Fantasy steampunk CRPG by the guys who got sick of working for Black Isle after the Fallout series.

Magic ruins games. High technology ruins games. You’d think that by combining the two in a CRPG, you would wind up with something terrible out of the nightmares of someone who actually plays Warhammer. This is not the case with Arcanum.

The technology issue is solved by the setting: a prototypical D&Dish world right after the industrial revolution. When you have to reduce the effectiveness of gunfire in order to maintain play balance, it’s a lot easier when you’re dealing with weapons like flintlocks and cap and ball revolvers. The magic issue is helped by an incredibly complex spell tree and fatigue costs associated with magic use, and just doing the numbers correctly. There are still some numbercrunching loopholes (the 100 magical aptitude guy with Harm, melee being godlike next to gunfire), but on the whole, the system is elegant and workable.

The character system is probably the best aspect of Arcanum. Sure it’s still level-based instead of skill/stat-based, and you can still increase your Firearms skill by getting levels without using it, but the progression of skills and stats is slow enough to mitigate this. The complexity of the character tree in both magic and technology is deep enough that you actually have to make choices regarding what you take; you can’t even come close to doing everything with one character. You aren’t unfairly punished for generalization either, as while it can be easier if you have a specific path you follow to reach a high-level goal, you can do just fine with a bunch of lower level disciplines, thank you very much.

The storyline is not quite as interesting as that in Fallout (the original), but it lies somewhere in the area of Baldur’s Gate II and Fallout 2, that is, still light years ahead of the industry standard. Like BG2, there are enough subplots to keep you occupied for days, and many of them branch out into larger plots. You have to be careful as you did in BG2, as some of the subplot branches lead you into really dangerous paths for low level characters, and there is no artificial system of making things easier in hard areas (i.e. the random ailing wolf encounters turn into orc bandits only when you hit a certain level).

The only bugs I’ve enountered (with patching) have been pretty minor. The worst was when a quest item disappeared from inventory, making it impossible to do a side quest. This is nothing compared to the morass of mysteriously disappearing items, bad planning bugs, etc., that plagued me throughout Baldur’s Gate II, but I put up with those because the game was strong enough. The same is true here.

The thing which doesn’t work at all, as far as I can tell, is multiplayer; again, like BG2 and others before it, a single player game gets a MP module slapped onto it because that’s what the kids want these days. Wendy and I tried to play it over a 100 megabit LAN, and it pegged the switch, giving us ping times ranging up to 6 seconds on two computers separated by 14 feet of cable. I don’t really care. Arcanum is a single player game, and a superb one. Wendy has redeemed herself with this game purchase, after such horrible past choices as Age of Wonders and Vampire the Masquerade.

Mu rating: 8/10. A good treatment on a little-used but often-blundered milieu, a strong engine, a great character system, and good writing. It loses one point for unworkable multiplayer, and another point because Sierra may make some money from it.

(Update 3/23/09: +1 point for one of the best soundtracks in any game evar!)

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