Two Worlds (Xbox 360)
Blame Bethesda Softwork's The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion for Two Worlds' failings -- the chart-topping success of the former 3-D free-roaming role-player opened the floodgates for a sea of new, equally ambitious titles to invade American shores.
The only problem -- as evidenced by this far-reaching but ultimately too-familiar take on fantasy adventuring, to produce a game with that much polish requires several magic ingredients. Specifically, you need a generous budget, obsessive attention to detail and sweeping imagination -- three areas where Reality Pump's latest is sorely lacking.
That isn't to say that the saga is a complete and utter mess. Rather, it's just a would-be epic tale turned tedious genre clich&eacure;. The obvious culprit here is the clearly understaffed/-funded outing's sheer enormity of scope and content, which inherently precluded the degree of craftsmanship fans expect after the benchmark-setting Oblivion.
Accordingly, lack of empathy becomes just the first of many quibbles you'll deal with here, thanks to the title's star, a nameless swordsman on a quest to rescue his sister. And how's this for a big surprise -- it's soon revealed her abduction merely foreshadows a greater conflict pitting orcs against mankind's forces, with the potential resurrection of an evil god and the fate of the world hanging in the balance. (Yawn.)
If you've heard this one 10,000 times before, and told with much better voice-overs and lesser old English verbiage, be prepared for apathy to set in early -- even more so, given the developer's equal lack of enthusiasm for polishing the surrounding world.
Despite the sheer enormity of the virtual realm in which you'll play, technical glitches are just the beginning, with scenery that suddenly appears out of nowhere, bug-filled animations and hit-detection issues being commonplace concerns here. Plummeting frame rates, most often encountered during action-intensive scenes, combined with long disc load times, compound one's woes. Frankly, the immense size of featured realms and non-linear nature of the tale notwithstanding (admittedly, this is one huge-ass odyssey) such gaffes only underscore the title's less than A-level production values.
Free-form setup aside, you'll all too frequently find yourself engaged in mandatory level grind. Boosting the main character's stats (lack of featured hero classes aside, such enhancements clearly push you towards traditional roles like warrior or wizard) proves only semi-engaging, as well. Thankfully, the simple process of killing to obtain more powerful loot remains entertaining as ever; there's also a catchy card-boosted magic system available, as well as an alchemy creation model that lets you combine plants, herbs, crystals and other collectibles. This latter feature lets you cook up potions and other power-boosting brews, whether in the form of attribute-enhancing tonics or recipes that grant weapons magical powers -- a nice added touch.
Still, there's only so much wolf-, skeleton- and dragon-bashing you can do before the whole formula becomes tiresome. The pressing need to take on optional assignments to gain enough power to tackle story-driven missions slows the title's pace somewhat, too (though, happily, it is possible to use teleportation points and mounts to speed up underlying travel times throughout). A clunky menu system that makes you repeatedly scroll through your inventory, and a world map that renders active points of interest hard to spot further take the excitement down a notch. The repetitious melees packed with either daft enemies who let you aimlessly beat on them, or difficult foes that make you constantly dodge and dance around attacks don't help, either.
But on the bright side, there's also a ridiculously enormous world to explore, and mention it's packed with dozens of blade-swiping diversions and intricacies such as factions with whom you've got to work to maintain a reputation.
While you're busy making friends and alienating people, there is also plenty of time to explore the stunningly-depicted landscapes that are the outing's signature stock and trade. Originally a game developed for the PC, it's easy to see the title's high-resolution origins in nicely-rendered villages, deserts, mountain ranges and sprawling grasslands. And hey, you also get a semi-decent soundtrack, with the noise of battle nicely captured and ongoing exploits framed by an ethereal score (however, the voice work here ranges from bland to 'who phoned that in?').
Amazingly, somehow developer Reality Pump even shoehorned in a standalone online multiplayer mode to boot. Players can either compete against one another or link up for hack-and-slash adventures alongside friends on limited-size maps. Performance is less than stellar on both fronts, though, whether you're talking about the number of dropped connections, constant lag or scant amount of people playing. Honestly, we'd rather the time spent fleshing out these options had gone into further enhancing the single-player campaign.
It's a pity, as you can obviously see how much better the title would have been had it enjoyed proper incubation. Instead, you simply get a game that attempts to bite off way more than it can chew and sacrifices outstanding performance in any one category for merely workable or barely-sufficient service in all.
We can understand how RPG fans, especially those who've traipsed through Oblivion's Tamriel one too many times, could be intrigued (OK, bored) enough to give the outing a peek. But we can also assure you that most will be disappointed with Two Worlds, which -- more mediocre than magical -- decisively fails to topple the genre's reigning heavyweight champ.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.