Blog 841: The Wheel of Time

I didn’t really get on with The Wheel of Time series of books. I enjoyed some of them the first time around, but tried to re-read them more recently and decided by about book 4 that life was too short. While I enjoyed the prose, the overall plot seemed incredibly stodgy, with months of travelling between important locations and nothing much of consequence happening. Also many of the characters are kind of annoying.

But as you all know, I love a late-90s FPS, and yes — there was a Wheel of Time FPS made in Unreal Engine 1 back in the day. I’ve known about this game for years (indeed, the premier UnrealScript IDE, WOTgreal, was built for it) but it has been somewhat inaccessible… Until now. Yep, it’s been re-released on gog and oh, my body is so ready.

The Wheel of Time

The game is something of a fanfiction prequel with dubious sanction from the author, but it feels like how I remember the books. The intro cinematic has the whole “this is not the beginning, but it is a beginning” speil perfectly read by a dramatic narrator. The tutorial is that weird ter’angreal with three arches that tests new Aes Sedai, each arch teaching you an element of the game (though the third arch sadly teaches you a multiplayer-only component that never comes up in the campaign).

Maybe I’ve lost touch since I’ve not read the books in so long, but when I watched the recent TV series, it didn’t feel right for many reasons… but this? Suddenly I’m remembering why I initially found the books so compelling, all the things about them that I did enjoy.

My precioussss– oh wait, uh, wrong fantasy epic.

In many ways, Unreal is already a fantasy game, so the leap from guns and aliens to magic artefacts and monsters is not a long one — WoT is otherwise composed of a similar mix of canyons and stone citadels replete with doors, lifts, switches and secret caves (and, yes, more than a couple sewers).

Guns come in the form of single-purpose, limited-use magical artefacts called “ter’angreal”. While the protagonist is an Aes Sedai, traditionally the people in the Wheel of Time mythos who can do a whole lotta magic, our Elayna can barely channel at all — but she knows a lot about these ter’angreal (how convenient). I’d swear that ter’angreal were super-rare in the books, but here they are liberally smeared across the world for you to pick up and unleash. (It’s a prequel so I guess they were common until this adventure led Elayna to exhaust the entire world’s supply.)

The levels are achingly beautiful, if a little bit “clean”. I took SO many screenshots.
The tradition of finding items next to corpses is alive and well.

And there are a lot of different guns ter’angreal. Maybe even too many. So many that each number is a group of artefacts rather than a single weapon. Group 1 is your bog-standard guns; the limitless Air Pulse, the plasma gun Dart and rocket launcher Fireball. Group 2 is more special-purpose stuff, including slow but powerful homing missiles. Group 3 is shields, and from there it starts to go well off the beaten path.

The magic bolts and fireballs, fine. Personal Shield stands in for Unreal’s armour vests to reduce incoming damage until the shield is exhausted, fine. But then you get to Water Shield which lets you breath underwater and swim against currents, and Fire Shield makes you invulnerable to fire. So far, so obvious.

Judging by some of the firing angles, Elayna holds ter’angreal above her head to activate them.

Then you get to some extremely situational powers. Group 4 contains Shift, which allows you to teleport a few steps forward, in order to get through portcullises and other obviously impassable but conveniently porous obstacles. There is also Swap Places which does exactly what it says on the tin.

These are really cool but do feel somewhat constrained; the game is completely linear (give or take a few side paths to secret equipment caches) so there’s always precisely one (1) place to use Shift, or there’s a convenient enemy behind a barrier for Swap Places. It’s a suite of mechanics that could be more interesting in a more open game (after all, it’s of an age with Deus Ex), where you could perhaps choose to use Shift for the obvious answer or find an alternate route and save it for later. (Or, I assume, Swap Places would have been a total riot in Deathmatch, since it also makes all those slow-moving, homing projectiles target your hapless swapee…)

The gog release does not include the manual, so it’s lucky the game allows you to “research” any ter’angreal you find — complete with actual quotes from the books!
“Levitation” is actually more akin to slow-fall, but I’m sure you can still imagine how that helps you get across this broken bridge.

The roster of enemies is also worth a look. While your main foes are trollocs, monstrous humanoids with a mix of melee attacks and thrown axes and a whole lotta hit points (so far, so Skaarj), there are some very interesting others. The misty tendrils of Shadar Logoth are particularly fascinating and kind of… well, dare I say it, genuinely brilliant.

As an Unreal-based FPS, your combat language is circle-strafing and reversing, trying to dodge projectiles and keep out of reach of melee attacks while dishing out pain in return. Shadar Logoth’s evil tendrils are ostensibly melee attackers that emerge from dark crevices in the walls, but they stretch as they reach out to you — leaving a big snaky trail all the way back to the anchor point. The twist is that touching any part of that tendril causes pain, so the more you backpedal and strafe as you try to attack its face into submission while avoiding its touch, the further round the room you lead the trail and so the harder it gets to avoid.

It was a total suprise, to be honest; for all I love a classic FPS, I wasn’t expecting to encounter something properly novel. I can’t think of any other shooter with an enemy that works like that, which intertwines so neatly with the core rhythm of combat. The only thing I might have tried to do is save this surprise for further on in the game, as it’s something of an early peak. (On the other hand, it’s all the more tense when you’re still fresh-faced and low on ammo.)

It’s like Snake but 1000% more nightmarish.
… I don’t remember Shadar Logoth having hideous bolt-spitting mutants in it though.

Though for all my frothing love for the game so far, there are some downsides. There are no first-person weapon models, which can lead to confusion with some of the slowest projectiles that you can easily outpace — many times I fired the Seeker two or three times while strafing before the massive glowing orbs finally moved into view to confirm that I had actually pressed the button. Ammo is reasonably scarce so it’s frustrating to misfire a few precious shots.

Some of the effects are also a bit suspect. The Air Pulse seems to be a melee weapon even though its particle blast makes it look like it has at least a shotgun’s range. The Fireball’s blast radius seems to be rather larger than the explosion effect would suggest. And the trap-laden vaults of the White Tower, goodness me, that was a gruesome level.

And there’s no crouch button! How can you make an FPS without crouching? (Maybe it’s lore accurate. Do Aes Sedai take an oath against crouching?)

Whitecloaks run fast, hit hard AND their shields reflect projectiles (fairly sure THAT wasn’t in the books), so they are best tackled by getting them stuck on a bit of terrain and zapping them to death.
There is no sniper rifle, but since homing Seeker bolts are slow enough to be dodged by most enemies, they’re a reliable way to start a fight with an unwary enemy from a safe distance.

I think that, ultimately, I’m surprised. Extremely pleasantly, for sure, but I guess I was expecting it to be Fine, a basic reskin of Unreal, nothing special. But… but it is special! The levels are gloriously pretty, the story is enticing, the novelties are genuinely delightful and if nothing else, who doesn’t enjoy circle-strafing monsters while peppering them with magic plasma bolts?

Sure it’s got a few annoying difficulty spikes and a few quirks — but show me an FPS that doesn’t. Overall, The Wheel of Time, fanfic status or no, is brilliant and I heartily recommend it!

It’s almost good enough to… to make me want to… try reading the books again… … … okay, no, it’s not that good.

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