Sierra Studios' forthcoming role-playing game, Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, has a unique premise. While it features many different high-fantasy conventions - including races such as elves, dwarves, orcs, and ogres - it takes place during the equivalent of America's industrial revolution. During this time, technology and mysticism are heavily at odds - some believe that the ancient traditions of magic (or "magick") are irreplaceable, while others advocate the newfangled steam-powered technology that's becoming more and more prominent in the world of Arcanum.
The game has recently gone into beta testing, and it is showing considerable progress. For instance, the beta version includes the fully functional character generation system, as well as many different pregenerated characters that you can choose from.
Character creation in Arcanum is reminiscent of Interplay's post-nuclear holocaust role-playing game, Fallout - which is no surprise, considering Arcanum's developers worked on Fallout prior to this project. Your character begins with average scores in several attributes, including strength, dexterity, and constitution, as well as perception, willpower, and charisma. These scores are modified by your character's race - for instance, half-ogres are typically very strong but lack wits - and also by any background details that you choose for your character. These background details vary somewhat by race, and they give your character some history and some unique traits. For instance, an elven character might be an aristocratic debutante and gain bonuses to her charisma and other social skills, but her sheltered upbringing would make her physically weaker than the average elf. Characters can even choose unusual traits such as "special person," whereby the mentally challenged character will be treated with pity throughout the game, or "beat with an ugly stick," which means your character had a rough childhood due to his or her physical disfiguration, but has grown tougher as a result.
You start with just three bonus points that you can use to either augment your stats or to gain basic proficiency in many different types of skills or magical arts. Some of the combat skills include dodging and melee; thieving skills include backstabbing and spotting traps; social skills include haggling and persuasion; and technological skills include firearms and repairing. You can gain apprenticeship, expertise, and then mastery in all the game's various skills, which confer their own unique benefits. As you increase your character's level, you'll gain one bonus point at a time to apply to any of your stats or skills.
Arcanum also lets you train in various technological disciplines, such as chemistry and explosives; learn many types of magicks; and gain a distinct reputation as you play through the game. As your character's experience level increases, you'll need to choose between improving your base statistics or improving your skills. Skills are further split into technical or magical disciplines. Arcanum was designed such that any type of character could finish the game using his or her own unique strengths and that no one character would be able to do everything well. While the character building process should be rewarding for many players, those who find it bewildering do have the option to choose from one of the many interesting pregenerated characters in the game.
Although the game features distinctive character portraits - check the screen index to see these - the actual in-game graphics are not quite up to that level of quality. However, Arcanum is clearly designed to be a highly detailed, highly customizable role-playing experience, so what remains to be seen is whether the game will accomplish this ambitious goal. GameSpot will have an extensive preview of Arcanum soon, but until then, have a look at these new shots taken from the beta.