Two Worlds II – hands-on

Next time you’re listening to a Kate Bush album, imagine her singing in the voice of an East European who, through no fault of his own, isn’t very good at English. Then, imagine that the lyrics to Wuthering Heights were “Your hungry and warm temper resembles my jealousy”. That was the first and insurmountable obstacle that stood in the way of Two Worlds gaining any serious mass appeal. That and the fact it was released at the same time as Oblivion, which – in stark contrast – had Patrick Stewart coughing up thespian velvet into your lugholes.

Topware and Reality Pump have learned their lesson. The Polish devs are now focusing where their peculiar strengths lie – the development of the Grace Engine. Mirek Dymek is the technical director, and the Americans at Topware talk about him in awed tones. From the reverential talk of his extreme coding skills, you’d expect an emotionally reclusive savant – so when Mirek finally enters the room, it’s a relief to see a smiling, big-faced gentlemen with a charming line in self-deprecation and a down-to-earth attitude to prostitution (“While I can get it without paying for it, I will.”)

So, there’s plenty of eye-glazing talk about dynamic light sources, 3D surfaces and polygons – but even a casual glance at the screen confirms that considerable work has been done on the old girl. Stone walls look like they’re made of tangible rocks, and they like to flout Health and Safety by suspending flaming torches from chains, at a height that allows you to bump into it. “Look!” you can almost imagine them saying, “that’s dynamic lighting and physics ON SCREEN AT THE SAME TIME!”

Meanwhile, the script and plot has been moved completely to America, where producer Scott Cromie commands his team with eloquent passion. Quizzed on his own gaming preferences, he cites emotional twists like Aeris’ death in Final Fantasy VII, and Sony-exclusive button-tapper Heavy Rain as being his areas of interest, and promises similar shocks and engaging storylines in store for players of Two Worlds II. HisHollywood movie sensibility and gaming passion can’t hurt the Two World’s storyline – although, in the case of Heavy Rain, we’d hope for a little more interactivity.

The story takes place as the villain of the first game, Gandohar, returns to the world. A battle rages outside the castle, as you’re thrown into a dungeon. As Gandohar is ignorant of the fact that dungeons are famous settings for escape tutorials, you promptly break out with the assistance of a female Orc called Dar Pha. Fans will know that Two Worlds is named after the conflict of Orcs and Humans, so this is an early sign that the old boundaries are soon to shift – not only that, but you’re taken to meet an old enemy.

One thing that’s looking easier to grasp is combat. Another weak point of the original, it’s looking more tactile now, with your development along the three classes of Mage, Archer and Swordsman open as you progress, and you can quickly swap between three outfits to suit different tasks, whichencourages you to take a balanced path. Purists can still specialise,but reassign their points later if they’ve levelled down a blind alley.

The stacking system of the first game, which allowed you to bind a hundred daggers together to make a really kick-ass dagger, has been replaced by a system of disassembly into raw materials that can upgrade your favourite weapon. It still doesn’t make physical sense, but in terms of gameplay, it means everything you find could have a use.

Meanwhile, a lot of the fundamentals of the world are the same – spellcasting and potions are still a matter of combining items you find in the world. Spellcasting involves placing cards into an amulet, and Cromie describes the deep flexibility of the system. Add the projectile properties of a missile card to the elemental fire card, and you’ve got yourself an everyday fireball. Add heat-seeking, and it’ll become a homing fireball. Add multi-blast, and the effect will multiply. Then it gets weird: add necromancy, and you’ll conjure a zombie who spits out loads of heat-seeking fireballs. The only limitsare your ability to cast complex spells and your mana reserves. Can it work as well as they say? Well, if you can’t imagine how something might work in a game, there’s always a possibility that it won’t.

Still, there’s so much positive progress on display that Topware and Reality Pump should get the benefit of the doubt. They’ve not only acknowledged their mistakes, they’ve taken huge and identifiable steps to fix them, and Two Worlds II is looking like it deserves serious attention.

Feb 18, 2010