Fantasy RPG Gothic 4 is out! I played it a bunch, hoping it would be another Risen. Is it? Well...
It says 'Impressions' at the top instead of 'Wot I Think' because I'm either a coward or a man of honour, depending on your particular take on the old time-to-valid-opinion formula. Of course, I do have superhuman critical prescience. Show me 10 minutes of your game, a screenshot, the box art - hell, even just the first letter of its title, and I'll be able to instantly recount its probable Metacritic rating within 2 per cent.* I already know what I would score World of Warcraft 2, Half-Life 3 and Respawn Studios' unannounced first project.** I'm just that damned good.***
But you lot don't trust me, do you?
You think I have to play the entirety of any given game before I'm entitled to so much as start a sentence with 'The thing is...' Oh, after all we've been through! If I dare put 'Wot I Think' in the title of a post about an RPG I've played for a 'mere' 7.5 hours, you'd look at me with your lips pursed, your hands on your hip and your fingers somewhere around the F and U buttons of your keyboard. Okay, you're quite right: some games, and especially some RPGs, do indeed improve exponentially after a few dreary opening hours. So, fine. I shall not be irresponsible, and will decline presenting a Full Judgement. 'Impressions' it is. But I'm damn well going to have some opinions anyway. You just try and stop me.
The thing is (aha! See?) there's a reason I've only played 7.5 hours of Gothic 4, a low-ish fantasy RPG sequel to a series that was well-received by players and much-ignored by critics. In reality, it's Gothic 5, or perhaps 3.5 - last year's 50% fantastic, 50% tiresome Risen having been the 'true' follow-up from original devs Piranha Bytes, as publisher JoWood ran off with the name 'Gothic' in the two companies' messy divorce. This has a different studio behind it (Spellbound, perhaps best known for the Desperados series), and it's a very different breed of roleplayer to boot.
7.5 hours: halfway through the 15-hour campaign. I stopped there not because I'm lazy, not because I'm mendacious, not because I felt I'd seen it all - but because I couldn't stand any more. I thought about playing for the same amount again, and I felt incredibly tired. I thought of all the other things I could do instead (most of which, admittedly, involve staring at the internet), and I felt deeply sad. Games shouldn't do that.
That didn't happen because the game is awful (it's not; if you want so absolute a qualifier, tell me a suitable term that lies perfectly between 'awful' and ' tolerable,' and that'll do the trick nicely), but because I felt like I was wasting my time. To be mediocre, to inspire no emotion - that's the worst crime of all, most especially for a roleplaying game, something that's supposed to inspire a feeling of adventure in an unknown land, a sense of otherness, place and purpose. I felt nothing. No care for anyone or anything - even the salt-tingle compulsion of levelling up and looting barely activated the hungry lizard-portion of my brain. I didn't feel hate, anger or even contempt. I felt nothing.
Here's what Gothic 4 is: it's an MMORPG without the MMO. It's mindless, time-consuming fetch quests, running along roads and skipping past characterless dialogue from characterless characters until they give you your next, fetch-based objective. Without a sense of being in a living world, the emptiness of such pursuits is inescapable.
The zone design allows a small degree of openness and exploration, as long as you don't mind instantly dying when you fall into water or encountering invisible walls on top of tiny obstacles you could clearly jump over, but it boils down to linear hack'n'slash. Your choices are confined to the skill tree - whether you specialise in blade, bow or magic, or a more-or-less effective combination of the three. That's nominally fine, but when coupled with a slew of tiresomely chatty NPCs, which to a one sound like someone cleaning the toilets in Pizza Hut unexpectedly had a fantasy script and a microphone shoved in front of them, the hollowness is accentuated. Trying to force narrative meaningfulness onto you - regardless of how horribly-performed it is - is doomed when your own meaning is confined to running to the next objective marker and pummelling the left mouse button until everything's dead.
