Nox is possibly one of my favourite games of all time. Needless to say, it’s a lost gem — an action-RPG accused of being “just another Diablo clone” at the time, it was made by Westwood Studios and vastly overshadowed by their more successful Command & Conquer franchise. Nox still brought its own unique flair to the table though, and the world is a worse place for having let this game slip through its fingers.
Why do I think and say this? Well…
The Way of the Warrior
The funny thing about Nox is that it’s probably a lot less of an RPG than advertised.
I mean, the campaign is so incredibly linear as to render what few statistics the game does have pretty meaningless. Character starting stats vary between the three classes (Warrior, Conjuror and Wizard), but you don’t just play the same game as either one — each gets a hand-crafted campaign, treading mostly the same plot beats but squidging the levels, enemies and equipment to suit.
The player does not get to select anything about them, either; your stats improve statically in the background as befits your chosen campaign. Indeed, with so few side quests and diversions, even experience points and therefore levelling up are basically gated by the narrative rather than player activity — there is no grinding respawned enemies to get you ahead and there is little to miss to let you fall behind.
And yet! Nox‘s hand-crafted nature means it is tight. Levels have a sense of direction and progress that is arguably far more powerful and memorable than the aimless chunks of its procedurally generated brethren. Combat remains weighty and — dare I say it? — visceral as you climb the ladder, rather than being endlessly samey as the enemies scale in power to consistently match you.
Nox does not unleash a constant flood of enemies, instead preferring a more measured approach, with plenty of tense exploration and mild environmental puzzling to punctuate the rush of combat. Enemies are placed with care into the levels, taking advantage of the unique line-of-sight system to hide behind corners, ready for the unwary trespasser to stumble into danger.
Of course, new enemies that look and feel more powerful are presented as you travel, but these remain backed by more basic opponents that are much more easily dispatched, giving you a tangible reminder of your progress in the face of new challenges. Even in later stages, however, basic enemies in greater numbers can still corner you and pack enough of a punch to warrant care. Nox is not a game that can be sleepwalked.
Since you first encounter enemies in smaller numbers and controlled circumstances, you get ample time and space to appreciate the behavioural quirks of each, and therefore to appreciate what damage they can do to you. Larger groups of enemies are not the norm until later, where they are an escalation that increases the challenge by remixing the circumstances rather than muliplying hit points to dull your own advancing capabilities.
For example, having faced a few spellcasters solo by the time you reach Castle Galava, nothing can prepare you for that cat and mouse chase of murdering your way through the entire world population of wizards — in their own home. Wizards are physically weak, so they run away and toss spells over their shoulders to stun and confuse you, but even with that it’s easy enough to track one rogue spellcaster. Five or six, however, all dashing in different directions and into rooms that may in turn contain more wizards, is a total riot. Throw mad traps and unexpected teleporters on top of that, and you have what is quite possibly one of the most tense, exciting and hilarious dungeon crawls in the history of gaming.
In turn, Nox‘s approach to items is exemplary. Because the levels are all hand crafted, items spawn in meaningful places, and you are never “rewarded” with an item your class can’t even use. There are enough variations to keep things interesting, enough items that are obviously better or worse than each other, but not so many that you spend half your time sorting the good stuff out of a massive pile of junk.
Again, here Nox does its best to hide the numbers and let your heart rather than your head lead the way — because the capabilities of an item are completely denoted by its name. Take, for example, the Mighty Titanium Breastplate of the Scorpion’s Bane:
- Mighty means it offers better defence than a Sturdy or Flimsy item
- Titanium means it will degrade more slowly because it’s made of god damn titanium, which is clearly better than steel and iron and bronze and copper
- Breastplate means it’s body armour and breastplates are cooler than chainmail tunics and leather tunics so that must be better
- Of the Scorpion’s Bane means it has a powerful poison resistance enchantment, more powerful than the Spider’s Bane or the — snort — Wasp’s Bane
Numbers are still present to power the simulation, but you don’t need to look at them — your basic real-world intuition means you can know at a glance if an item is worth considering.
