Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Arx Fatalis

I finished one of my holiday gifts recently (well, finished enough -- more on that later). Arx Fatalis (Fatal Fortress or Fortress of Fate in Latin) is a game which was inspired by the Ultima Underworld series, and was the predecessor to Arkane Studios' more recent Dark Messiah of Might and Magic -- which is a better-looking, but severely stripped down spiritual successor (aren't they all?)

Arx Fatalis is a rather linear RPG-like game. You play as a single predefined character -- a voiced, male-only "chosen one" figure (with a choice of 4 possible faces) who was sent to save the world from an ancient evil (the story isn't one of its strong points). The RPG elements include the ability to put stat points into various attributes upon gaining new levels, optional side-quests, inventory management with buying and selling at vendors, crafting, character specialisations, and a good amount of freedom in your approach to solving various problems. Although you don't get any choices of dialogue during conversations, you do get to make various decisions through your actions, and there are usually multiple choice paths with different advantages.

There are numerous puzzle challenges throughout the game, which I consider one of the strengths of the game. These were almost all enjoyable and challenging, with just the right amount of clues to keep you from getting stuck, but difficult enough to make you think for a while.

Buggy as hell

Of all of my GOG games, this was the only one that gave me significant trouble in getting it to run properly. I was plagued by crashes, bugs, and graphical glitches that made the game unplayable, but eventually, through stubborn perseverance and experimentation with various settings and patches, I got it into a playable state. I wish I could report exactly what combination fixed all the problems, but I tried so many things I can't say for sure.

First, there was the rendering problem. This was noticeable immediately on starting the game, from the first cutscene to the game itself. The frames flickered and stuttered, and although camera freelook view and the movement of my character seemed unaffected, all animated textures stuttered as well, and jumping and crouching were jerky and strange as well. The last official patch from Arkane Studios itself, posted around the time they released the source code (around the holidays of 2010) has an option to "enable rendering fix" which for some reason didn't solve this problem for me at first, but it's working now, and I'm not sure which tweaks did it.

Then, there was the crashing problem. This happened mostly during the transitions from the interior of the king's castle to the city of Arx. Why, I don't know, but the fix was to lower the texture resolution to "low".

Finally, the running speed problem. This one was identified by user Nuky on the GOG forum as being related to the amount of time your computer has been running since startup. Apparently, the speed starts out fairly normal if you're playing the game after recently having reset your computer, but for those of us who keep their computers running for long periods of time without resets, the running speed increases until you shoot down the corridors like The Flash. Thanks to the source code for the game having been released, Nuky posted a fix for this problem, which solved it for me. His fix also improved the speed of the unnecessarily sliding menus (personally, I don't see why they kept that sliding in there when it performed so poorly) at the expense of the font's antialiasing.

In case it had anything to do with the overall fixes, here are my nVidia card settings that I tweaked during the troubleshooting process (items that are set to "application-controlled" are not listed here):

  • Antialiasing - Gamma correction: Off
  • Antialiasing - Transparency: Off
  • CUDA - GPUs: All
  • Maximim pre-rendered frames: 3
  • Multi-display/mied-GPU acceleration: Multiple display performance mode
  • Texture filtering - Negative LOD bias: Allow
  • Texture filtering - Quality: Quality
  • Texture filtering - Trilinear optimisation: On
  • Threaded optimisation: Auto
  • Triple-buffering: Off

After I got all this taken care of, it became a relatively smooth playing experience, with only occasional hiccups.

Overall impressions

This game includes hunger, but no need to sleep, despite the wide availability of beds, and the fact that you obtain your own bedroom early in the game. I thought I would find hunger an annoying feature, but it turns out it just made cooking more enjoyable. Cooking is one of the two crafting disciplines you can practise (three if you count enchanting), the other being alchemy. The difference is that there are no skill requirements for cooking. All you need are the tools, ingredients, and a fire. Most food doesn't even need the tools. Just set some raw fish or rat ribs by a fire, and in a few seconds you have cooked food that'll satisfy your hunger. The fact that rats are the only creatures that regularly drop meat (sentient creatures like goblins or trolls might happen to be carrying some food, but you'll never get goblin meat) makes the many rat encounters in the game slightly less annoying (I daresay at least 50% of the combat in this game is against rats).

But once you've gotten your hands on some flour, water, apples, wine, and a rolling pin, you can make yourself probably the best food in the game: gourmet apple pie. It satisfies your hunger for longer than almost anything else, and it takes up the minimum space in your inventory, unlike the similarly satisfying large ribs.

Alchemy isn't as fun. There are only a few potions you can make (health, mana, poison, antidote, and invisibility), and your object knowledge skill only affects whether you can make them. You need bottles, a mortar and pestle (to powder your herbs), and access to a still to brew the potions. Empty bottles are fillable with water or wine, and drinking or using those items will leave you an empty bottle to use in alchemy, but if you drink a potion, the bottle seems to disappear.

