The Wheel of Time
Legend tackles epic fantasy with an Epic engine
Publisher: GT Interactive
Developer: Legend Entertainment
Posted: 11/25/1999
Written by: Robert Mayer
CHEATS: Wheel of Time
FIRST LOOK: The Wheel of Time
FIRST LOOK: Wheel of Time
FORUM: Wheel of Time
NEWS: Wheel of Time at E3
NEWS: Introducing Shadowed Des ...
NEWS: Wheel of Time Goes Gold
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PREVIEW: Wheel of Time
QUICK TAKE: Wheel of Time
Shot One The White Tower of Tar Valon, where you begin your quest
Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time books might be today's answer to Tolkien—a vaguely postmodern tapestry of epic conflict, ancient evil, and good old-fashioned swords & sorcery. Like The Lord of the Rings, Jordan's books encompass the fate of the world, characters of giant stature, and the rise and fall of nations. And also like Tolkein's work, Jordan's world defies being shoehorned into something as confining as a computer game. Surprise! They did it anyway. And, mirabile dieu, it damn near works.

Ages come and pass...
Give Legend Entertainment credit—their The Wheel of Time game does a damn fine job of capturing the look and feel of its source material. If you can find a better-looking game using the Unreal engine, it's probably not published yet. Visuals are subjective, of course, but the way Legend's artists and architects have presented their interpretation of Jordan's world seems very polished, convincing, and authentic. It's also flat-out stunning in many places. If you've read the books, you should be very pleased at the way the game portrays Tar Valon, Shadar Logoth, the Blight, and other Jordanesque settings. If you don't know a Trolloc from the Amyrlin Seat, you should at least be able to marvel at Legend's incredible use of textures and the realistic architecture of the game's structures. The characters aren't as impressive, but they're certainly better than the average 3D-shooter fodder.

Shot Two The game features some of the most sumptuous interiors ever in a 3D shooter
Make no mistake—this is a shooter. A fairly difficult, fast-paced shooter at that. It's not quite as frenetic as Unreal Tournament or Quake III Arena, but it's no Thief, either. There are no RPG elements in the game, no character development, and few problem-solving options other than main force. There is a story, and it's a damn good one, but it's told via cutscenes rather than integrated into the actual game. Where The Wheel of Time sets itself apart from other shooters is in the subtlety and nuance of its combat. Rather than having a small selection of weapons or spell, the game features dozens of artifacts, called ter'angreal, which generate effects varying from fireballs to teleportation. Fighting effectively means choosing the right artifact for the right situation, and using it at the right time.

Shot Three Stopping to marvel at the carpentry can get you killed
In theory it's a great system. Every artifact effect has a counter of some sort, whether directly (as in a shield) or indirectly (as in the very nifty "swap places" effect). In practice, it's a bit problematic. Despite the excellent work that Legend has done with the Unreal and Unreal Tournament code base, the engine still has trouble when more than a handful of characters are on screen. Add in the fancy visual effects for spells and you're guaranteed some serious slowdown in the heat of battle. That sort of slow sown makes it difficult to master the precise timing you need to exploit the game's combat nuances, and all too often things revert to a test of how fast you can fireball something. When you add in the inevitable Internet lag during online play, it gets even worse. Still, the idea is sound, and many times it works as advertised. At those times, it's very, very satisfying.

Shot Four Combat in such opulent surroundings sometimes seems, well, gauche
Blood and ashes
The context for all of this mayhem is a solid and compelling story that's set before the events detailed in Jordan's fantasy novels. The intro should provide those unfamiliar with the books enough information to understand what follows, but you'll have a definite leg up if you've read at least some of the books. Mostly it involves the seals that the ancient Aes Sedai set on the Dark One's prison, and the attempts by various factions to obtain them for their own nefarious purposes. There are four factions at work here: your own, the Aes Sedai, who are the equivalent of wizards; one of the Forsaken, a disciple of the Dark One; the Whitecloaks, a military order ostensibly devoted to the Light but hating Aes Sedai; and the Hound, about whom you'll learn as the game progresses.

