The character creation does not involve any randomness. You are given 65 or so skill points to allocate between the various skills. Some skills are fundamental abilities like Strength and Intelligence and some are more particular, like Tool use or Cave lore. As with any skill system some skills are really useful and some others are of questionable usefulness. Hardness reduces any damage inflicted to you, but with Defense you can avoid being hit altogether. With tool use, you can pick locks, but you might as well increase you Magic skill and cast the Unlock Door spell. Cave lore lets you avoid wilderness encounters, but I would rather not avoid them, to get the experience points. There’s a first aid skill that is redundant with the priest spell of healing.
Which brings me to the next point: there are no restrictions on what skills a character can acquire. The result: all your characters will become jack-of-all-trades, each making use of the best skills. You can have a magician that’s as strong and resistant as a boxer, and a priest who can also pick locks and cast wizard spells. In my opinion that’s not a good thing. The game doesn’t feel as if each character puts his very own contribution, rather as if all the characters are nearly identical.
As a tactical consideration, why would any of the characters invest a great deal of skill points into melee weapons, when they could invest in magic and get spells that can damage or kill several enemies at the same time and from a distance? If you do invest in the magic (or priest) skill at the beginning, you will automatically receive the spells corresponding to your skill level. As a result, you could start the game with some of the best spells, which are actually rather hard to find in-game. I suggest starting with Mage 8 to get the Lighting Spray spell and Priest 1 to get the Healing spell. The only skills that seem really worthy of receiving points are endurance, mage spells, priest spells and intelligence. You can always increase the combat skills after you've increased magic and priest to around 18.
By contrast, in D&D, wizards are a class – they come with both advantages and disadvantages; you can’t “cherry pick” their best abilities; and the better spells come only as you gain levels. They can’t cast healing spells, making a cleric necessary, and they can’t fight properly, making a fighter necessary.
Another thing Avernum allows is Talents – you can select two special talents that help or hinder your character while reducing or increasing the experience points you get from fighting. The positive talents seemed to reduce experience so much that the game becomes a grind. The negative talents really helped remove the grinding aspect, making fights more rewarding.
How the environment is represented
The game’s resolution is 800x600. In this resolution the characters look very small – I believe that the graphics would actually have been better in a lower resolution as you would then be able to examine details more easily.
Everything is represented with 2D isometric tiles, but there are two modes, the town/dungeon mode and the world map mode. In both modes characters move one tile at a time, without animation. However, that’s actually a good thing, you get used to it and it makes the game very quick and responsive.
Like ADOM, the game stays in turn-based mode both in the world map and the town mode and regardless of whether you’re involved in a fight. You move by a square, then other citizens all move by a square. Then it’s your turn again.
In the world map mode, the party is represented as four tiny figures – a great way of representing the immensity of the place. The same technique was used in Albion – the party was represented by tiny figures while exploring the world map. In Avernum, groups of monsters roaming the wilderness are also represented with tiny figures which you can spot from far away. When your group meets their group, the game switches to dungeon mode and combat ensues.
You use the mouse to move around – left button to move fast, right to go step by step. To detect a secret door, you must try to move into a wall (if you find a building or place that you can’t access easily, look for a secret door on the area’s border). Keyboard shortcuts allow you to initiate a dialogue or spell casting. The interface is pretty good in my opinion, excepted the following elements:
- “look” command: in order to check the content of a box, drawer, cupboard, etc, you must first push L then click on the item in question; then you click again to close the drawer; then repeat if there were other containers to check. That might sound simple, but it’s clunky. A single click on whatever you want to examine ought to do the trick.
- “start combat” command: you must push “f” to start combat when exploring a dungeon and “e” to stop combat. It would be much better to automatically turn on combat mode when a hostile creature is getting close to you, and automatically revert to “exploration mode” when there are no more enemies present.
- spell casting: keyboard shortcuts for the most frequently used spells would have been nice.
Turn-based + Party = interesting combat
In my opinion, combat is the most interesting part of this game. That is good because combat is what the party will do most of the time. You will fight bandits, goblins, magical spiders, zombies, skeletons, cat creatures, lizard creatures, evil wizards and many other creature types. On a character’s round you can move by up to four squares, you can cast one spell, or attack one or two times.
