Jowood destroys what little relevance remains of the Gothic series by releasing this haphazardly thrown together sequel
While most players probably don't realize it, Gothic's creator Piranha Bytes originally sought out to make a "3D Ultima clone" with the first title in the series and therefore placed many of Richard Garriott's revolutionary gameplay ideas into their own RPG. Things like the advanced NPC day-night scheduling, the "Never forget" memory of characters who you've wronged, the penalties for getting caught doing bad things, the highly interactive world full of useless items that you could manipulate, the fact that you could attack and murder any NPC you wanted to....those were all gameplay devices used in Ultimas 4 through 6 and then later perfected in Ultima 7. Thanks to Piranha Bytes, Gothic brought them all back after 8 years of forced slumber and reintroduced these long forgotten but nonetheless desired facets of CRPG gameplay to a gaming public that desperately sought them.
Thanks to their understanding of classic CRPG gameplay and their single minded desire to create a living, breathing virtual world Piranha Bytes was able to so deeply tap into the wallets of this ignored subset of RPG'er that they managed to convince their publisher to release two sequels and a well-received expansion pack for their beloved Gothic series. Unfortunately for their fans, they were relieved of their duties a year later in 2007 and were forced to relinquish the name of the world they created. Some blamed the buggy release of Gothic 3 for Piranha Byte's dismissal, but in the end it didn't matter. Piranha Bytes went on to create their own Gothic-inspired CRPG entitled "Risen" and managed to impress the core Gothic fanbase enough to make it a mild European hit.
They had moved on.
Jowood, however, did not. They outsourced development of a Gothic 3 expansion pack to a small unproven development team that had only one other title (a Nintendo DS puzzle game) under their belt, and the resulting product was abysmal at best. The expansion was said to bridge the gap between the first three Gothic games and their planned sequel, but it sold poorly and was released in an almost completely broken state. Knowing how horribly they handled that expansion, would they even be able to pull off a full fledged sequel? Could they retain that classic and much beloved Gothic feel with a brand new development team that had never worked on a Gothic game before?
The short answer, if you're not into reading long-winded dissections of RPGs, would be no. Not even close.
Since the release of Gothic 4 there have been quite a few fans who seem to be defending the game's honor and calling the title's detractors ungrateful. While I'm normally inclined to agree with this assumption if a game is still fun at its core, Gothic 4 is an RPG that is advertising itself to be a true Gothic sequel but has absolutely none of the requisite features needed to make it one. Other than some returning NPCs and some links to the previous game's plot, nothing remains of the core Gothic experience. What remains is nothing more than a forced 3rd person Oblivion that is far more linear and constrictive than you'd expect a game of its kind to be. While I'd expect this sort of thing (and even look past it) if it was a sequel to Ego Draconis or any other linear European action RPG, this game is suppose to be a Gothic sequel, and as such I have to grade it against its forebears.
Gothic 4 opens up with your tired shepherd being asked by his fiance to talk with her father and get him to consent to your planned marriage. After a rather lengthy "tutorial area" full of quests, a rather cliche plot twist has you seeking revenge against the king for ruining your quiet life. The King, who is the hero from the first three Gothic games, appears to be under some sort of spell and is frequently referred to as the "Doomed King", a plot device that serves as the main drive forward for Gothic players curious as to what has happened to the hero since they last saw him. Newcomers to the series may not feel that drive, since the story itself, as well as the NPCs that you meet, will only hold value for gamers who developed feelings for them in the previous games. Without those built-in emotions, the story and characters cannot stand on their own. Even me, a gamer who has beaten every Gothic game besides Forgotten Gods, found it hard to move forward at times.
Sadly the actual gameplay is in just as bad a shape as the story.
