Troika's next role-playing game will be based on a classic Dungeons & Dragons module. We get a hands-on look at the ongoing adventure.
Few studios have been so committed to free-form gameplay as Troika, the studio founded by three of the lead developers responsible for Fallout. That classic 1997 role-playing game and 2001's Arcanum were both built upon flexible skill and quest systems that let players choose their own path and had other characters react accordingly. While the original settings and rule systems in those games demanded an extra level of creativity from the designers, Troika's next game will be just as free-form but takes advantage of the newly revised Dungeon & Dragons 3rd Edition rules (also known as "3.5 Edition") and is faithfully based on a classic (and long-out-of-print) pen-and-paper adventure created by Gary Gygax. The Temple of Elemental Evil is entering the final stretch of a comparably short 18-month development cycle, and we've had the opportunity to play through a short section of a pre-beta version.
The Temple of Elemental Evil is a game that serious Dungeons & Dragons fans should be able to appreciate simply for the faithful re-creation of this classic module set in the world of Greyhawk. It's also the first game to use the just-released "3.5 Edition" rules, which, according to Troika's Mike McCarthy, streamline the Dungeons & Dragons setting to work well in a computer RPG. But while some familiarity with Dungeons & Dragons will make it easier to navigate the long lists of spells, skills, and feats available to you as you build a party of up to five characters, the game's interface doesn't let the details get in the way.
Even though you'll control a group of up to eight members, including a maximum of three hirelings, the mouse-driven interface is particularly easy to learn. All character actions--including various movement options, special combat abilities, thieving skills, and spells--are made available in a radial contextual menu that you can pull up at any time. Only the main categories are represented by icons, and as you move your mouse pointer over options on the circular menu, the detailed options are spelled out with text descriptions, so you don't have to remember the specific icon that represents the chain lightning spell, for instance. Even better, you can hotkey abilities for specific characters to skip a few steps, and the most basic actions, like moving and attack, can be executed with a simple left mouse-click. The interface elegantly color-codes actions so you see exactly what you can do in a turn, makes it easy to set up waypoints to avoid enemies, shows you the exact range of an area-effect spell like a fireball and who will be affected, and lets you pick targets for individual magic missiles and chain lightning bounces.
This system really seems to come into its own when combat begins. Many of the turn-based battles can be resolved quickly, but when things get tough, the fighting gets very suspenseful, and the game's wide range of advanced options seem quite welcome. The game starts your characters out at level one and limits their advancement to level 10, so individual party members won't ever get overwhelmingly powerful, at least not against the fearsome threats you'll meet. In the early level we played through, there were several encounters that were rather challenging; they rewarded careful use of team tactics and swiftly punished careless mistakes. The combat makes tactics feel important because you'll see every swing and spell that monsters send your way, and you'll flinch at the serious damage they might inflict. You might not waste time sneaking into a room to ambush a bunch of zombies, but intelligently handling a big ogre can keep you from having to reload a saved game or see a party member fall in battle.