You can also carve wood into wooden stakes (useful for zombies), enchant your weapons with a few possible reagents (and poison them as well), craft and repair weapons at a blacksmith's place (or just repair them at any anvil), go fishing, and mine gems and precious metals from the walls with a pick. These are all less developed than the previous crafts, and money isn't really a problem in this game, either, so you could just skip the mining.

Unfortunately, the world is hardly populated at all. The "city" of Arx has perhaps 20 people living in it, which includes the king, his servants, and the guards. There are 3 merchants (one for gems and jewelry, one for weapons and armour, and one for misc supplies), plus another merchant down in the lower caverns. It makes the slaughter of all the people at the first human outpost you find seem like a terrible loss, since they pretty much cut the human population in half. Not that it seems to matter to the people in the nearby tavern, who never seem to notice or care that there's a body-strewn battleground next door, even though they'd have to pass by it to leave the tavern.

Nearby that same tavern is a small alcove containing the wreckage of a teleporter, which I presume was destroyed by the Ylsides during their offscreen attack on the human outpost. This is the first such teleporter you're likely to find in the game, and it is explained at some point during the main quest how you can use them. "Let me show you how we travel", one of the naga/lamia women told me at that point, and she took me to one of the intact teleporters near the market area of the city of Arx, and showed me a spell to cast to activate the device. Each device must be activated in person before you can teleport there, much like meeting the flight masters in WoW in person before you can fly to their flight points.

I'll be generous and assume that by "activating" them, you're doing some kind of magical attunement to your body so that you can travel through them, and not that they've just all been sitting dormant all this time. But there's one thing I noticed about the teleporters. First of all, once you activate a portal, it'll show up on one of the sides of the device for the rest of the game, and there are a limited number of sides. I had assumed throughout most of the game that one of them would always be broken, because of that wreckage down by the tavern, until I actually did come across one final teleporter. Once I activated it, the final panel of the teleporter opened, with no space left for the broken teleporter. Either this is some kind of oversight on the developers' part, or else we're meant to assume that the wreckage was not the result of the recent attack, but had actually been there for a long time, and one of the teleporters that I had already activated had been its replacement.

The look and feel

It's a somewhat strange ambience in Arx Fatalis, with its goofy, cartoonish goblins and trolls, with quests to get a birthday present for the lonely troll and to sneak into a goblin's room by secretly giving him diarrhea, while on the other end of the spectrum there are copious dismembered bodies, scattered heads, arms, and torsoes, torture rooms, hanged prisoners, and human sacrifice (a woman and a child, who it's possible to rescue), with more sacrifices being referred to in the past.

Aside from the violence, there's also the unexpected but not unwelcome possibility for sex in the game, though it's handled in a very strange and bizarre way. If you return the magic rings to Alia after destroying the meteor, she's so pleased that she invites you to stay with her for a while. After a black screen, there's a very strange after-bed sequence that could be interpreted as a nightmare.

There is no followup or comment to the monster-face "premonition" either in conversation or in the quest log. My thought is that it might have been from a dropped alternate resolution to that part of the story, depending on how you may have handled things before. There are a couple of scenes in other places that play out slightly differently depending on your actions, after all. This might have originally led to a fight with a monster Alia. If there was such a plan that had to be dropped, they may have decided the scene was too good to waste, and so they put it in as a kind of fake-out "dream sequence" just before the "real" conversation.

Compared to Ultima Underworld

As written in game histories, Arx Fatalis was planned to be a third game in the Ultima Underworld series, but Arkane Studios couldn't get the license for it, and thus they retooled it into a similar but original setting. Since I have not yet played UU, I base what I write here on my readings of developer interviews and of gameplay videos.

Since Arx was based directly on it, I won't go into the similarity in setting, or the "chosen one" back story, which was a staple of the Ultima story anyway, in the form of the Avatar. Visually, there's little to compare, since UU was 2.5D like Doom, with 2D sprites moving in a 3D space, and Arx is fully 3D.

But in terms of content, for instance, Arx includes somewhere between 6-9 types of enemy, not counting 1-time bosses or humans, which is a fraction of the creatures in UU, whether or not I use UU1 or UU2 as a representative sample. Arx initiates dialogue only when it wants to, in the form of non-interactive cutscenes, while UU has proper branching dialogue with NPCs, with multiple response options. My only complaint there is that UU uses faux Elizabethan English, as it seems all Ultima games do.

Hunger is in both games, but UU also requires sleep, which I suspect (from the presence of the aforementioned beds and bedroom) was originally planned for Arx as well, but never implemented.

In UU2, not only can you make your own notes on your map, but you can enter your own text in character dialogue in some places, which is perhaps useful in cases where you know the answer to something that your character hasn't actually discovered. This does break the RPG elements, but the game already does that by having you do realtime, manual combat (which Arx also does).

