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Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura (Windows)

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Written by  :  Jacques Guy (55)
Written on  :  Apr 17, 2004
Rating  :  2.33 Stars2.33 Stars2.33 Stars2.33 Stars2.33 Stars

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Summary

Voi ch'entrate lasciate ogni speranza (Dante, but not the one met in Ashbury)

The Good

You WANT to play this game. It's Fallout garbed in Wild Wild West and Dungeons and Dragons finery, with scents of Ultima VII. You want to play until you have figured the use of all those trinkets, filaments, metal shavings, sprockets, watch mechanisms, and so on, and so on. Until you have built something out of a broken flintlock pistol and a small tube (answer: a working flintlock pistol). Until you have pieced together the fascinating story of this engaging parallel world. Perhaps I have explored as much as one hundredth of the world of Arcanum, perhaps as little as a thousandth. I want to see more, to explore it all. Most likely, I never will. Why?

The Bad

It started gradually, my annoyance growing slowly, slowly. Little, tiny wee pieces of aggravation which I was all too willing to put up with, so eager I was to play on. Then it exploded like a soap bubble. Joachim's trail of notes told us, Virgil and me, to go next to Stillwater. Oh, we'd come across a mention of Ashbury too, but Stillwater seemed the logical next stop. No Stillwater, no Ashbury on the World Map when we consulted it, though. So we decided to board the train in Tarant. As I went to buy tickets at the booth, my mouse pointer turned into a sword. Wot? Combat mode? What had I done to deserve that? I quit, reloaded, and was careful to watch my step this time. Combat mode again?! Was it something I'd eaten? (too much garlic, maybe?). After a few reloads, Virgil and I just decided to walk to Black Root and board the train from there. All went well. So the Tarant incident must have been a bug. But... wot? Stillwater was not on the time table, but Ashbury was. So we rode to Ashbury, which then, and only then, showed up on the map. We really had no interest at all in fixing their problem with the ghouls, zombies, and assorted undead in their cemetery, and Dante, who had eagerly joined us, seemed such a shady necromancer type that we quit again, and reloaded. That is when the bubble burst.

The bugs, the inept combat, the needle-in-a-haystack errands, everything.

The bugs. I just mentioned one. Another is during combat, when your followers, or the beasties, appear to go into an infinite loop, leaving you there, waiting for your turn, forever and beyond. And then, the odd screen freezing solid, but we're used to that.

The inept combat. The blurb on the game box is a farce. Don't you believe a word of it. The so-called turned-based combat allows you no tactics. In Fallout, like in X-COM Enemy Unknown, you know in advance the cost of moving here or there, and how many movement points you will have left for an attack. In Fallout, for every weapon you had, you knew the cost of using it, so many movement points for a shot of the sniper rifle, so many for the Desert Eagle pistol, so many for the sledgehammer, and so on. Nothing of the kind here. You just now how many movement points you have and the "speed" of your weapon, whatever that is. But you never know how many moves away you are from your target, how long it takes you to reload... why, as far as I could figure out, there was no reloading time, so that the only difference between a one-shot flintlock and a six-shot revolver was only damage and range. This is grotesque. Reloading a flintlock must have taken 30 seconds in real life. Shooting the next round of a single-action revolver? Cock the hammer, pull the trigger. A split second. Now all those things were nicely taken care of in Fallout. Here? Nothing. Combat has become a mindless brawl, a sorry farce. And I am cutting it short. I could rave on for two pages and more, count your blessings.

