After the remarkable commercial success of Blizzard's Diablo, it's surprising that it has taken three years for the predictable wave of similar games to arrive. Perhaps even more surprising is that, unlike the slew of real-time strategy clones that followed Warcraft II and Command & Conquer, most of the Diablo clones have actually proven to be quality games, and Westwood's Nox certainly continues that trend. While few elements in Nox are entirely novel, Westwood has created a polished game that provides both challenging and entertaining single-player campaigns and fast-paced multiplayer battlegrounds.
Nox's isometric graphical perspective and action/role-playing hybrid gameplay are unquestionably reminiscent of Diablo, but Nox provides a more action-oriented experience. Character movement is quick, and combat is very fast paced. There are no ethical codes to adhere to unlike in some traditional RPGs. You can't attack characters who aren't enemies, but if the game lets you destroy an object, slaughter a creature, or pilfer a nonplayer character's possessions, then you can rest assured that it's the right thing to do. Since causing chaos isn't penalized, action is almost constant as your character frantically runs through levels, smashing objects and dispatching monsters or other players.
Nox provides a separate single-player campaign for each of the three distinct character classes, as well as a slew of multiplayer game options. Multiplayer Nox is a pure action game that features respawning items, quick player kills, and geographically limited arenas; it's completely devoid of character development and nonplayer characters or monsters, other than those you summon. The gameplay in multiplayer Nox is closer in style to an isometric, swords-and-sorcery version of Quake than it is to Diablo.
The single-player campaigns feature a few additional role-playing elements, as your character will acquire experience points and solve simple quests, but the gameplay emphasis remains on action. The campaigns are linear and level-based, so there's no way to personalize your experience other than through your choice of attire and armaments. Surprisingly, there are also no difficulty settings, so you must be adept at coping with occasionally frantic action to complete the campaigns. Fortunately, Nox features a remarkably intuitive and effective interface that uses well-placed hotkeys to let you quickly change weapons or access available spells and abilities. There's never been a more efficient interface in such a game.
Each of the single-player campaigns is different, although characters travel through most of the same areas and have the same overall quest. Since each of the three character classes has significantly different abilities, the campaigns play out differently even when you're exploring familiar territory. While a wizard character can peacefully stroll through the wizard's stronghold, a warrior character will be immediately attacked. The uninspired story involves a dislocated trailer-trash youth assembling a multicomponent artifact and stomping undead hordes led by a maniacal necromancer queen. The campaigns are saturated with brief but entertaining scripted sequences that play out using the game's engine. Westwood has a penchant for adding goofy humor into its RPGs, and the buffoonery partially compensates for the plot's lack of originality. There are even a few laugh-out-loud moments, such as an amusing scene early in one of the campaigns when an expected showdown with a formidable nemesis is prematurely cut short in comical Raiders of the Lost Ark fashion.
Nox's most distinctive features are its method for handling line of sight and its interactive environments. The trademark TrueSight line-of-sight system blacks out areas of the gaming world behind trees or other obstacles that your character couldn't reasonably see beyond. The effect isn't revolutionary, since 1983's Ultima III featured a rudimentary version of a similar system, and the result can be more distracting than interesting. However, it definitely gives Nox its own look, and it's easy to adjust to using the onscreen automap function if you require navigational assistance. Nox's levels are also littered with moveable objects, such as bones, barrels, and furniture. Occasionally you must use those objects to solve puzzles - pushing a barrel of water to drown a fire or to press a pressure plate, for instance - but usually the objects are just there to be smashed or hurled wildly across the room as they're struck by an explosive spell effect. A lot of attention to detail went into Nox's level design, as dwellings are logically decorated with appropriate objects, and subterranean lairs look suitably homey for their troll inhabitants.
Nox's two-dimensional, isometric graphics are highly detailed and similar in style to those in Ultima Online and Diablo. Rather than take advantage of 3D acceleration, Nox instead just relies on those mysterious, superseded MMX protocols you heard so much about in 1997 to create its impressive spell effects. The game supports three different resolutions (640x480, 800x600, and 1024x768), but the highest resolution isn't practical for most gamers since the characters look tiny and screen scrolling gets pretty choppy even on high-end machines.
The artificial intelligence of the monsters and nonplayer characters in Nox's campaigns is generally excellent. Occasionally, you'll meet NPCs who will ally with your character for the duration of a level. You'll have no control whatsoever over these characters, but they'll capably follow your character and engage any enemies you encounter. Conjurer characters can also summon or charm creatures that will loyally carry out basic commands until they are killed or banished. There are a couple of memorable siege levels where a town or stronghold is attacked, and you can acquire a whole flock of allies to fight the waves of intruders. Since the AI is generally so good, it's especially disappointing that there's no way to cooperatively complete Nox's campaigns with other players.
The only notable AI flaw is that enemies at extreme visibility range won't react until they're attacked. Since there's a variety of spells and weapons that either kill enemies instantly or do massive damage, you can avoid some of the most challenging battles by advancing slowly and picking off the immobile enemies as soon as they become visible. Like Grandma used to say, nothing clears a path better than a gigantic Fist of Vengeance or death ray.
Early in its development, Nox was designed primarily as a multiplayer game, and the multiplayer level design is excellent. Multiplayer characters possess all of their class's available abilities and spells (other than those removed for gameplay balance), which makes the deathmatch, capture the flag, and other exotic multiplayer game types included with Nox more tactical than they typically are in first-person shooters. Still, multiplayer Nox may not experience the longevity that more visceral first-person-perspective games have enjoyed. But since each of the three character classes has such different abilities, the single-player campaigns certainly provide a lot of value, especially since they feature unique endings and quests.
It's probably unfair to simply categorize Nox as a Diablo clone since the game had been in development limbo for years prior to its acquisition by Westwood. Westwood acquired the orphaned Nox following the dissolution of Virgin Interactive's US gaming division, and the company has done a great job finalizing the game for release. Even though the game could likely have been released several months ago, the additional attention to detail put into the game since then has resulted in a streamlined interface, solid single-player campaigns and, overall, a considerably more polished product. Even the installation program is almost as interesting as the great one that shipped with the original Command & Conquer.
Nox could easily have been a game with a few original ideas that devolved into a hastily developed, derivative, and uninteresting clone. Instead, the developers have taken the necessary time to create a unique and polished game that offers different and enjoyable single- and multiplayer experiences.