Gothic II returns players to Khorinis, but the magical barrier around the mines has been removed and players are free to explore the entire island of Myrtana. A civil war rages between the ex-convicts, the militia, and the evil orcs. Three different guild factions -- the paladins, the mages, and the dragonslayers -- exist, and players must choose only one. The economy in Gothic II is depressed and, with merchants demanding outrageous prices for weapons, players may choose to forge their own blades and save money. The developers at Piranha Bytes focused on improving the AI of non-player characters -- monsters present more of a challenge in Gothic II -- and drastically changed the thief system. Pickpockets can be very successful, but the risks are greater. Much like Gothic, the NPCs in Gothic II remember how players behave and react accordingly. Players experience a world where every decision has consequences.
A huge part of the fun of a good role-playing game is "leveling up" -- improving your character's skills and stats, buying new weapons and armor, and trying them out in the field. An RPG that keeps those perks coming steadily (without ever becoming too easy) is an entertaining game. When they're too few-and-far between, it can be a slog. That's Gothic II's biggest problem: it's simply slow going. You begin the game as the same hero-without-a-name from the original Gothic, but your ordeal has left you weak and without weapons or armor -- in other words, a typical first-level RPG character. You'll have to rebuild the hero from scratch to get to the game's good stuff, and that can take quite a while.
New levels are scarce, especially in the first several hours of the game. That's largely because it's hard to come by monsters your weakened hero can handle; you have to avoid the tougher ones, and you eventually reach a point where you've killed most of the weaker ones and have to spend considerable time just hunting for more.
To make matters worse, your character doesn't improve a whole lot with each new level; your stats and skills don't increase at all. Instead, you get a handful of additional hit points, plus ten learning points you can spend augmenting your strength, dexterity, and mana or acquiring new skills by training with non-player characters you'll encounter. Those ten points don't go very far when it costs five to make any significant advance in any given stat.
Better equipment is hard to come by, too, and moving up to an improved weapon isn't just a matter of having the gold to buy it; it also means spending learning points to augment your strength or agility before you can even equip it, and that means leveling up. The armor situation is even worse -- you can't take it off defeated enemies, and except in rare situations, nobody sells the stuff. You get better armor by advancing in your class and earning the armor associated with your new status. All of this can lead to frustration as you're struggling to level up. You'll find yourself wishing you had better weapons and armor and knowing you're a long way from either.
Combat takes place in real-time, and that adds another layer of difficulty. The action doesn't stop when you access your inventory menu, so the enemy just keeps on attacking while you frantically try to select and use a much-needed item (this is made even more difficult by the bizarre lack of a mouse cursor; you have to select items with the arrow keys). You can assign hotkeys to healing scrolls and spells, but not to potions, so if your character is a fighter with no spells and little mana to spend using scrolls, it's essentially impossible to heal your character during a fight. It can be a dodgy proposition even for a magic user, since even switching to a scroll or spell via hotkeys can take deadly seconds.
The upshot is that you have little choice when a battle turns ugly but to run for your life and hope the enemy isn't very fast or determined; otherwise, you'd better have a recent save to fall back to. You end up avoiding any fight you're not sure you can win, which takes some of the excitement out of the game and further slows the process of building your character.
Gothic II does have its good points. All the dialogue in the game is spoken, and the voice acting is generally decent, with the handful of bad performances or cornball accents coming from minor characters. Graphics range from average to very good; some character models and animations are weak, but the game's environments and items are sharp and detailed.
Gameplay is open-ended, and a given challenge will often have more than one solution. Early in the game, for example, you're asked to come back with proof that you've slain a particularly dangerous monster. The obvious way to get the proof is to find him and kill him -- but you'll have to gain a bunch of levels and acquire much better gear before you can do that. Fortunately, there's another way to get your hands on "proof" that you've done the deed; it doesn't even require getting within shouting distance of the beast, and you still get a nice chunk of experience points.
Unfortunately, the game's clever touches are overshadowed by its more frustrating elements. Finishing Gothic II can take 50 hours, give or take, but that's less an indication of an epic scope than it is of the game's slow pace.
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