In terms of systems, it's all present and correct: streamlined and straightforward, devoid of the obliqueness of Risen's inventory and skill tree. Combat is almost exciting, thanks to responsiveness and ease of controls, while early encounters with larger and new enemies tends to be suitably fearsome and startling - until you encounter one a couple of levels later, and beat it to death before it has time to blink. But mostly it's a classic grind, about click-click-clearing the path in front of you rather than demanding strategy or inspiring thrill.
There's nothing wrong with the action, in other words. But nothing being wrong isn't the same as being right. It's a brain-off forward surge, with the occasional time-passing wander around the margins of the large and very, very attractive zones. That's fine, but without the cheer of, say, Torchlight, it rapidly feels empty. You're there to level up and find new swords and get through to the next zone, but you're supposed to take it entirely seriously while simultaneously listening to what's probably the year's worst game voice-acting. I still can't work out where the actors are from. It sounds like aliens trying to speak in received pronunciation and occasionally lapsing into Australian by way of Italy.
It does look incredible, though: lush, large lands with minimal loading, only slightly brought down by ugly and repeated character models. When I look back at its screenshots, my brain jolts awake - what is that and how can I play it? Oh, wait, it's just that grindy thing again.
I'm frustrated by how hard it is state that element x doesn't work because of x, or feature y is all over the place. Outside of the acting, when broken down to its component parts Gothic 4 is fine - a less characterful but better-looking Fable is probably the easier description. Plenty of people will play it through because of that, and I'm not at all annoyed at them for it. Sometimes, hitting stuff with a sword and collecting experience points is enough in and of itself.
The trouble here, for me, is those parts don't fit together neatly; it's like someone's written a list of what should be in a roleplaying game and they've then been methodically coded regardless of whether they're needed and especially whether they integrate with anything else. For instance, it's possible to 'use' cauldrons and alchemists' benches, if you turn on the bizarre 'roleplaying items' option in the menu - but all you get is a canned, often infinitely-looped animation. If you want to cook or brew potions, hit C, bring up a texty list and click to craft: WoW-style, essentially. Why do these two features - animating crafting and activating crafting - co-exist but not integrate? It's insane. Even if the devs didn't want to chain crafting to specific environmental features so that players didn't get frustrated trying to find the nearest, say, cookpot, couldn't they at least make it so interacting with those features pops up the craft menu anyway? There are these token efforts at offering roleplaying and world-building on top of the goblin and fly-bashing, but they're utterly meaningless.
It started well, too: a prologue playing as a mad king, fervently slaying skeletons as cacophonous voices mutter in his mind and the screen fogs with a muted psychedelia that affectingly evokes insanity. Following that, playing as the lead character proper, a whiny, love-lorn shepherd. You start by his flock, and of course the first thing you do is try hitting them. For the next half hour, the (still hideously-voiced) NPCs comment on your being covered with sheep blood and how your tendency towards eweicide is messing up the village economy. That playfulness and awareness fades fast, the rest of the NPCs I encountered speaking only of where you had to go next. A shame. For about an hour, I thought something wonderful awaited me.
Gothic 4 (the first 7.5 hours of it, at least) is numbing: stiff, cold and mechanical, a RPG wish-list of parts missing whatever divine glue would assemble them into something compelling and magical. I've only dabbled in the Gothic games, but that this could be even slightly related to Risen, which I played extensively, is a laughable idea. That was, until its third-act decline into straightforwardness, a game of survival and subterfuge. This is a game of endurance: of pressing on through its humdrum mire for as long as the soft hum of looting and levelling compulsion remains. At least, that's true of its first 7.5 hours. I can't tell you what I think of the second 7.5 hours, only the impressions I got from what I played before my brain whispered "No more. Please, no more" into my inner ear. Maybe that second half changes and opens up utterly, grants the player purpose and place, and makes the run to the end a mesmerising joy. Boy, will I be embarrassed if it does.
* I couldn't really.
** 12 Murlocs out of D, 31.2 cakes and Grey out of Brown.
*** I'm really not.