I can't tell how the two games compare in terms of the number of NPCs and locations from what I've seen, unfortunately.

I'm not sure how many of the good UU elements would not have been cut out if Arkane had been able to call it Ultima Underworld 3 instead of making it a "spiritual successor", but the more cynical side of me suspects those things would have been cut for time and money reasons anyway.

Compared to the Elder Scrolls

Both Arx Fatalis and Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind came out in 2002, and are graphically very similar, so if you're familiar with the more popular Morrowind, you know what to expect graphically -- Good environmental structure and texturing (for the time), and rather ugly character models. Arx beats Morrowind in terms of character animation, though.

Having seen what I've seen of Ultima Underworld, I'm leaning toward the conclusion that Morrowind and Arx were both aiming for the same things, and went about it in similar, but not identical, ways. The first two Elder Scrolls games look a lot like the Ultima Underworld games, the first of which was released 2 years before the first Elder Scrolls game. Of course, Daggerfall deserves a post all on its own, and I'll get to that eventually. But the point for now is that the first two Elder Scrolls games owe much of their look and gameplay to UU, and Morrowind represents their move to full-blown 3D after the Doom-like 2.5D of the first two. That's why it's valid to compare Morrowind and Arx Fatalis, as both of them are basically 3D reimaginings of Ultima Underworld.

Arx Fatalis did not have an intermediate step as the Elder Scrolls did, and jumped directly from Ultima Underworld to full 3D, and I find it interesting that they arrived at such a similar destination as did Morrowind. A natural convergent evolution, or did the two studios influence each other during the design process?

At any rate, the biggest difference between the two is that Arx abandoned the character dialogue options that Morrowind retained, and chopped the character appearance customisation down to 1 race, 1 sex, and 4 faces (down from 10 possible face choices in UU, with 5 for each sex), where Morrowind continued the trend it had established in its previous games where it had expanded the character customisation to several races, with numerous faces for each race and sex. The second most striking difference is the linearity and lack of replayability, due to a much smaller game world with so few side quests.

Compared to Dark Messiah

From reading the TTLG forum, in the Arx forum that I never visited (I was always there for the Thief series), I see that people were anxiously expecting an Arx Fatalis 2 for years after the first one, but eventually it was revealed that Arkane Studios was instead working on Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, which was released in 2006. I actually went and purchased that game while I was playing Arx, though I already knew from the forum posts and from the gameplay videos on Youtube that it was even more stripped down from Arx than Arx was from UU. From the gameplay videos, I could tell that it would be a pure FPS action game, and bought it with that in mind. It's a departure from the rest of the Might and Magic line, but I have no experience with those, and the fact that it is such a departure is what makes it worth comparing to Arx Fatalis.

It was, in fact, essentially an FPS compared to Arx, much like the difference between System Shock 2 and Bioshock. I was pleasantly surprised to see that there was actually still an inventory and several trees of stats and abilities we could invest points in, but those things are not enough to call Dark Messiah an RPG. It's at best an FPS with a few RPG elements, and it's even more linear than Arx Fatalis. You can't even select an appearance, but it hardly matters since you never see your character.

I did notice quite a few elements from Arx returned in Dark Messiah, though. I'm strongly tempted to believe that this game actually began its life as Arx Fatalis 2, but was repurposed at some point during development when they got rights to a well-known title. Right on the title screen, in fact, one of the game's necromancers is staring menacingly at you, and he bears a resemblance to the Ylsides from Arx. Also making a return appearance are certain kinds of food, certain props, and a functional forge. But once in your inventory, every type of food magically turns into identical "food rations". And since there's no hunger in this game, the only thing food does is restore a tiny amount of health. As a wizard/thief, it takes more than a full stack of food to restore my health bar completely, and I would expect a warrior would get far less benefit from it. In addition, there are arbitrary item-type limits. "You can carry no more than 20 mana potions" (or anything else) no matter how many inventory slots you have free.

Speaking of inventory, I had been finding myself running out of room and getting impatient for the night to end so I could go to the nearest shop and sell off some junk, only to find that there are no shops in Dark Messiah! At one point we went to a tavern, and I thought that was going to be a shop of some kind (and my demon companion said "I think they sell more than just food here,") but the barmaid just walked off into the kitchen and stayed there, not responding to my attempts to speak to her except to yell at me for coming into the kitchen and threatening to call the guards if I didn't leave. No one in that tavern, in fact, appeared to do anything. So don't bother picking up anything you can't actually use, unless you want to be sure to have something on hand to throw at enemies.