The world you are allowed to explore is only doled out to you in tiny chunks, cordoning you off from the rest of the island. Each time the main story quest stops and you are told to perform a task to move it forward, some cliched barrier is placed in front of you to prevent you from straying from your immediate location. It could be bandits blocking a bridge or a guard that won't let you through a gate without a pass from the local lord, but whatever it is will be there until the plot decides to move you up a section. For a game that is the official sequel to one of the most open and free-roaming RPGs ever made it stings pretty badly when you are forced into such tiny areas of play just to facilitate the story's sluggish progression. It feels stifling and is clumsily implemented, which would be fine for smaller games like Divinity 2 or S.T.A.L.K.E.R. but not for a European RPG with the pedigree that Gothic possesses.
This feeling of claustrophobia is only increased once you realize that the main character cannot swim nor can he jump up (or sometimes even down) mountainsides. Even if you do manage to push your way through these areas you hit invisible barriers that either bounce you backward or simply block your movement, preventing you from doing the kind of reckless exploring that the Gothic series is widely known for. No more foolishly bumbling into a field full of Trolls, no more falling into a canyon with two Shadowbeasts, and no more feeling of hopelessness as you realize you've slid down a mountainside into an area that is far too difficult for your inexperienced hero to handle. The joy those random happenings bring is completely absent in Gothic 4, which is a shame considering how big of a part they were to the Gothic experience.
What's even more disturbing is that an alchemist in the tutorial village remarks about how your character is "afraid of the water" and goes on to say that's why he can't swim. When I heard that I didn't even laugh, I just shook my head in disbelief.
I'd believe that was intended and actually part of the main character's broken personality, but when you consider the fact that the water doesn't even react to your entry into it and there are no waves or water ripples when you walk waist-deep in it you have to wonder if it wasn't just laziness. I haven't seen a character enter water and not at least create *some* effect of his entry into the liquid since id software's original quake engine in the mid 90s. It's really odd that they didn't even put some basic software-driven rippling effect in. Instead they opted for simply no effect at all, which comes off looking odd. It reminded me of the noclip code in the original Unreal game where you could glide through polygons. Obviously, not something you'd expect to see in a 2010 PC RPG.
Besides the exploration, Gothic was known for its amazing recreation of a living, breathing medieval world. While we could have probably done without the NPCs relieving themselves on trees or in pools of water, the realism the game contained seemed to just burst out of every pore. Like the Ultima games which it was based off of, Gothic made the player truly roleplay their character and didn't take any shortcuts while doing so. You could forge swords with hot coals and an anvil then sharpen them on a whetstone, you could belly up to an alchemist's bench and brew liquids that could alter your statistics, you could sit down at a fire and cook animal scraps in a frying pan for HP-reviving food, and you could even pass the time by finding a unowned bed and laying down. While it doesn't sound like much, Gothic made a big deal out of these seemingly boring things and required the player to engage in them. It added another layer of believability to a world that felt alive and "real".
Gothic 4 doesn't do this.
Well, in a way it does. Though you can go to an alchemist's bench, lay on a bed and mess with a whetstone, it does nothing other than turn on a short looping animation. Crafting, much to veteran Gothic player's dismay, can be done anywhere on the road. You can fry meat without being anywhere near a fire, you can brew a potion without being at a lab and you can bang out equipment without having access to all of the proper workstations. It's a real immersion killer and is the sort of thing you'd expect to see in a poorly designed eastern MMO, not a Gothic sequel. What makes this worse is that the game puts a big "CRAFTING" logo on the screen whenever you possess enough materials to make something, and so far I've found no option to remove that notification. It's as if the game believes I'm unable to think for myself and that I need a constant reminder that crafting is available.
Immersion being broken is a common problem with Gothic 4. Unlike its predecessors, or even most other competing CRPGs, Gothic 4 doesn't try very hard to make the world you're fighting in feel authentic. whether its huge blankets of rain suddenly appearing as a torrential downpour out of the blue with no slight trickle to build up from or NPCs that sleep with their eyes wide open, Gothic 4 continually ruins any bit of immersion it manages to create elsewhere. It's even worse if you stop to think how your hero is able to adventure for several days at a time and is never once allowed to stop at a bed and sleep. After a few dozen day-night cycles have gone by and the main character hasn't so much as closed his eyes let alone sleep, you've got to wonder if sleep deprivation isn't just causing the whole story to be one big illusion.
