Fantasy has come a long way in the last twenty years, reinventing itself from the kind of book the fat spotty kid read to big business film and TV kind of material. Swords, verilys and dragons are all part of the wider social awareness now and there are open opportunities for many of these IPs to begin trying to cross the media divides and expand their reach. One such world that has proven ripe for exploitation is that of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, a rich feast of Machiavellian machinations and feudal politics with the odd sprinkling of fantastical elements. This world, so close to our own, has been translated superbly to the small screen by HBO with their two seasons of A Game of Thrones representing some of the best television this decade. However, the series has lacked any kind of impact in the gaming world – the less said about Cyanide’s earlier attempt to represent Westeros and its history in A Game of Thrones – Genesis the better. With the book series glacially moving towards its end game and the TV world being set alight by the sheer quality of the source material there has never been a better time to take this world and sell it to the gaming masses - and a third person RPG would sound like just the ticket.
Unfortunately the first thing that hits you as you make it past the splash screen with the music purloined from the TV show is just how bad the graphics are. With a presentation that would have been described as serviceable at the start of this console generation it’s hard to conceive of how Cyanide could have made the Unreal engine look quite this poor this late in. The camera angles don’t help either, making it almost impossible for you to easily swing around and take scope of your surroundings, an element which will be seen as a crime for any series fan who wanted to get up close and personal with the locations they had imagined many times over. The pain doesn’t disappear with character models either; while the player characters are detailed enough virtually everyone else is obscured in some way, which is probably for the best as the too smooth faces would be slightly disconcerting otherwise. Extra attention has been lavished on characters who appear that are familiar to those who have watched season one of A Game of Thrones, but seeing the fantastic representation of James Cosmo as Jeor Mormont for instance just highlights the poor attention to detail elsewhere.
Happily for fans of the series and the Fantasy genre in general the story may well be enough for them to forgive the subpar graphics. Game of Thrones gives you main characters who take pride of place in alternating chapters, mirroring somewhat the point of view character structure taken within the books. Mors Westford, a Ranger in the Night’s Watch and previously the head of a minor family under the Lannisters is pulled out of the cold and into the political turmoil of the realm by a letter sent by his old friend, Jon Arryn. Alester Sarwyck on the other hand is a southern noble (also under fealty to the Lannisters) who is newly returned from his self-exile and has trained to become a priest of R'hllor, the Lord of Light. Through the chapters the initially split stories slowly wind themselves together inextricably, giving you all of the usual Song of Ice and Fire baggage along the way. Essentially, people die horribly and you can’t trust anyone – a fairly accurate depiction then of what you should have been expecting. For those worried about spoilers, the game’s plot is set during the time of the first novel (the titular A Game of Thrones) so you will be fine as long as you have read that one or seen the first TV season. Apart from a branch near the end the story is exceptionally linear, with the main ‘choice’ for the player being whether or not they bother with the few sidequests thrown in.
Regardless of whether you engage with these side quests or not you will be faced with tons of dialogue throughout your story. While the story concept at a high level was jointly worked on by Cyanide and George R. R. Martin the dire inclusion of the phrase ‘game of thrones’ a good few times along with some other eyebrow raising moments leads one to believe that the individual lines were crafted away from the watchful eye of the author. It’s a shame that the serviceable material is let down then by the voice acting behind it; it’s not so much that the voice acting is bad, just that the casting of the majority of the voices is right out of the early 2000’s. We have painfully English people in villain roles and gravel toned heroes matched with side characters who you can imagine are sat in a cold box with a script and no direction. The voices of James Cosmo, Conleth Hill and Lena Headey are welcomely familiar, but one suspects an element of sleep walking often with them, removed as they are from the trappings of TV filming.
Added exploration within the game is encouraged by two elements – Mor’s canine companion and Alester’s ability to use the power of R’hllor to find secrets. The dog sections are certainly the more fun of the two; using his worg powers Mors can take direct control of his hound and run around following scent trails and ripping the throats out of bad guys. While you won’t necessarily want to go sniffing in every corner for the odd bit of junk or silver the throat ripping works well to remove some of the combat from the game and there is the odd trinket or two that you can turn up through the searches. Alester’s ability is mundane in comparison, seeing you rooted to the floor with your hands on fire as you swing the camera around looking for any secrets - apart from when the story requires it of you it’s unlikely you will intentionally be stopping every five seconds to use the skill.
The thing is, even with all of the above in mind, a combat system that let you rip free and viscerally destroy your opponents in the most callous way possible could have saved the day. Instead of a button mashing action RPG though we end up with a Dragon Age-esque combat queue. To unleash anything but your basic attack you need to open up the move menu with a shoulder button; this doesn’t pause the action, but it does slow it down more than enough for you to faff about and find what you need. Fuelled by an energy bar these attacks can’t be continually chained and so you are meant to tactically plan your moves and then go back to real time to watch them pan out. Realistically you will just spam the best DPS move for the situation, holding back enough energy to use an interrupt move if you are facing a slightly tougher enemy.
Conceptually it seems as if it would work well; from the mid-game on you usually have the pieces required to chain special attacks between characters for maximum effect, and you will usually have something in your arsenal to take advantage of any situation. For Mors this is especially true as his dog can unlock several useful skills early on. At the start of the game each character has the choice of three stances, and they can unlock an additional one as they level up. While these determine the special skills Mors or Alester have access to as well as which skills receive bonus points if you level them up the combat never really feels different, instead just giving you more of the same with slightly different icons. As it takes until the mid-game to build a semi decent repertoire you will already have gotten used to the repetitive mashing of a single skill, and it is absolutely criminal that Alester is locked out of using his ‘set my sword on fire’ skill without using a consumable until you have levelled up a good few times. An immediate improvement to the whole system would have been the ability to assign skills to your face buttons, thus allowing you to stay in the real time world to watch the impact of your attempted devastation, but it is unlikely that even this would have saved it from ultimately feeling stale.
If this seems harsh, especially towards a smaller studio, then let me take you back to an earlier comment - there has never been a better time to take this world and sell it to the gaming masses. By hook or by crook Cyanide managed to win this licence before it hit the big time with HBO, and it’s difficult to believe that they would be given the opportunity to create Westeros now that it is so much more well known. A serviceable game with blood spurts and political machinations would have sufficed as a first step, allowing them time to bed in get to know the nuances of third person combat. Instead, apart from the story, there is a general feeling of detachment from the game and its main gameplay elements giving rise to the notion that most who play it will do so only to find out how the tales of Mors and Alester twist and turn on their way to conclusion. There is some reward in this journey, but it does come at a cost – come prepared and you may well enjoy it all.