When The Wheel of Time was first announced, gamers and Robert Jordan fans had reason to be both excited and apprehensive. On the one hand, it would bring to life one of the most detailed and fascinating fantasy worlds ever conceived. Wheel of Time promised a mix of first-person action, role-playing, adventure, and strategy, which is a combination few games have ever effectively managed. On the other hand, because the Wheel of Time novels are so deep, so intricate, and so well-loved by legions of devoted Jordan fans, the game seemed destined to disappoint. But in the end, the game's creators GT Interactive and Legend Entertainment succeeded through a combination of great storytelling, spectacular graphics, and uniquely complex first-person action.
Set before the first book in the series, Wheel of Time follows the turbulent adventures of Elayna, an Aes Sedai. Her sect holds a mystical seal, which is one of several seals used to jail the exceptionally evil Dark One in an ethereal prison. After the seal is stolen, Elayna must set out on a quest to recover the seal, thus setting in motion the events of the game.
Despite all the prerelease talk about Wheel of Time's incorporating several styles of gameplay in a cohesive package, Wheel of Time is an easy game to categorize: It is a first-person shooter. It is a complex and often extremely challenging shooter with some unique aspects of strategy and a strong story tinged with adventure elements, but it is a shooter first and foremost. In fact, it may be ten times the shooter that Unreal was. Even seasoned shooter veterans will be hard-pressed to make it through some of the game's levels alive without numerous saves and reloads. Much of the difficulty lies in the numerous and very tough creatures blocking your path, but part of the challenge also lies in mastering Elayna's weaponry.
Instead of relying on her sisterhood's magical powers, Elayna uses mystical artifacts known as ter'angreal, which are basically spell runes. You'll need all 40 of these ter'angreal to survive, and, luckily for you, they are scattered liberally throughout the maps and levels. The ter'angreal are very similar to the array of artifacts used in Raven's Heretic and Hexen games. However, in this case, the artifacts do not complement a basic set of weapons - instead, the ter'angreal include offensive weapons, defensive shields, a number of power-ups for healing, and more. Managing these items can be quite a chore - especially since many of the hotkeys are used for more than one ter'angreal, which means you must scroll through lists of things even in the heat of battle. Still, many of the artifacts can be used in conjunction with each other, leading to a dizzying array of possibilities during combat. The freeze ter'angreal makes a good precursor for the Balefire attack, for example.
You'll often find that some of these objects are placed too deliberately. For example, the water, air, and fire shields are almost always available only near an area where you absolutely must use them. In fact, in one early level, you swim a long distance underwater while picking up additional water shields so you don't go belly-up along the way. The shift, exchange places, and trap-detection ter'angreal are also conveniently placed in this manner.The upshot of this hand-holding is that many of the environmental puzzles and obstacles in Wheel of Time are very easy to figure out. There are few, if any, areas that will leave an experienced gamer frustrated for long. But this is almost a shame, as any excuse to spend more time wandering the spectacular levels would be welcome. Simply put, Wheel of Time features the most staggeringly beautiful levels ever seen in a first-person action game. Areas like the White Tower are exceptionally detailed with vaulted ceilings and realistic architecture highlighted by very elaborate textures. Even the outdoor levels are well designed and realistic, though it's the indoor levels where the game looks best. The Unreal engine has never looked so good.
Unfortunately, you'll need a Voodoo3 card to experience this splendor at its fullest. Even on a high-end Nvidia TNT2 Ultra card, the game looked pitifully bad in Direct3D mode. OpenGL was not much better and was far less stable. To make matters worse, the game chugs along painfully on most non-3dfx systems. Granted, a very fast machine with a TNT2 Ultra or GeForce 256 card and the latest GLSetup drivers would be sufficient - but the game will still look and run better with a Voodoo3. Still, if you have the right hardware, it's tough to beat Wheel of Time for sheer graphical beauty.
It's also tough to beat the game's story, which is nearly as complex as a Jordan novel. Told through a series of elaborately animated cutscenes, the story very effectively sets up each level in the game. Though the 3D character models leave a lot to be desired, the dialogue is well-written and informative, and the story does an excellent job of absorbing you into the adventure overall.
Even the way in which the single-player game builds up to its unique final challenge is intriguing and well-executed. You are led almost directly into the game's multiplayer citadel mode, so by the time you complete the single-player levels, you are almost fully prepared to tackle Wheel of Time in multiplayer mode. Though the play modes are not tightly integrated, it is refreshing to see the two tied together in light of the traditional arms-length distancing of single and multiplayer modes in first-person shooters.
Multiplayer support in Wheel of Time is excellent and features two distinct play modes. The first is basically a deathmatch. However, because of the ter'angreal, this deathmatch is more akin to Hexen than to the Quake or Unreal games. The complex artifact inventory system may prove too distracting for some players, while multiplayer Hexen fans will probably not be fazed at all.
Citadel, the game's other multiplayer mode, is very similar to capture the flag, except you can fortify your fortress (or citadel) with traps and computer-controlled guards. This is the mode that is likely to win Wheel of Time a sizeable online following. Placing traps and guards is challenging, but it's also a lot of fun and very satisfying when it works properly. You'll get a warm, fuzzy feeling whenever a would-be invader steps on a spear trap just as he's about to reach your seal.
Although there are a few glitches and apparent design flaws in Wheel of Time, none of them seriously hurt the game. For example, on one level in which Elayna must defend a dungeon from numerous waves of attack, no enemies showed up even after a 20-minute wait. Restarting the level fixed the problem. Other minor annoyances include enemy archers that fire their arrows at the speed of light and hit you easily even when you move out from behind cover for only a split second. Also, the game could use a better mode for practicing the multiplayer citadel mode, as the existing tutorial rushes you into and out of the action. Of course, you can learn the game through online experience, but there are those who would rather get their bearings straight before venturing onto the servers.
None of these small concerns significantly distract from the overall experience. It is an extremely solid action game built on an excellent story and dressed up with stunning graphics. Is it all that the prerelease hype may have led you to believe? No. Because the gameplay is essentially that of a pure shooter, there are certain to be some Robert Jordan fans who aren't completely pleased with the action-packed take on the Wheel of Time universe. But having said that, it is very difficult to dislike a game that delivers such an absorbing and exciting fantasy adventure.