Back in my Cayeaaa-aaaaaave!!
Bias. It’s everywhere.
A particular strand lurks within the moss on the walls of the Cave of Assessment: completion bias. It gathers there because the sole criterion for a game’s Assessment is that I finish its single player mode. Thus it was ever so. When I enter the Cave and inhale the moss spores, I figure that any game that was good enough for me to bother finishing must be awesome, right?
Wrong. That’s just the spores talking, man. Sometimes I fail to finish great games (Darksiders, Bioshock). I also don’t finish many broken, shitty games, but then again I like RPGs, so my idea of “broken” is akin to to the Black Knight’s idea of “preconditions for a draw”. Sometimes I finish average games. That’s where Two Worlds II comes in.
Plot and a zinger for Murdoch
Two Worlds II is a fantasy RPG. The story revolves around some Dark Lord Emperor who shares an armourer with the Nazgul (seriously, they have to text each other before parties to make sure they don’t show up in the same bassinet). He is all Dark and Evil and has kidnapped your strangely-underdressed sister for some weird special effect purpose and you must rescue her. Despite there being teleport platforms all over the world, you have to explore and do side quests on three separate islands before unlocking access to the final island for the big showdown.
The story gets more complex, but I lost interest because much of the dialogue was chopped off-mid-sentence by some glitch with the voice files. Listening to these disjointed sentence fragments was like reading the Herald-Sun opinion pages, except without the racism and economic illiteracy.
I also note that at no stage do they explain what the second world might be.
So the story’s a bit shite and poorly presented. What are the other elements like? Errrm …
The illusion of choice: character creation
First off, because we’re talking about an action RPG, you have to decide how you want to kill critters. Two Worlds II is nothing if not generic, so it offers you the holy trinity of wastage methods: melee (warrior), archery (rogue) or spells (mage). You are given entry-level access to all 3 classes and when you level up you decide which one you want to specialise in by allocating your skill and attribute points.
I was initially attracted to magehood by the DIY spell system — you can create your own spells, matching up a damage type (frost, fire, shock, poison, etc) to an effect type (eg area effect or single target) with the promise of further combinations and effects as you increase your skills. I was also attracted to being a sneaky rogue, sniping enemies from afar.
Despite the initial appeal of spellmaking and sniping, I soon found that the controls, level design and enemy AI all ganged up to nullify the efficacy of either playing style. The aiming mechanics are wonky and spells have a casting delay time. Most enemies can spot you a mile off and will charge headlong towards you when they do. Most encounters are in enclosed spaces with little room to run around and establish the middle distance that is crucial for effective ranged attacks. As a result, you may have time to pop one or two shots off before the enemy is up in your grill, caving in your head. Out of frustration I resigned myself to being a melee brute, which, like the Sydney Swans, was effective but boring as hell.
Levelling and skills
The levelling and combat skill system is reasonably simple: .when you level up or achieve certain tasks, you get points to increase either your attributes or your skills. Combat skills are activated by button presses and have a cooldown time. Then there’s non-combat skills like crafting and alchemy.
The combat skills of Two Worlds II remind me of the Dragon Age system with one crucial difference: it’s unbalanced crap. Some combat skills are game-breakingly powerful and others are useless. For warriors, there’s a block-breaking attack that does extra damage and knocks enemies back. There is never a downside to using it. It is the Spamalot of moves. On the other side of the scale is a fire torch attack, where you wield a torch in one hand and a weapon in the other and inflict some fire damage with the torch, which comes in handy approximately 0.02% of the time, because so few enemies are more vulnerable to fire than a regular weapon.
Melee combat: do the monster mash
The kamikaze enemy AI and unbalanced skills are one thing to make combat flat and yawny. The lack of variety of enemy damage types is another — there were a few poisonous critters, and perhaps some shockers, but that’s about it. Nor were there enough high level mages casting heinous spells, or deadly ranged attackers. All this meant that there was no cause to switch up attack plans for different enemies.
