Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Guest Post: A Second Golden Age of Isometric RPGs is upon us!

I'm proud to present a very special guest post from writer S.C. Barrus, who is here to tell us all about the new age of computer RPG’s that's right around the corner. S.C. is the author of the forthcoming steampunk adventure Discovering Aberration, which is coming January 20, 2014. He is also the author of this excellent piece for A Dribble of Ink. So without further ado...

In 1997 the dawn of a golden age of video games began. This golden age stretched across platforms. Some will remember Final Fantasy 7, others StartCraft, but for me this golden age was best represented by one very specific genre of videogames: the isometric computer RPG.

Before 1997, the most famous RPG’s were japanese console games like the Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy series. But when Fallout exploded onto the scene followed by a slew of greats like Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment, Icewind Dale and others, the RPG landscape shifted. In the center of it all was a tight knit group of developers, big names with big ideas who dared to create mature, thought provoking and challenging games.

Now almost 17 years later, with the help of Kickstarter, the isometric RPG gaming experience (a genre thought to be unprofitable in this day and aga) is nearing a second golden age, a full fledged resurgence featuring many of the same developers behind the originals, inspired by the same first golden age elements that made the past so great!

But to understand this second golden age of isometric RPG’s we’ll jump 17 years into the past and look at the classics and how they’re inspiring the new wave of coming RPG classics: Wasteland 2, Torment: Tides of Numenera, and Project Eternity.

Wasteland 2

The First Golden Age - Wasteland & Fallout

In the late 90’s, Interplay was among the best game publishers in the business. They released stellar games in multiple genre’s developed by the some of best game designers of the day. Within the cloak of Interplay was nestled a budding internal development studio known as Black Isle, and they were about to release the first game in one of the most popular quality franchises in the history of games. Fallout.

Fallout was set in a dark retro-futuristic open world full of violence amidst the endless wastes and struggling villages. But within these wastes was a sandbox where the player, cast as a lowly vault dweller in search of a water purification chip, was free to do what they willed. Will you be a paladin of strength, helping the helpless, or a bandit enslaving them for your own profit? It was all valid as far as Fallout was concerned.

Bolstered by tactical turn based action, creative and gritty kill animations, mature storytelling, and an open world, players were rewarded with a unique and satisfying computer gaming experience unlike anything they had played before. Except for Wasteland.

Fallout was originally intended to be a sequel to Wasteland, a 1988’s release sporting creative descriptions of action such as “he was reduced to a thin red paste" and “your head explodes like a blood sausage". But Interplay was unable to secure the rights and instead the Fallout franchise was born.

Lucky for us, Brian Fargo, one of the big minds behind both Wasteland and Fallout, is creating the first true sequel to Wasteland with his crew at inXile Entertainment.

The Second Golden Age - Wasteland 2

Enamored by Wasteland, Brian Fargo has been trying to develop a true sequel for over 20 years, but due to legal issues those efforts were either turned into new franchises (like Fallout) or shot down by publishers who claimed a sequel was unprofitable.

With his new development studio inXile, Mr Fargo attempted one final ditch effort to make Wasteland 2 a reality by crowdsourcing the funds they needed through Kickstarter. Seeking $900,000 to fuel development, inXile blew their goal out of the water and raised $2,933,252 becoming one of the highest funded videogame kickstarters at that time.

Supported by the fans, Wasteland 2 is looking to be one of the first big budget crowdfunded game to ever be released. Currently it’s nearing the end of it’s development cycle with beta testing beginning this month and its release to follow soon after.

Why should I be excited about Wasteland 2?

The year 2102 and you are a member of the army rangers. The world emerged from nuclear holocaust more than 20 years earlier leaving a wasteland in its wake. Many have survived, and as a ranger you must bring order to the wastes.

