Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Things Gothic 1 and 2 (Still) Do Better Than Elex

Piranha Bytes have been making open-world action-RPGs for nearly 20 years, starting with the first Gothic in 2001, and now with their most recent game, Elex, released a few weeks ago. All of their games (including the Risen series, released between Gothic and Elex) follow the same general formula with the same components; a big open world full of really tough enemies, where you have to explore, complete quests, and learn new skills to work your way up the food chain so that you can survive and complete the main quest. They've basically been making the same game for almost two decades, with a fresh coat of paint and a handful of tweaks and twists each time, and yet their newer games have never quite reached the level of success that the original Gothic games achieved, in terms of their gameplay design and execution.

Elex is a surprisingly strong effort that I'd say is almost as good as Gothic 2. It has a lot more modern polish, including much more accessible controls, and an actual tutorial to teach you how to play the game (but that's to be expected in this day and age), plus a much bigger world that still contains Piranha Bytes' signature detailed density, and improved quest design that gives you more options and more consequences for how you choose to resolve quests. It's actually better than Gothic and Gothic 2 in a lot of ways, and yet, surprisingly, there's a lot of good stuff about Gothic and Gothic 2 that have somehow never made it into subsequent Piranha Bytes games, and which are sorely missing in Elex. They had a pretty solid formula with those early games, and so it's weird, disappointing, and somewhat frustrating that, about 15 years later, some of the things that made Gothic and Gothic 2 so great still haven't found their way into Piranha Bytes' newer games.

My intention with this article is not to disparage Elex, because it really exceeded my expectations, even though it's still a little rough around the edges, in some ways. Rather, I want to celebrate Gothic and Gothic 2, and also use this as an opportunity to remind Piranha Bytes (if they're reading this) of some things that were great in those games, that really need to make a return in Elex 2



A smaller, more intimate world

This is a subjective point, but I felt like the size of the world in Gothic and Gothic 2 was nearly perfect, offering a large enough space to give you a strong sense of freedom as you explored fairly open, unrestricted maps, while never overwhelming you with their size or scale. Everything felt tightly focused and incredibly dense, with no wasted space. Everywhere you looked had something interesting, and you never had to waste time traversing large, empty spaces just to get somewhere. It was a world so finely crafted, with such precise and specific detail, that NPCs could describe a location verbally and you could actually find it just by following their directions and looking around a little bit. And since the worlds were centrally focused around a few hub areas and their surroundings, you were frequently traversing the paths between major locations and building an intimate familiarity with every rock and tree that you passed.

The main map of Gothic 2, with user-added labels for major locations.

Elex, much like Gothic 3, seems to have fallen into the trap of thinking "bigger is automatically better" when it comes to world design. While a bigger world can certainly have its benefits, the world in Elex almost borders on being too big and unmanageable. This is no more evident than in quests, which practically necessitate the use of map markers to tell you where to go because there just isn't enough organized structure to find your next objective without them. The world is designed to be so big and spread out that you see a lot of areas once and then move on, never to see them again; you don't become as familiar with the map, including its layout or its content, especially since it's so easy to fall into autopilot following markers on your radar. It also has the effect of spreading the notable loot out so much that you spend a lot more time looting larger quantities of junk items, because there's not as much unique, interesting loot to fill the space.



New side-quests and changes as chapters progressed

Most of Piranha Bytes' games follow a chapter progression system for its main quest, with each chapter revolving around completing some major step towards your ultimate goal. In Gothic, this simply meant that new enemies would spawn across the world to make it feel more alive, but Gothic 2 took this concept and expanded upon it further by adding new side-quests and changing familiar areas more dramatically as the chapters progressed. Once you returned to Khorinis in chapter three, after visiting the Valley of Mines in chapter two, you suddenly had a new threat scattered across the map with seeker mages trying to hunt you down; then, in chapter five, after defeating the dragons, orcs and lizardmen invaded Khorinis and you had new quests to help different people deal with these new problems. Additionally, the progression of the main quest also unlocked whole new areas of the game that were previously restricted, giving you constant access to new twists and turns as you advanced the main story and went into new chapters.

Reaching chapter 2 in Elex.

