Have you ever looked at a character creation screen and wondered where the hell you were going to start? Well if you did, and you thought that was complex, try Arcanum on for size. This is no RPG for beginners, and although the character creation screen interface is as friendly as it can be under the circumstances, first-timers should really try their hand at something a bit easier before tackling this. Particularly since the game comes without a tutorial (which seems incredible given the wealth of information to digest).
Let me take you through the initial steps of building a character to give you an idea of what I mean. If it gets confusing at any point, don't blame me, send a letter to Troika requesting compensation for recurring headaches and a generally muddled sense of existence. First up, base stats. We all know what they are, right? Intelligence, strength, dexterity, perception, constitution, willpower, beauty and charisma. These attributes are all important, since they all affect your character in some way, either in terms of how they perform in certain situations, or how they are perceived by non-player characters in the game. Under normal circumstances, choosing how to build your character by distributing points into these areas would be no big deal, but there are so many skills available in Arcanum that are affected by these base attributes that you will need to pay special attention to how you develop them throughout the game.
As you progress (through fighting or successfully completing quests), you gain character points which you can use either to increase one of your base stats, or to get new spells or tech skills or improve one of the myriad of other skills to hand. Add to this that you can't put character points into certain things unless your base skill is high enough - and you realise how important it is to get your stats right in the beginning. While this may seem daunting initially, once you get into the game proper you will find it is a very, very good thing. Even if you mess up a bit at character creation (say you put all your points into dexterity when you really needed to increase intelligence for your caster) you can even the playing field by strengthening weak areas as you go along. Speaking of which, at least this part of it is not overtly complex, in fact, it's a straight choice between two completely different paths.
Of magic and machines
The world of Arcanum is torn between those who dabble in the arcane arts, and those who much prefer to tinker about with steam engines and all manner of technological gadgets. This strange state of affairs came about thanks largely to a human called Bates who was raised by dwarves as a small child. At one time (as legend so fancifully would have it), only the dwarves were capable of building machinery. Bates was fascinated by all this and after becoming orphaned he made his home with the dwarves and learned of their secrets. Eventually, the dwarves came up with a prototype for a steam engine. Bates, in an impressive display of gratitude for his home and upbringing with the dwarves, nicked the prototype and ran off to make his fortune. Needless to say, Bates became rich from passing the steam engine off as his idea, and many people in Arcanum, inspired by these new technological developments, went off making gadgets of their own, much to the dismay of the magic-using contingency.
Everywhere you go in the game you will see evidence of the struggle between the two factions, and it affects your character to a great extent too. Not only have you (as the erstwhile hero) become embroiled in an age-old conflict between the dwarves, elves and dark elves (all of it to do with the dwarves getting the blame for Bates running off with their steam engine idea), you will also see NPCs treating you differently depending on which path you take. The more powerful you become in magic, the less effective you are at making technological items, and vice versa. You could, I suppose, split things evenly down the middle so you could have a pop at most things in the game, but you would end up as a half-arsed magician and a technical so-so, and never get any of the really powerful items. It makes sense then, to choose one path or the other. Later in the game you will visit towns that are heavily biased one way or the other. You will even get sent packing by towns that prefer magic if you've spent too much time tinkering about in the garage with gadgets and stuff like that.
This is what makes Arcanum very different to most of the RPGs you may have played: faction actually makes such a difference to how you play. You are constantly aware during every conversation you have and every transaction you make that your chosen path is directly affecting how people respond to you. There are other factors that can affect things (such as the persuasion skill), but if you are a mage in a techy town it doesn't matter what skills you have - they'll still tell you to sod off in certain places.
Brave new world
Arcanum has many towns, and they are all very, very big. They all have a lot of people to meet, many of whom will give you quests or information or play their part in the main plot. If you've played Planescape: Torment and seen the size of the towns in it, we're talking about pretty much the same deal here. The characters you meet are not as interesting (or amusing) as the ones in PT, but they are still convincing and serve their purpose perfectly well. Most of the quests (particularly the ones that further the main plot) are well designed and some even branch out into sub-quests with intriguing twists in the storyline. You will often find yourself rushing to complete a particular quest just to see what happens next. It has to be said that Arcanum's plot is not the most original one in the world: dwarves make steam engine, human nicks it and world goes mad, elves punish dwarves by banishing them into a void, hero (you) has to sort the whole mess out. But the way it's told is ingenious, and with many twists in the tale along the way and some very entertaining dialogue from the main plot characters, I can almost guarantee you will play the game to the end just to see how it all pans out.
That's not to say the core of the gameplay is lacking in any way. As an RPG it more than holds its own with the main competition, and the character development is second to none. Once you get used to the interface and how everything works, you will constantly be amazed at all the different things you can do to change how your character plays the game. And combat, while initially the cause of great hilarity, is fairly competent once you start playing it how it should be played. Let me explain. There are three combat modes in Arcanum: real-time, turn-based, and fast turn-based. The default mode when the game starts is in real-time. Cue all combatants running about Benny Hill-style, thwacking each other on the head at about a million miles an hour while you look on with no clue whatsoever as to what's happening. It really is hilarious, and you should try it just once to see what I mean (though of course there is no way you could possibly play through the game that way). Turn-based works, but obviously it's a bit slow. Fast turn-based is the way ahead. Combat does not take forever in this mode, and you have plenty of time to control what's happening (and trust me you will need it when you get deep into the game). Things will get very tough, very fast, when the main plot starts to unfold. When this happens, you will be pretty happy about the fact that you are not on your own.
As you progress through the game you will meet people who join your party. These are called followers. You can get them by doing quests, or you might just bump into them hanging around or get them through the main storyline. Whatever way you get them, make sure you do get them. Virgil, the guy who starts with you at the beginning of the game, is a healer, and he's fairly handy to have around but unless your own character is a melee type, you're going to need a bit of muscle to get through battles without too much trouble. The only problem I had with the followers is you can't dictate how they develop in the game. For example, if your main character practices magic, it would be nice to have one of your party take the technological path so he/she could make weapons and effectively give you the best of both worlds. You can tailor your own character any way you like, but there's also an auto-level scheme option, which forces him down a certain path (like a Necromancer for example). It doesn't make sense that you can't do the same thing with your followers; it would solve so many problems in one fell swoop.
This may be irritating (or an oversight on the part of Troika), but it does not mar the game to any great degree. Nor do the graphics, though at times they do their level best. Arcanum is no oil painting. In fact, most of you will find the graphical style very dated and even Baldur's Gate II (which is no work of art) looks spectacular by comparison. The only other gripe I have is that the interface is a bit cumbersome sometimes, and there is noticeable slowdown in some of the cities (which is strange since the graphics are not exactly pushing the envelope). But Arcanum is still an excellent game that will keep you highly entertained for a hell of a long time, and as such it deserves the attention of serious RPG fans pronto. The forces of magic are at odds with high technology. Which side will Chris Anderson take? More importantly, does anyone care?
It's no looker, but it has gameplay in spades
Very addictive Highly flexible character development Two distinctly different ways to play Great plot
Terrible graphics, I mean, really bad Interface is cumbersome in places Characters in party develop outside of your control