Review: Two Worlds II
Upon first glance, Two Worlds II seems to be a photocopy of every other open world RPG created. A tale of good and evil, a hero harnessing sword and spell to traverse unfamiliar terrain. But from start to finish, everything seems a little...different. The intro movie is a wordless vignette showing an orcish amphibious invasion of a beach-side castle. "This old story again," I thought to myself. But as the battle between human and orc raged on, culminating in a duel between a dark knight and an orc berserker, I started to realize that my perception was off, that I was rooting for the wrong side. The orcs were the underdogs; the humans, aided by dark magic, were slaughtering them. Likewise, once in game, my character was freed from jail not by some aristocratic king, but by an orc assassin team. As I played the game, everything from the locales and characters to the way magic is handled is just...different. But it's in these slight variations that Two Worlds II really shines.
I will admit, though, the first fifteen minutes had me worried. The story of Two Worlds II seems to assume that you were a huge fan of the original game. I have to admire the balls of developer Reality Pump for pretending that anyone played the first game for longer than an hour. It all boils down to a tale of bringing down an evil emperor. But even once you get settled into the new story, it barely holds together. I would often think, "What the hell is the point of all this again?". It was only once I arrived at the Tower of Fangs that I remembered that my mission was to...get to the Tower of Fangs. There's just not enough character or interest in the plot to gain any traction in the player's mind. I was having fun on the journey, but I could've cared less about this or that criminal organization or rebellion or guild. As far as I was concerned, building my nameless hero into a badass was the story. And to that end, it helped a great deal that my guy happened to talk exactly like Richard Harrow from Boardwalk Empire, complete with disconcerting, gravely, "mmm"s.
While the story may be take-it-or-leave-it, the setting is actually quite unique. Outside of Far Cry 2 and Resident Evil 5, you don't see many sub-Saharan environments in gaming, and practically never in a fantasy RPG. And yet once the tutorial is over, you are dumped right in the middle of "The Savannah", complete with hostile rhinos, ostriches and baboons. The atmosphere is dusty and arid, and the cultures are portrayed as a mix of Middle Eastern and North African. Just about the time you would start getting sick of that locale, you are transported to the next fascinating island, dominated by Chinese culture and architecture, surrounded not by European forests a la Oblivion, but instead dense Amazon-style jungles. I love the break from the standard Tolkien setting and I hope more RPG developers take their cue from Reality Pump and start branching out in style and setting.
Combat, an RPG's bread and butter, is serviceable if not inspired. Melee consists of attacking, defending, timed counters and executing the occasional special attack. The different melee styles feel a bit stiff, locking you into animations while skeletons swarm your flailing ass. And the ranged gameplay is frustrating at times (most arrows move at the speed of smell). While none of that completely kills the experience, it's clear that at a certain point, the developers just threw their hands up and sighed, "That's as good as it's going to get." Like most action RPGs, the three main classes are warrior, archer and mage. Warrior is further delineated into fighting stances, thus you can choose to hone your pole arm skills, become a badass with a two-handed axe or numerous other styles and combinations. Archers get a whole plethora of different ammunition and abilities - a veritable arrow for every occasion. The nice thing about the character building system is that the skills of each class are not mutually exclusive. You could be an archer that buffs himself with magic before sniping or a warrior that flings a fireball or poison-tipped arrow into a group of enemies before charging in. Flexibility in how you level your character up is one of the surest ways to invite multiple play-throughs and Two Worlds II does an excellent job of offering the player infinite build possibilities.
I must take special consideration here to discuss magic, where the lion's share of the game's fun is found. Unlike all other RPGs, where spells are predefined by the developers, Two Worlds II has a robust spell crafting system . Put simply, a spell doesn't exist for you to use until you create it. What this initially entails is combining found or bought component cards for elements (fire, earth, death, etc.) and "carriers" (such as missile, area of effect, summon). So, for instance, combine a lighting card with an area of effect card and you have a spell that sends out a blinding flash to everyone around you. But that's only the first step. You can also add modifier cards such as damage, effect over time, protection, multi-missile...the list goes on. To top it all off, up to three spells can be chained together. By the middle of the game, my mage was casting a "Wacky Storm" (you also get to name your spells) which sent out five enemy-seeking lightning bolts which, upon impact, started five separate instances of raining anvils (yes, Looney Tunes style anvils) for ten seconds. Hilarious and frighteningly deadly. The magic crafting system alone takes this game from mediocre open world RPG to something special.
Multiplayer is another little pleasant surprise. Upon creating a character, which can include different races and genders, unlike the solo game, you are dumped into a hub city. From there, you can gather some friends into your own instances of duels, death matches, and even a seven part cooperative campaign. While the co-op story is a huge step in the right direction for multiplayer RPGs, Reality Pump didn't quite spend enough time fleshing the concept out. Most chapters are extremely linear and there is almost no reason to explore off the beaten path because treasure chests are all but non-existent. That said, the presence of any kind of co-op multiplayer in an open world RPG is reason to celebrate and the campaign is still quite fun despite its short and linear nature. Finally, you may also buy the deed to a personal town, whereupon you can plop down farms, shops, guardhouses, etc. Dark Cloud style. Its main purpose is a money generator for your online characters but occasionally the town will need help ridding itself of spiders, undead and the like, making it a charmingly quirky little distraction.
Unfortunately, like most games developed in a European country, the twin blades of balance and polish both cut huge chunks out of any potential enjoyment. I keep wondering if European developers even understand the concept of Quality Assurance teams (Beta Testers). Within minutes of gaining control of your character, the stiff and clunky movement controls slap you across the face. Jumping is the worst offender, which is a pretty big deal in an exploration-based RPG. If one can't jump or climb reliably, chances are much of the world will remain undiscovered to the average player. I was some thirty hours in before I even realized that towns have hidden treasures in some rooftops. Between the jumping and some fighting stances (I'm looking at you, dual-wielding), it seems like the developers were more in love with their fluid (and frustrating) animations than they were with practical gameplay. Enjoying the game comes down to adapting to the stiffness and compensating for it.
Balance is another key area where Two Worlds II stumbles, and where, once again, more playtesting would have helped. For the first half of the game, armor is almost entirely cosmetic. But that's okay because there is also no reliable way to make money early on, save gambling. Likewise, while the ability to play music for tips is a fun idea, for most songs and instruments it's like playing Guitar Hero on crack - way too fast with no chance for getting into a rhythm. Skills are also very hit or miss. Lockpick remains useful throughout but picking pockets and backstabbing are only feasible in the first couple of hours of play, permanently relegating them to the "entirely skip-able" category. Pretty much all aspects of the game are rough around the edges. As an open world RPG devout, I was able to look past those shortcomings but disappointment abounds for anyone expecting Bioware or Blizzard level polish. And speaking of polish why the hell does everyone have little mutant baby arms? A QA tester wouldn't even have to make it past the character creation screen to notice that creepy deformity.
Despite the shortcomings, though, this is quite an enjoyable experience. It may not last very long in gamers' memories after they play it, but the ride is fun and the magic system and break-from-the-mold environments set it apart from the standard Lord of the Rings-ish fare. Fans of open world RPGs in the vein of Gothic and Risen (games that were also rough but nevertheless reached unprecedented levels of immersion) will have no trouble finding the good in Two Worlds II and to them, I absolutely recommend buying it. Those that often angrily proclaim themselves to be unpaid Beta testers when they find a few bugs should probably wait until this one goes on sale before checking it out.
Rating: TRY IT