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Avadon: The Black Fortress
December 23, 2010 | Jon Carr

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The Black Fortress
Spiderweb Software gave me an early Christmas present: A chance to sit down with a beta build of Avadon: The Black Fortress and write a preview. I've been a longtime fan of Spiderweb Software's GeneForge series, but never Avernum, Exile, or Nethergate. Basically, I don't like party-based RPGs which is why GeneForge always appealed to me. As it turns out it's possible to go solo in Avadon, buts it's very dangerous. You are much better served by taking a teammate or two along with you. And you know what? I liked it... a lot.

Jeff Vogel has always known how to weave an intriguing tapestry of epic questing and immersive atmosphere along with a compelling story, characters and dialogue. Avadon: The Black Fortress is no exception. Now that I've finished my preview, I can say it's easily shaping up to be his best adventure yet. Read on to find out why!

The basic premise of the story is that you are a servant of Avadon, the titular Black Fortress which also serves as your base of operations. After choosing one of 4 available character classes you are treated to the introductory text and storyline which sets you off as approaching The Black Fortress for the first time. The artwork panels on display here are amazing, and the level of detail blew me away. Once properly started it runs you through a short, but smart tutorial which serves to advance the beginning stages of the game and get you inside the fortress. Once you arrive everything is not nearly so calm, as the prisoners have escaped the dungeons and you are sent to secure them. Here is where you will begin to notice that Avadon is a slight departure from Spiderweb Software's long-running previous works such as GeneForge and Avernum. When you go on a mission you are allowed to pick one or two available teammates to come along with you in a way that reminded me of Mass Effect (which is a good thing). Since I was a Blademaster class, I took the spirited Sorceress Nathalie with me as I wanted the use of her fireball and dazing spells. And make use of them I did as we fought off giant rats, spiders, and crazed prisoners throughout the dungeons. You had to secure four prisoners in particular, and when you find them you are given the option to let them go free or fight. I decided to be mean and just attack everyone I met.

As with all Spiderweb games everything is in real time except for when you enter combat mode at which point it goes turn-based. You have so many action points per character to move, attack, cast a spell, heal and so on. Anyone familiar with a Spiderweb adventure will be instantly at home with the mechanics here. There's a new nifty combat grid around each character (or the whole area if you want it to be) which highlights them on the map. If an enemy is within that space and engaging a member of your team, they can't run away. I thought it was a realistic touch, and adds another layer of strategy. You can't just keep running away, once you get up close, you are committed to the fight. I thought this might be a problem for my fragile Sorceress, but her shield charm and my character's taunt ability kept her alive and well.

Also on display is a whole host of new weapons, skills and spells. The character screen is a treat to look at, with higher level abilities teasing you further up the tree. Each skill or spell gets more effective per rank, and gains an additional effect every several ranks, which makes them worth leveling up (reminds me of Mass Effect again, also a good thing). It remains to be seen what kind of level you reach by the end of the game, but each skill tree has three branches with active and passive skills. Each ability or spell has a tantalizing description, which is just begging to be tried out once you have the requisite level and points available.

Jeff has said Avadon will be their best looking game to date, and it's true. The graphics are smooth and pleasing to the eye, and the excellent menus combined with a sharp and functional interface make for a very tidy appearance. There is also a significantly increased number of art assets and objects around in buildings and landscapes which adds great variety and detail when exploring or fighting. Sound remains minimal with no music (play your own in iTunes) but with enough ambient chatter in towns, and combat attacks and spells packing enough punch to be satisfying.


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