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Quarter 3 and 4 of this year, and more probably Q1 of next, should prove to be difficult for anyone playing RPGs as they’ll be shelling out good sums of cash as well as spending untold hours peering into screens and ignoring calls from their family. One of the games that has me limbering up and getting ready to forward my calls is Arcanum. This title is being put together by Troika: a group which contains most of the guys responsible for Fallout 1 and 2. That in and of itself should get people’s mouth’s watering.

Apparently Arcanum has gone gold, but has been delayed to coordinate a multi-country release. The world of Arcanum is an interesting mix of nineteenth century technology (a sort of steampunk environment), magic, Victoria fashion (think formal dress and elaborate speech), and dwarves, orcs and elves. It’s a creative combination of various genre elements and appears unique in the world of computer gaming.

On first look, the visuals and gameplay look suspiciously like Fallout. You’ve got the 2D graphics and fixed isometric point of view. After seeing some of the spectacular 3D work in games like Warcraft III, Battle Realms, or Neverwinter Nights, I couldn’t help but be a bit disappointed. Other 2D games like Fallout: Tactics look better, but after talking with some of the developers, I got the impression that most of the work of Arcanum is in the storyline and level design. It’s got over a million words of text, 100 hours of main storyline, and walking across the entire Arcanum continent takes 5 hours of real time.

It appears that these guys have tried to radically expand the type of play made popular in the Fallout series. The RPG system looks like a modification of the SPECIAL system of those games with the feat/trait possibilities of 3rd Edition Dungeons and Dragons thrown in for spice. Characters can employ various types of specialties: being a fighter, diplomat, thief, assassin, or various combinations thereof. Therefore, every main turning point in the game can be solved in a variety of ways. This was also true of Fallout 1 and 2, as well as titles like Planescape: Torment and Baldur’s Gate. However, in all of those titles, not all of these options was always present. A character couldn’t kill everyone they met and complete the story. The Troika guys assure me that in Arcanum, this is the case. Additionally, the story itself forks depending on the player’s choices. Were one could be good or evil in Baldur’s Gate II, the story pretty much turned out the same. In Arcanum, completely different endings and plot twists exist. To create a real tree-like story must have taken a great deal of time and to then make sure that each plot point could be moved through via multiple methods makes it worse. By this point in the conversation, I was beginning to forgive the graphics.

Lastly, Arcanum contains the complete editing suite – including AI scripting – that was used to create the game itself. What this means is that, given time and patience, a person could recreate the story of Arcanum itself. Essentially, this is the same thing Neverwinter Nights will be minus a massive and deep single player game. Granted, NWN is a 3D engine, but Arcanum, if the developers deliver what they promise, will allow exactly the same sort of game creation and it will be out sooner.

This is my favorite title from E3. The more I think about it, the more excited I get. As I’ve been sold on it, I imagine that I’ll be on the lookout for flaws once it comes out. This game has got a good buzz and will therefore have to withstand tough scrutiny. I can’t wait to being the scrutinizing.

Matt Blackburn

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