Gothic 3 Review
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I'm going to start this review off with kind of an odd statement: Gothic 3 is one of the best games that you shouldn't play.
Now that I've gotten that over with, let's discuss why. Gothic 3 is an RPG sequel by German developer Piranha Bytes and Austrian publisher JoWood, and it includes a huge, open world, plenty of items, skills, spells, and abilities, excellent graphics, and multiple paths through the game along with multiple endings. Sounds pretty good, right? Well, it's also got a boatload of bugs and issues regarding combat, quests, NPC issues, frame rates, crashes, and AI that will make almost any gamer want to smash your keyboard in half at one point or another during this game's forty-plus-hour ride.
Gothic 3 starts out interesting enough: unlike many RPGs, there is no character creation here. You are the "Nameless Hero", some white dude with brown hair and literally no name who arrives in the land of Myrtana, and the first bit of gameplay you get is a pitched battle with a bunch of Orcs. You'll eventually be leveling up and choosing from a number of spells, skills, and stat bonuses to customize your character with, but at the start what you get is pure action. Yes, the lack of choice at the beginning goes against what most RPGs do and it may turn you off, but later you'll have the ability to customize a huge combination of stats, skills, and spells, and that winds up being much better than what we've seen in most RPGs.
Let's dive into the story a little bit. In the first two Gothic games, the Hero fought his way out of a prison and stopped evil from taking hold on the island of Khorinis. Now that he and his buddies have arrived on the mainland that Khorinis sits next to, he finds that he hasn't really improved his situation at all. It turns out that the Orcs, one of the favored people of the evil god Beliar, have almost won a war against the humans and have taken over almost every human city in Myrtana. The Orcs have struck a deal with the Hashishin people to the south and are searching for the ancient artifacts that would allow them to quell all human resistance once and for all, while the rebels themselves have been building secret outposts and planning their own counterattacks to bring their towns back under human control. And Xardas, your nemesis from the previous games, has struck a deal with the Orcs. You'll need to deal with him as well.
You, playing as the hero, are thrust into this world and while you have no choice but to liberate the town of Ardea at the beginning, after that you have a choice. Your first major choice should be whether to side with the humans and free Myrtana from the Orcs, or to crush the human resistance as you work for the Orcs themselves. You'll then have three choices for actually completing the game which I'll leave out here for the sake of keeping at least some of the story under wraps.
Gothic 3 plays somewhat similarly to how the recent Elder Scrolls games like Morrowind and Oblivion do. It's full-on action from a third-person perspective with a lot of RPG number crunching going on behind the scenes, but the important part here is that if you're terrible at action games, you are not going to enjoy Gothic 3 much. Even on the lowest of the three difficulty settings you'll find combat to be brutal and frustrating if you're on the losing end of the battle. Recent patches have eased up on this a bit by making sure you aren't getting "stun-locked" by monsters too badly, but it's still tough to deal with sometimes.
It's probably not a Gothic 3 review without a complaint about boars. Yes, these evil, destructive forces are actually the targets of one of the game's very first quests that actually send you to go kill something. And you'll find out quickly that even with the patches, these boars are no joke. Before your poor body is finished reeling back from your previous attack, the boar's already pushed his snout into your crotch again (at least, that's what the animation looks like), causing you to start reeling back again. This means that even taking one hit from a boar, or from one of many other types of wildlife, can set off a chain reaction where you wind up dead without having been able to do the slightest thing about it once it started. Sure, there is an easy method for taking out boars once you learn it (the idea is to tap your move backwards key, then let it go, then swing your weapon once, then tap backwards again, and repeat), but taking one hit can be catastrophic. And even then, other monsters in the game don't fall for this and will require lots of trial and error - in the form of loading quicksaves repeatedly - in order to come out victorious. Oddly, this problem isn't nearly as big when you're fighting humans or Orcs, and combat with them is usually actually pretty fun.
