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Arx Fatalis Preview
Author: Drew Lanclos
Date Posted: March 2nd, 2002
URL: http://www.slcentral.com/articles/02/3/arxfatalis

Introduction

Fishtank Interactive did something relatively uncommon on March 1st by releasing the demo to their upcoming first-person RPG, Arx Fatalis. The key phrase here is "upcoming". Most developers these days push the title out to stores first, and worry about the demo later. Usually this is for good reason, of course - with the game development finished, it's a relatively trivial issue to produce a truncated version of the game for purposes of a demo.

On the other hand, Fishtank has taken the road less traveled - They've released the demo to Arx Fatalis at least a month and a half ahead of the release of the actual game. This has its good points and its bad points, of course. The bad points I shall address later. The good point is that it helps to build anticipation and excitement over what's shaping up to be a truly awesome game. So, with that in mind, let's start looking in at it.

Background

Arx Fatalis' roots come from the Ultima Underworld series, which was developed right around the same time as Doom. Comparing the 3D engines, Underworld was capable of much more complex geometry than Doom was, but Underworld had to be displayed in a window for it to run efficiently on a then-powerful 486. UW, like many other follow-up games by Looking Glass studios (R.I.P.), was very versatile in how you could solve your problems. You could take the world on by force, negotiate your way through problems, or just be a cunning sneak.

Arx Fatalis looks like it will be no exception. Though the demo only offers you limited use of your character skills and abilities, the full version will allow you to play your character in a role that fits you. As Fishtank advertises, one of their primary objectives with Arx Fatalis was to ensure that you could play the game without feeling bound by the game's constraints.

Are you a little low on cash? Go find someone sufficiently far from a town and knock 'em over for his loot. You see a pig over there? Are you hungry? Kill the pig and roast its ribs over the fire for some healthy chow. Arx Fatalis goes a long way of preserving the adventuring feel originally portrayed in Ultima Underworld.

The background story presented thus far in Arx Fatalis is not unlike that of Ultima Underworld - Your character finds himself trapped in the underground labyrinthine kingdom known as Arx. He has no idea what transported him there, nor does he have any memory of his own identity or that of others. Presumably, the plot will orient around your character trying to restore the world of Arx back to its former self, by somehow eradicating the evil which is sweeping the land, and may well be the cause of the obscuring of the sun, which has since caused the surface of the planet to freeze into a barren wasteland.

Graphics/Sound

The demo weighs in at a whopping 150+ megabytes, but a good amount of that data is in the high-quality textures used in the game. The graphics engine still needs a good bit of work, but when all is in order, you'll simply be in awe of the smoothness *and* roughness of the walls (bump-mapping at work), the fogging and smoke effects, and the dynamic lighting. Spider webs dangle and wave in the breeze. Probably the most impressive thing you'll see at work in Arx Fatalis, however, is the spellcasting system.

Previously, UW and UW2 would make use of the Ultima runes to cast spells. Simply open up your Rune Bag and select the combination of runes to cast a particular spell. Arx Fatalis preserves the rune usage, but the implemenation differs somewhat. Instead, you must hold down the magic key and "draw" the runes in the air using your mouse. The effects and sounds your arm makes as you write the glyphs in the air is spectacular, and the spell effects themselves can be a sight to behold. Try using Magic Missile and you'll see what I mean.

The sound in the game so far is very ambient and usually carries a subtle, yet dramatic feel to it. Most of the demo has no background music, though it's hardly necessary. The ambient sounds of sloshing water, frogs croaking, and miscellaneous other noises…all are appropriate for the sealed underground crypt you find yourself trapped in. Character voices are pretty good too, though *nothing* syncs with the speakers' mouths yet. This one distraction proved rather annoying to me, as I was really getting into my character and his interaction with the world.

Gameplay

Fighting is a bit clumsy in Arx Fatalis, but again, those familiar to the fighting mechanics of UW will feel right at home. Gone is the "thirds-targeting" system used in Ultima Underworld - Instead, your strike is simply based on your positioning against the enemy. Are you fighting a rat? Then an overhand blow would be most appropriate. Taking on a goblin? You'll probably be using piercing and swipes. Arx also follows a principle laid down in UW - Almost anything can be a weapon. Find a heavy rock, and you can throw it. Pick up a bone from the ground, and club a few spiders with it before it crumbles.

The controls take a bit of adjustment to use, but once you've played the game for fifteen minutes, you're set. And again, if you've played a Looking Glass game before, then you probably know what to expect. It's not an exact clone of the inventory/movement system from Deus Ex or System Shock 2, but it's reasonably close. The default controls have the player using mouselook as well as ASWD for movement. Fighting is only done while in mouselook operation, as is spellcasting. Onscreen icons open and close your inventory and character info, or you can use the hotkeys assigned to them (All of which can be reassigned in the control panel).

Work-in-progress

All in all, from what we've seen in this limited demo, things are looking pretty good. Of course, everything can't be perfect. The game isn't complete yet, and many of its existing cracks show forth in the demo. The graphics engine needs some work - Polygon separation was notable in many places in the beginning of the dungeon, and frequently the camera seemed to retreat within the body of the player, causing some strange projections of your body parts similar to what you would see in Jurassic Park: Trespasser. This wasn't when I was pressed against a wall or anything like that - I'd simply be walking and I'd see some polygons from my knee suddenly intrude into the field of view. And dropped objects would frequently just hover in the air. I managed to make a bone cage out of six or seven bones I had in my inventory that I just placed in a circle around myself.

And hopefully, when Arkane Studios is busy working on getting the graphics engine up to speed, they'll also work on getting it sped up as well. Running the game in 800x600x32 was fine for me, but it slowed to a crawl at 1024x768x32, using an All-in-Wonder Radeon. I can guess, though, that with the high-resolution textures used in the game, a video card with 64 MB of onboard RAM would get a significant speed boost over my All-in-Wonder Radeon did.

Also, the game crashes. A lot. The demo is supposed to last an hour, and I'm not sure how close I came to the end of the demo, but I finally came to one part where the game would consistently crash during a dialogue scene with the Captain of the King's soldiers. It definitely taught me to save often, as though I immensely enjoyed the experience of playing the game, I have a preview to write! The game doesn't just lock up or anything - It just suddenly isn't running in Windows anymore, and I find myself back on the desktop.

Conclusion

All these things should hopefully be fixed when Arx Fatalis ships, as it is scheduled for release on April 16th, a scant week and a half after the highly anticipated RPG from Gas Powered Games, Dungeon Siege. Arx Fatalis already has a huge following given the legacy of its predecessors, and if the game's development keeps on pace between the now and the release of the final game, there will be a lot of Looking Glass and RPG fans that will *not* be disappointed. Will Arx Fatalis be able to stand on its own? Or will it simply sink into the deepest pits of the underground, and lose its place in the spotlight to Dungeon Siege? Watch for our review when it hits stores next month!

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