Geneforge 2 is the new blood in Spiderweb Software's shareware ranks, the role-playing sequel to 2002's critically lauded Geneforge that dishes up more monsters, eighty-four new areas, and a completely new story. Geneforge was an intensely plot-driven trek through over seventy distinct locations that mixed science with fantasy and hooked gamers the world over with its deceptively simple, sophisticated gameplay. Sporting the same engine and interface, Geneforge 2 is Spiderweb's second expedition into the inventive world of the shapers, a mysterious sect of substance manipulators. Yes, this game gives new meaning to the phrase "visually joyless," but if you can get past the primeval graphics (nostalgically charming at times), you will lose many days and nights to this one.
Punch up the game and you're treated to a bit of coaching that takes you quickly through the act of creating a character. As in Geneforge, there are three professions to choose from: shaper (magic user), guardian (fighter), or agent (a mix of both). The unadorned yet elegant system lets you distribute skill points between strength, dexterity, intelligence, and endurance attributes, as well as combat, magic, shaping, and general categories, including stats like melee weapons and battle magic, mechanics and luck.
After a few stylish story pages, you're dropped into a building and led through basic how-to exercises. You start as a shaper apprentice to an agent named Shanti (the game distinguishes between the general order of shapers, and its sub-professions). You've both been asked to investigate a failed colony called Drypeak, where shapers are unable to conjure creatures or plants capable of surviving in the hostile environment. Several years ago, two shapers set out to resuscitate the dying colony, but haven't been heard from since (cue creepy Ed Wood music). Your initial mission: get the skinny on the colony, and send back a report.
From here, the game becomes a sort of sophisticated "hunt the wumpus," as you explore areas one by one, clearing out monsters, accruing experience, and solving quests along the way. While the underlying skill system is more complex than, say, Diablo, the general feel of things is much the same as you rapidly clear out automap "black space" and clean up infested areas before moving on to new ones. Combat is turn-based, which if you've chosen the shaper profession can get quite tactically complex, as your melee weaknesses are offset by the seasoned ability to summon several creations of varying statistical power configured according to your essence and creation skill levels.
About one-quarter of the way into the story, Geneforge 2 suddenly opens up considerably, taking a cue from games like Gothic and allowing you to join various factions, which in turn shape the outcome of the story. You can, in fact, elect not to join any faction and simply go after the bad guys on your own, which is very cool stuff considering that (a) this is shareware, (b) most-big budget role-playing games today are linear sheep in eye-catching wolf's clothing, and (c) this is shareware.
What makes Geneforge 2 work is Spiderweb's familiarity with the same kind of mechanics that turned gaming series like Ultima and Wizardry into legends. The formula that Mr. Vogel and Co. have mastered here is, as before, how to combine fast-paced exploration with smart surprises that keep you guessing. Do yourself a favor and try this game.
People who downloaded Geneforge 2 have also downloaded:
Geneforge, Geneforge 3, Fate, Elder Scrolls, The: Daggerfall, Forgotten Realms: Demon Stone, Gothic, Heretic Kingdoms: The Inquisition, Elder Scrolls, The: Arena
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