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Review of Temple of Elemental Evil

Let me tell you about a fantastically wonderful PC Role-Playing Game. It's based in a classic, popular Dungeons and Dragons setting; features richly detailed settings and a fabulously heart-grabbing soundtrack; has a life-and-death, unpretentiously but soulfully dark, heart-pounding storyline ten times more gripping than the lastest great action film; and you can build your own party and take on some fabulously designed NPCs with some of the most delightfully and deeply developed personalities the PC Gaming World has ever seen. The game I'm talking about, of course, is Baldur's Gate II.

Okay, okay, I'll be fair. I could also be easily talking about Planescape: Torment, which lacks in some of the character building (system-speaking ONLY) and has a lower graphic resolution than BG2, but makes up by having the absolute best PCRPG storyline ever.

If you're not aware of these games, BG2 came out in 2000 with an expansion pack released in 2001; Torment was RPG of the year in 1999, which in computer years is like talking about the age of dinosaurs.

And yet, when I think about these wonderful games and then turn on Troika's Temple of Elemental Evil, a much newer game having only come out last year (2003). (I write this review in honor of its second patch coming out last week (June 2004), as I was waiting until then to see how much the patch improved gameplay–not much, I can tell you know.) TOEE is a fantastic testament to the fact that newer doesn't always mean better.

I mean, quite frankly, having looked at and played some of the best RPGs of the past, I'm not quite sure what I'm getting out of TOEE. Perhaps it's unfair to compare it to BG2 or Torment, but I can't help but think of it when I play TOEE. I mean, we have a party-based adventure, we have a scrolling screen top-down view, we have a D&D setting and rules, we have scrolling text with multiple choice options to give it the "roleplaying" feel... quite frankly, the games' setups are quite similar, so it's difficult not to compare.

And while TOEE is more complex in that it incorporates the pen and paper rules of D&D 3.5 even much more than the older games' did with the less balanced AD&D 2.0, that's really all it's got going for it. It's at a higher resolution, but I really don't see a significant difference in the quality of the graphics in this game compared to the older ones–and certainly not enough to justify just how slowly this game sometimes runs on my machine. My machine is admittedly old, now, but I've seen TOEE run on much newer, state-of-the-art pieces and it still plods along–and considering just how similar it is to these older games, I'm just not sure why. Sure there's some improved shadows and lighting, but that's still not worth it. There's not even any sort of camera control, which you'd think there might be for a game this recent. Likewise, the soundtrack is dull and far less engaging than in many other PCRPGs.

What's even worse is that even though this is a new "state-of-the-art" game, much of the delightful complexities of story and character development found in BG2 and Torment are simply, utterly nonexistent in TOEE. The NPCs never talk to you (except in rare, extreme moments of plot), nor can you initiate conversations with them (a delightful feature from Torment that was only retried to mediochre effect in expansion packs for Neverwinter Nights, at least as far as other D&D-based games go). The interactions with story characters are also incredibly dry, and one feels as if one could say anything without it truly effecting the plot (again unlike the older games, where many conversations did effect the story to some degree). You can have a so-called "romance" with a local shepherd, meaning you can randomly tell him you love him, even though you have more conversations with his son than you do him, and that's probably the most engaging (no pun intended to those familiar with this quest) conversation you can have in the game. NPC hirelings loot gear before you can, regardless of whether they can actually put the loot to good use (this might be "realistic" but stupid, particularly in the half-assed way this part of the game is designed... they weigh themselves down with crap they don't need whereas I'd probably equip them with much better stuff).

The story itself is based off a D&D tabletop module. It's a famous one, but as a veteran tabletop gamer, I know modules can only go so far in providing you with a game; one must also have a great GM to really get you immersed in the story. TOEE's GM is lousy. The story moves ridiculously slowly, and there's so much errand traipsing around at the beginning that suddenly all the minor, bizarre fetch-and-carry quests in the beginning of Torment seem much less pointlessly time consuming. The plot hooks are weak (varied according to your party's class, which is the only admirable trait of complexity), meaning ultimately I really don't care about this Temple or why I should go there. I have no desire to see the end of the story because there's been no indication it will be interesting. Unlike, again, Torment, where self-discovery makes the plot move so compellingly or BG2, where your very soul is on the line, and the narrative is so well-written you feel you must keep playing just to seek resolution within yourself.

Don't care about story? Well, first of all, I wouldn't play any D&D based game and would go straight to Diablo II. But anyway, back to mechanics. How about the player interface? As far as I can tell, TOEE's interface is trying very hard not to be the Infinity Engine (used in the two games I've been talking about so much) or the Aurora Engine (a similar engine in Neverwinter Nights), and in trying to accomplish this, does little else. The interface is non-intuitive and clumsy, and confusing a right click with a left click can sometimes lead to fatal error in combat. You should be able to use most of your controls with a mouse, but it takes so long to get through menus and select targets, and keyboard shortcuts are only minimally helpful.

The advantages of TOEE are few. I do very much like the incorporation of the 3.5 rules, which include many of the social skills largely ignored by other games, and being based on these rules, you have a great deal of flexibility in character and party design; this certainly is not a game focused toward any particular kind of party or character class, which is refreshing. There's a very small feature that I also like in that you can change the height of your characters, which is fun and adds to some realism and your ability to represent your own favorite PCs from your own worlds. That's scarcely an important feature however, and certainly has no bearing on the actual gameplay. Graphics and character designs are nice, but all of this only seem to make the game's flaws more glaringly obvious. If we can have a game with this much complexity in system and depth in design, can't we have a user friendly interface and depth of story to match the depth of its appearance?

The bottom line: should you spend your $40-50 on Temple of Elemental Evil? Look, the complete Baldur's Gate II Collection should be easily available in most stores for about $20. If you're lucky, you can find a copy of Planescape: Torment in Wal-Mart or online for $10-20. So do yourself a favor: save $20 and buy two games that are much more worth your time.


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All original materials © 2003 R. Pickard