The Wheel of Time
Windows - 1999
Description of The Wheel of Time
The Wheel Turns...
The Wheel of Time books are a long running series of immensely popular fantasy works by Robert Jordan. The story takes place in an age where various factions struggling to gain power are faced with the threat of the Dark One, a powerful evil entity trying to break out of his prison where he has been since the so-called Age of Legends (an enlightened era of unparalleled magic and accomplishments long-lost.) Jordan's epic has been transformed by Legend into an Unreal engine first person shooter that takes place in a parallel world of sorts, independent of the story in the books. You play the part of an Aes Sedai (a faction of magic wielding women, to put it bluntly) tasked to blast your way through 18 levels depicting locations from the books, tied together by a storyline that's, while not directly based upon, is clearly derived from events that have already happened in the books.
You are Elayna Sedai, Keeper of the Chronicles, the second most powerful sister (as Aes Sedai refer to each other) in the White Tower, the seat of Aes Sedai power. An assassin has just attempted, without success, to steal the two seals (there are seven magic stones called "seals" that hold the Dark One in his prison) in possession of the White Tower. He has also murdered several sisters in the process and it falls upon you to chase this man halfway across the world, the story of which is told via lengthy 3D rendered movies in between the levels. It's clear right from the start that Legend has, understandably, tried to cater to both fans and those unfamiliar with the WOT universe while telling their story.
Unfortunately, the result is a mix of simple, somewhat stale dialogue and situations that would seem rather improbable in the Wheel Of Time universe, while still being full of half-explained cryptic references for the uninitiated. It is certainly serviceable for the FPS genre, but at the same time falls short of approaching the quality that made the books a major success. Granted, translating deep intertwined plots within plots and complex characterization from the books is more difficult than tackling a, say, straightforward movie screenplay - but with a such a rich resource to draw upon, I was expecting something that would at least approach the standards set by original titles like Thief and Half Life. There are a few bright moments where the Wheel of Time heritage shines through (such as the scene where a sitter berates our heroine with "I should not have to pick up your dignity from the floor!") but these are few and far between.
But enough of the story. What about the game?
Use the One Power, Elayna!
The main difference between WOT and other shooters is the weapon system. Elayna, unlike every other sister in the tower, cannot channel the One Power (the source of all magic) "more than a trickle", as we are reminded several times through the course of the game. Status amongst Aes Sedai is all about channeling the One Power - how she could rise to such an important position without this abilitiy is explained away by saying that the Amyrlin Seat (ruler of the Aes Sedai) favors her. This is basically an understandable cop out that conveniently lets the designers bypass all the intricacies of developing a "channeling" interface, and employ spells cast via "ter'angreal", which in the game translate to objects that hold a number charges for a given spell. So instead of ammo and weapons, you collect ter'angreal.
The interesting thing is, you don't have five or ten different types of ter'angreal. You have forty. These spells are divided into nine categories, such as straight shooting, homing, self-effecting, defensive etc., and are selected via hitting the appropriate number key the required number of times or by next spell/previous spell keys. In an attempt to ease the burden of scrolling through forty spells, selecting next or previous skips between categories - when you reach the desired category, you hit the reverse direction key to pick the individual spell in that category. Try as I might, I found this system rather cumbersome, and reaching all the number keys in the heat of a battle was far from a speedy process. I wished when they decided to implement this many spells into the game, they also came up with an innovative interface to access them as you have to switch between them fairly often, especially in the multiplayer games.
The spells themselves are a mix of the fairly standard, such as heal, levitate, fireball, homing missile, various shields etc. and the innovative, such as unravel that disables all spell effects, and soul barb that inflicts pain upon your enemy each time he or she casts a spell. These are mostly taken from the books, although again some liberties have been taken to fit them into the mold of an FPS. The spell effects are nicely done, if not too spectacular. Overall, I must say that it's really refreshing to have such a wide variety of spells at your disposal. I found myself, especially early on through the game, going back trying out the same sequences, but this time employing a different combination of spells just to see if I could get better results
The Aes Sedai Gets Down and Dirty
You will encounter a variety of villains from the books: amongst them are axe throwing and sword wielding human/animal hybrid Trollocs, disappearing and reappearing Myrddraal with crossbows, the evil mist Mashadar from the cursed city Shadar Logoth, and the deadly wind Machin Shin from the Ways (think of them as interdimensional highways). Particularly worthy of note is Machin Shin - the first time I heard the lost souls howling in the wind, I started off like a headless chicken trying to get away - turning about, I couldn't find a way out in time and in my panic ran straight into it! Definitely one hell of an experience.
