Heirs to Baldur's Gate: 5 new games to watch for
(IDG) -- For five years, the words "role-playing game" had been The Kiss of Death in the computer game industry. Publishers believed that RPGs were a small, niche market, unable to generate revenues from the broader computer gaming community.
Baldur's Gate finally broke this stigma last year. It showed that RPGs could augment their appeal, expanding beyond that relatively small core audience, with a fresh approach. To date, the game has sold about 1 million copies-half to the United States, half to the rest of the world -- a record for computer RPGs and a superb figure for a title in any genre.
Ray Muzyka, the producer of Baldur's Gate, believes a lot of it has to do with taking the best from games of the past.
"We analyzed the Wizardry, Bard's Tale and Ultima series, Fallout, Wasteland, and Betrayal at Krondor," he said. "We also got a lot of input from fans. From all this, we came up with a new game design. We made an interface such that you could forget you were playing the game. It was integrated with a great storyline, real-time combat and graphics, and we made it all as immersive as possible.
"The D&D license [from TSR] certainly helped. We made the choice early on that we weren't going to minimize the rule system, but celebrate it. We tried to retain as much as possible, adapting only where necessary."
Baldur's Gate's success has inspired spin-offs by both its developer, Bioware, and its publisher, Interplay (under the companies' Black Isle Studios brand) that refine that format. And they aren't alone.
Developers Nihilistic Software, Stormfront and Sir-Tech Canada have arrived at similar conclusions. Their game philosophies balance traditional RPG elements -- an involved storyline, non-linear encounters, character depth and multi-character parties -- with the ease of play, detailed combat, advanced graphics and simplified interface we've come to associate with Baldur's Gate.
We've gathered together for your consideration some of the most intriuguing RPG titles scheduled to appear over the next year. All retain the genre's basics while reaching out in a variety of ways to a non-RPG mass gaming market.
Ironically, improvements in online networking have created an opportunity for RPGs to return to their roots -- to the days of pencil and paper, when interacting with an environment meant dealing directly with a savvy dungeonmaster rather than a bunch of cardboard non-player characters (NPCs) with canned dialog.
In multiplayer mode, Neverwinter Nights will allow you to act as dungeonmaster for your friends, building the elements of an elaborate, personalized environment.
"We'll include what we call the Solstice Editor Suite in NWN," said Trent Oster, the game's producer. "The idea is to give role-players one of their most requested dreams -- the ability to create their own Baldur's Gate-style universe. You'll be able to paint down the terrain using 3D model tile sets, 10 miles by 10 miles in size, in 11 basic types: deep forest, grasslands, castles, sewers, crypts, etcetera. You'll also be able to create and edit master quests and sub-quests, place traps and objects.
"There's a creature editor that lets you set all the AIs [artificial intelligence], and a scripting language that's fairly easy to use but lets you work up to some pretty complex results. For instance, you can create branching quests that cause certain monsters to ally with you or turn against you depending upon your actions."
You'll also be able to program merchants to adjust their prices and item availability according to their own alignment and a party's fame. Or you'll be able to have them raise prices during a siege and lower them when the siege is lifted.
For people who want to play god, but don't want to get lost in the details, Bioware plans to include a dungeon editor with a wizard that walks you step-by-step through every aspect of the creation process. And somewhere between the full scripting language and the ease of the wizard is the team-based monster system.
"We'll have an orc captain, for example, who could request that an orc shaman heal him, and order grunts to work for him," said Oster. "You would only need to program the AI in the captain.
"As a NWN dungeonmaster, you could even bring in friends to act as assistants," he said. "Each of you could inhabit an NPC. It will have all the depth and intensity of non-computerized RPGing, where you play through a module for a few hours, leave, come back and play another, etcetera."
Bioware hasn't neglected the single-player mode. NWN's stand-alone game will include an elaborate story and 28 dungeon modules in four environments, with each module requiring about four hours to complete.
A flexible creature allocation system will generate roving monster groups whose numbers and toughness match those of the player's level, sustaining the challenge without making the game impossible.
Visually, NWN is expected to have broad appeal that goes beyond the traditional RPG market. "We're using the Omen engine from MDK2, an over-the-shoulder 3rd person shooter," said Oster. "It gives us all the wizbang graphics, particle system and dynamic lighting [of that kind of game], but now we're optimizing it for an RPG. Early as it is, NWN already looks great."
Vampire: The Masquerade
The story of Vampire: The Masquerade is an epic one that moves from Central Europe in the Middle Ages to contemporary London and America, and involves the structures, relationships, and battles of several clandestine vampire clans. You play a newly-risen vampire, learning the ropes while you try to keep your corrupted nature from getting out of hand.
Baldur's Gate's success was a result of emphasizing the action elements in the standard RPG formula. Rather than alter that formula in Icewind Dale, Black Isle Studios is refining it further.
Planescape: Torment resembles a world dreamed up by a monk on a Jolt cola binge after reading Dante's Inferno. It's a grimy medieval necropolis where demons, angels, and everything in between rub shoulders in bars and on the battlefield.
More than four years in the making, Wizardry 8 picks up the saga right where Wizardry VII left off. Your party arrives on the low-tech planet of Dominus, where a Cosmic Lord has placed a pair of enormously powerful artifacts, the Chaos Moliri (the Ultimate Artifact of Change) and the Destinae Dominae (the Cosmic Cache of Knowledge).
Dreamcast's House of the Dead 2 is long on gore
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