Why did I play this?Why did I play this?

Posted on Jan 29th 2019 at 08:00:00 AM by (SirPsycho)
Posted under face punch, pc, rpg, open world, 3d

Gothic is an action role playing game developed by Piranha Bytes, a German company. The game released in 2001 to most of the Western world, with a variety of different publishers getting the game on shelves in different regions. Egmont Interactive published the game for the German market, THQ was the publisher for the larger European market, while Xicat Interactive was the North American publisher.

The late 1990s and early 2000s saw a rise of 3D open world RPGs, these varied in quality as there were no standards for design at this point, making each game quite unique. What makes Gothic stand out the most is its setting and world design. The prison colony guarded by a magic barrier was a world design decision meant to make the game world's dimensions feel a bit more realistic. Instead of being an entire world like Ultima IX, or a large, expansive landmass like Morrowind, Gothic's developers realized that the actual size of a handbuilt map would be much smaller than an entire world would feel. In this way the magic barrier serves two purposes, make the world feel much larger than it is presented in game, and also give the player a narrative incentive to beat the game.

Gothic's setting of the prison colony is incredibly unique in video gaming. The original guards were overthrown by the prisoners, who then took their armor and created their own system of governance and management. The mages who helped to erect the barrier are the only remnants of the King's official forces still alive, however they split off into two different groups. The Fire Mages kept residence in the castle at the center of the Old Camp, where they serve under the most powerful prisoner of the colony, Gomez. The Water Mages went to form their own New Camp, and managed to strike a deal with a political prisoner, one of the King's former generals named Lee, to provide protection for the Water Mages with his troop of Mercenaries. The Water Mages are actively gathering up the magic ore produced by the colony, planning to use its imbued magic to detonate a large magical explosion that will destroy the barrier. A third camp formed on its own, as another product the colony can produce is swampweed. A few individuals seemed to have been chosen by an entity called 'The Sleeper' to see visions after the smoking of a powerful joint, or a night spent glued to the hookah. A man named Y'berion took some disciples of his to the swamp, where they set up residence to grow more weed in an attempt to see more visions. The barrier incident also trapped a nearby village of orcs inside it, leading the Old Camp to post guards on the borders of the Orc Lands. When the game starts the political situation is quite peaceful. The three camps actively trade with each other, with Gomez being able to get goods from the outside world with his ore mine, the New Camp produces its own rice and has its own ore mine, and the cultists produce swampweed, potions, and magic spell scrolls. The magic ore mined in the colony is so common that it is used as the currency of the colony. Everything about this world just seems to make sense, everybody is trapped in the prison and nobody really wants to start major trouble with another faction.

The real meat of the setting involves the massive cast of characters that the player can interact with. Every camp has a large amount of NPCs that have their own personalities and behavior, even the ones with generic names. For example, the named Guards of the Old Camp will shake down the player for protection money early in the game, most first time players may not want to pay for this protection. However, the way the Guards work is that if a fight breaks out, they will protect the one who has paid the money. If both sides in the fight have paid their share of protection then the guards will just stand by and cheer the fight on. There's even a guard who arranges for the player to be mugged if he does not pay his share of money, but if the player pays this money then they can go around and freely mug random prisoners in that guard's area. In the other camps, most of the crowd will just stand by and watch a good fight. If the player draws a weapon and just stands there, then everybody pulls their weapons out and warns the player to put his away, if enough time passes then the player will just be jumped on by everybody. So its good to pick a target, beat them senseless, and steal their food and ore while the rest of the crowd celebrates the excitement.