Even the eating and drinking animations that the Gothic series was known for are no longer in use. Though most might consider it nit-picking, I was blown away when after giving some "scabooze" to an orcish gate guard he merely yelled "ahhhh" and made a refreshing sound as he supposedly drank the liquor. No animation, no movement, just the sound. It was yet another immersion killer that I wouldn't have had to put up with in any other Gothic game yet was forced to witness in this "official" sequel.
Throw in the sad fact that no one cares if you rob their house blind right in front of them and you really have to wonder if the designers even bothered to play a Gothic game before. Even the Stealth skill is useless since people don't care if you rob them out in the blue and monsters are easy enough to kill even without the extra damage a sneak attack can do.
Which brings me to one of Gothic 4's biggest mistakes, its combat system.
When I played the demo I was disappointed with the "hard" difficulty system and felt it was far too easy. Gamers who had played the full game were quick to assure me that the hardest difficulty, the so-called "Gothic" mode, was much more difficult and would give me the same kind of challenge that the original games did. I was skeptical, but took their word for it. I knew that Jowood wouldn't ignore what was perhaps the biggest draw of the Gothic series, that being the immense fear and panic the combat system created in its game. Gothic's combat was all about proper timing and distributing aggro. It was about sizing up the enemy and tricking them into fighting on your own terms. Combats were quick, merciless, and sometimes bordered on insane...but it was something we Gothic fans adored. When you killed that black troll by circle strafing him for 20 minutes or annihilated Bullco at Onar's farm by luring him outside and shooting arrows at him from the roof of the mansion you felt like superman after just defeating Lex Luthor. You accomplished something grand, something nearly impossible, and you were rewarded for it.
In Gothic 4, combat, even in the "Gothic difficulty", is still incredibly easy.
In all fairness, it may be due to me specializing in lightning magic and abusing its unblockable 4 second stun effect, but even still the combat shouldn't be this incredibly effortless. Gothic 4 tries to make the "Gothic" difficulty challenging by setting it up so that the AI always uses its power move and simply spams its strongest attack against you, but all this does is make it easier since these moves are telegraphed beforehand by way of a telltale glowing and are therefore very easy to avoid and leave enemies wide open for long combo strings. Combine this with the unavoidable 4 second stun of the lightning spells and you might not be shocked to know that after twenty hours of gameplay I hadn't used a single heal potion and at that time had roughly four dozen of them in my inventory.
I should also add that the "Flurry" skill that opens up along the skill path is completely worthless once you unlock the next major skill improvement after that, the "unlimited combo" attack. Why waste your time using well-timed player activated flurries that are easily interrupted by enemy attacks when the standard attack you can do by continually mashing the mouse button is three times faster and cannot be interrupted? I can't believe no one caught that in the play testing phase of the game's design. Sure you can find weapons that do double damage during the flurries (Such as the Dancing Scimitar) but it isn't enough to validate actually using anything other than mad button mashing.
when a middle aged man such as myself with painful arthritis and the beginnings of carpal tunnel syndrome can, at level 5, kill a group of four field raiders and three bloodflies without getting hit on the hardest difficulty, something is terribly wrong.
Though most of the blame should be placed on the ridiculously bad AI of the enemies and their constant glowing/spamming of their power move, another culprit would have to be the incredibly overpowered dodge maneuver. This dodge is so fast and so easily done that if you're an exploit-loving gamer like myself you'll probably spend 90% of each fight rolling on the ground in between lightning sparks and combo strings. It makes combat look incredibly silly and managed to ruin the thrill that Gothic's combat once held for me. Anyone who claims that the "Gothic difficulty" is worthy of being called such should go back and try fighting the bandits on the stone bridge in chapter one of Gothic 2 Gold. That fight alone was responsible for two of my keyboards breaking and still gives me the shakes. When you compare the punishing combat of the original games to Gothic 4, you'd have to be a very kind soul to overlook the huge gap between the two.
