Chatting it up with the locals near the castle.

The game that started the Gothic franchise was much less popular outside of its German homeland. Even with the third and abysmal fourth game, Gothic never quite managed to gain international fame – it forever remained an underdog role-playing series, though still one worthy of consideration. In Gothic I, you begin as a nameless prisoner thrown into a giant mining camp, sealed under a huge magical dome – you can get in, but never get out. The twist here is that the prisoners manage to overpower the guards and take over the camp, creating their own social order and diverging escape plans.

Make no mistake – this isn’t an Elder Scrolls clone. One thing you’ll both love and hate about Gothic is that it doesn’t hold your hand, but rather throws you into its world and expect you to fend for yourself. The other inhabitants of the land – inmates, cutthroats and thieves – sometimes hand you helpful pointers on how things operate, but usually just mock you for being the new guy. And while most of the game is open to exploration, as a lowly newcomer you will barely be able to skim the surface of Khorinis – the mythical open prison camp and mining colony. Wild beasts inhabit every corner of the land, and many of its more dangerous corners (populated by orcs or the undead) will only be accessible once you level up sufficiently.

After attaining enough experience and finding some decent gear, Gothic offers a considerably large land to explore. The game world stretches several square miles of hostile environments interspersed with some human settlements. Located at different ends are three camps (they’re towns, really), each comprised of different inhabitants with different goals. Unlike in Morrowind, the characters in Gothic are more than virtual sign posts. With every bit of dialogue narrated by various voice actors, the game world feels alive. People will talk to you about their grievances, hopes and needs. You can watch lowly peasants do menial chores like cooking or cleaning, then going for a beer at sundown and finally retreating to their wooden huts late at night. Others will hand you quests or just gossip about other characters.

Communities have their own code of law to keep everyone in check. Stealing, trespassing or committing acts of violence will result in swift reprisals when caught. Petty crimes are treated more leniently, requiring you to pay a fine, while more violent acts (like killing someone without provocation) will result in everyone ganging up and killing you. Even doing things like sneaking around at night will get guards suspicious, calling you out on your actions. In short, the character AI in Gothic is surprisingly advanced, and offers one of the better reasons to play through it.

Gothic's home-built engine can display both organic landscapes and detailed human structures.

The engine can display impressive open areas.

You’ll advance through Gothic’s social order by joining one of three major factions of the Colony. The prisoners disbanded after taking over the colony and formed separate camps, each pursuing their own wild escape plan. The Old Camp is built around the castle that once housed the prison guards; the New Camp is formed by rogues, while the Swamp Camp worships a mythical deity. The first portion of the game is spent deciding which one of these factions to join, then actively increasing your reputation within their ranks. This is probably the best part of Gothic, since it gives you a lot of freedom and forces you to explore the world.

You build up your alter ego by earning experience points through the usual means – completing quests or killing monsters, both of which you will do in ample supply. As you level-up, you’ll also earn points that can be spent on increasing your base attributes or learning new skill sets. You’ll need to actually find willing teachers to teach you these skills. For a modest fee, a skilled hunter can teach you about archery, a thief will show you how to sneak, or a warrior will increase your swordsmanship. Gothic has a bunch of skills, but requires you make friends with key non-player characters before they teach you their tricks – one great reason why you should join up with a faction quickly.

gothic17Gothic has a lot of fun, but initial frustrations might be enough to send many newcomers away. The controls in particular are garbage, with a wacky set of key combinations that need to be tried to believed. For example, if you want to open a chest, you have to stop in front of a chest, press and hold the ‘use’ key and press the forward directional button. Combat is even more confusing, requiring to perfectly string together attacks in order to deal any sort of damage. You’ll start kicking ass once your fighting skills are increased, but initial combat in Gothic is anything but fun.

As strange as it all seems, it’s actually worth suffering through all of the bad controls and combat, since Gothic truly is stunning once you give it a chance. After playing through the first ten or so level-ups, you’ll be hooked. Simply getting those initial experience points under your belt will be the hardest part – once in control and in possession of some decent armor, you won’t regret it.

System Requirements: PII 400 Mhz, 128 MB RAM, 16 MB Video, 700 MB HDD, Win 98/ME/2K/XP

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