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Wheel of Time, Legend, 1999
Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series has been dominating fantasy circles for many years now. It has every single element ever conceived of as fantastical, thrown together in one melange, along with the kitchen sink, Arthurian legend, Frank Herbert's Dune, Guy Kay, not to mention Tolkien, and innumerable other ripped-off sources. Unfortunately, this means the series has no real direction, no consistent tone, and no originality. Worse, the Wheel of Time series doesn't ever end, and most of the recent events bring back enemies once thought dead. From a critical point of view, there's not much on offer, but the merchandising possibilities are tempting. So it was interesting to examine the computer game Wheel of Time from Legend. Would it live up to scrutiny of Jordan's fanatic devotees? Would it be a good game?
The answers are maybe and no. I actually haven't heard much of what fans of the books think of the game, which is a surprise considering the vocality of that fan base. But I've played the game and it does little to reassure fans or non-fans of its quality. Wheel of Time offers standard gameplay in the majority of the game, and the elements that attempt to break out of convention fail miserably. Some of the art portrays Jordan's world nicely, but it's all sterile and a little boring.
The game is set much before Jordan's series, which eliminates any chance of messing with the unfinished storyline of the books. You play the Amyrlin Seat, leader of the Aes Sedai, a powerful group of female magicians. The Aes Sedai are hated by the Whitecloaks, a group of religious fanatics who believe the Aes Sedai are in league with the Dark One. But all of the creatures of the Dark hate the Aes Sedai as well because they know that the Aes Sedai are one of the few groups standing between them and their plan to destroy everyone. The story begins with you trying to track down an assassin who is carrying an important ter'angreal.
Ter'angreal are magical items, and in Jordan's series, they were one of a kind items which augmented or changed in some way the access the characters had to the True Power. Here, Legend makes the set-up more computer-game-like by making the Amyrlin Seat dependent on ter'angreal, and saying that she has no connection to the True Power. It makes the game much more conventional, because you have to collect these items and they are stashed in various parts of the levels. Which is just as ridiculous as finding ammo and health made for humans lying around as you invade an alien base in any of the other first-person shooter games. The ter'angreal are not just big guns though; there are various offensive and defensive items, which work together in tactical ways. A Fire shield will stop a Fire attack from a magical enemy, for example. But the main part of the game mostly involves getting better and better offensive weapons, just like any other FPS game.
In fact there was only one shining moment in Wheel of Time with regard to the ter'angreal, and it was something well worth mentioning. As you approach a Whitecloak fortress, you come up to a wall that blocks off access to the valley which holds the fortress. You can climb the wall but there's no way through it or over it. You can see the fortress and a walkway on the second or third floor, which has some alarm gongs but no Whitecloak soldiers. The only way to gain access to the fortress: shoot a dart or other projectile at the alarm gongs, then when some Whitecloaks come out to investigate, shoot a fancy trade-places ter'angreal. Of course you have just arrived in an angry hornet's nest...
Multiplayer tries to make up for the general lack of tactical use of the ter'angreal in the single player. Unfortunately, the single player game is not much training for the multiplayer element, and Legend did not include any support for bots (they use the Unreal engine but not the Unreal bots). Writing AI code for bots to use the 40 or so ter'angreal properly might not be easy, but the way things stand now, the newbies who go online are slaughtered instantly by people they cannot even touch. Maybe I'm just giving away too much about my own lack of skill, but I wasn't very motivated to stick it out when the multiplayer experience was no fun and single player wasn't giving me the necessary practice. Worse, before a later patch, Wheel of Time multiplayer needed a dedicated server to run, so if you wanted to just run around a map to see where all the good items were, you were out of luck if didn't have your own personal computer network.
Wheel of Time tries to transcend its FPS roots in another way, by adding the aforementioned story. The Amyrlin Seat single-handedly defeats almost all of the foes that go on to plague the large cast of characters in Jordan's series, so that's a bit of a lark. But the cutscenes are also a lark, in the sense that they're a bad joke that you have to laugh at to somehow survive the melodrama and bad voice-acting. There was one nice scene where the Hound fools Sammael, but even that was predictable from the very beginning when we deduce what happened to the Amyrlin Seat's connection to the True Power. And of course the ending itself has to conform to what Jordan picks up with in the books, so no surprises there. Overall, a disappointing game.
Last modified: September 4, 2000
Copyright © 2000 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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