The Gothic franchise has forever been defined by free-roaming open-world gameplay, sweeping story and settings, and bugs. Lots of bugs. Publisher DreamCatcher freely admits that Gothic 3 was a great game in theory but an unplayable mess in execution. So former developer Piranha Bytes is gone, replaced by Spellbound Entertainment in the hope that fans of the epic role-playing game genre will eventually see Gothic in the same bright light as Oblivion. Spellbound's next project is Arcania: A Gothic Tale.
The name change serves two purposes. First, it hints at a world rich in magic and fantasy. Second, and completely from a marketing perspective, it helps give the Gothic franchise a fresh start in North America, where it has failed to gain significant popularity. And gaining popularity in the good old US-of-A is goal one for DreamCatcher. The team invested months of research into the differences between European and American gaming preferences, so much so that there will be two different color palettes for Arcania: North American (bright and beautiful) and European (muted and gritty). Truth be told, we didn't notice much of a difference when DreamCatcher stopped by our office to show off a very early build of Arcania, but you have to admire the attention to detail.
Arcania picks up 10 years after the events of Gothic 3. The Nameless Hero from the original games has vanquished the orcs from the land and ascended to the throne. But as the king, our former hero has become consumed with power and is no longer held in favor by much of the population, including the Witches of Fate that started him on his noble journey in the first place. Betrayed, the witches find a new Nameless Hero, most likely a humble fisherman, and charge him with righting the wrongs of the new king. Of course, this being a Gothic game, you can do pretty much whatever you want, be it join the king, overthrow him, convince him to change his evil ways, or set up shop as a mercenary and mind your own business.
Our brief demo began with a placeholder hero running around a forest as DreamCatcher showed off the new lighting and texturing models. The placeholder was actually the player model from Gothic 3; the team is still trying to decide exactly what our new Nameless Hero will look like. But the sun shone brightly in the sky, and the trees and grass swayed softly in the wind. A picnic table was set for lunch with plates and cups. Smoke from a nearby cabin wafted into the air as a warm fire burned in the hearth inside. The game is still more than a year from release, but it's impressive how far it has already progressed visually.
The major focus at this early stage of development is improving the combat model. Melee attacks are currently tethered to a stamina bar, and you can hold down the attack button to charge a strong strike. We watched as our hero did battle against a human enemy yet to be programmed with any kind of AI; he just swung away randomly, much like you probably did if you played Gothic 3. It's early and difficult to get a gauge on how deep the combat system will go, but at this stage it looks rather simplistic. Nevertheless, we've yet to see the new magic abilities, archer mechanics, or the deep weapon- and armor-customization system. Every weapon or piece of armor can be broken down into base components, and you'll be able to mix and match sword hilts with blades or chest pieces with chainmail. Although there won't be any player-creation system as you start Arcania, the dev team is hoping that the customization system will make your character truly feel like your own.
To further reinforce this, attribute points will be more flexible. As you improve in skill within traditional classes such as paladin, archer, mage, and thief, you'll be able to shift some points around if you wish to change your style. There will also be ample XP to max out in about two different classes, should you decide to undertake each of the countless side quests in addition to the main story quests.
As indicated earlier, you'll find a greater emphasis on magic in Arcania. Of course, no magic has been implemented at this stage, save for a glowing blue orb that is used to show off the strengths of the new lighting system. But you will find a lot more than ranged missile attacks because skilled mages will now be able to harness elemental weather. In addition to changing the time of day, you can alter the weather, causing it to rain or snow. Calling a thunderstorm over a group of patrolling guards forces them to take shelter by the warmth of a fire inside the guard hut, freeing you to sneak by unimpeded. That's because guards hate rain.
Given that Gothic games tend to start slow--the Nameless Hero can barely tie his shoes early on, let alone conjure spells--you'll dig into the story when you start interacting with the numerous villages and cities in Arcania. Depending on your actions, you may receive a hero's welcome from the local population as they shower you with praise and adulation. Rub them the wrong way and they'll run you out of town, charge higher prices for items, and do everything but throw rocks at you. Rocks hurt.
You won't have to go back and play the other three Gothic games to appreciate Arcania, according to DreamCatcher, but you will appreciate the subtle references to past events and characters if you do. To that end, DreamCatcher will release a Gothic 3 expansion later this year. Gothic 3: Forsaken Gods will bridge the gap between the end of Gothic 3 and the beginning of Arcania, offering 20-25 hours of new gameplay. Of course, Forsaken Gods is being tested extensively for bugs, so you should be able to play through seamlessly without experiencing any of the crippling errors found in Gothic 3.
Arcania will be packaged under Microsoft's Games for Windows brand, and we wouldn't be surprised to see at least an Xbox 360 version, considering that DreamCatcher used an Xbox 360 wired controller during our demo. Of course, that's more than a year away, and at this point we are just excited to see the promise of Arcania in action. Much like Gothic 3, the game shows potential. But will it deliver? We'll know more later this year.