Nowhere was this more apparent than a boss fight with a stone golem while traveling to the town of Blackwater. The golem popped out of the wall and I immediately started pounding him with normal attacks. roughly 40 seconds of attack spamming later, he died. It was so effortless, so awfully boring and so anti-climactic that I turned off the game and waited a couple of hours until I went back in. I just lost all drive to continue onward. While the battles do get a little better later into the game when you fight multiple golems and/or undead mages, it's still far easier than it should be on this so-called "Gothic difficulty". Especially when you get the chain lightning spell and can paralyze every enemy in the vicinity with a single spell.
As if that wasn't enough to ruin the combat system for me, I also found that the controls were lacking in polish as well. The backpedal, which is a standard of both FPS and action RPGs such as oblivion and Fallout, wasn't even implemented. when you press "S" to move backwards, you don't backpedal with your face pointed towards the enemy, you actually turn around and make a full-on retreat from the battle. I cannot count how many times I caught myself swinging behind me because I instinctively backpedaled to re-adjust my distance to the enemy only to curse myself when I swung wildly at the air 5 feet behind me. While it's a small gripe, it did annoy me enough to mention it.
Adding to the combat system's woes are the lack of Gothic's traditional "trainers", and the watering down of the skill system to just a few very bland and disappointingly straight skill lines. Though I imagine the days of going to trainers to realistically and authentically learn your skills in an RPG are gone (There we go with that "immersion thing" being broken again), it would have been nice to be given the opportunity to "spec" in a weapon style. I can't help but feel that the "Mettle" skill line was meant to be the 2-handed skill tree and that the "Discipline" skill line was meant to represent one handed skills. Instead, they just add some health and stamina to your totals every level and at a few points in the long line open up slightly new combat tricks such as being able to string together more attacks or...being able to do even MORE attacks than the last bonus.
Yes, the skill system is that bland.
There are ways that Gothic 4 could have vindicated itself, but at every moment that arised it completely missed its chance. One such chance would have been the Liberation of a town that was controlled by a Baron who was sympathetic to the King. In what reminded me of Gothic 3's town liberation battles, I had to find a rebel hideout and tell them to strike at the castle and overtake it by force. Instead of being let in on their fight, I had to watch as they walked out of the hideout and sent me into the caves below to clear out some skeletons and find the leader's dead friend. By the time I ran back to town the battle was over and the Baron was behind bars. While I enjoyed the happy comments from townspeople as I walked by, I was angry at the fact that I didn't even so much as get to see a cinematic of the epic fight that had undoubtedly taken place. It was a missed opportunity to wow me, and Gothic 4 didn't seem to care.
...oh, and to top it off, the now-imprisoned Baron's dialog consisted of happy greetings to me where he thanked me for saving the town. I still don't know how that happened. Was it a joke? Was he insane? It didn't sound sarcastic and he even smiled...was it a bug?
Like the game's designers, I just stopped caring.
One thing I was really saddened to see (or at least hear, anyway) was the lack of any truly moving mood music. Kai Rosenkranz, the composer of the original Gothic games, made some of the best CRPG music I had ever heard in my 25+ years of being in this hobby and without his soft piano chords striking in the background the game it just doesn't feel the same. The music in Gothic 4 is mostly forgettable, which makes it fortunate that it seems to rarely ever play during gameplay. Once again, not to nitpick but when an RPG lacks a great backing soundtrack it tends to make the long foot travels from quest marker to quest marker feel much longer and significantly less enjoyable as a result.