The progression systems in Gothic are also one of its strong points. The prisoner starts off as a blank statistical slate at Level 0, with each level gained the prisoner receives 10 Learning Points. These points can be allocated to different skills to produce different builds. Strength is used for most melee weapons and crossbows, while dexterity is used for a few melee weapons, bows, and pickpocketing. A magic build will end up focusing on mana points, alchemy, and rune crafting. The spell scrolls are one use items while runes are infinite. Even players who do not go down the path of magic will end up getting four teleportation rune stones that are used for fast travel between the three main camps and a special location inhabited by a mysterious fourth figure. Other skills can be learned such as taking trophies from various beasts, acrobatics (a favorite escape tactic), sneaking, lockpicking, and weapon skills. All this comes together to produce a rather deep progression system. The most satisfying of these systems are the weapon skills. Investing into melee skills will change the actual animations, damage arcs, and attack speed. Increasing skill in bows and crossbows increases accuracy and firing speed. Improving all weapon skills increases critical hit chance with them as well. The most ridiculous skills are the magic skills, Gothic is one the greatest games for magic. Nothing feels better in the game than raining down meteoric hellfire while your army of summoned skeletons marches forward to smite any survivors, its completely broken in the best ways. The player can also use one of many transform spells to turn into a beast and run through otherwise deadly locations to explore long before they're supposed to.

Gothic's story is separated into six chapters, and this plays a rather important part of its design. Overall, one word to describe the design of Gothic is deliberate. Everything about the game is deliberate. Monsters are placed into deliberate locations, and new spawns only show up when the player moves into the next chapter. Resources, weapons, potions, scrolls, and other items are placed into deliberate places in the world. Merchants have specific items and only get new stock in a new chapter. Because monsters do not respawn and only so many items exist in the world, this makes Gothic a rather finite economy. There are a couple exceptions to this. Doing a quest for Snaf in the Old Camp will give the player 3 servings of meatbug ragout every day, and Fortuno in the Swamp Camp gives the player 3 daily rations of swampweed reefers. There is still far more given to the player than they reasonably need, but there's only so much ore the colony has circulating through its economy. However, once the player gains enough power they can knock out the merchants and take all their items back, the circle of mugging never stops. Veteran players can use the knowledge of the game's weapon locations to get powerful weapons early on, which greatly help clearing the map as early as possible. One of the best ways to get good weapons early is just to beat people up. The best option to really get started in Chapter 1 are probably the rogues of the New Camp, they have some clubs and cudgels that can be used with low stats and still deal decent damage.

The way combat works in Gothic is quite deep. Each monster and beast type of enemy has their own behavior and natural weaponry, and each enemy has their own evasive maneuvers. Humans and orcs fight differently as they will parry and dodge the player's attacks. Throughout most of the game, both humans and monsters will put the player in their place, but there's always something that can be defeated, even if it requires some save scumming. The combat system has some randomness involved, melee damage done is based more on a scale. A melee weapon that says it does 100 damage means that it does up to 100 damage. Increasing weapon skills gives a small chance of critical damage as well, leading to even larger chunks of health that can randomly be taken off the player's opponent, or the player himself. On the flip side, bows and crossbows always do the damage they have listed, which makes them a superior option in some cases. However, to do any damage at all requires a certain damage threshold to be met. Running up to a wolf with a heavy branch at level 0 will do no damage to the wolf and turn the player into the pack's latest kill. Going back to the wolf at level 5 with some strength, armor, and a rogue's club will give the player much better odds. Every monster type has their own threshold, while for named human opponents this threshold exists on an individual level. Because of this design Gothic is known to be brutally difficult at the start, but its actually not too bad. A player that understands that roughly 90% of everything in the game can effortlessly kill them at level 0, and the safest place to hole up and gain a few levels is actually in the Old Camp will get themselves built up to the point they can clear most of the map outside the Orc Lands before the end of Chapter 1. Pay the guards, mug some diggers, get some experience, and do all the side quests.

While Gothic is an open world game the only chapter that really shows this off is Chapter 1. The first chapter is all about the player finding out which faction they would like to join, and as a result, how they would like to build their hero. There are side quests galore in all three camps, and the hero is free to do all of them up to the point where they can join a faction. There are a couple decisions that will lock players out of one group, and these decisions are well hidden. If one camp sends the hero off to get a document and deliver it, that means another camp may also enjoy that information. This lets the player think creatively about how to solve their problems. However, only the first chapter has a significant amount of side quests. After Chapter 2 starts there are only a few side quests available for the rest of the game, and one of them is locked to a specific faction. While Chapter 1 is open and full of possibilities, Chapter 2 onwards starts to pull players along a forced narrative track. The player is still free to explore and clear areas of beasts and other hostile elements, but the only purpose for it becomes experience, treasure, and the clear path.