Carrying on the traditions of Wasteland and Fallout, Wasteland 2 is keeping with the classic, strategic isometric view, featuring diverse turn-based squad tactical combat and non-linear storytelling. (see the video below for an in depth example)

Furthermore, the choices you make throughout Wasteland 2 matter significantly, each choice potentially changing the direction of the rest of your playthrough. The player isn’t judged by the game, there is no karma system, no ranking on whether you are good or evil. But each choice you make has both short term and long term consequences. Because of this, there is no way to see the whole game without multiple playthroughs.

The most extreme example comes when you choose to stray from the ethics of the rangers, for example: killing everyone and everything in sight. Your commanding officer will send hit squads after you and the entire story of the game will alter, including it’s own unique ending. However it will also cut 40% of the game in the process.

Choice extends to the battlefield as well. Every situation will have multiple avenues of approach allowing the players to utilize their squads diverse skill sets such as sniping, small and large guns, animal control (yeah, animal control) and at times diplomacy. This is where the tactical approach really comes into play. Positioning your team before the assault and utilizing their unique skills will give you strategic advantage but mowing through your enemies gun blazing is always an option.

Wasteland 2 is currently entering the beta phase of development and is scheduled to be released early 2014. You can pre-order your copy today for only $25, quite the deal for a full fledged game!

Interested in more? Read Ten Reasons I Pre-Ordered Wasteland 2 and You Should Too.

Project Eternity


The First Golden Age - Infinity Engine

A couple years after Fallout’s release, a new game engine was introduced by BioWare through Baldur's Gate. It was called Infinity Engine. This new system attempted to translate the Dungeons and Dragons tabletop ruleset to computer gaming, and the results were stunning. The hand drawn landscapes, detailed character creation and the pause and play combat system meshed so well, it enable the creation of the subsequent classics that followed Baldur’s Gate including Icewind Dale 1 & 2 (developed by Black Isle), Baldur’s Gate 2 (BioWare), and Planescape: Torment (Black Isle).

All of these games (except Planescape: Torment) epic fantasies set in the Forgotten Realms universe tasking the player with classic quests and immense stories. The hand illustrated worlds were pieces of art in themselves, making the graphics almost timeless (especially with a high-res mod) compared to the blocky polygon graphics of the day.

While the setting immersed the player deep into the world, the Infinity Engine really shined when when it came to its combat system. The pause and play system allowed for intense real-time battles which would otherwise be too overwhelming for the player. But with a tap of the space bar all action was paused and the player could catch their breath and take a strategic view of the situation, issue orders, and then watch it all play out.

The Second Golden Age - Project Eternity

Behind many of these games was a close knit group of developers such as Chris Avellone, Tim Cain, Adam Brennecke and Josh Sawyer, many of whom stuck together in the years after Interplay declared bankruptcy and went on to create Obsidian Entertainment.

They too had a dream of revitalizing the iso-RPG genre, but with each pitch they shut down by publishers who gave them the same reasoning they gave inXile, not enough profit. Then, after inXile pulled together nearly $3 million straight from a fervent fan base, Obsidian saw an opportunity to realize their dreams.

Good thing they did. The fans came and funded Obsidians Kickstarter game, Project Eternity, to the tune of a record breaking $3,986,929!

Why should I be excited about Project Eternity?

It’s a love song to the classic Isometric RPG’s from the first Golden Age featuring just about everything that made it’s predecessors special: hand drawn settings, party based pause and play combat, and an epic fantasy story. The one place where Project Eternity deviates is in the Dungeons and Dragons rule set choosing instead to create their own rules which they claim will enable them to create new things the D&D setting wouldn’t allow.

Along with all these features from the classics Project Eternity is reimagining for a new age, they are also creating an array of new features which could come together to create a fresh and modern take on an old genre.

One stand out examples was made possible by achieving funding stretch goals (raising money above their original goal): the Stronghold. Near the end of Act 1, the player will get a Stronghold which will act as the hub of their in game activity. When they get it, it’s a run down fort but as players earn cash they can spend their money on enhancements. These enhancements will not only change the stronghold aesthetically, but will grant characters bonuses, unlock unique quests, storylines and more.

