Game of Thrones Preview – You Win Or You Die
Written Wednesday, April 25, 2012 By Richard WalkerView author's profile
Sex, violence, political intrigue... It's safe to say that Game of Thrones - and George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novel series - has got it all. And despite the sexy bits being somewhat sanitised and chaste in Game of Thrones: The Role Playing Game (to give its full title), everything else seems to be present and correct. Well, almost everything. Game of Thrones the game is an original story written in conjunction with author George RR Martin, and as such has only a few of the HBO TV show's characters with their voices and likenesses. However, it's clearly faithful to the books first and foremost, as our hands-off presentation demonstrates.
There's a reason that the novels take precedence over the hit TV series, as developer Cyanide started building Game of Thrones three years ago with the literature as the sole inspiration for the game, before the HBO show aired. As soon as the show hit though, the developer was quick to negotiate a deal with HBO, acquiring the music, look and feel in the process, as well as a few of the characters and some of the most iconic pieces of imagery associated with the show, like the house sigils, the Iron Throne and so on. With the success of the TV series comes additional pressure to do right by the legion of fans, so an authentic adaptation is the order of the day for Cyanide who not only reveal the lengths the team has gone to in creating an in-depth RPG with a sweeping narrative, but also the attention to detail that's being put into the game.
You play as two heroes with intertwining story strands that eventually meet as the narrative unfolds, and you'll start out by choosing their class, before customising the various skills, abilities and attributes of your character. Mors “Butcher” Westford is the first protagonist you'll assume control of, and he's a grizzled, hard-bitten member of the Night's Watch who's handy with a sword and has a vicious, yet loyal dog at his side. We're taken through the Landed Knight (defensive, crowd control), Hedge Knight (powerful, two-handed) and Magnar (fast, dual-wielding) classes that each have accompanying strengths and weaknesses that you can balance accordingly. You'll then assign points to Mors' strength, agility, luck, endurance and intelligence before fiddling with skills, abilities and character traits. There's a wealth of options to mess around with, all geared towards making your character unique. This doesn't extend to Mors' look, but there's still a lot of stuff to tinker with.
Picking up with Mors tracking down a Night's Watch deserter, we get to see the armour-clad protagonist having a chat with Jeor Mormont (with actor James Cosmo's voice and likeness) at the imposing Wall, just outside Castle Black. During this exchange, there's a simple dialogue wheel for selecting your responses, each of which reflect the situation and personality of your character. Depending upon your dialogue choices and action in the game, the story will branch in a certain direction and you're ultimately rewarded with one of the game's four endings, so considering your responses is important. Combat is Game of Thrones' lynchpin however, blending action and strategy with a system not unlike that of Dragon Age: Origins, despite Cyanide being keen to distance itself from BioWare's fantasy RPG franchise.
It's difficult not to draw comparisons from Dragon Age though, especially when the radial menu for accessing abilities and the overall ebb and flow of battles appears to be so similar. You can stack up to three abilities at any one time, with a yellow energy bar gauging how many skills you can perform in a single string of attacks. Holding X puts your character into a defensive stance, enabling you to recharge your energy every 20 seconds, but this is a move that should be used sparingly. Various icons in combat keep you abreast of your opponents and their status, with their red vitality bar accompanied by a symbol indicating what kind of armour they're wearing and any effects you've inflicted upon them, like making an enemy bleed to haemorrhage twice the hit points.
Different weapons can penetrate different armours too, so a dagger might be more suited to getting through chainmail, while plate armour will require something a little stronger. There's certainly plenty to think about, and it's clear that the strategical and tactical aspects of fighting are deep and intricate. Unfortunately, it seems to be devoid of the spectacular brutality and unflinching violence that's so prevalent in the TV show, instead favouring encounters that look somewhat stilted, yet typical of the RPG genre, with numbers and status effects popping up amid small, perfunctory splashes of blood. If battles were punctuated by some graphic finishing moves or final kill animations, then we'd be happy, but at the moment we fear the violence has been toned down along with the rudey nudey bits to snag the game a 15 rating for a wider audience. If you're hoping for heads on spikes, cut throats, gurgling blood and bouncing breasts left, right and centre, you might be disappointed.
Still, it's the themes and narrative that'll really matter to the fans, and on that front, Game of Thrones looks poised to deliver. While Mors' story handles the more down and dirty, gritty side of Westeros with clashing steel and blood aplenty, second protagonist Alester Sarwyck, the red priest and R'hllor, Lord of Light covers the complex political intrigue and power struggles in locations like King's Landing or Riverspring. That means meeting characters like Queen Cersei Lannister or Lord Varys, the latter of whom provides some of the narration in the game.
Alester's story sees him returning to Riverspring after 15 years before re-uniting with his bastard brother Valaar at King's Landing. Right in front of the iconic Iron Throne, we see Alester and Valaar together in a two-man party, and you can switch characters at the touch of a button. After a meeting with Cersei, we skip ahead to one of the game's later chapters in which Mors and Alester find themselves working together in Castlewood, showcasing the radial menu 'Active Pause System' once again, which slows down the action giving you ample time to consider your attack strategy. Abilities all have a cooldown period, so queueing up the right ones for the job is integral if you don't want to get butchered by rival knights. There are a bunch of skill trees that'll grow with your character and each level you attain as you progress too, so there are loads of options and branches to mull over.
Mors' dog will also pitch in automatically during battle, although you'll be able to control him as you upgrade with new skills and attributes as you level up. Mors' canine companion is also able to acquire scents to follow the trails of certain targets and you can assume control of the mutt using a first-person perspective, illuminating the trail. It's also a good way of eliminating solitary guards, paring down the number of confrontations you have to engage in.
Promising a lengthy – albeit linear - “focused and intense” story that runs parallel to the events of the first book and the first season of the HBO TV show, Game of Thrones is certainly looking a lot better than we expected. Cyanide evidently has a passion for the source material, and importantly, both Mors and Alester are appealing, interesting characters that slot neatly into the lore of the series. And that's a very good thing indeed, because as Bronn observes in the show, “there's no cure for being a c**t”.
Not only are Mors and Alester engaging, but they also have intriguing backstories that ought to complement the books and TV series neatly. Our only reservations are with the toning down of Game of Thrones more mature and gritty components. Throw in some extra sex and violence, and we'll be fully sold on Game of Thrones... For now though, we're cautiously optimistic, but won't be entirely convinced until we get our hands on the game.
The King in the North! Ahem... Sorry. Game of Thrones will be vying for the Iron Throne in June 2012.