Though one of my (perhaps controversial) favourite elements has to be equipment degradation. Items become damaged with use, disintegrating completely if they go too long without repair. Some dungeons take you a long way without a shop to fix your things, so you may not be able to keep using your favourite long sword for too long — you might have to swap down to a short sword, or worse, use that awkward battle axe you just found. No longer is there a single decision about what to upgrade, but you must also worry about what to keep in reserve.
The early levels keep you dipping in and out of civilisation in short enough bursts to get you twitchy, but ultimately keep your kit in good repair. However, it becomes truly terrifying when you head towards the finale — and have to forge on alone save for a few nomadic merchants cowering in dark holes. This is masterful escalation of challenge, not just throwing more enemies with bigger sacks of hit points the further you go, but adding new dimensions of challenge by stretching your resources to breaking point on top of the moment to moment battles.
You know, for all you’re just clicking on things until they die, Nox manages to feel very physical about it. There are numbers and there is equipment management, but the numbers are kept light and hidden, so that conscious mathemagical wrangling doesn’t drag you away from the fiction — of being a hero on a quest to save the land.
With a spring in its step and a gleam in its eye, Nox is a devilishly well-built game that still shines despite its age. It’s a tragedy that this game is so lost, and that we’ll never see sequels to refine it further, but hopefully with my words here, and my terrible skills on show in the video, I’ve encouraged you to track it down and give it a go.
4 thoughts on “Blog 678: The Way of the Warrior”
Okay, as said in your TITAN QUEST posting, I just started NOX out of curiosity.
I didn’t expect the game to be that “oldish”. Only two years later DIVINE DIVINITY, which reminds me in its lively graphical details of NOX, was much more beautiful. I guess it’s due to NOX’ resolution – the lower ones seem to be give not enough overview, 1024*768 makes the graphics a bit, eh, pixelated (some mods like NoxGUI don’t really help).
I choose a conjurer because I don’t like melee classes that much and full-on mages are usually difficult. I am now on the first lower level of the Mana Mines and although it is really more an action game than a RPG, I quite like it. Although the controls lack some comfort function like item comparison, the small inventory screen including item stats is cumbersome (first I thought I can’t see the stats of items in a shop) and you have to click for every attack. Character development is very minor, but that’s IMO something you really like about NOX. It’s all about the skills and spells – I hope there isn’t too much at the end.
Okay, so long. As mentioned elsewhere: I am not really an ARPG fan/expert. I will see how long NOX can keep me interessted.
Yes, it doesn’t do high resolutions at all. I usually play it at 800×600 to be honest, to save on the eye strain — 1024×768 just makes everything tiny. I still have a 1280×1024 normalscreen though, no idea what it’d look like on a 4K ultra widescreen! 😛
To be honest, having to click for every attack is one of the things that I kind of like — to me it’s more direct, more obvious, more responsive. You click, something definitely happens, and so on — with the likes of Titan Quest where you can hold down the button, clicking can actually cause movement, it can cause chasing or mistargeting… Having said that, in my game you can hold down the left button to keep slashing, but so far I’m also letting you attack while moving, which could itself be an interesting can of worms to open for this style of game.
I have completed all three modes at least a few times in my life, but I always come back to the simplicity, the purity of the warrior. Less hassle, more focus.
I will agree about the inventory and item management being a little bit clunky, yeah. But as I said in the blog, you can infer most of the information you need purely from the item’s name, which does appear on hover-over — though maybe it takes some getting used to, and I will concede that even with that I did generally ‘identify’ to confirm my suspicions (e.g. it can be hard to remember if the game thinks the Dragon’s Claw is better than the Dragon’s Scale). Imperfect, but that’s why I wish more games had taken this stuff and refined it!
Well let me tell you. It certainly makes it easier on me,
Whatever that’s worth. There is something completely charming about a dedicated traditional blog though.
I expect I’ll stick to writing for the most part, branching into audio/video when it feels Right. I picked Nox mainly because I could have FRAPS recording for five to ten minute stretches without feeling any impact on performance at all — whereas more recent games at full resolution might not be so forgiving. (Also did I mention that I love Nox?)
I also realise now that I write completely differently than how I speak, so it felt a little bit odd to be saying what would normally just be on the page. On the other hand, if I freestyle I tend to trip over my words and talk in circles, so having the script gave it flow and structure that would otherwise be absent…
Ah well, variety is the spice of life!