Shot Five The game features a lot of fairly complex architecture, realistically presented
You don't need to know any of it to play the game, which is pretty straightforward. The solo game is made up of a series of 15 missions, played out over 19 levels, with some overlapping of locations. Several missions have multiple parts in the same general area, and there are a fair number of environmental puzzles like locked doors, unbridgeable gaps, and watery tunnels. Mostly, though, it's a matter of finding ter'angreal and using them to blast enemies. Some missions have more elaborate goals, like defending an area or retrieving objects, but they all involve combat. Lots of combat. Heaps and heaps of combat. It also involves more ter'angreal than ever show up in Jordan's books, but that's the price you pay for adapting a very complex work of fiction for the computer.

Shot Six The Trollocs are evil creatures, bred from a mix of humans and animals... kinda like TV talk-show hosts
Anyone familiar with most modern 3D shooters should have little trouble getting the hang of things here. With the exception of a use key and a crouch mode, the controls are standard, and fully configurable. Circle strafing, especially with the chain lightning artifact, is still useful, and dodging remains a time-honored and effective way of avoiding enemy fire. The action is fast, maybe too fast. Sometimes the speed of combat is at odds with the theme and characters of the game. Aes Sedai, for instance, are supposed to act with a stately grace, terrible and implacable when angered but almost never flustered. In The Wheel of Time, though, opposing Black Ajah sisters run around like flustered Skaarj… er, chickens, thoroughly shedding their dignity and losing any sort of connection to the fiction. Everything moves fast, from Whitecloak soldiers to malformed Trollocs to the mist of Mordeth. There are times when you'd prefer to ponder your next move and choose the proper ter'angreal, but instead have to just fireball everything in sight just to survive.

Shot Seven Killing a Myrdraal isn't easy, but it is very satisfying
Death is lighter than a feather...
Combat is fun, though, most of the time. The spell effects range from spectacular to pedestrian, and the lighting model seems very good and balefire makes for quite a show. Be prepared to die a lot; this is a very hard game, especially if you are not an ace shooter player. If you come to this because of an interest in the subject matter but aren't a big fan of 3D action games, you're going to be frustrated by the difficulty of the combat. Multiple spell-casting enemies, melee and missile-weapon using foes in tandem, Myrdraal that fade away into shadows and reappear—all of these things are difficult alone, and when the game throws them at you all together they can be overwhelming. Add to that all of the fire-and-forget hunter-killer spells in the game and you have a recipe for hair-pulling that would make Nynaeve proud.

Shot Eight This may be a chapel, but there's not much holy going on here
There is a lot of adrenaline-pumping excitement here nonetheless. Roaming the halls of a besieged White Tower, battling Trollocs and Fades—that's the stuff of Legends, indeed. Sometimes the biggest hazard to your health is stopping to gawk at the wonderful visuals, which are generally superb. Whether running through the Ways, pursued by the Black Wind, or creeping through a terrifyingly rendered Shadar Logoth, you'll get your gold pieces' worth of thrills. Just be sure to save often. A lot of the levels feature devilish traps, which are often impossible to avoid, but there are few actual puzzles to sidetrack you. Still, the game has enough deviations from the pure shooter formula to distress fans of straight-up fighting. Dyed in the wool Quakers are likely to be frustrated by the relative paucity of effective direct-damage spells, and unlikely to want to fiddle around with the rock-paper-scissors subtleties of the game's weapons.

And that's the game's biggest flaw, perhaps. It's neither a pure shooter, nor a pure adventure, but rather a shooter with just enough distractions to tick off the hard-core and way too much deathmatching to appeal to the casual gamer who happens to be a Jordan fan. If your tastes are fairly catholic, and you have a high tolerance for action, the game should be quite compelling. If you just want to stroll through a 3D rendition of locations from The Wheel of Time books, better be prepared to use God mode a lot. Oh, and be sure to have a system well beyond the minimum specs; this is not a game you want to run on a Pentium 200.