While I'm on the subject of nitpicks, there were a few other things that bothered me. Things such as all herbs being surrounded by glowing butterflies so you could easily see them, the lack of a mouse-wheel controlled zoom in/out control and the odd scripting bugs (Such as Lord Gawaan mysteriously disappearing and appearing from one end of the map to the other because he was needed for a quest resolution) really kill what little fun remains in this game after you get over the fact that it isn't a true Gothic sequel. If anything, it feels like a lackluster spin-off of Larian's Divinity series. The combat, gameplay and interaction all feel very Divinity-esque, and that isn't exactly a good thing. At least not for a series that once prided itself on being more of a medieval world simulator than an action-oriented multi-platform RPG.
Though the nitpicks are many in number, there were a few things I actually came away impressed with by the game.
Largest among those would be the engine, which runs surprisingly well and looks fairly good when cranked up to high on a multi-core machine. Though the shadows move very poorly and look rigged and fake, the textures and spell effects looked great on my PC and I have to give the developers credit for making a game that so easily pleased my desire for top-quality visuals. Though Gothic 3 also looked great when it came out, it's engine ran horribly. This is a downside that Gothic 4 doesn't share with its predecessor.
Another pleasant surprise came in the way of the main character's voice actor. Though most of the other actors weren't very skilled, the man doing the lead character nailed just about every line perfectly and managed to give the nameless hero a small fraction of the same smarmy attitude that the original Gothic hero had. While I still prefer the brutally honest, sarcastic and sometimes downright hilarious replies from the original hero, this new guy managed to surpass the expectations I had for him. It's a shame that the writing itself was so plain.
One last major positive found in Gothic 4 is the inclusion of a mini-map and compass. It certainly isn't the best I've seen in an RPG, but it's the best I've seen used in this series and found myself relying on it quite a bit. Though the quest marker system didn't feel well implemented (Rarely do you ever see a quest goal marker when you need to) the map itself, as well as the compass, was a much appreciated inclusion to a game series that is not known for any hand-holding.
These three positives are nowhere near the amount needed to give the game enough strength to overcome the insurmountable obstacle its detriments have built for it. Even if you remove the "Gothic" name on the cover and throw away every single connection the title has to the Gothic series you still wouldn't have a very good RPG. While removing the game from the Gothic series would also remove a lot of the comparisons I've made to it and make it so the series' features don't need to be included in the game in order to make it "complete", it still doesn't stand on is own as a quality RPG.
Gothic 4 is bland, unexciting and incredibly linear. It's as plain as vanilla ice cream and about as thrilling and unique as a road trip to Wal-Mart. While it is a functional and decent RPG, it lacks anything special to separate it or make it stand out amongst its competition. Gothic 1 through 3 stood out because of their interactivity and realism, but Gothic 4 lacks these things. Instead, Gothic 4 is a bare bones "average" RPG that plays like a simplified and much more linear version of Divinity 2.
I never once felt an urge to play this game. Unlike the rest of the series (Including even the mediocre Gothic 3) I never found myself rushing home from work at 70mph in a mad dash to get home and play the game. I never felt that familiar "Fire" that I do with most RPGs and instead felt like I was being forced to play the game.
In closing, I'd like to say that anyone thinking about buying Gothic 4 should think carefully before handing over that 50 bucks plus tax. While the game isn't exceptionally bad, it isn't good either. It's a game that Gothic veterans will be extremely disappointed with and everyone else will, at best, merely tolerate. It lacks any gameplay features that make the game rewarding or exciting and is about as cut-and-paste as an RPG can get without a lawsuit being involved. If Gothic were a car, it would be a gray Hyundai with about 35,000 miles on it. It's just about as average and plain as it can be, and in an era where RPGs are getting more and more advanced, this doesn't bode well for the continued health of the Gothic series.
Gothic fans should avoid this game entirely and go re-install Gothic 2 Gold, while the rest of the RPG community would be better off buying something...anything else.
It's a shame that I cannot even recommend this game to non-Gothic fans. It's a game I cannot recommend to anyone regardless of their tastes and regardless of their tolerance for banality.