Midway through the first Act, I brilliantly devised a winning strategy, which was “run towards closest enemy, use blockbreaker, faff about with other attacks until blockbreaker recharges, use blockbreaker again” and this served me right up to the final battle. I guess it’s hypocritical to criticise the enemy AI for brain-dead rush tactics because they sure as hell worked for me.
Wonky hit detection and mistimed enemy attack animation made it hard to tell when you were actually being hit. This would have been frustrating if combat wasn’t a cakewalk.
Even the game seemed to get bored of the combat, as eventually it stopped bothering to animate my attacks. My dude would be seen to stand still while enemies flung themselves away from him, spewing numbers out of their heads.
So yeah, combat was dull. Given that about 83% of an action RPG is combat, it’s a not a good area to be stuffing up.
Minor spoiler about shitty boss fight
Speaking of anticlimax, I had a major problem with the final battle. The way you are required to kill the final boss does not rely any of the skills or stats you’ve built up during the game. This is bad design — grinding away in RPGs is tolerable tedium only if you are preparing for an epic final showdown where your character build and levelling choices are put to the test. When the game switches up on you, it feels like a betrayal, like turning up to watch a footy Grand Final only to be told that the winner will be decided by a maths quiz.
Even the interesting features of Two Worlds II are dragged down by poor design. Take crafting —you can break down the weapons and armour that you loot into constituent parts that can be used to upgrade your favourite weapons and armour. This was perhaps the best mechanic of the game. It almost completely cut those profiteering merchants out of the loot-sell-upgrade cycle and also minimized the interruptions to dungeon-crawling due to overencumbrance (constituent parts don’t weigh anything). However, the inventory menu through which perform said crafting is clunky. Items are plonked on a grid and you cannot sort them at all. It is also too easy to break down your “keeper” gear by mistake.
Another good idea done badly is sailing. You can buy a boat and sail by adjusting the boom to the best angle for the wind. “Oh goody,” I thought, “let the Age of Exploration commence!” But the wind only ever blows in one direction, severely restricting where you can go. Swimming is faster in many cases, and swimming is slow.
The strongest feature of Two Worlds II was its art direction and settings. It gets instant points from me for not being set in generic medieval Europe: the first island you travel to is redolent of Africa and the Middle East, with a savannah and adobe villages; there’s a sewer that is themed along ancient Egyptian lines (complete with mummies) and the second island has a blend of medieval Japanese and Chinese themes. The detailing on the weapons and armour is also impressive. Not all the locales are winners, but overall the pretty art direction is what pushed me through to the end of the game.
The RPG genre is getting old
One of the flaws of Two Worlds II, the formulaic quest design, is by no means unique to Two Worlds II. Fetch quests, messenger-boy errands and “kill 10 beasties” quests have a staple of most RPGs I have played since the 80s and they’re getting really, really stale. Nowadays RPG developers seem to think they can hide the staleness by going all nudge nudge wink wink: “You and I both know these crappy quests are boring, but that’s the joke!” This is becoming as clichéd as the quest design itself.
These hackneyed types of quests are also present in the big-name, modern console RPGs. I’m talking here about Oblivion, the Mass Effects, Dragon Age, Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas. Where these bigger names outdo Two Worlds II is that they each contain a fresh ingredient that lifts the game above the mouldy bits. The Mass Effects have the good dialogue and action sequences. Dragon Age has the strategic, party-based combat. The Fallouts have choice-n-consequence, multiple quest solutions and reverse pickpocketing. Oblivion has Patrick Stewart. All of them have better stories.
When Two Worlds II turns up after all those titles and offers up reheated RPG gruel, it’s like Chinese Democracy. There’s a basic competence there, but no zest, and the rest of the world has moved on.
Closing thoughts and numerical reckoning
Overall, Two Worlds II is not an awful game, it’s just a generic game, where most of it has been done better by another game. Reiterating genre conventions is not enough to make a great game — you need something more. For that reason, I couldn’t recommend it above any of the aforementioned console RPGs: Oblivion, Dragon Age, the Fallouts, the Mass Effects, even Alpha Protocol. Play all of those games first. If you have played them, and you need an RPG to tide you over until Dragon Age 2 or Elder Scrolls: Skyrim comes out, play one of them again.