As you play, you’ll eventually gather more companions than your party will allow. Rather than abandon them to sit in limbo, your companions will return to the stronghold where they can train, study, and live their happy NPC lives. But like living, breathing characters, they can also engage in their own quests and leave the stronghold to return later with a story, more loot, XP and skills.

Project Eternity is still midway through development, so there will be a lot of developments to come. If this sound like something you want to be a part of, you can still pre-order the game at a reduced “slacker-backer” price of $29.

Torment: Tides of Numenera

The First Golden Age - Planescape: Torment

Planescape: Torment was the pinnacle of the first golden age of RPG’s. Those who know me know I still tout it as the greatest videogame ever made.

Produced by Black Isle on the Infinity Engine, Planescape: Torment takes everything that was already great about it’s predecessors, breaks away from the Forgotten Realms and instead transports players to one of the most unique settings you are likely to find. Add to that the stellar writing which feels ripped out of a China Mieville novel and you have the most engrossing computer gaming experience ever created.

Elements of this strange, otherworldly setting are often weird and unnerving. Take for example the opening scene where the protagonist known as Nameless One awakes on a slab after being dissected and finds a room full of worker zombies and a chattering, floating skull named Morte. Other elements are almost horrifying, such as the woman who cuts apart “deadies” in her hut to sell the body parts to others. Yet even when the game get’s grotesk, it remains so entrancing, so thought provoking and mesmerizing, the player cannot help but continue deeper into the mind of Nameless One.

It’s not only the setting which sets Planescape: Torment apart from its contemporaries, it’s the scope, the intimacy of the tale and the fully realized companions. Nameless One isn’t on an epic quest to defend the world from evil, he is on a journey of self discovery, puzzling over the question, “what can change the nature of a man?”

To learn more about Planescape: Torment read Plainscape: Torment - A Retrospective Review.

The Second Golden Age - Torment: Tides of Numenera

As it turns out the boys at inXile were also very fond of working on Planescape: Torment back in the day. They already had achieved kickstarter success with Wasteland 2, so as members of their development team began to free up from W2 they turned their attention to their next project. This project would be Torment: Tides of Numenera.

You may have noticed a pattern in the article, and Torment wasn’t about to buck the trend. Torment’s kickstarter was wildly successful, even breaking the funding record set by Project Eternity. Stretch goal after stretch goal was met, and as the kickstarter campaign rolled along, the developers promised the game was getting bigger and bigger.

The higher funding grew the more big names were attached to the project. When funding broke $3,000,000 they began throwing novelists into the mix, and by the time funding reached $4,000,000 whole new sections of the game, deeper reactivity, and deeper character interactions were promised. Funding peaked at an amazing $4,188,927 making it the highest funded game in kickstarter history… for now that is.

And what is all this money going to create? The spiritual successor to Planscape: Torment. Like Project Eternity, inXile is straying from the D&D roots and instead adopting a new setting, the world of Numenera as created by Monte Cook (known for his work on D&D).

While the game is adopting a new setting, the developers have taken special care to ask the question, “What makes a Torment game a Torment game?” In answer to this they came up with four pillars that will ensure this new Torment will carry on the legacy: 1) unusual and exotic setting, 2) a deep, personal storyline, 3) unique, deep characters who hold meaningful interactions with the player, 4) reactivity, choice and real consequences.

Why should I be excited about Torment: Tides of Numenera?

Torment. That’s reason enough for me.

But if you’re looking for something more, just know that this promises to be one of the most unique playing experiences you are to encounter. Funded by the fans and featuring such names as Monte Cook, Brian Fargo--and, in a slightly awesome twist, novelist Patrick Rothfuss.

Of all the upcoming iso-RPG’s, Torment has the furthest to go. Currently it’s in predevelopment so solid information is scarce, but all the clues are pointing up. Torment is due to be released early 2015. You can still pre-order a copy at the backer reward price of $25.