Unlike Oblivion, Gothic 3 sticks with a classic RPG system which, put simply, gives you experience points for killing monsters and finishing quests. As you level up, you gain Learning Points which can be spent at various trainers and shrines on new skills, spells, higher stats, and more health, mana, or endurance. You can mix and match the points you spend pretty much any way you want, as long as you are meeting prerequisites. If you want, you can be a super-tough tank with a thousand hitpoints but not much in the way of offense, or you can be a glass cannon with fantastic spell-based firepower and only a couple of hundred hitpoints. Pick up your favorite thieving skills, maybe max out your Blacksmith skills, and then go for a full on melee warrior. Or go for a druid-style caster, or even a dedicated assassin. It's up to you, but I'll say right now that once LPs are spent, they're gone - make sure you don't make a crappy character with 100 thieving and smithing and no actual combat skills.
And you're going to need those combat skills, because Gothic 3 doesn't pull punches. Fights start and end quickly, and if you're not careful you'll get backed against a wall and beaten to a pulp. Of course, you can do the same to some enemies, and even handle multiples at once fairly easily once you get the controls down, but the danger of nearly-instant death always looms. Whether you're going with a bow, halberd, sword, or fireballs, knowing how to use them (I'm talking about both your character's in-game abilities, and also your skill with the keyboard and mouse) is essential.
The world of Gothic 3 is interesting in that you must usually do quests around a town in order to gain enough standing with them to see the leader or gain some kind of extra benefit. To gain these reputation points with each town you'll be fighting in the arena, taking out random caves of baddies, or convincing someone to come around to someone else's way of thinking (often at swordpoint). Yes, in this game you can actually get into a fight with another NPC without killing him - once they are knocked out, then you have the choice of finishing them off. Of course, the game also realizes that some people aren't fighting for honor and just want to kill you, so any enemy who is fighting you to the death doesn't need to be finished off in this manner. In those cases, when they fall down, they're dead.
You and your buddies from the beginning of the game quickly split up to do what they can around the land, and you'll come across all of them here and there, but you'll find none of them really had much success doing anything useful. You can join up with them and have them follow you around and kill things with you, but you'll find that the partner AI is actually pretty bad. These characters will often get stun-locked and don't really do much damage, so it's often better to just leave them behind and go out on your own. Luckily, you can become a one-man utility machine, picking locks, forging your own weapons, casting heals and damage spells, and talking your way out of trouble without much difficulty by the end of the game.
One of the most disappointing things with Gothic 3 is that there's little feedback on pretty much anything you do. Hitting an enemy (or getting hit) will present an unusually loud grunt or squeal, but the weapon feels like it's just passing through the space where your (or your enemy's) body happens to also be, along with a canned animation where the hurt character reels back. Blocking is practically useless in this game, and combat doesn't feel right since it's all about taking advantage of knockback animations and the like. It's very arbitrary and video-gamey. I remember a trailer for Oblivion way back, almost a year before it was released, where Bethesda producer and narrator Todd Howard said that one of their goals with Oblivion was to create a "kinetic feel" of "guys bashing each other with swords". It's my opinion that they nailed that goal with Oblivion. It's also my opinion that Gothic 3 is the exact opposite - it's got a very artificial combat system that lacks the kind of feedback that players need in order to feel like they're really a part of the action.
But this lack of feedback continues into the RPG elements of the game, too. Your quest log is literally that - a log of the conversations you've had, broken up by each town into separate quests. The game is not written from the perspective of the player, and not even all of the relevant conversations get logged in the right place. Even when you finish a quest, you might not know who to talk to in order to "close out" the quest and get your final reward. This will lead you into getting lost in search of NPCs, never finding them, or even being misdirected by NPCs who tell you to go west when what you actually want is north. And yes, you have a map, but this quest system doesn't actually tell you where to go to find anything, so you might just get a direction that says "northeast from Mora Sul" without any info on how far away. Then you find out it's actually north-northeast and not nearly as far away as you first figured - after searching for an hour in the desert of Varant, that is.