The audio design for Gothic is so strong that it comes close to being an extremely friendly game for the blind to play. Everything in the game gives some sort of audio cue. Most beasts will give an audible warning for players that they are at least in an area where monsters are nearby. Bloodflies will be buzzing around, wolves will be snarling and growling, orcs will be speaking orcish. Every monster gives the player some time to react and get away from their territory, only snappers will silently stalk the hero from a distance. Drawn weapons have their own audible sound, and in camps the various characters around the hero will give verbal warnings before an attack. Even bridges will creak. On top of the audio cue the actual soundtrack is incredible. Its highly ambient with an intense feeling of melancholic hopelessness, but each area has its own theme, and the music shifts tone when the player is in a monster's aggression radius, and for combat. The shift from combat back to peace also has its own cues. All these small audio details, which are once again, highly deliberate, make the game easy to play. Beasts in the players blind spots can still be reacted to as a result of audio cues. About the only hazard that the blind would have with the game are cliffs they can fall from, and the silent but deadly nature of the barrier in other places. The quality of voice acting depends on the language of the dub. The original German dub is professionally done, while the English dub is much more inconsistent and seems to use a much smaller cast. There is a way to make the subtitles of the game English and the dub German, which tends to be the recommended way to get the best qualities from the game.

Gothic has a lot of positives in its court, but its not all rosy. The game is just clunky with odd movement as a result of being an early modern 3D game. The controls are also strange. So strange that they may be one of gaming's few examples of Schrodinger's Controls, controls that are both simultaneously good and bad at the same time. The default key bindings are just objectively bad, but thankfully they can be rebound and a fully modern control layout can be made. In fact, Gothic technically does not need a mouse to play, and the keyboard controls can be mapped to be used mostly with one hand. The word 'deliberate' can be used to describe the hard coded aspects of the control scheme as well. The game wants players to be completely sure of their action before it is executed. So the designers included an 'action key', but it does not work in the same way action commands work in 2019. The action key in Gothic is more of a held toggle between two different states, the state of movement, and the state of action. The best examples are in combat and trading. The same keys for movement are also used in combat. Pressing backwards in the movement state does an automatic parry and small jump backwards, pressing backwards in the action state keeps the hero in place and only has him parry. Pressing the action key is required to attack as well, players can attack in a small forward lunge and with side to side sweeps, again, the same keys as movement. For trading the default movement state is just used to move the cursor around, while the action state will move items into the active trade windows in the center of the screen. To pick items up, players must press forward while being in the action state. These two states have a long history of confusing new players to the point they will quit less than 10 minutes into the game because they cannot figure out how to pick up a torch off the ground, since merely pressing the action key does nothing by itself.

There is a massive list of reasons why Gothic is considered a classic. In North America and Western Europe, its fans are in a much smaller cult. In Germany, Poland, Russia, and likely other Eastern European countries, the game is a household name, and there still exists a large and strange culture of fan videos regularly coming from Polish and Russian creators. This Eastern European popularity was a massive influence for Polish developer CD Projekt Red as they began The Witcher series. The first Witcher tweaks the Gothic formula just a bit, making similar use of a chapter based narrative progression, unlike Gothic each chapter takes place in its own open space. Gothic is incredibly cheap to purchase anymore, regularly going on sale for $2.50. The game is found on a few digital distributors. The Steam release is inferior, it is missing an official patch and that leads to it constantly crashing or failing to boot altogether on modern systems. The GOG release is fully patched, but the game has some hard coded limits. It boots perfectly well on modern systems, but its engine is limited to 25 frames per second and its resolutions are woefully outdated. Modern fan patches get rid of the engine's FPS limit and add support for 16:9 widescreen resolutions. There is even a DirectX 11 renderer for the game. All of these statements about the need for mods are also true for its direct sequel, Gothic II. Gothic seems to be an overlooked watershed game, it came out in the right place at the right time to influence future market movements long before they were viable. It is a rather long game, a direct playthrough with minimal messing around will last a new player between 40-60 hours, and the chance to experience a true classic before it fully fades away.

A Polish video having some fun with Gothic II.

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