arket a game with an uneven plot, perfunctory characterization or repetitive gameplay, but designed so that it offers a dumbfounding, ten-hour sensory experience — and you have a Game of the Year. Market a game that forgoes advanced graphics and a large production budget, has an interface that is more traditional than modern and therefore inconvenient while, unfortunately, failing to reliably keep a promised feature — and you have the Polish-developed roleplaying game Two Worlds, its receptions outside of the European continent having been, at their mildest, doubtful.
The game's lot might have been set when somebody called Two Worlds "the Oblivion-killer." Like the fourth title in Bethesda Softworks' Elder Scrolls series that was released in March 2006, Two Worlds is a "sandbox RPG," in which a player's customized adventurer-hero explores a vast, navigably continuous fantasy realm, able to spend tens of hours on the many invitations to derring-do and affiliate's prestige that accompany a central, eponymous quest. It's big stuff. In Oblivion, one defends the living world suddenly variolate with portals from a Hieronymous Bosch-styled hell; in Two Worlds, from a reawakening god of war.
Reality Pump, the production house for Two Worlds, tried to match or at least had in mind the essence of Bethesda's work. But Oblivion was, whether or not owing to Bethesda's broader experience in fantasy game-making, better in every immediate way. Two Worlds, with its richness and even an appealing touch of Conan, lacks Oblivion's charm, that combination of aesthetic effects and presentation that captivates most onlookers — more than one friend of a player has admitted "I've been thinking about Oblivion since you introduced me to it."
More problematic for the game, especially at its debut, has been its apparent lack of polish, of sophistication. The visual and atmospheric mise-en-scène of Two Worlds only partly meets the standard expected, through example, by consumers and reviewers — who, perhaps understandably, have construed the game as dated or crude. The level of detail reminds one of Knights of the Old Republic — not ugly, but plainly artificial, and anyway part of the last console generation. With an interface that seemed rough next to any game released over the last few years, Two Worlds entered the world's markets at a disadvantage.
Technical problems likely wrecked Two Worlds' chances. Even with apparently simpler environments the game moves along with tiring animation delays, even more persistent than the constant loading that Oblivion occasionally required. The price paid by Reality Pump to obviate Bethesda's loading screens was a game that seldom runs smoothly. Worse, and without excuse, the item of distinction in Two Worlds, online multiplayer, is as of publication so burdened by network lag that it is choppy with two players, unstable with three and unimaginable with more — let alone the specified capacity of eight!
Now: a middling game is still a game worth something to someone. It isn't easy to outdo Bethesda Softworks. Two Worlds is not worth full price, but it is reasonable at a twenty- or thirty-dollar discount. What happened in the press is left to interpretation, though it looks as if Two Worlds passed a threshold, below which it would receive scores from American and Anglosphere reviewers at about half the average European rating; and that the game would not actually be reviewed but instead an impression thereof simply ridiculed. What readers got were comedy routines: many articles borrowing inaccurate descriptions of Two Worlds from another, some writers admitting to having played the game for a haltingly brief time.
Two Worlds was judged for limitations of the entire genre. Any flaw was magnified. There was mock surprise and disgust over Harold Faltermeyer, a pop composer, writing a power ballad for the game's opening titles. One reviewer guffawed at a horse-mounting animation that automatically shifted a character to the left side of the horse — when exactly the same happened in Oblivion. Others have denigrated Two Worlds' difficulty for beginners, its acting and its writing.
Combat in the game — the foundation for any RPG's action — has been dismissed in many reviews as facile, descriptions being those of "button-mashing" or use of the "same button over and over again." There is the basic strike, elaborated by repeated depress, and a lateral retreat functioning as a dodge — hardly different from Oblivion. Pressing and holding the trigger executed a lunging attack, and characters could use a weapon or shield to block.
Beyond that, Two Worlds could be criticized for being more complicated than its Bethesda counterpart. Diligent weapon specialization in Oblivion allowed for a chance first to disarm, then stagger, then eventually stun; the latter ability usually obtained at high level. In Two Worlds, combat skills are acquired as soon as money is delivered to trainers. The skills can then be mapped to the D-pad and used per circumstance and armament: a blinding arrow, berserking, shield-pull, sword-break, torch-burn, pirouette, defensive stance, dirty trick, multiple arrowshot, arrow-pierce, and a hamstringing feint. One, two, five — ten, not counting the moves duplicating Oblivion's. Where did the idea of one button come from? Not the game.
Voice-acting isn't "terrible" so much as it is lackluster. None of the actors sound as if on the wrong end of a microphone; voices in Two Worlds are broadcast quality. Where a couple prominent ones fall short is theatrical ability — miscasting, deleteriously so. Some recorded lines are audibly over-compressed, too, contributing to their awkwardness. But one actor skillfully deploys both Scottish and Irish brogues. Another succeeds in playing weird, oracular priests and wizards. The main character's delivery is like that of a staid, embattled comic-book protagonist: unpopular, yet of a certain taste.
Compare this to Oblivion, where performances of the pair of actors portraying Redguard characters were, despite strong radio voices, vapid. Some even make a persuasive argument for Bethesda's not asking Lynda "Wonder Woman" Carter to return for the next Elder Scrolls. Dramatic talent in video games is subject to the same constraints of that in film and television, time and money determinants in how rich or seasoned a cast can be assembled.
Two Worlds is not, to that end, failed by its writing, and it is a puzzling departure from reality insofar as most reviews panned the game's dialogue. Maybe as much could be said if one were to give up on Two Worlds shortly after watching the introduction — the opening sequence, inexplicably, is much lower in quality that anything else in the game. It is bad. Bardolatry — excess in Shakespearean dialect, its nay and prithee and verily — does make many exchanges, throughout the game, leaden. Still, most of the dialogue is inconspicuous, some of it quite good. Particularly, a lot of lines spoken by members of a league of thieves, the Giriza, are deft and entertaining.
Again, a comparison clarifies. Two Worlds' writers avoided modern vernacular enough to spare players the distracting contemporary language heard everywhere in Oblivion. Who gives "customers" the "lowest prices in Cyrodiil"? Why, Edgar of Edgar's Discount Spells, the most resplendent of dozens of anachronisms in a game whose immersion creators otherwise spent years trying to perfect. Close shut the jaws of Oblivion! — so bombastic that it would only have fit in the elocution of Patrick Stewart.
Is Two Worlds enjoyable? Yes, though only if one resists conflating the game's aesthetics with its mechanics. It isn't one to rush out for unless RPGs are a favorite, but it is not the game derided in reviews. Can the press be given a score? It wouldn't be high. Whatever the faults of Reality Pump and publisher SouthPeak, neither company deserved misinformation about a product, or the poor work responsible for it.