Another major issue I found is that the game will likely thrust you down the path of siding with the Orcs or siding with the humans before you're actually ready to make the decision. After you liberate the fourth town or settlement by killing the Orcs in the town, every Orc in the game world instantly will want to kill you on sight. No, I'm serious. Even the Orcs that are working for the Hashishin people down south will attack you, and since they're guards at a Hashishin town, that means the rest of the people of that town will come after you and try to kill you as well. Never mind that you might be revered in their lands as Zuben's chosen one - some Orc apparently said you need to die and they will all come after you. My tip for anyone who tries this game is to do the quests and do NOT liberate any towns or destroy any rebel settlements until you've done all the quests you planned to do with that specific faction.
Now, the whole point of this system is that you have to make a mutually exclusive choice as to how you want to handle the game, and this adds some replay value as you can go another route after starting over. But the fact that the game gives you only vague warnings of this whole system by way of the towns' leaders essentially dropping slightly veiled hints about how someone has been destroying their towns and they think they know who is doing it (as in, you) - well, I don't think it's enough. It's not enough because the moment one too many towns are taken over, it's only a matter before you start getting attacked on sight, instantly breaking every quest from that faction in the game without any way to redeem yourself. If you go past that point with any one faction, you can still beat the game, but you won't be able to do that faction's quests anymore unless you start over completely.
It doesn't end there, however. Not only does this game's interface need some serious re-working, but almost the whole quest and reputation system needs an overhaul to stop quests from getting broken, stop NPCs who shouldn't be attacking you from coming after you anyway, and make sure you're not wandering around for two hours to find one stupid cave entrance or camp. These are the kinds of things that have been only barely touched on in the six-plus-weeks of patching since Gothic 3 was released in Europe, and I'm not sure that Piranha Bytes really seems too intent on addressing these issues.
All that being said, the world that Gothic 3 offers is still a mostly beautiful one. The lands of Myrtana look natural and are often a little difficult to navigate, with sheer cliffs, the odd dead tree, and plenty of flora and detritus that decorating (or littering) the landscape. It's a drastic change from a game like Oblivion with its a-little-too-picturesque environments, and overall this game has much more of a realistic feel to it. There are no alien-like ruins here, and while magic is certainly a big part of the game, the creatures and enemies here fit inside a much smaller fantasy constraint - there are people and Orcs, a few fantastic creatures, some undead, and plenty of wildlife. Still, the look of the world just seems more like real life than many RPGs do, and that helps ground the whole experience a little better than I might have expected.
Unfortunately, the beauty of Myrtana requires a very powerful computer to enjoy. The game often runs worse than Oblivion did, with major hits to the frame rate and plenty of pausing while the hard drive thrashes. Sure, the game offers a completely free-roaming world with no "zoning", even when entering cities, but it's a pretty stiff price to pay to get it. I'm not sure it was worth it. Loading times are also prohibitive, as the game can take up to two minutes to "quick load" on some computers, although it takes about 40 seconds on mine. "Quick save" is also a misnomer, as hitting the F5 key means about ten seconds or so of saving. This can really add up if you are stuck on a fight you can't win, and you can easily get to a point where you're spending 45 seconds at loading screen for each 10 seconds actually playing.
I have a really tough time recommending this to any but the most hardcore RPG players out there. Gothic 3's numerous bugs and issues often will directly counter what's supposed to be fun about an RPG, and I wonder if this game will ever get the amount of fixes necessary to make it really enjoyable for anyone less than the most masochistic RPG fans in the world.
If you can punch through the game's tough combat, numerous bugs, a lot of searching, characters that sometimes will just disappear (they often get stuck under the game world), and quite a few broken quests, you'll find that Gothic 3 is actually a pretty damn good game. Unfortunately, a large majority of gamers, even RPG fans, won't put up with so many problems and are very likely to give up before completion. It's already been almost two months since the original European release and it will take months of additional work for Piranha Bytes to get it patched to a point where this game is even nearly as accessible or enjoyable as Oblivion, and by then it will probably be a moot point in most gamers' eyes, but the simple truth is that Gothic 3 feels like a missed opportunity. It's the biggest RPG tragedy I've seen in years, honestly, as this game could have been so much more enjoyable without all of these issues constantly plaguing it.