can fend it off. I never played the first Gothic but had no trouble slipping into the plot as the intro movie and some dialogue scattered throughout the game did an excellent job of keeping me up to speed. The basic plot is that an army of orcs lead by dragons has appeared in an old penal colony and plan to attack a nearby city soon. This plays into a larger war occurring on a global scale expect that some larger evil seems to be present in this looming battle.
A third person, action/adventure RPG, Gothic 2 is hardly alone in its subgenre. However, unlike the majority of its brethren, Gothic 2 is an RPG first. NPC’s are plentiful, talkative, and ready to send you off on numerous sub-quests. In addition, Gothic II offers you many chances to be good or evil and your choices have an impact in the world around you.
Oddly enough, this is exactly the opposite impression I got when first starting. Rather than creating a character, you start as a strangely elongated, mildly obnoxious anti-hero. There are no stats to tweak, no race or gender to choose, and this is something that will no doubt turn off many RPG gamers (myself included) from the beginning.
However, there is a level of customization in Gothic 2 that rivals the best in the genre waiting for those who press on. As always, experience points are the core to your development but are used in a very unique way. Experience points and leveling up give you learning points and nothing more. Rather than reaching a new level and having some stats go up and a few new abilities granted to the player, one rather takes their learning points and finds teachers. These teachers then can train you in various magical arts, mercantile skills such as crafting weapons, unique skills such as pick pocketing, or simply help you gain strength, mana, and so on.
It is a system that works very well and never leaves you feeling trapped in the role of a Paladin, Mage, or whatever. Instead, much as in Morrowind, your character evolves exactly as you want him to. Further still, there are various guilds and master craftsmen that you can align yourself with which will further open new doors to you advancement.
As an example, my most successful character initially focused on alchemy. While this left me weak in the wilderness, as I became more proficient I was able to brew concoctions to permanently raise my key stats (strength, mana, and dexterity) to catch up on lost time. I was then able to spread out to more combat and magically-oriented skills while never having to waste learning points on stats again.
The combat in Gothic 2 is fairly simplistic. You can lock on to a target and then attack, dodge and pivot. It is all tried-and-true action and works almost flawlessly. As you become more proficient at a weapon, you are given new combination attacks that are quite devastating the vast array of spells a mage can make should leave no one feeling pigeonholed. There were some letdowns where the lock on feature would refuse to acknowledge the nearest target and boss fights were terribly easy. Still, when you reach the point where you are leveling hordes of orcs in seconds these troubles are easily forgiven.
Gothic 2’s world was really the star for me. Graphical splendor and diversity aside, it was the pecking order that impressed me so much. You are not the only one hunted in Gothic II but are rather simply part of a greater food chain. An excellent example is when I noted a flock of scavengers (usually mildly aggressive creatures) running my way. I had never seen them behave this before and panicked, running away until it dawned on me that they were running away as well.
Following them around, I finally caught sight of the wolf that had been chasing them which I quickly dispatched and let the scavengers return to their daily routine. There are numerous instances of this natural order that pop up and often times an enemy can be evaded simply by you providing a more suitable target (scavengers and large rats would prefer to nibble on a carcass than yourself).
Human NPC’s also have their own schedule. Should one have far too much free time, they could follow an NPC as they head to work, stop off at the bar or tobacco vendor as nighttime descends and then retire to their homes where they might enjoy a warm fire and comfortable chair before heading off for bead. Aside from tickling the fancy of minutia fans, this can be used to the player’s advantage. Should they be looking to attack or rob someone, simply learning their nighttime routine will no doubt reveal a point at which they are alone.
Gothic II is not for the kids and, whether this is due to clumsy handling or something being was lost in translation, the game’s more mature material feels out of place. Whereas in a game such as Fallout, the gritty underbelly of humanity is always at the forefront, Gothic II seems very age friendly 90% of the time (one NPC describes a battle as a “hum dinger”). However, it does veer off into more “blue” territory now and then and when it does, can be more jarring than anything else.
Swampweed is the local drug of choice and is generally referred to as “weed” which you are free to smoke at anytime or to even manufacture and sell. This is actually a bit fun and feels fitting in the dirty harbor district of the main city. However, when playing as a paladin and hunting down a swampweed dealer, I thought a woman from the local brothel could help. The movie I was treated to after paying her for “a good time” included no nudity but was explicit enough to take me by surprise and just didn’t seem to jell with the game’s general attitude. There are also some instances of explicit language that pop up almost randomly and, again, come off as odd and forced.
While Gothic II lacks the bells and whistles of modern RPG’s such as gorgeous water effects or grass that moves under feat, it is still a very attractive game. From it’s grassy meadows to dazzling day and night cycle, Gothic II’s offers a very immersive visual experience. The character are a little strapped in the polygon department and some animations are reused to the point where the become irritating but, all in all, one will find little to complain about.
Much like Morrowind, Gothic II loads huge areas at once and tries to fill in the missing pieces just before they come into view so there is some fairly major load lag here and there although this is largely dependent on your RAM and hard drive. To help matters out, Gothic II lets you switch between three levels of viewing distance so you can keep framerates pleasant even in the busiest of areas.
While Gothic II is set in a fantasy/medieval world, the audio does nothing to reflect this. The voice acting represents a cross section of what one would expect to find in a US city and the music lacks “haunting renaissance” feel that most RPG’s feature. Personally, I was disappointed but others are just as likely to find it refreshing.
Starting with the music, while the Ultima fan in me would have loved a few period pieces, the songs are still of an excellent quality. Generally sticking to understated orchestral pieces, the music adds nicely to the atmosphere while rarely stepping to the forefront.
As for the voice acting, the developer’s choices are just bizarre. The blacksmith’s apprentice sounds like he is from a Philly ghetto, the inn keeper has a shrill voice that is so over-the-top that she sounds like a 13 year old pretending to be an old and your character has such a snotty attitude that you just want to walk him off a cliff. Worse still, one of the main character’s voice actor has a distinctively gravely voice and is used for a large number of other characters with little or no attempt to make him sound. The result is that every dragon, you’re wizard friend, and a good portion of the NPC’s sound exactly alike. Just the drive the last nail into the coffin, whoever edited the voices left in the deep breath of air the actors would suck in before reading their lines that sounds both unnatural and chops up the dialogue.
Not a lot to say on the positive side, I know. Nevertheless, I did eventually begin to overlook (or at least accept) these shortcomings. I would also imagine that some might enjoy the absence ye olde English. Furthermore, Gothic II does an excellent job when it comes to atmospheric sounds so most of the time the game’s audio end is far more pleasant than I make it out to be.
Like any good RPG, in Gothic II you’re bound to inadvertently miss many quests and intentionally make choices that open up certain quests while closing others. The result is game that is well worth playing twice. I found that the Paladins and Dragon Hunters offer a fairly similar but playing as a mage provides a very different experience.
I’d say in the end I got a good 100 hours of Gothic II so as far as value goes, there is little to complain about.
As someone left unfulfilled by Ultima 9, I would strongly encourage like-minded gamers to grab Gothic II at their earliest convenience. On a broader scale, there is little here to frighten away the average RPG gamer and Gothic II is presented in such a way that those who and not “Role Players” but like a little story with their action will be pleasantly surprised Gothic II.