Game of Thrones had the misfortune of going up against May’s heavy hitters on its release day. This would probably be bad enough for the poor little game, but Diablo 3 and Max Payne 3 are both games people have been waiting decades for. It’s starting off in a really, really bad position; something in keeping with the downtrodden nature of the game and its narrative. Things are grim for the game’s heroes right from the start, and just as grim for the people who hope to make any money from the game’s sales. In a week when you have to be amazing to sell a game, Game of Thrones manages to be all right at best.
It’s presentation isn’t doing it any favors. Once you’re past the opening screen, it’s impossible to ignore just how ugly this game looks. In the first few seconds, you get to see a map of the world covered in small trinkets, all of which are made up of the biggest pixels I’ve ever seen. You can see huge blocks of color on the surface of every item, something that had me worried. The game gets a little better after that by not zooming in so close on anything ever again, but the characters and locales still all look like something from the PS2 era. Everything is just really blocky; looking like the game was forgotten in some warehouse and released seven years after it was actually finished.
That problem isn’t all that bad from far away, but this game loves to talk to you, having the character’s head brought up for close examination every time someone opens their mouth. A lot of the game is actually spent in dialogue with the other characters, so expect to be looking at a lot of faces for most of your time playing it.
This drove me crazy at the start, as the game decided that the best way to introduce you to it was to have almost a half-hour of people talking about things that made no sense to me. I don’t follow the Game of Thrones books or show in any way, so this is probably my own fault, but that first section was absolute torture, and it made me want to shut the game off. The game leads you up to a point where you think you’ll get your first fight to learn the system, but then fades to black and tells you that you already won. The first bit of combat comes almost ten minutes later, an excruciating wait for the game to finally give me something for me to do. I would have given up on the game entirely if The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim hadn’t pulled a similar stunt with me a few months ago.
That’s a shame, because after a while, I started craving those bits of dialogue. Game of Thrones doesn’t have the wittiest writing or most upbeat characters, but it feels like it has a visceral, realistic take on a fantasy setting. The choice of words and the kinds of dialogue I often hear are angry at worst and indifferent at best. Your first character, Mors, works with the Night’s Watch, guarding a wall during perpetual winter. It’s filled with prisoners who were given the option to work there or be executed, so you get a lot of gross jokes and base behavior. Almost everything that is said is disheartening in some way; pounding at you until you realize what a terrible world you’re fighting in.
It would be too much if it weren’t for a few touches of humanity, here and there. You’re given hints of kindness and glimpses of the good side of some of these people. During an early mission, I had time to talk with a few other Night’s Watch guards, and they both had touching stories to tell. They were blunt about them, almost deadpan, but it felt right given the setting. After that, the dialogue really clicked, and I began to really get into the story. It may feel unending in how dark and depressing it is, but there are bits of life under all that darkness.
I was glad that I liked the story so much, because the combat is really hit or miss depending on your mood. It plays something like an MMO, for lack of a better way to describe it. You choose from a short list of attacks that you’ve unlocked, giving your character up to three directions at any one time. He then runs up to the enemy on his own and executes them while you keep him loaded with directions. You usually have the help of a few other characters while you play, so you can also give them commands to back yourself up or to keep the enemies spread out. It’s a system that works well enough, but I found that I was so wrapped up in keeping my own character busy that it was hard to make time to check on anyone else. Other than switching over to pick out an attack that would help me directly when I was in trouble, I usually just worried about myself.
The combat doesn’t exactly feel great, either. For all of the harshness of the world, the fighting is pretty silly. There aren’t that many animations for getting hit unless it’s a powerful attack, so most of the time both characters just hammer at each other without showing any reaction. It takes away any feeling of impact, and turns combat into a numbers game. It was like watching a stats table go back and forth rather than two people hacking at each other with sharp steel, and it removed any possible excitement the combat might have had.
On top of that, there are only so many different combat abilities you can get. I usually only used two or three of them in any one fight, so I think it would have been a little easier to just assign the ones I wanted to the D-pad and then been able to use them as I saw fit, like in Knight’s Contract. I would have also liked to see this game as more of a straight action game, given that I had to hit the attack button so many times to keep my characters moving that I may as well have been directly hacking away. The menu system just feels very clean and sterile for a world that’s so vicious and dark, and I really feel like it was a poor design choice.
For all of my complaining about it, the combat is still fun. You have several different options about how to customize your character for combat; emphasizing offense, defense, or balance. You can then unlock different abilities that cost stamina to use, so you can cause different status ailments or hit a few times in a row. There are many of them that work off each other, encouraging you to plan what you want to do before you wade in. There are also different weapons that cause extra damage against certain armor sets, again asking you to scan your enemies in advance and make a plan. With the ability to keep a few weapon sets at the ready, it’s easy to use the game’s systems to your advantage.
As long as you find those weapons, that is.
For whatever reason, there are a ton of prohibitively expensive items in the shops for most of the game. Even six hours into the game, I was lucky to be able to afford anything the shops had on sale. I realize that they’re trying to show me that gold is extremely valuable, but when I couldn’t afford anything at most of the shops for long periods of time, I avoided them until much, much later in the game. It’s a neat idea to have the best stuff on display at the beginning so you can drool over it, but I just felt like the game was teasing me with it. It’s not much of a valid complaint, but it still bugged me.
This game also has a bit of The Witcher 2 syndrome, where almost every single woman in the game was a prostitute. They tried to counterbalance it with a powerful woman here and there, but almost every woman you’d ever see was creeping around a brothel wearing next to nothing. I know this is a terrible world for women, but they still exist out there. Not every woman’s a prostitute, and if they are, then this game and setting may be a lot dumber than I thought.
It’s still a solid game, though. Despite all of the amazing releases this week, I still enjoyed coming back to play . It has a good storyline in a bleak setting, one filled with believable tough guys for the main characters. If the combat had been a bit more hard-hitting, I think it would have been what they needed to have a good game on their hands. As it stands, the game isn’t that bad, and is easily something that will please a fantasy nut looking for a fun way to spend a couple of days.
Also, the guy who voices Mors Westford? You can become more tough and grizzled just by listening to this guy. It’s almost worth $60 just to hear him talk.