Monday, July 24, 2006

Arx Fatalis, the greatest game since Ultima Underworld

Do you know how some games have so much publicity spin on them and so much advertising that they immediately start making money and becoming "the most popular game"? Arx Fatalis is not one of those. This game is a rediscovery of the good old values of Ultima Underworld: good story, great playability, nice AI, very little or no getting stuck possibilities, fantastic immersion in another world. If you loved Ultima Underworld (which can be found free on the net, but I am not sure you can make it work on the newest computers around), you will definitely fall in love with Arx Fatalis. I am telling you, I am hooked. I finished the game in a working week and two weekends and I did it so fast because my wife wanted me to give some attention to her. Yes, you read right, Arx Fatalis IS better than sex.

You can get it very cheaply from Good Old Games.

Ok, what is so great about it? I will give a few hints and let you discover the rest for yourselves:
  • you make magic by mouse gestures (you move the mouse in certain patterns, like in Black and White)
  • the AI characters yell for help from associated NPCs and run away when too hurt
  • I once ran into an impenetrable beast that could kill me with one touch. Running away from it I reached a dead end. I expected to find no way out, but the beast disappeared and reappeared a few feet behind, just enough to let me run away.
  • I couldn't find ONE spot where I would have gotten stuck in the entire game.
  • the quests are intelligent. You need to use brains to finish this one. It's not something that must be searched on google to finish, either. If you have the will, there is a way.
  • you can kill almost every character in the game as well as finish their quests.
  • a lot of side quests. You can finish the game in a week or in a few months, it depends on you.
  • hidden magic spells. Each rune has a specific meaning. Try combining them in innovative ways.
Not interested yet? Oh, come on!

Update: I have found a Doom3 mod that tries to be a prequel to Arx Fatalis. A pretty neat effort and I am glad I found a new reason to upgrade my computer :). This is their site: Arx – End Of Sun and this is a gameplay video: Arx - End of Sun (Gameplay Video #1) [Doom 3 SP Mod].


Anonymous said...

The following was a readme I wrote for my girlfriend who was about to play Arx Fatalis for the first time. I'm sending it to you after reading your much (much) too kind post about the game.

The keys for the game can be changed by editing the .cfg file.
Make a backup first as its slightly confusing.

Learn The Keys! The interface is way too slow and fiddly to trust in a tight situation.

Spoiler Alert! Don't read any guides, FAQs or even JoWood's patch readme's because they're all full of spoilers and they crassly give away every single secret in the game.
The best way to play this game is to just play it. If you want to use cheats, all the cool stuff etc., wait until you're replaying it a second time.
(It's safe to go by what you read in the manual although some things are left out of it.)

The Mini-Map. A feature not documented in the manual but visible in the .cfg file is the mini-map.
(The default key is M.) This will popup a useful 'System Shock' like HUD map. It's not very true to the atmosphere of the game but it beats walking around with the F3 'Book-In-Your-Face' approach. It's also the ONLY way you can 'sense' nearby creatures when your Intuition becomes high enough to do so. When this happens, creatures appear as little red dots in the mini-map.

Maps and Journals. Make a paper map or keep a notebook because (unbelievably!) it's not possible to annotate the ingame map or zoom in on it and the notes the game makes (such as exit markers to other levels) are frequently illegible or inconsistent. See also a point about automapping in Getting Places below.
Your journal is equally useless. You can't write in it yourself and the journal mixes tutorial messages with adventure notes. If it bothers adding anything at all.

Combat. This game is essentially a rip-off of both Thief and Ultima Underworld and because of this the combat can be frustrating to the point of making you want to shout out loud at the screen. In 'homage' to Thief, you fight as if you have Parkinson's Disease. Lurching, unbalanced and slow to react, you swing your weapons around like a drunk.
Archery is worse. By the time you've carefully aimed your second arrow your enemies are busily hacking you apart. In 'homage' to Ultima your skills and abilities are supposed to improve this state of affairs but in practice I found that your best weapon will always be the poor AI of your opponents. Bad pathfinding means it's possible to jam enemies into corners and you can easily pick off members of a group one at a time, leaving the rest to stand around muttering "Where did he go? Oh, it must have been nothing".

(One more point about archery. You don't have arrows as such for your bow. Instead you get a quiver named 'Some Arrows' and it wears out at the rate you fire arrows! Which means every quiver has 100 arrows by the way.)

Lockpicking and Pickpocketing.
Firstly, lockpicking. Lockpicks are confusingly described as 'A set of tools' in Arx Fatalis but you can't use them for anything else. They must also be made of disposable bendy plastic because they have 5 uses each and break frequently. As with all consumer goods bearing built-in obsolescene, they're available from only a few select vendors and out of your financial reach at the start of the game.
The obvious solution is to use Save/Reload to deal with this crap. Later, when you can cast the Bless spell, use it before each attempt as it boosts your chance to pick.

