Although the N-Gage's portability and ubiquity would seem well suited for keeping players in touch with long, involved dungeon crawls, the mobile console hasn't yet created a decent role-playing adventure to entice RPG-lovers to the platform. Learning the console game quickly, Nokia elected to sign on an all-star RPG franchise to plug this gaping hole. It came away with Elder Scrolls, which has already generated several excellent console and PC titles, as well as two mobile games. The developer of these mobile titles, Vir2L, has been asked back for The Elder Scrolls Travels: Shadowkey, and it is collaborating with Nokia and TKO Studios to come up with an RPG journey tailored to the N-Gage's strengths. The Elder Scrolls Travels: Shadowkey is still several months away from completion, but the alpha version we sampled demonstrated some of the upcoming game's enormous environments and first-person hack-and-slash gameplay.
The Elder Scrolls Travels: Shadowkey's developers wanted to create a game that would deliver an authentic Elder Scrolls experience, while at the same time avoiding the confusing interfaces and over-narration that plagues some traditional RPGs. Accordingly, they've picked their spots carefully when it comes to adding detail to their N-Gage title. One of those spots is the number of races and character classes you can choose for your character. In terms of job titles, you have your pick from assassin, barbarian, rogue, thief, spellsword, barbarian, battle mage, knight, nightblade, and sorcerer. There are also eight races to choose from--leading to 72 possible combinations--although some races excel in particular modes of employment. The various character classes all carry certain special abilities and bonuses. For instance, the dark elf assassin we played with enjoyed a bonus to his critical hit percentage, which enabled him to kill many enemies with a single blow. These statistics are intimately connected to your success or failure when attempting a particular action, because all gameplay elements are determined by a series of opaque dice rolls based on your attributes.
To counterbalance these bona fide RPG features in the direction of playability, much of the actual gameplay takes place from a first-person perspective that any shooter fan will be immediately comfortable with. Using the number pad, you can look up and down, strafe to either side, and wail at whatever's in front of you, with your weapon of choice, by pressing the 5 key--just as in the N-Gage shooter Ashen. Enemies approach from all angles and from all heights, so looking around proactively is important for your survival. Some enemies, like giant rats, may come in at such a low angle that they are difficult to see unless you're looking at the ground.
Thematically, The Elder Scrolls Travels: Shadowkey is a dungeon crawl in the most traditional sense. According to producer Shane Neville, the final product will consist of 20 gargantuan areas that span about 18 environmental themes, including standards like mountainsides, caves, and frozen lands. Thankfully, the game includes an easily accessible map screen, which allows you to navigate directly from an overhead viewpoint. Although there will be some level of non-player character interaction, the gameplay will focus on the thorough exploration of these areas, which are truly expansive and are filled to the brim with secrets and side quests. Neville told us that the game has taken lead testers anywhere from 38 to 40 hours to fully complete, and he further estimated that it would provide the average gamer with around 80 hours of play.
The version of The Elder Scrolls Travels: Shadowkey we played was clearly rough around the edges, but enough of the game's graphics were complete to give us an idea of what the final product will look like. All of the environments and enemies appeared to be rendered in texture-mapped 3D, complete with some rudimentary lighting and mist effects. The preview version of the game ran at eight to 10 frames per second, leading to some jerky combat sequences. Optimization should boost the retail game's speed to a respectable 15 to 20 frames per second. In addition, the final version of the game will sport a 4-player Bluetooth cooperative multiplayer mode -- although it will lack N-Gage Arena capability.
The Elder Scrolls Travels: Shadowkey is scheduled for an early November release. We'll have the final review ready as soon as it hits stores.