Reviewed: December 18, 2006
Released: November 20, 2006
The storyline of Gothic 3 reminds me a lot of one of my favorite Bruce Willis movies, Last Man Standing. Willis plays a hired gun who wandered into a turf war over a border Texas town, then spends the rest of the movie fighting for and eventually betraying both sides. In Gothic 3 you play a Nameless Hero who must survive in a post-apocalyptic fantasy world, where most of humanity has been enslaved by savage orcs. It’s up to you to side with the human rebels or become an orc slave hunter, and more than once you’ll probably find yourself double-crossing the other side. Nothing personal, that’s just how business gets done in the realm of Myrtana.
I’m a sucker for gritty stories about anti-heroes, which is why I had high hopes that Gothic 3 would be the next cool fantasy RPG. After all, Gothic 3 offers a large fantasy world, in-depth character system, and open-ended storyline just like Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. The graphics are also on par with the best computer RPGs on the market.
Too bad the gameplay is often a buggy, unbalanced, irritating mess. There are moments of role-playing brilliance to be sure, but those moments are too often accompanied by pure hair-pulling frustration. While I’d like to say this game is only a patch away from greatness, in reality I think it’s going to take five or six. The greatest tragedy is Gothic 3 offers some excellent quests and a storyline with unbelievable freedom, but it’s hard to focus on the grand goal of saving your homeland when the game keeps freezing up at critical moments.
The saga begins with your character returning home to Myrtana after a long exile. The good news is King Rhobar, the tyrant who banished you in the first place, has been overthrown by the orcs. The bad news is the orcs are pretty much trashing the countryside, killing and enslaving all in their path.
From here on, it’s completely up to you which path to take. In the early part of the game, you can join a rebel camp in the woods or walk into town and sign up as an orc mercenary. Or you can play both sides, which isn’t a bad idea considering the orc faction can offer you better equipment/more training opportunities in the early game. I personally took the orcs’ gold and gear for clearing out local bandits but never accepted missions that would force me to attack my true rebel friends.
But it’s really your call – you can be a hardcore freedom fighter whose only greeting for orcs is a blade, or a loyal orc toady who worships Myrtana’s new masters. The only limit to your exploits is pissing off every faction so much that you no longer are safe in either the cities or the wilderness. Then again, if Mytrana gets too hot, you can always seek out barbarian tribes in frozen Nordmar or learn the mysterious ways of the Hashishin in the deserts of Varrant.
Everyone starts with the same human character, but it’s up to you whether you specialize in melee combat, become a hunter or thief, or try to unlock the secrets of magic. The character advancement system is actually quite good, and in some ways improves on Oblivion. Every time you go up in level, you earn learning points which can be spent on any skill attribute you like – all you need is the appropriate trainer to help you raise your attributes. Once your attributes are raised to a certain level, you can also buy perks that allow you special abilities.
For example, you can learn how to fight with two swords or a shield with strength perks or learn how to make fire arrows with alchemy perks. Magic is simplified in the game – in contrast to the countless schools of magic in Oblivion, you can study dominance, transformation, and summoning. Not that you’ll have much chance to study spells early in the game – one of the reasons the orcs conquered Myrtana so quickly is the human fire mages and paladins have lost their ability to use magic. Your character will have to seek out shrines or ruins to learn spells, although if you work for the orcs you’ll at least have access to some magic trinkets and spell scrolls.
I should also point out that Gothic 3’s quest design is one of the more interesting I’ve played – you’ll find quests chain together but often with a twist. For example, one of my missions was to lead a revolt in the coastal town of Cape Dun. The slaves first needed bundles of weapons, which I procured by wiping out an orc patrol as part of a separate quest. But I still needed the help of a paladin to free the town, and of course the paladin asked me to rescue his golden chalice that was captured in the war. Orcs normally don’t just sell stuff to puny humans, so I was forced to recover a stolen shipment from bandits before the orc quartermaster agreed to sell me the “junk” cup for 60 gold.
Holy chalice – 60 gold. Knowing the orcs are helping you overthrow the town – priceless. So now that I’ve covered the cool parts of Gothic 3, let me delve into the game’s myriad problems. First of all, the developers at Piranha Bytes obviously don’t believe in making things easy on you. Traveling around can be a pain without mounts or an instant map travel feature like Oblivion offers. Yes there are magic teleportation stones that will link you to key settlements, but these stones are often hidden and/or in the possession of some big boss who doesn’t like you. Quest descriptions are often too vague – I appreciate not being spoon-fed quests but please give me more of a hint than “go east and search for a cave on the coast.”
Combat also needs a major overhaul. I’ll give Gothic 3 credit for having simple melee controls – left click to attack, right click to block, click on both to deliver special attacks. Hold down the button and you’ll get a powerful attack; click lightly and you’ll deliver a light but fast blow. The concept is to have a realistic combat system in which you must feint and block while setting up the perfect thrust. In reality, combat breaks down into a mad click fest where blocking is near useless and a flurry of quick hits normally wins over power strikes.