Elex, much like Risen 3, front-loads its content, making nearly all of it available from the very start of the game. You can actually complete end-game main-quest objectives several chapters before you're even tasked with them, and you can see and complete perhaps 80% (or more?) of what the game has to offer in the very first chapter. If you do everything at the start, you'll spend about half of the remaining main quests telling people "I've already done that" and only get a handful of new quests that actually introduce new content, or that weren't available in chapter one, and some of those are just reiterations of things you've already done previously. The game world shows a lot of dynamic elements, with entire towns being slaughtered or entire factions turning against you, among many smaller things, depending on your choices, but it's kind of disappointing that the game world doesn't change as a direct result of the main quest, as you advance it through chapters -- at least, not until the very end when you've actually completed it -- and that there isn't a lot of extra content tucked away to be discovered in the second half of the game.



The inclusion of "dungeons"

Another way that the early Gothic games helped to spice up gameplay with extra content and challenges, as you progressed, was to sprinkle "dungeons" into the mix. These were self-contained "levels" or "stages," kind of like the dungeons in a Zelda game, where you had to go into a more linearly-structured environment to solve a series of puzzles and challenges to advance to the end so that you could complete some objective. Things like exploring the Old Mine and its labyrinthine tunnels searching for a cog to repair the gate so you could access the minecrawlers' lair and kill the queen, or the Temple of the Sleeper where you had to activate switches in a certain order and unlock different areas to do other things so that you could reach the final boss. These were all loaded as separate maps, so there was a strong feeling like you were entering into a different place, and they were all fleshed-out with major gameplay sequences that tied directly into the main story. They were pretty cool, and added a lot of tension and excitement as you worked your way deeper and deeper into their sinister depths.

Puzzles and switches galore in this temple from Gothic 1.

The closest thing we have in Elex is the converters -- huge mining lasers that the bad guys use to harvest elex from the planet -- but these are basically just a series of rooms where you kill a few enemies, loot some items, and ride an elevator up to the next floor, repeating the process a few times until you reach the top and press a button to deactivate the converter. No puzzle-solving, no exploration, nothing out of the ordinary, and the whole process gets repeated five times. Then, when you reach the Ice Palace to confront the final boss, it's just a series of empty hallways leading up to the boss chamber. Except for maybe the old Infinite Skies headquarters, you spend the entire game in the vast open world wandering from place to place, never really going into anywhere with structured progression, exploration, and gameplay. That gets kind of mundane and repetitive after a while, so it would've been cool to have some of these types of "dungeons" in the game, instead of the boring converters or in place of the empty Ice Palace.



Dynamically upgrading attack animations

In all of Piranha Bytes' games you start out as a pathetic weakling who can barely defend himself before rising to near-demigod status by the end. Besides just representing this with stats, they also demonstrated this with how your character handled his weapons. In Gothic and Gothic 2, the nameless hero started the game holding his weapons awkwardly and striking ineffectively, until you spent some skill points on sword training, at which point the animation changed to reflect your character's newfound knowledge and ability, and then changed again if you improved your proficiency even further. The combat system changed over the course of the game; instead of simply doing more damage, you also attacked more fluidly, quickly, and aggressively, and so it felt like you, as a player, became more proficient with the combat as your character did. Although the basic tactics and inputs for combat remained virtually the same from beginning to end, the overall feeling improved tremendously, and it was just cool to reach a new skill threshold and see your animations change to reflect that.

Fighting a Runt Biter in Elex

In Elex, your combat animations remain the same from beginning to end; investing skill points in melee combat only increases your damage and your chance to stagger enemies with each hit. All of the game's combat moves, from roll-dodging to parrying counter-attacks to special combo attacks, are available to you from the start of the game, except for the plunging jet pack attack. So, in a game with 50-100 hours of content, combat is going to feel pretty much the same the entire time, because once you get the hang of the combat you just repeat the same tactics for every fight. The only variety comes from switching weapon types, since different types of melee weapons (swords, axes, clubs, etc) have different attack animations and special attacks, but that's not the same as feeling like you're making progress in a dynamically evolving combat system. Some of the faction abilities can have a cool positive effect on the combat, but I really miss the upgrading attack animations from Gothic and Gothic 2, just because it was so unique.