The monster AI is better than average, easily living up to the standards of Unreal. They will attempt to dodge your shots, react to your spells, and chase you halfway around the level. On the other hand they will occasionally get stuck at the odd places, keep shooting the walls and attack in all too predictable patterns. Spell casting enemies such as the Black Ajah put up a good fight, but the rest of the enemies are fairly easy to dispatch. Even against the Black Ajah, a quick Reflect spell, or a Fire Shield followed by a few fireballs of your own will inflict a lot of damage in a very short time. Others such as Whitecloak soldiers who can deflect your fireballs and darts via their shields and archers with their deadly accuracy are also easily handled, but eat up a lot of offensive spells.
Which brings me to difficulty levels: At medium difficulty, WOT provides a decent challenge, perhaps a bit on the easier side for the seasoned player. At hard difficulty though, you quickly run out of the most often used offensive spells, making the game really a chore later on. It seems to me that a difficulty level somewhere between the two would have been most appropriate. As it is, the medium level makes for a rather short game that can easily be completed in about four days. You cannot change difficulty in mid-game, another sore point.
Painting a Fantasy World
Aside from the multitude of spells, WOT also distinguishes itself with high quality graphics - simply some of the best indoor graphics I have ever seen. The textures and the architecture are of a very high quality and most of the drive to see the game through comes from the excellent level design. The game alternates between indoors and the outdoors and while the White Tower, Shadar Logoth and the Whitecloak fortress are excellently designed and rendered, the outdoor levels are really nothing more than your usual shallow valleys surrounded by hills. In all fairness, the exquisite detail of the indoor levels more than makes up for any shortcomings of the outdoor scenery, which at least sport some nicely drawn trees and lakes. Another bonus is that the level designs stick close to the books - the places had a very familiar and functional feel to them.
If I had to nitpick, I'd say since Legend decided not to put a crouch key in the game, they should have made an effort not to destroy the illusion of reality by providing lots of holes that the player could easily fit through, only if there were a crouch key.
The graphics take their toll though: on my P2-500 system with a TNT, the game was somewhat choppy at 800x600 (or 640x480, there was barely any difference) 32-bit color. 16 bit color was a little faster, but the light holos were ugly and blood textures were badly corrupted, so I really had no choice. I chose to disable volumetric lighting to get a smoother frame rate, which means I didn't get to enjoy the nice fog effects. Yes, the game is every bit of a hardware hog Unreal was back when it was released. There were also some minor D3D problems, such as white pixels at seams, textures that kept pulsating, and the occasional flickery texture.
It was nice to see that some interesting twists in gameplay has been interspersed with the standard "kill everyone and get to the end" levels: one involves negotiating an entire level full of traps, another has you getting in and out of the Ways avoiding Machin Shin in an attempt to reach your final destination. More significantly, one of the later levels gives you a specific objective of ambushing hordes of Trollocs - bu this very same level had a nasty bug which stopped me from saving the game during the level. If I did, the waves of Trollocs would just stop coming, leaving me stranded in the level.
Sound is a mixed bag. The music is pretty good, although at times far too cheery in the face of devastation and destruction of people and places you hold dear. The taunts of monsters get old real fast - after the tenth "I kill you!" from a Trolloc or "my blade hurts!" from the Myrddraal, you've heard enough. The ambient effects are another story entirely - they are very, very well done. The developers are obviously conscious of this, as at the first appropriately dramatic point in the game they hit you with an incredibly loud thunder that makes you jump out of your chair.
Meet new Darkfriends, and Kill Them
Multiplayer consists of two game types: Arena and the Citadel, and you can choose to be one of four different characters: the Aes Sedai, the Whitecloak, the Forsaken or the Hound.
