Mom! Dad! It's EVIL! Don't touch it!
A great evil exists, and it permeates the land. Trapped inside an ancient temple, it has long remained dormant, unknown to the nearby villagers who eke a meager living off the cursed land. But now, bandits are roaming the countryside and mysterious forces are beginning to appear around the old temple grounds. It's up to you and your hearty group of adventures to strive forth and rid the land of the forces of darkness. Why bother, you ask? Why, fame, fortune, and glory, of course!
Or just make up your own reason, because there's little more to the plot than the above paragraph. Based in Gary Gygax's original Greyhawk setting, The Temple of Elemental Evil tries to include all the various hardcore D&D rules for the first time in a computer game. While heavy on the D&D rules, the game is surprisingly light on the plot... but there are a lot more puzzling things about this game than the skimpy story. Question the first: why didn't Wizards of the Coast (TSR) get Bioware to make this game?
Though I suppose after that horrible movie, nothing should surprise us regarding the D&D franchise.
While the developers, Troika, proved they can make an RPG with their previous outing Arcanum, it is one thing to make an RPG but it is a whole other ballgame to take on the kings of the D&D RPG genre, Bioware. From Baldur's Gate to Neverwinter Nights, Bioware has done amazing things with the D&D universe.
The Temple of Elemental Evil does a good job imitating Bioware's oft-repeated formula. Playing from a three-quarter isometric perspective, you control a party of characters via a point and click interface. It also uses radial menus to access most of the character data and actions. Combat occurs in a turn-based manner, each character taking turns with both movement and action points. While lacking the plot of a Bioware epic, the game does a decent job with the interface and general feel of the Dungeons & Dragons universe.
But a great RPG isn't all that hardcore D&D fans want. Many complained that, for the sake of gameplay and reaching a larger audience, Bioware decided to take their own liberties with the official D&D rulebook.
So Troika games (with the help of Atari) decided to make a more hardcore version of D&D. Not a lot of backstory, no personal quests of vengeance, just a straightforward sword and sorcery dungeon crawl. Beat the quests, gain experience, go up in levels. While they claim that newcomers to D&D will not have a hard time with the hardcore rules, I'll simply point to the 150-page rulebook. If you can do it in D&D, you can do it in The Temple of Elemental Evil. This ends up being both good and bad.
You have access to tons of feats and abilities that v3.5 AD&D rules give you and the characters are amazingly customizable. You also have to pay closer attention to alignment as it seems to be a much greater factor in this game. Quests, NPC reactions and characters that join your party are all subject to the initial alignment of the party. The temple doesn't have to be the only place in which evil lurks.
The complexity of the Dungeons and Dragons universe shines through more in The Temple of Elemental Evil than most of the other D&D games out there. Pen-and-paper RPGs have always been about the playing of the adventure and the building of characters, not about the final solution. It just feels right to venture forth in search of nothing more than adventure, where playing is fun whether or not you are reaching your goal.
But not all is so peachy. With such a strict attention to the rules, there's little that a novice player can do to fully understand everything thats going on. In pen-and-paper RPGs, the human element of the Dungeon Master always smoothed over some of the more unforgiving rules, allowing newer players the chance to understand the combat system before penalizing them harshly for making mistakes. The Temple of Elemental Evil gives no such forgiveness, forcing players to understand and use all the various nuances of combat.
On top of that, the game does a poor job with the items and their effects. If I find the ancient Rod of Orc Smashing, I basically have to guess what it will do from its name. Figuring out the exact way different items increase or decrease your stats is needlessly difficult; so hard, in fact, that the developers failed to pay attention to it at all.
You'd think that the worst thing the developers of a game focused so heavily on the rules could do was to get those very rules wrong, but that's just what happened. The number of bugs in this game is just overwhelming. While most are small, annoying errors, they are simple things that should not have happened. Errors such as the Holy Sword +1 giving +3 to attack are ludicrous, not to mention the character and quest errors that more directly and detrimentally harm the game. I experienced enough minor annoyances playing the game that it ruined what might otherwise have been a load of fun.
Never fear, though, Atari has already ANNOUNCED a patch. That's right - no patch to fix any of this is available yet because it would obviously take the developers too long to make it. Oh wait, never mind, consumers have already made not one but two patches that fix a wide variety of some of the more common errors. (Note: Atari does not support these patches, use at your own risk.) So let me get this straight: fans of the game are better at fixing the game that the developer/publisher? When did this start happening? Have we gotten so used to buggy games that this is acceptable? What happened to taking pride in your product?
In my little dream world (which is all that truly counts, right? ), this is far from acceptable and Atari should be ashamed at not supporting their game properly. Need I repeat that this game was made for the hardcore gamers; the least you could do is properly beta test it to make sure all the various rules you claim to abide by are actually followed. When reaching for such a complex goal, it is inexcusable to fail on such a basic level.
So in the end, what we have with The Temple of Elemental Evil is a good RPG brought down by the very thing it touted as a feature: complexity. Buggy gameplay and a distinct lack of plot turn this promising game into a lesson in mediocrity. If you do have the urge to buy it, wait until Atari finally fixes the game. Until then, there are plenty of other RPGs out there to satisfy.