Moving away from an adjacent enemy triggers an attack from that enemy, a bit like a D&D attack of opportunity.
Combat does get confusing sometimes:
- When there are many opponents involved – wizards on both sides of a battle could summon skeletons and there would be no easy way of knowing which creatures are allied to you and which are hostile.
- When the computer moves several opponents (too) quickly – in this case it’s hard to know just who did what.
There are quite a lot of combat spells and most of them have nice animated effects. Once you have defeated an enemy group, you can pick up any part of their gear, including their swords and armour.
NPCs and quests
I thought NPCs were quite unremakable – they say their piece, you can ask one or two questions, if you missed something you can restart the dialogue and the NPC will again say the same thing.
A very few NPCs will give you quests and missions, but you really do not get much guidance in the game. You are free to go anywhere you like, at least until a group of monsters stronger than you blocks the party’s advance. Overall I’d say the game probably gives too much freedom and not enough guidance as to what should be done next, or in which order places should be visited. The game world is huge. Some places are accessible only by rowing a boat. Also, just like a Super Mario game, many (too many?) places are accessible only by spotting a secret passage.
One thing I don’t really like about the NPCs is that the ones that offer services you want (like identification, selling spells or buying equipment) are scattered around the various cities. You can’t find them all in one place so you always have to move back and forth between the cities. Also, in some areas (cave of friendly spiders and most cities) there are a lot of non-essential NPCs, making it rather tedious to find those who are essential to the game’s progression.
The starting missions include an attack on a fort occupied by bandits (where you must defeat their leader, a wizard) and attacks on Nephilim (cat-like creatures) fortresses. These missions are hack-and-slash but the design is smart. For example, the main entrance of one of the nephilim fortresses is guarded by soldiers who will pour boiling oil on the party when it passes the gate. Once the party has cleared the fortress’ first floor it will get a chance to destroy the mechanism, making the entrance safe.
Avernum versus Geneforge and Pool of Radiance
The last few weeks, I’ve been trying to play several old games, including SSI’s Pool of Radiance and Spiderweb’s Avernum. Avernum is superior to Pool of Radiance, in my opinion. Avernum has a much better interface than Pool and it does not force you to draw all the maps on paper. However, both games offer interesting turn-based combats and good character development. In both games, the quality of graphics does not hurt enjoyment of the game.
I also tried Spiderweb’s Geneforge long ago and now I can compare it to Avernum. The problem of Geneforge is that you control only one main character, plus whatever creatures that you create using your special powers. Playing four characters created at the beginning is much more interesting. Also, Geneforge had more than four character slots, making combat slower and tedious at times since you need to give orders to each of your creatures.
Comparing Avernum 1 to Neverwinter 2, a crazy idea?
Not at all. In my opinion, NWN2’s strong points are the D&D ruleset and the nice graphics. Some might say that NWN2 is also good for the way it represented player characters like the dwarf and the tiefling.
However, Avernum 1 is better than Neverwinter 2 in some ways. Avernum 1 gives you a sense of freedom that you do not get with NWN2. In NWN2, the party is systematically pushed along the predetermined storyline by the designers. You are the Kalatch’ka, the unique, NPCs are so enthralled by your personality that they freely join you and when you don’t need them, they quietly stay at the inn waiting for your next command. You must help Neverwinter, and don’t get it in your head to ever visit Luskan.
In Avernum it’s the opposite. No one cares what you do, you are a nobody until proven otherwise. Of course in the end it leads to a single storyline, because hostile races remain hostile to your human group no matter what you do; but the maps don’t force you to remain in “safe” areas until you’ve completed them.
There are other things that in my opinion are better in Avernum. Combat being turn-based means that you can actually understand and control how a fight turns out, unlike Neverwinter’s real-time-with-pause system, which more often than not means that you will just be watching your characters swing left and right without any input from you.
Unlike NWN2, Avernum doesn’t take 10 minutes to start a game, it’s immediate. And you don’t watch cut-scenes, you’re always in control of the action.