The Wheel of Time
When Epic Megagames licensed the Unreal engine to all and sundry, cynical PC gamers the world over braced themselves for a flood of formulaic 3D shoot 'em ups, similar to that which followed Doom. However, if the likes of Klingon: Honour Guard can prove such cynics wrong, the forthcoming Wheel Of Time should have them begging forgiveness for their doubt.
Wheel of Time is an ambitious, first-person action/strategy hybrid based on the series of fantasy novels by Robert Jordan. Set in a world, which like many fantasy creations is full of guttural names and tall men with long swords, the story has you striving to gain control of the Seals (secure bonds rather than cute things with flippers), that hold the evil Dark One in check.
The single-player mode puts you into the doublet and hose of Elayna, female sorceress extraordinaire and member of the brown Ajah (a sect devoted to the gathering of knowledge, rather than the result of a hard night on the curry).
Forced to become leader of the Aes Sedai (chief sorceress), she is the only one who can stand against the forces of the Dark One. Fortunately, she has an array of powerful, offensive and defensive 'ter'angreal' (magic) to call upon, from fireballs and disguise spells to earth tremors.
What this means in gaming terms is a huge and involving adventure that has the potential to combine the atmosphere of Thief: The Dark Project with a pinch of Dungeon Keeper-style strategy and a subtle RPG flavour.
Jordan's universe is complex and involving, promising a huge amount of detailed locations to explore. Designer Glen Dahlgren promises, "a game that combines the clean immersive experience of Quake with real depth and a storyline".
Like any game worth its salt nowadays, Wheel Of Time comes replete with a multiplayer option. However, this won't be some half-arsed deathmatch bolted on at the last minute. Rather, options will be broadened to allow you to play as any of Elayna's adversaries: the Children of Light, the mysterious Hound or the nasty evil Forsaken.
This is where strategy will come to the fore, as you get to use the in-built citadel editor to surround your Seal with enough troops and traps to deter the unwanted intruders before sallying out to pillage your neighbours.
As if all of this wasn't enough, Wheel Of Time will use a new version of the Unreal engine to keep things licking over. In addition to all the lovely stuff that made Epic's, er, epic such a looker (24-bit colour, multiple dynamic light sources, real moving/rotating brushes, among other things), developers Legend have added a new particle system for those all-important explosions and smoke, and some cool rain, snow and wind effects.
Add that to all the multiplayer tweaks and updates made for Unreal Tournament and you're going to be looking at something pretty special. Gird your loins...
Why is it that a game combining the rich fantasy worlds of Richard Jordan and the power of the Unreal engine is, well, a bit nondescript? It's a difficult one to get your head around. Here we have a story from one of the best fantasy writers of modern times, one that millions across the world have read and enjoyed. It's brought to life via one of the finest 3D graphics engines ever made. For most of the game, it's superbly presented: the indoor locations are especially grand, after each mission you are treated to some of the best cut-scenes ever seen and while playing the game your trigger finger is permanently poised and your mind engaged. The puzzles are challenging and the atmosphere creepy, with some beautiful pyrotechnics and a range of spells even Merlin himself would be hard pushed to conjure up. And yet I can honestly say that at no point while playing The Wheel Of Time did my jaw drop or adrenaline fill my hardened veins.
For all its many impressive features, it didn't quite gel together. It felt like just another first-person action game. No, I'll rephrase that, it felt like I was playing Unreal all over again. It's all down to the goddamn Al. Hurl a fireball at the feet of an oncoming Trolloc (I feel a pun coming on) and he'll quickly slide aside in that typical Unrea fashion. Not a good start then.
Never Mind The Trollocs
Inconsistency is the problem with Wheel Of Time. Due care has indeed been lavished on many parts of the game, yet the gameplay side of things seems to have been brushed over. As an example, in one level early in the game, you find yourself exploring a beautifully decorated castle.
One of the finest rooms ever seen in any game lies within, and yet its only purpose in the game is so that you can stock up on a few spell ingredients. You could be walking through some areas without ever noticing the grand ceilings or fanned buttresses. It all seems a bit wasteful.
Unlike most 3D shooters, with their 10 generic weapons, Wheel Of Time gives you 40 spells, or Ter'angreal. Starting oft with a powerful and unlimited air-guff, you eventually find fireballs, darts, decay spells and seekers. Not all the spells are offensive in nature either, the ability to detect traps soon finds its way into your repertoire, as does the ability to swap places with creatures behind locked doors. Later on you can summon Champions, disguise yourself as one of the enemy, or summon a whirlwind to throw creatures to their doom. While all these effects look fine and dandy and have a purpose throughout the game, the enemies you encounter look far too generic, even comical. By far the most spine-chilling beastie you encounter is an ethereal mist that snakes towards you.
Two In One
Developers Legend Entertainment (who are now working on Unreal 2), have always said that Wheel Of Time was 'two games in one' -single and multiplayer. The multiplayer game is indeed separate and varied. As well as your traditional deathmatch levels, the one new variant is the Citadel game. In this you begin in your own castle, with the aim being to steal a predefined number of Seals from your opponents. Before starting you can set traps, build walls and station a number of creatures to defend your base, while you go out in search of treasure. It reminded me of a 3D rendition of Magic & Mayhem. I won't even pretend to have tried it online as at the bme of writing the game isn't out to find anyone to play against, but in the office we had a blast. Basically, it's different and highly original. You can even build your own citadels with the built-in editor. For sure, if Wheel Of Time does catch on, it'll be on this feature alone.
Challenging and engrossing for the most part, playing Wheel Of rime is like playing a computer game rather than taking part in a convincing drama where you feel you are in another world. While the multiplayer game is original and pleasantly diverting, it's certainly not enough to recommend the game above what must surely be the best fantasy action game currently available - Heretic II. If we had some convincing-looking and more intelligent monsters, the singleplayer game would certainly have been a lot more enjoyable. Robert Jordan fans will find enough to keep them going, the hardcore on the other hand, are sure to be a little disappointed.
Download The Wheel of Time
PC compatible, P-100
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features:Single game mode
The Wheel of Time Screenshots and Media
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