Even minor hits can stun an opponent (or you), so you can slaughter several enemies at once if you can just keep landing blows. This makes running battles with entire garrisons possible as you kill a few guards, duck behind cover to drink a healing potion, then pop out to do it all over again. Unfortunately, a low level creature can always score a lucky shot and drop you in seconds. This terrible game unbalance leads to situations where you can mow down an orc champion and his entire bodyguard in one battle but get splattered by a mangy wolf in the next.
Ranged combat is even worse, considering you can only fire arrows from about 10 yards away and must aim using a pathetic excuse for a crosshair. If a target survives your arrow barrage, you probably won’t have time to draw your sword. If all this wasn’t enough to deal with, some opponents will keep getting up unless you can score a “killing blow” while they’re on the ground. That’s easier said than done if you’re fighting several other guys.
The combat system might have been forgivable, but the clunky performance is not. Unless you have a top gaming rig with at least 2 Gigs of RAM, expect to lag even on moderate graphic settings. My computer, which for the record can play Oblivion flawlessly, would hiccup on a regular basis running Gothic 3. Load times take forever, not a good thing in a game where you’re likely to die on a regular basis.
Rounding out my complaints is the game’s idiotic level design. Wander into a wilderness area and you’ll encounter a wolf, boar, or other nasty critter every five feet. There are also no appropriate boundaries between newbie and extremely dangerous areas – in one “starter” cavern I fought my way past the goblins at the entrance only to find myself face to face with a dragon just a short distance down the main tunnel. Some critics have praised Gothic for “creating such a realistic world where dangers lurk around every corner,” but in my mind the developers needed to tone down the explorable areas and make sure your low-level characters aren’t facing dragons at level 5.
If I were just basing my score on Gothic 3’s rich environment, I would give this game a 9. Walk through a forest and you’ll be amazed at the lush undergrowth or a pond’s crystal surface. Walk through a city and you’ll swear you could feel the stone and mortar of ancient walls if you just stretched out your hand. Gothic 3’s custom Genome engine perfectly renders distances, so there’s always the illusion of a vast world to explore just beyond the horizon.
The shadowing and fire effects are also outstanding, making it a visual pleasure to return to the crackling fires of a base camp after a long day’s adventuring. Finally, I appreciated the world’s gritty undertones – Myrtana actually looks like it’s suffered an apocalypse. Across the countryside you’ll find destroyed settlements, blackened skeletons, and the bodies of decomposing bandits/rebels covered in flies.
Characters and monsters are also well animated – especially the menacing orcs with their bestial faces covered in war paint. While some of the creatures look bizarre, especially those killer dodo scavengers, even the strangest monster seems to fit well in the Gothic world.
The reason this game gets an 8 is the occasional wonkiness of the graphics engine. Arrows hang in mid-air, characters get caught in-between walls, and enemies too often die standing up. There also doesn’t seem to be enough interactivity with the environment. For example, you can pick up a cup from a table but you can’t knock the cup onto the ground. Finally, I’m knocking down the score for not allowing you to customize the Nameless Hero. Is it too much to ask that players be allowed to change his hairstyle, skin color, or his basic facial features? Even the Grand Theft Auto series offers more character customization.
The music and sound effects in Gothic 3 are decent but get repetitive way too soon. Part of the problem is every bit of dialogue with NPCs is voice-acted. This means that you will hear your character use some variation of “so what’s your name” a million times. It also means that all human characters from a given region will start to sound the same, just like all orcs will have the same guttural growls.
Fortunately, you’ll come across a few characters that offer unintentionally funny moments. For example, go hunting with a mercenary named Cyrus and he’ll shout “one less filthy beast!” every time you kill a monster. His antics soon began to sound like a Saturday Night Live skit. Sound effects are better than average, but I found the background environmental sounds too often drowned out by the musical score.
Gothic 3 offers you the chance to really make your mark on a game world. If you help some woodcutters drive off wild boars, the next day you’ll find them happily chopping wood. On a grander scale, you can help the rebels restore the countryside or help the orcs complete their conquest. Liberate a town and the enslaved people will suddenly offer you their praise and services. Work your way up the orc ranks and you’ll gain powerful patrons. I’ve rarely played a game where my actions can have so many benefits and consequences.
That being said, replay value is hampered by a few things. You cannot play different races or really feel like a specialist character. The Nameless Hero always feels like a jack-of-all trades rather than a warrior, mage, or thief. It’s hard to give a high value score to a game with so many technical and balance issues. Exploration of such a vast world becomes tedious if you’re always running into glitches. At this time, I’d only recommend hardcore fans of the series pick the game up at full price. RPG fans will probably want to wait for the next several patches and a drop in cost before giving Gothic 3 a go.
Gothic 3 takes some role-playing aspects to a new high with its excellent quest system and fully interactive world. Too bad other critical elements, from combat to graphics performance, fall so short. Even the best moments are quickly overshadowed by a host of gameplay issues. I have a sneaking suspicion that the Gothic series is a huge hit in its native Germany not because it’s a finely engineered work of digital art, but because it appeals to some twisted sadomasochistic streak in German gamers’ psyches.