Pickpocketing. As described in the manual, when you reach 50 Stealth you can pickpocket. In practice I had to have higher than 50 Stealth and it wasn't as easy as it should have been.
When you bump against a person, you'll see a small pouch icon appear over your health orb (bottom left of screen). Open your inventory and click on the pouch.
Now this is where it gets risky. The pouch will display that person's inventory (like a chest) and you can grab whatever you want. But there's no clear indicator of whether you've been detected because NPCs will often turn to look right at you - even if you're invisible! NPCs will usually protest but they don't always react hostilely so Save Before Each Attempt. This is all down to the piss-poor AI in the game. It also means that if you're detected the victim will fight you to the death and consequently every fellow NPC in the game will be alerted (telepathically?) to your new 'social status'.

I found that some game-critical items will be 'locked out' from your pickpocketing. In other words you won't be able to just lift letters, artifacts etc. from the baddies without defeating them in mighty combat first.

Another couple of points on theft: You can always take things from in front of people as no-one in the game ever objects. However you can't shoplift because the wares on display exist in the pocket universes of the shopkeeper's chests. Transferring them to your inventory results in an automatic cash transfer and resulting item value adjustment with the efficiency of a Swiss banker. (Note that every single retailer in Arx buys for one half the value they sell to you at and no-one repairs anything for free. Who are the real thieves, I ask you?)

Magic. The spell system in Arx Fatalis is ripped off from Ultima, with runes enabling manual spellcasting. There are two serious problems with this.
Firstly, forget about manual spellcasting in a battle. Arx Fatalis uses a mouse-gesture system to recognise spells and of course this never works when frame rates are low and your mouse isn't very good. It takes a lot of practice to cast a spell first time with confidence and you'll still only do that slowly and carefully. The best strategy is to save the simple ones for the heat of battle and 'memorise' complicated spells (why the fuck is KAOM so hard to trace anyway??).

For example: Heal (Mega, Vitae) and Magic Missile (Aam, Taar) are easy.
Fireball (Aam, Yok, Taar) and Lightning Strike (Aam, Folgora, Taar) definitely aren't.
Secondly, while there are supposed to be secret undocumented spells in the game, some of the more obvious ones aren't. Why can't I identify a magic item? Why can't I poison an item or a person? Why can't I repair items?

I want to make some points too about certain spells.
Flying Eye doesn't work properly as the 'eye' only moves along a horizontal plane. So it gets stuck at stairs and slopes. It also won't go through doors and frequently gets stuck
on little things your larger player model wouldn't. It drains mana quickly as well. Not an entirely useless spell but it is overrated.
Levitate has similar problems to Flying Eye. That and the clunky collision detection mean you can get stuck on invisible snags a lot. Save Before You Use It.
Night Sight is very useful and lasts a long time. However the noise this spell makes drowns out important audio cues. You might as well just turn the gamma all the way up.

The Economy. Arx doesn't seem to have an economy as such. There is no way to raise money for yourself by doing services for others (a standard rpg cliché: making you run errands for pennies), bounty hunting or making and selling items. You can mine gems early in the game but these soon run out. You could try catching and selling fish but even the most basic weapons and armour cost hundreds of gold each. You'd need to sell tonnes of fish! The only viable way to raise funds is to kill monsters (who usually try to kill you first, no matter what you do) and sell the loot from them. It is possible to steal enough to raise money for some decent gear but skills put into thieving could have gone into magic and combat and thieving skills are nearly useless once you enter the lower levels.
That includes Stealth, which most baddies won't be fooled by anyway.

Getting Places. Learn your way around Arx because it'll be quite a while before you learn how to move from level to level quickly. (The method is similar to Ultima but I won't reveal what it is before you play the game.) You will of course have to run through pointless mazes several times and spend a large part of the adventure travelling great horseshoe-like distances just to get to the other side of a wall or tunnel. While you do this
your map will fill in as you explore however it has an irritating habit of not mapping rooms and caverns completely unless you run right around every wall. When you make a trek back to a location that on your map appears to be an unexplored tunnel you must have missed earlier, only to find it's just a wall section that wasn't drawn in properly, you'll understand why.

Enjoy :)
Oct. 2006

Siderite said...

Re stiabh:
I think I might have played a patched or improved version. First time I played it, I missed the thing about pre casting spells and I played and finished the entire game by mouse gestures alone. So it's not so bad, once you get to know the game. Also, there is the posibility of poisoning your items. It needs ridiculous item knowledge, but it can be done. Also, the AI, as stupid as it may be, it is better than the AI of most of the games out there.
Thanks for the post.

Siderite said...

Siderite said...
Note to self:
A new game is about to be released. It's called Dark Messiah of Might and Magic and it has three reasons to be the next coolest game ever:
1. It's placed in the Might&Magic universe
2. It's made by the guys that made Arx Fatalis
3. It has multiplayer, CounterStrike style.
Just watch the animations from the site and you will be amazed!