Arcania: Gothic 4Publisher: JoWood
Platform: PC exclusive
UK Price (as reviewed): £22.99 (inc. VAT)
US Price (as reviewed): $49.99 (ex. tax)
The first thing you get to do in Gothic 4 is, if you ignore the horrible dream sequence intro bit, beat a load of sheep to death with a shepherd's crook. Later, when you meet your mother, she criticises you for having blood splattered all over your tattered rags, and you also find out it's not the first time your nameless character has been in trouble for murdering mutton.
Finally, you also learn, many hours later, that it's a highlight, as the rest of the game isn't much cop. There are many reasons for this, which we'll discuss over the course of the next thousand or so words, but tradition dictates we mention what's good first.
Gothic 4 is all about a young sheep-killer who finds his incredibly small world turned upside down and, from the ruins of his old life, a quest for vengeance emerges. Size of the character's world notwithstanding, the first thing you'll notice is just how gorgeous it looks, if you have the beefy system required to get all the SSAO and other trickery working well. The real-time shadows might go a bit crazy at times, and sometimes the cut-scenes won't appear, but in general the visuals are top notch, with light streaming down through the leafy canopy above and the scenery stretching off into the distance.
Oh, they were YOUR sheep?
As mentioned, this all comes at a price. Lesser systems will struggle with all the shadows turned on, and a sharp reduction in viewing distance and geometry shadowing is absolutely necessary to get it running smoothly. As with any game relying so much on lighting wizardry, once you get into areas where such frippery is scarce, or when the clouds roll over and dusk dawns, it becomes substantially less attractive. Nevertheless, there are times when you'll find yourself on a crag or in a watchtower, gazing out over the luscious vista before you. It can get quite beautiful though, honest.
Then you realise you've got to go collect six arse berries or kill ten scum danglers because the entire sodding game is made up of interminable fetch quests. Every single person who has a name has a menial task for you, which would be fine if these were just the side quests. Sadly, the main story quests are exactly the same, just involving more serious lectures as to why you need to enter the caves on the other side of the area and harvest some gnat testicles. Or rescue the local lord from orcs, whatever.
If you're Winston, where are the other Ghostbusters?
It's compelling in the same strange way that soloing in an MMO is. You want to push on, get to the next area, see what that brings you. Perhaps it'll be different, more interesting, less obsessed with fetching crap. Deep down, you know it won't be, it'll just be more tedious as the areas are bigger, the distances you need to traipse over are larger and the mobs more vicious and more annoying to take down. It's almost with a resigned shrug that you realise all these suspicions are spot on as the next gorgeous area loads up.
There's just no intelligence at this structure. It's just artificially extending the life of the game, which is utterly linear. You enter an area, meet the first guard who tells you that, yes, the way ahead is blocked for whatever reason. To remove the obstacle, you need to do fetch quests and then you get the key or the scroll or the permission slip that grants you entrance to the next area, where you go through the same motions again.
To make matters worse, each of these quests is delivered using the worst voice acting ever in the history of computer gaming. Exaggeration, perhaps, but you've not heard the atrocity that is the voice of Lyrca the Witch. It is just so intolerably bad that, if someone walked by while she was talking, they'd have to either collapse in laughter or projectile vomit right into her face. Thank various deities that dialogue can be skipped, because our already loose grip on reality would have been forever broken by Gothic 4's vocals.