Gothic 3 is the trueborn successor of this series' uninterrupted bloodline of audacious system requirements, die-and-die-again combat ethics, and penciled-in queues of Post-It Note mission objectives. While free-range gameplay has strode ahead confidently in every gaming genre, Gothic'slineage has always been unfocused somewhere in the backdrop, shoulders slumped in a constant game of catch up, offering a mumbling array of fixes and apologies but generally losing its bearings in this post-Oblivion world we now live in.
On paper, it sounds like the Piranha Bytes production team gets everything right: An enormous and seamless world to explore, classless character development, and one helluva fork-in-the-road choice regarding the story's outcome. But when it comes to execution, Piranha Bytes look like they're recreating gameplay mechanics assembled from rumors and hearsay. Its ambition outstrips its resources at every overreaching turn. Since fantasy fiction (ironically) relies so heavily on established archtypes, getting those archetypes right and utilizing them effectively becomes that much more difficult of a task. And -- in Gothic 3's case -- since the game designers and story writers share the same credits, I suspect they're now just realizing that designing a game and writing a story require two dissimilar skill sets. They fill out differing (but not necessarily opposed) lines on a resume.
Keeping your sense of humor intact is the number one rule of survival in Gothic 3. Finding out what your character is and isn't capable of doing allow for moments of unintentional hilarity and/or head scratching. Can I pilfer this chest or help myself to the goods displayed on that table? I didn't mean to draw my blade -- will the mage never talk to me again for that infraction? And I can understand why his guard kicked my ass for unsheathing my weapon, but did he have to pick my pockets while I was unconscious, too? Never mind, he seems okay with me sleeping until noon in his bed so I can heal.
This level of experimentation will cull several reloads out of you, but the load screens are so long that you can also finally make significant progress on your third rereading of the Dragonlance Chronicles Trilogy. The Gothic 3 story sidesteps a few typical RPG tropes by not making your basic orc horde a shapeless threat … they're actually society's ruling class in the land of Myrtana. And you, our nameless, unskilled, and death-prone hero, have a cliff-hanging decision to make. Do you rally with the orcish empire, or dig in with the human resistors?
Whomever you choose as an adversary, combat plays a ubiquitous role over every square kilometer of the map. Fights are furious and endurance draining, though enemy health and the overall damage-dealing model seeps into nebulous territory. The "free-range" aspect is only a thin and unsubstantial veil over the escalating ferocity of your enemies; you'll know the exact moment your overly-courageous antics have stepped beyond their level boundaries.
Even if you conquer an encounter, superficial methods are in place to invite you back needlessly to old locales, namely with treasure chests that are too difficult to unlock considering your current skill level. But it all pans itself out as an unnecessary exercise in rote memorization. What could possibly be so fantastic in that admittedly unremarkable chest that would entice you to solidify its map location in your brain to return at a later chapter? Can collecting on these past-dated goods ever be worth the time and effort in a game already taxing all of your time and effort?
When traveling there and back again, alchemical Betty Crockers will traverse a smorgasbord of ingredients-laden meadows and forest clearings. For RPG players that can't pass up any minor flora and fauna details (like me) you'll have awakened in a heavenly land of milk and honey, your sun-warmed skin attended to by 72 virgins. If you're even more like me, then this same land will feel like a perfect hell, harping on your obsessive-compulsive collectivist tendencies. I feel sorry for both camps, since you can't travel more than five steps in any direction without having to stoop and pick up some standoffish-looking weed or colorfully vicious flower. Everything owns up to a completely randomized feel (except for the incessant clusters of mushrooms) while your fifth grade leaf collection will be well underway -- and you won't even know why you've been assigned it in the first place.
The crafting process itself is streamlined and uncomplicated. For example, you can step up to an alchemist table, click on a recipe you've acquired through trade or looting, and if you have the required ingredients in your (literally) bottomless inventory screen, then voila. Your raw materials and empty vial have instantly gone presto change-o into a healing potion, a bottle of beer, or even a carafe of "perfectly normal water."
Skills build of their own volition following successful missions and melee matches, while other abilities may be purchased from trainers -- and statues of deities? -- for characters with deep pockets. Even if you shove all of your hard earned lucre into a focused (or even jack-of-all-trades) self-improvement program, osteoporosis sets in long before your skill-building takes on any bone marrow. In Gothic 3's Darwinian menu, you'll find your face on the list of appetizers everywhere you venture. Your position on the lower rungs of the food chain is nigh inescapable.
Be wary of allowing those adventures to stack up, as the barely functional mission log has no qualms with cutting off essential mission briefs: "Defeat the orc patrol between Redock and" … And? Even if you ignore the god-awful pixilated italics font (a jagged Times New Roman), you sometimes can't even get a complete sentence out of a menu screen.
Exit the menu screen and you've still got the just-as-jagged frame rates of the gameworld lacerating across your screen. The environments sport some inarguably gorgeous elements and some downright tangible textures, but much of it goes to waste on an unimaginative art department. The landscape is slapped together with visible laziness in its construction (the geography doesn't try to make much sense, dirt roads hit impassible vertical angles). And every character deigns to make themselves as forgettable as possible in an otherwise forgettable cast of characters. Not mentioning the fact that the character models are glued together from Lincoln Logs and stuffed inside of Michelin Man armor padding. The suits are so bulky they make it look like a visit to a head-shrinking witch doctor is just a regular part of a knighting ceremony. And every character's cocky swagger is an unwitting homage to the hustlers of 70's blaxploitation flicks … Either that, or the developers cut n' paste the pimp-limp off the cast of GTA San Andreas.
Gothic 3 has a lot of game shoved into its box for the sake of pushing quantity. And while it snags the occasional atta-boy! moment (have a seat in the defeated orc's skull-stacked throne! Cook some wolf meat over a campfire!) this amounts to little more than a junior high science project compared to average RPG packages that aim lower but hit higher. Gothic 3 is trying to scrape together an epic out of the calcified bodily fluids of The Elder Scrolls series and is only coming up with an anemic-performing clone. As far as performance is concerned, the entire disc is crawling with more bugs than A Scanner Darkly, slowing down performance to a holiday-with-the-in-laws slide show before catching its breath (if you're lucky), or unceremoniously dropping you off on your wide-eyed and bewildered desktop. Nine patches later -- and several substantial bugs still chewing away at the woodwork -- it's obvious that these technical issues are built like a fortress into the gameplay environment. If any RPG bloodline is undeserving of bearing another heir, it's the Gothic series.