Arena is your basic deathmatch. It's fairly enjoyable, as far as deathmatches go, because of the multitude of spells flying around. Yet, the design of the game means that you need to be able to act fairly rapidly and choose the appropriate defensive spells when faced with a given offensive spell, and I could never do it fast enough due to the lack of a comfortable interface to do so. Since the spells spawn randomly around the level, you never seem to have the defensive spells you need before you get clobbered either. There's also a general lack of servers which every FPS that's not called Quake or Tribes seems to suffer from - I could find no more than 5 or so servers with playable pings and players at one time, and even then, some of those turned out to be extremely laggy with lots of warping.
Citadel, on the other hand, is an original design: up to four teams (one for each faction) can take part and each team has a citadel with one or more seals. The first team to collect all four seals wins and many parameters such as number of teams, seals etc are adjustable. The twist is that before the game starts, you adorn your citadel with various traps, such as spears traps, pits, flattening stairs and explosives, as well as walls, portcullis and guards. These serve to slow down your enemy enough so that you have a chance to defend your citadel when they make a run for your seal(s). Your faction makes a difference here - the trap set varies for each faction, and so does the citadel design.
The catch is that this type of game requires a lot of coordination, far more than what you need in a typical game of CTF or Team Fortress. Furthermore, even with coordination, the game is liable to breakdown when there are too many players about. This is partly due to the problems with effective use of spells mentioned above and partly that with traps and three or more players in a citadel, there seems to be no way to penetrate it since dead players spawn in their own citadel. On the Internet Citadel servers are even rarer than Arena servers and if you can find one, it usually ends up with unbalanced teams as there's no provision for making sure games are balanced before they start.
As a one on one internet game (which I couldn't get going because the only one-on-one server I could see on the server list had a 500+ms ping to me) or as a small scale game on the LAN, it's a fantastic, fun game of hide and seek. But I found it hard to find suitable players to play Citadel with, because WOT s combat system is not that easy to get into without going through the entire single-player experience. If you have a small circle of enthusiastic players, Citadel might be worth it. Otherwise, I don't think it's strong enough to effect your purchasing decision.
By the way, beware that you can't run a listen server - you can run a dedicated server and the game at the same time but that resulted in unplayable, choppy performance on my machine. Keep that in mind for those two-machine home LANs.
The Million Tar Valon Coin Question
When all is said and done, WOT amounts to a well done FPS with nothing too special about it. The simplistic hit-the-switch puzzles are too familiar. Your allies (sisters and their warders), when they are available, are next to useless unless you go to the trouble of luring monsters to where they stand. Even though the level designs are realistic, your main objective in life seems to be smashing boxes to get power ups from all too irrelevant places, or searching for corpses in hope of discovering ammo nearby. There's not much logic to where the monsters are stationed or what their purpose could be other than beating the living daylights out of you, entrances open and close with no reason other than to force you through a linear path...etc etc.
There's a very real sense of "been there, done that before", despite the coolness of seeing places and characters from the books come alive - which, in itself, is balanced by story elements you'd never expect to happen in the books. Overall, I enjoyed the game's few high moments and exquisite level designs for a while. However, after only three days of play, I was getting bored and seriously considering giving up and taking another shot at the last two levels of Thief that I never got through instead. The story just doesn't draw you in and the action never really picks up.
Wheel of Time fans will want to see it just for the beautiful depiction of their favorite locations and get devoured by Machin Shin if nothing else. It will also appeal to small LAN groups of fantasy gamers with dedicated players. But most of all, this is really a game for the Hexen / Heretic fan who wants a little more variety in his spells and has a really beefy system to run it on. On the other hand, if you were expecting the game to be as special in the FPS category as the books are in the fantasy genre, you might be disappointed.
Review By GamesDomain
Captures and Snapshots
Comments and reviews
nik 2021-05-02 -1 point
but ut doesnt come with tinkering manual or instructions. how am i supposed to learn how to do that?
Daisy1968 2021-03-22 1 point
This is indeed a very good and sometimes very scary fps game based on the Unreal Engine.
I played this masterpiece on my AMD K6-2/400Mhz and Voodoo 2 - 12 MB and/or Savage 4 Pro - 32MB
This is still today a top game !
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