Better balance of stats, skills, equipment, and personal skill

Gothic and Gothic 2 had pretty simple skill systems, consisting really of only three main stats to increase and a handful of skills to choose from, but the way it balanced with your equipment progression and personal skill was really solid. Every little point you put into something had a noticeable effect on your progression; upgrading your weapon proficiency could unlock new attack animations, and it also increased your chances of scoring critical hits, which did huge chunks of damage; improving your strength might give you enough to equip a better weapon, which would do more damage on its own, but even if it didn't give you enough, the extra strength still applied directly to your damage output. Investing your skill points had a tremendous impact on your character's viability in combat, but it was also possible, with pure skill -- understanding how the combat works, enemy tendencies, tactics, and having quick reactions -- to kill most enemies at level one if you were good enough (and patient). Personal skill was no substitute for better stats, but you still needed skill with the system to do well, otherwise you'd get wrecked, even with good stats -- you needed both.

The stats and skills screen in Gothic 2.

Elex strips this system down significantly, linking your damage output almost exclusively to your equipment. Increasing your strength doesn't increase your damage; it just allows you to equip better weapons. The melee combat skill will improve your damage by a percentage (up to 30% for really steep requirements), but the base damage goes off of your weapon damage. Weapons require different combinations of multiple stats, and the requirements don't seem to scale linearly with damage, which makes it hard to know what kind of stats you're going to need up ahead to equip better weapons and can therefore slow down your progression, unless you pick one or two upgradeable weapons within the same class and stick with those for the entire game. Even then, the stat requirements for using an upgraded weapon increase dramatically, meaning you have to spend a long time saving up skill points to improve your stats enough to use an upgraded weapon, all-the-while your steadily-increasing stats do nothing for you until you can actually equip it. Meanwhile, skill still plays an important role, obviously, but the increased weight on equipment devalues personal skill a bit.



Companions who helped you, not just you helping them

Gothic and Gothic 2 didn't have companions in the way that we think of them nowadays; you didn't recruit party members to follow you around everywhere you went, carrying your inventory and helping you fight stuff. Rather, they had friendly NPCs who were heavily involved in the main story and who sometimes accompanied you on specific quests. Characters like Diego, Milten, Gorn, and Lester felt like real friends by the end of Gothic 2 because they helped you as much as you helped them. When you had a problem in the story, you would often go to one of those guys (or one of the other friendly recurring characters) and they would share some valuable insight, point you in the right direction, offer their assistance, or even tag along with you. You even get to assemble your own crew to take with you to Irdorath, and each person you bring plays some role in helping you out, even if you're the one doing most of the work.

Talkin' nasty 'bout Nasty's ass.

Pretty much every character in Elex, including your own companions, is there to have you do things for them. There's seemingly no benefit to gathering a group of companions, even though they're kind of implied to be necessary for the story, in terms of building a following to help unite the Free People of Magalan. They barely help defend Origin and they barely help raid the Ice Palace, but in those instances they feel more like background NPCs. The only thing they do is help in combat and provide experience points for completing their quests, all of which are things they ask you to do for them, for no real reason. "You're the person who robbed me blind while I was unconscious? Sure, I'll save your life by helping you track down a bunch of people who're trying to kill you. Let's join forces!" You're doing favors for them long before establishing any kind of friendship, and in fact it takes doing their favors to even become "friends" with them, at which point their development as characters abruptly ends. There's only one companion who actually does something for you, and it's held off until near the very end of the game.



A genuinely intimidating enemy

The orcs served as the main enemy forces in both Gothic and Gothic 2, and they were pretty damn intimidating. There was a lot of potential for them to feel like generic inhuman bad guys, who only existed in the story to give you things to fight, but there was a sense of mystery surrounding them which made them slightly uncanny and instilled a minor sense of foreboding dread in terms of what they were up to and what their ultimate goals were. Most importantly, they were really tough enemies to face in combat, and those games put you up against them very early in the story, when you were still weak and incapable of fighting them, which made them feel genuinely threatening any time they were mentioned in (or part of) the story because you knew, from first-hand experience, how powerful they actually were. It was actually tense and kind of scary having to venture into orcish territory long before you were ready to fight them, and it set a pretty good barometer of how high you would have to climb to be able to stop them.