The game also commits the exact same kind of offense as Arx did -- namely, introducing a boss fight weighted heavily against magic users. Here, an orc boss challenges me to single combat with the rules specifically prohibiting the use of magic. I'm a wizard with no points in mĂȘlĂ©e combat at all, and he can kill me in 1 hit. If I even switch to casting mode, his half-dozen bodyguards immediately attack as well. I found that out by accidentally hitting a key nearby the "kick" key which put me in casting mode. I spent maybe 15-20 minutes reloading over and over, quick-saving as soon as I'd scored a couple of hits and was still in decent health. I have no idea how long it'll take to wear his hit points down, but I'm very sick of it by now. I was also sick of replaying his long speech before he attacked, until I realised you can save during cutscenes.

Dark Messiah is actually a change from my most recent trend of starting with the latest game in a series (even a series as loose as a thread of "spiritual successors"), and working my way backward to the earlier games, which traded graphics for better and more complex content. It is very pretty, with some nice characters, and even includes rope arrows like in the Thief series, but it lacks in depth.

End of Arx Fatalis

This is what I was talking about when I said I had "finished enough." As it turns out, I couldn't finish the game, and I don't plan to. The final boss fight appears to be unwinnable for me, as a non-warrior type, with the final boss' apparently huge health reserve and a tractor beam that forces you into close combat. And since this fight ends the game, I don't feel the need to keep trying. I watched the ending on Youtube for closure.

I tried numerous strategies that I read about, but nothing worked for me. The boss either just stood there and did nothing (after his transformation) while I kept hitting him over and over until giving up, or he wiped the floor with me despite me constantly chugging health potions, or he stood there confused when I levitated or climbed a pillar, but again simply refused to die no matter how many times I hit him with the special sword or threw fireballs at him. I played a combination thief-mage, with high casting skill that could kill an Ylside with 2 fireballs and a lich with 3, but nothing worked against this boss.

Since casters are heavily crippled in this game due to the gesture-recognition system they used, where you have to draw 3 or 4 runes in the air with your finger to cast a spell, and can only pre-cast and store up to 3 of them, it essentially amounts to a 3-spell-per-fight limit, since fumbling around in the inventory for scrolls with no ability to pause while doing so, and trying to draw runes with a mouse (and have them be recognised) are too clumsy for me to want to keep beating my head against that wall.

Nevertheless, despite the buggy beginning, small world, linear story, lack of freedom, anticlimactic ending, and reduced content from its predecessors, I consider Arx to have been fun and enjoyable. Though small in scope, Arkane did take care to make each area visually different and interesting. If you spend as little time in the city of Arx as possible, and spend most of your time exploring the different levels, the illusion of a larger world may persist (though you may end up backtracking a good deal due to getting lost, which is easy to do). On the other hand, what it really makes me want to do is try out its predecessor Ultima Underworld, which I suspect I'll enjoy all the more for what was left out of this one.

2 comments:

  1. I know what you mean when you said you didn't have to kill the final boss to feel "completed"! Specially if the strategy is about spamming health potions. It is something I hated in Diablo.

    I was a complete failure in Morrowind, I loved to explore and gather, kill random things in the wild, but not so found of following the story line, for some reason. Same with Oblivion. So this game, apparently, would really not fit (and I still need to go back to Oblivion, I got it between moving to US and never went back).

    Puzzles are always cool though. I need to find a puzzle only game, I recall having demos of them back before year 2000, on my old pentium, but now even the names of the games are gone. If you can help on that, please do!

    Myself, I've been playing free to play mmos. Everquest 2 Extended is being a lot of "RPGish" fun, actually. After the starting zones, I have to actually READ the quests and talk to NPCs without huge arrows on their heads to investigate and complete quests. So it's been interesting. Also playing lotro, the Moria zone is simply amazing, I get lost in time playing in there. Also started to blog a little, maybe I can tease about EQ2 enough for you to give it a try. They have housing! And it's better then the Morrowind object placement! You can't steal everything from the world though... oh I miss that :)

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  2. I don't think it's a failure to eschew the main quest in an otherwise fun game. Most of the time, the main quest is essentially "follow this path to make the game end." If we're enjoying the game, why make it end? At least in Morrowind and Oblivion, the game didn't end after you finished the main quest, but they did tend to cause permanent changes to the game world that you might not want, like the deaths of NPCs, destruction of buildings or landscapes, and everyone knowing you and supplicating themselves when you try to enter dialogue.

    The only puzzle-type game that comes to mind from before 2000 is one I liked called Jetpack, which also had a level editor and hundreds or thousands of new levels to download. I haven't played it for a long time, but I remember it being a lot of fun. After 2000, maybe around 2003, I remember there was a Popcap game that I liked called Mummy Maze. I only played the demo for it, though.

    I didn't know that Everquest 2 was free to play. I heard that LOTRO is, but I haven't tried it. If I try one of the two, it would probably be EQ2. I'll watch your blog for info on it before I try it. :)

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