Gothic II

User Rating: 8.5 | Gothic II PC
Once upon a time, RPGs were about more than scooping up cool loot and grinding away to reach level 42 so you could use that spiffy spiked helmet. They were about personalized characters in a setting that realistically reacted to their actions and achievements. No game in recent memory provides a richer roleplaying environment than Gothic II.

The plot is generic fantasy fodder — orcs are warring with your kingdom, and now dragons have joined the fray — but it never feels trite, because Gothic II’s world is so consistently interesting. While typical RPG fare consists of NPCs glued to their locations until you deign to parlay with them, Gothic II’s environments are dynamic and living.

As in the classic Ultima games, NPCs have their own independent daily schedules. A character might saunter to work, take a smoke break, and then grab a pint at the pub before heading home to slumber. Characters also respond to your actions, so your alter-ego will be knocked on his duff if he’s seen looting possessions or wandering into locations uninvited. Aside from just making the world more immersive, the dynamic AI directly enhances gameplay. For instance, you can circumvent dangerous creatures by luring them to some beefy guards, or distract scavengers by creating more tempting carnage.

The detailed 3D world also looks amazing. It’s replete with interactive objects such as anvils (with which to hammer freshly forged weapons) and tobacco bongs that let your character, well, get real mellow. Plot developments dynamically affect environments, and NPCs actively participate in events rather than remaining stationary landmarks. In many ways, the Gothic series seems to have picked up the baton fumbled by Origin and become the spiritual successor to the Ultima games.

Combat is real-time and action-oriented. Your character is initially very vulnerable, so you have to rein in your wanderlust to avoid being stomped every few minutes. You’re largely free to explore the world in non-linear fashion: you can prematurely dispatch foes intended for more experienced characters if you’re adept at parrying and dodging blows. The enemy AI is generally excellent — different creature types maneuver distinctly and humanoid groups will try to confront you from multiple angles. Battles are more tactical than arcade-ish, so you don’t need to rely on twitch-based skills. Success in combat also depends on your character’s abilities and equipment, making the investment in character-building all the more worthwhile.

Gothic II uses a more polished version of its predecessor’s engine, and plenty of familiar characters and locations reappear. Once again, there are three NPC factions, each emphasizing different skills and with distinct quests. Gothic II definitely embraces its Mature ESRB rating, as NPCs frequently swear, smoke, and visit bordellos. It also has the best rendition of urination in gaming history!

You may need some time to adapt to the keyboard commands for menu navigation and inventory management. Thankfully, the interface works well once you’re accustomed to it. A more persistent issue is the voice acting: it isn’t agonizingly bad, but clearly only a handful of actors provided the translated voiceovers for dozens of characters.

These minor flaws do little to diminish Gothic II’s undeniable stature as a landmark RPG. It doesn’t quite reach the genre-transcending level of, say, Knights of the Old Republic, but fans of classic roleplaying games will revel in its niche-y goodness.