Fighting orcs in Gothic 2

The bad guys in Elex are the albs, who consist of ordinary humans armed with high tech weaponry and who consume raw elex to give themselves better mental and physical prowess. You yourself are a former alb who was seemingly betrayed in a coup and cast from their ranks, set on a quest for revenge. This fact alone makes them immediately less intimidating when the main character has intimate knowledge of who they are and how they function, because there's no mystery or uncertainty surrounding them. Worse yet, they spend most of the game off-screen, basically sitting around in the snowy mountains to the north not really doing anything. You can go there and fight them if you really want, but there's no reason to until near the end of the game, and they're so far out of the way that they never interfere with anything. Otherwise, you just find a handful of roaming alb troops in the other areas of the game, but these are deliberately designed to be easier, so they never really pose a serious threat. Plus, your frequent interactions with alb separatists -- albs who're rebelling against the ideologies of their leader -- kind of blurs the line between "good guy" and "bad guy" when you've got albs on your side of the fight and it makes the real badguys seem a little too mundane and ordinary.



A better penal colony

The first Gothic was set inside a magically-encapsulated prison run in complete anarchy after the prisoners revolted against the guards and took over the colony. It was a lawless, ruthless place full of cutthroat assholes who would beat you up just to steal a bit of money from you, and sometimes just to prove a point. Nearly everyone was a jerk to you, and people often tried to take advantage of you, extort you, trick you, and betray you. Hardly anyone ever loaned you a helping hand, and you pretty much had to figure things out for yourself. Add in the plethora of deadly beasts and the orc warriors who roamed around outside the camps, and you were pretty much in hostile, dangerous territory everywhere you went, with the possibility of getting knocked out or even killed at any moment. Then you've got the really bleak, grim visual design of everything and the dreary, almost melancholic soundtrack putting the final touches on this utterly unique environment.

The central camp in Elex's Valley of the Damned.

Elex also features a penal colony, which is perhaps meant to be a direct reference to Gothic since they're both places where criminals and law-breakers are sent, they're both called "Valley of [Something]," they both have a giant, wooden, mechanical lift used to access them, and they both (supposedly) have no way out once you're inside. Except, the penal colony in Elex is actually kind of lame. People talk about it like it's some kind of hellish place, but it has pretty much the same aesthetics as the normal areas of Edan, except it has a little fog in some places, and spooky sound effects (like cawing birds and rustling vegetation) playing under the normal soundtrack. A bunch of exiled berserkers will attack you on sight, but this makes them feel like generic mob enemies as opposed to cutthroat criminals. There's only one interaction with an exile who lures you into trap, in the vein of the stuff that happened frequently in Gothic. Except for one area with a bunch of mutants and another area with stalkers and poison spiders, the monsters aren't even that tough. Basically, it felt kind of disappointing because I was expecting a mini tribute to Gothic, and didn't really get it. Maybe that was my false expectation, but it did feel like missed potential.

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for your great post.

    I miss the "dungeons" (or just random underground caves) the most, and really wish they were included in Elex. Feels weird to be above ground most of the time in a Piranha Bytes game.

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  2. Gothic 1 was one of the few games i ever played and actually was deeply in sorrow after i completed them because they ended... I played it at release and despite the bugs and the junk, i was hooked. It was one of the most immersive gaming experiences i ever had. Gothic II was improved and definitely a better game, but it didn't really capture my heart in the same way. I dare to say i liked the original more. But II was still good.

    After II, Piranha Bytes just died. I don't know what happened since i don't follow their developer history, but for some reason they lost their touch. They attempted multiple times to improve on Gothic II with mediocre to absolute travesty results, depending on the game. Their main problem is that they attempt to compete with Behemoths like Bioware and Bethesda without actually having their budget. This is stupid. They end up creating more jank for no reason at all.

    Piranha Bytes will become the next Blizzard when they realize that they don't have to compete with the big boiz in AAA realistic design, just create better polished games with toned down graphics and people will play them more because they will have more heart... Not everything needs to be Crysis...

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  3. I enjoy the size of Elex actually I think they managed the space quite effectively. It's not drab or repetative it's rather lush and inviting. Whenever I'm travelling on a quest I'm always lead away off track to go explore something that catches my eye and the best part about it is that the game rewards that exploration with some form of loot, or a mini story or even just a visual story. It's very satisfying. The amount of detail they put into just that side of the game is amazing. I hope Elex 2 is even more detailed in this regard.

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