"Time to dance with Jak o' the Shadows"
Shot Nine Several times you'll have allies, especially in multiplayer games; here a Warder defends your honor to the death
Ultimately, what sets this game apart from the rest isn't its graphics, or its single-player game, but its multiplayer mode. In addition to the now-required deathmatch or Arena game, there's the Citadel game. Wow. When it clicks, it's perhaps one of the most entertaining team games on the planet. From two to four teams defend citadels, which are small levels with lots of stairs, corridors, and doorways. Each citadel contains one or more seals, and the object is to take the other teams' seals and return them to your own base. Unlike capture the flag games, though, you can defend your base with a collection of nasty traps and obstacles, ranging from pits to spikes to monsters. Placing traps and obstacles like firewalls and barriers is a game unto itself, and assaulting a well-defended citadel is a tremendous challenge.

Shot Ten The character models aren't the best, but the textures are great
Of course, like all multiplayer games, the Citadel game is only as good as the players and the connection. On the technical side, it plays well enough with an average 56k connection, and quite smoothly on a T1. Things get choppy when a lot of players are on screen at once fighting, but that happens in offline play as well. On the player side, well, it's as variable as you might expect. There have only been a handful of servers running according to the built-in server browser, so finding a Citadel game to join can be difficult. Once in, there are a few glitches that can leave you perpetually waiting for a game to start, but generally things go pretty smoothly. Once play starts, you quickly forget any hassles in the thrill of fast-pace attack and defense.

As good as the Citadel game is, it's not perfect. There are way too many Seeker ter'angreal, meaning that 900f all kills come from these guided missile-like spells. They should expire after time, perhaps, or at least be a lot rarer. Balefire, which in the books is the equivalent of a nuclear weapon and nerve gas rolled into one, is nearly impossible to use effectively online, as any latency at all renders it very unlikely to hit anything. Mostly, though, any flaws in the game come from the other players, who all too often can't figure out that teamwork is necessary to breach a defended citadel. Ah well, we know the Web is the home of the least common denominator, so why bemoan the obvious?

Blessed be the name of the Lord Dragon
Shot Eleven In the bowels of the White Tower... looks like trouble
Taken as a package—solo game, multiplayer, editor—The Wheel of Time is a success. It isn't completely consistent, nor is it consistently complete. It is, however, very good-looking, technically polished, and eminently functional. The only real technical caveats are the usual ones associated with the Unreal engine, namely, that 3dfx cards work better than other solutions (though an improved D3D patch is now available), and that two enemies on screen at once is one too many. The game is also quite entertaining, whether you're a Jordan fan or not. The one unequivocal downside is the substandard animation and modeling in the cutscenes. While the acting and writing is superb in the movies, you have to wonder why they just didn't go ahead and do them in the game engine, which looks oh so much better than what you see between levels now.

Shot Twelve Some very nasty critters await you in Shadar Logoth late in the game
The Wheel of Time won't rewrite the history of 3D shooters, but it's by far the best Unreal-engined game to come out since the original, at least until Unreal Tournament (which arrived just after this was written… -ed.). It stays reasonably close to Jordan's background material, it offers solid combat action, and an excellent multiplayer game. It also looks and sounds fantastic. You can't help but wish Legend had stuck closer to either the action or the adventure side of things, though, as the balance between the two seems sometimes awkward. Yet while we still await a true RPG or adventure game set in this milieu, what we have is well worth buying. Lews Therin Telamon himself would be proud (then he'd kill you, but hey, that's the price of being the Dragon I guess).

Gameplay: 3.5
Graphics: 5
Interface: 4.5
Multiplayer: 4.5
Depth: 3.5
Stability: 4.5
It's Like: A shooter with great looks, some brains, and a lot of Trollocs
Pentium 200, 32MB
2-16 players; Internet, LAN
©1999 Strategy Plus, Inc.

Wheel of Time W95 CD 11/99 $9.95