Next, the maps. Everytime you enter a town you can bring up a local map of it. The map is unrealistic and useless, because there is no "fog of war" so that the parts you have not explored are just as clear to see as those you have, and, typically, you never know whether you've already been here, or there, or if it remains to be explored. There is worse. If you have strolled along, oh, say, Devonshire Way in Tarant, and looked at the number plates of the houses there, they will show as question marks in the map, and, hovering your mouse pointer over them, the addresses will be revealed (good)... but not all places so observed will show with a queriable question mark (bad, very bad). Try that in Black Root especially. Some of the locations will have been recorded on the map, most not. This is particularly infuriating when, having found Sarah Boone in Dernholm, solved her problem in Tarant, and hoofed it back to Dernholm to tell her the good news... you have forgotten where she lived, and you have to visit every single godforsaken shack in godforsaken Dernholm to find her again (no-one you meet knows about her). Your journal is completely, utterly useless there. Why, you can't even jot down your own blog in it (remember Ultima Underworld?).

So Virgil and I resolved to download the two patches (5.4M in all), in the fond hope that they would make the game playable at last. We had learnt our lesson, too, namely, that if you take on many quests (errands, rather) you soon become lost. Er... yes... we got Colonel Eric von Stroheim's silver dentures from the Dark Elven Ruins, but where does he live again? With a great deal of luck your Journal has it: 36 Alexandrov Prospect. But in what city? Tough luck. You should have made a note of it on good old real paper with a good old modern real ballpoint pen. Imagine: all those technological gadgets in Arcanum, and they didn't even think of inventing the PIP Boy! Or at least, some proper paper and a proper goose quill, to keep with the Victorian England retro style.

So Virgil and I started all over again, from scratch, swearing never to take on a new quest until we had solved the current one.

And thus we came to the Mayor of Black Root, burdened as we were with the task of convincing him to pay his back taxes to the King of Cumbria in Dernholm. The mayor asked us to find his ceremonial dagger, his symbol of office, stolen by thieves "on the outskirts of town". We searched the outskirts of Black Root high and low, left, right and centre, east, west, south and north, to no avail. We interrogated every single living soul in Black Root. Not a clue. We downloaded a walkthrough, which said: follow the path leading out west of town, eventually you will find the thieves' camp. We did follow the path, and beyond, when the path petered out. Nothing. We trekked back and forth, forth and back, south and north, north and south, west of Black Root. In vain. And no wonder, a screenful covers an area of about 20 metres by 30, and after trudging 20 screens worth at least, you still find yourselves only a pixel away from your point of departure on the world map. We switched to the world map view, picked a point a longish way due west of Black Root, clicked "Go". Never a whiff of a thieves' camp.

Navigating the local maps is an infuriating business. Want to go from Madame Tussaude's to Delores Boston's place to deliver a crystal ball? Theoretically, you scroll the map, mark way points by clicking, then click the "Go" button and there you... go. First, why do you need intermediate points? Why can't you just click on your destination and be done with it? Second, you often get this hair-tearing message: "your path is blocked" when, in fact, the two points are within plain view of each other, without a single obstacle in between. Third, sometimes, you just don't make it there because a wandering pedestrian has chanced into your path, and the AI is too stupid to have you walk around him. You have to take over and do it yourself.

A similar "path blocked" message often flashes on the world map when trekking from one city to another, even though there is nothing in the way of your destination. You just have to find another way point, not "blocked", a few pixels away.

And the world map is bogus. I talked Virgil into taking a break on our way to Black Root to take a look at the bridge over the river (what's its name? No names for those rivers on the world map). I was expecting a breath-taking view of a feat of Victorian engineering. I clicked on a point carefully picked slap bang in the middle of the picture of the bridge... go! When we got there, lo and behold... no bridge, no river. Just grass. We went in ever widening circles looking for the bridge. We didn't even find the river. But just try clicking your first way point on the west side of that non-existent river, the second on its east side... "path blocked". To get through, your two way points must straddle the bridge exactly. Ridiculous.

The Bottom Line

1. Combat is a brainless, preposterous farce. Don't put up with it: find a character editor and pump up your and your followers' strength and dexterity right up to the maximum.

2. Don't rely on your "journal", keep your own, either on physical paper using a physical pen, or repeatedly hitting Alt-Tab to access your favourite word processor (mine is NoteTab).

3. Be prepared to be frustrated.