Any thought that developer Cyanide has jumped on the bandwagon with the Game of Thrones video game should be left at the full stop of this sentence. It’s been in production for over three years - long before HBO ever got the rights to make the now hit TV show.
With that comes something both good and bad. The good is the hope that this role-playing game for console and PC might not be total dross, as are many quick buck, franchise-hopping titles. The bad is that, because it makes little reference to Sky Atlantic’s big hit, it doesn’t quite feel like the Game of Thrones you know and love if you’ve never read the books. In fact, aside from the title music and the odd familiar face rendered to varying degrees of success, it was easy to forget that it was related at all during our first look at the characters, combat and gameplay.
But it is to the books that this title is very much wedded, so much so, that Cyanide kept very close contact with A Song of Ice and Fire series author George R. R. Martin throughout the processes with feedback for purposes of accuracy at every step of the way. In fact, much of the time was spent checking that the plot of the game would sit true with books as yet to be penned.
As a player you get to control two main characters, both of whom appear in the same chapters of the game at different times coming together as a team only towards the end of the telling. It’s very much a linear adventure. No running around in your sandbox, and what sidequests there are are fully fleshed out branches of the main story in their own right.
"We really wanted to get away from 'bring me three bat wings or this mushrooom'," said lead designer Sylvain Sechi at the Central London event.
"It's not an open game. There's no running in forest and getting into random encounters. We think of it like Mass Effect without the planets exploration."
Your first playable character is Mors Westford, a man of the Night’s Watch who goes nowhere without his bulldog, which Mors can inhabit much in the same way as Bran appears to be discovering in the HBO show. As the dog, you can scout the dungeons in their various forms, sniff out the scent of NPCs you’re trying to find, assassinate heavily armoured knights and get a good hoof in the underbelly when you get it wrong. Your dog will also help you out in combat with abilities all of its own which you can unlock as you level, not least of which is to occupy one of the mobs while you deal with another.
Combat itself, of course, is going to be key to the whole affair. What it resembles most closely is a non-button thrashing version of the Witcher 2 and its redesign for Xbox. Talents, abilities and menus are presented in a very similar circular style that pop up during the action in the middle of the screen when you hold down the relevant button. Again, like the Witcher, calling them up doesn’t quite pause the action altogether but just puts it in a very slow motion. Take too long over your decisions and you will start to receive some hefty blows.
It’s at this point in the combat, though, where the similarities with CD Projekt Red's top title end. Game of Thrones takes a much more “pen and paper approach”, according to Sechi, and its command-based (as opposed to button thrashing) style is more akin to the kind of strategic manner you’d find in games such as Baldurs Gate. Choose and stack the abilities and actions which you would like your characters to invoke - and which targets you would like to invoke them upon - unpause the action and hope it works out okay.
While the theory is simple enough, the sight of it all was fairly confusing in our first-look experience. So close in on the action - the entire game is shot from a third-person view behind the back of your protagonists - there’s quite a lot going on on-screen in the thick of the fight. Pop up the menus and it’s easy to see how you could lose a battle in all the confusion of trying to plan it. In fairness though, we’ll give Cyanide the benefit of the doubt on this one. These things are usually built up slowly throughout a game and we’ll trust that, by the time you reach the levels we witnessed, it will all make much more sense.
What we did absolutely love is that armour is very important and the type that each of your enemies is wearing is displayed as an icon next to their health info above their heads. It’s then your job to use that knowledge to work out how best to attack them; piercing weapons are not much cop against leather but the slashing of swords will find its weakness, with the opposite true for chain mail. You get the picture, and it makes the whole thing much more a puzzle than hammering away and hoping to bash and dodge a path to glory.
Of course, it’s not all about swords and daggers. This is a fantasy game after all and magic does feature, although, like Game of Thrones, it’s handled with a light touch. While Mors is the fighter, it’s the second playable character, Alester Sarwyck, that gets to dabble in the darker arts. Alester is a Red Priest returning to his home of Riverspring 15 years after turning his back on becoming the lord of house and only news of his father dying has brought him back. Through veteran ranger of Castle Black, Mors, you get little opportunity to play through any of the political intrigue for which Game of Thrones is so well known - the Wall is a very long way from King’s Landing - but Alester’s journey, we’re told, is the one where you get to scratch that itch.
Taking up the calling of the Lord of the Light, Alester is more your rogue-come-mage. There are three paths to choose from when making his character choices - an Archer, a Sellsword (all-round fighter with one-hand weapons) or a Water Dancer (a kind of ambidextrous small-sword fighter). Along with these styles, Alester can use oils and magics to create Wildfire, poisons and a host of area of effect attacks. Word to the wise: Wildfire is a kind of napalm-type blaze and it will propagate even to your character if you get too close to one of your burning victims.
The good news is that, if you like the sound of more than one of the character paths, you do get a chance to dual-class later in the game if you fancy yourself as an Archer/Water Dancer - but do beware that doing so will most likely leave the very top abilities of each tree out of your reach. With a maximum of just 15 levels possible throughout the game, the only way to access those is by specialising.
On Mors’s side, you have to select which kind of fighter you’d like to be as well. This time the decision is between Landed Knight, Hedge Knight or Magnar which roughly translated equate to defensive sword and shield specialist, two-handed weapon wielder or dual weapons with maximum damage but light armour. Magnar all the way, right?
There are only five character attributes to play with but one very intriguing idea is that you can pick innate strengths from quite a long list - such as Natural Leader, Brute Strength, Gifted and Leach - but the trade off is that, for every one of these you pick, you also have to choose a weakness. Of course, you don’t have to pick any at all but where’s the fun in that?
The whole adventure should last somewhere between 25-40 hours of gameplay and if you’re wondering whether there’s any sex to go along with violence and politics for which Game of Thrones is so popular, then the answer is, well, some, yes. While there’s no actual romance or - how should we put it - full-frontal shagging, there are two chapters set in bordellos, each featuring some tremendous side-boob. It’s a 15 certificate, not an 18 but we should imagine it just about does the trick.
It’s a horrible thing to say, especially given that this was a first-look preview with no hands-on time, but gut instincts are gut instincts and we’re just not excited about this game. The developers are obviously incredibly passionate about what they’ve done and you just can’t fault their approach, their research or their enthusiasm but there’s little either graphically or in the gameplay that get us hot in the way that great RPGs should.
What might change our mind is the plot. The Cyanide team has made a seemingly good job of the conversation trees and decision making. There are multiple paths through each chat and you cannot go back to explore more than one of them. Better still, your choices may mean little at the time but will go on to have very profound effects many chapters later. Teamed with the rich universe of the Song of Ice and Fire universe, it’s this that might just see the game through.
Game of Thrones will be out on Xbox, PS3 and PC in June 2012.