Sitting on the shelf at the local software store, the box for Horizons: Empire of Istaria is quite a striking sight. The spread winged dragon logo superimposed over the close-up shot of the side of a black dragon's face, the large red reptilian eye staring out menacingly from the top right corner, one can hardly resist picking up the box and checking it out. Opening the front flap you see a large battle scene spread out before you. So many different beings are represented in the scene it's hard to focus on one spot. In one area a striking female archer draws a bead on some undead who are threatening a couple human warriors. Most attention grabbing in the scene definitely has to be the absolutely huge red dragon reared up on its hind legs devastating a group of three undead with its ferocious breath weapon. Across the top of the inner flap a couple of brief quotes are printed stating the game was the E3 2003 Game of Show. Flipping over to the back of the box you read:
"Welcome to Istaria, a land of limitless opportunity and adventure. Here, as one of the thousands that make up the Living Races, you will strive to co-exist under the eyes of Gods and Goddesses... and defend against the constant threat of the Undead hordes."All very eye-catching and intriguing wouldn't you say? But does the game live up to all this flashy packaging and being named E3 Game of Show by a couple websites?
The graphics in Horizons really cover both ends of the spectrum. There are some absolutely beautifully done things in the game and some other things that look like they just got lost in the shuffle. The world itself is beautiful. Every type of scenery you could possibly want is in the game, from lush green valleys to barren deserts to ice encrusted mountains. There are quite a few areas in the game that are so beautifully rendered they're worth making the trek to for no other reason than to just gaze upon them and maybe snap a screenshot or two. For example there are some beautiful ice caves with icicles hanging from the ceiling, all of which reflects light and just look absolutely stunning. Upon exiting the cave you find yourself in a bowl shaped valley which is covered by a roof of ice. If you were to take a different route to this same area you would cross a bridge made completely of ice and end up standing on the roof you were previously gazing up at from the valley. Looking down through the ice you can see the valley below you.
Spell animations are stunning and very well done. A perfect example of this is the resurrection spell. When a player is resurrected their corpse lifts off the ground and spins around as the sounds of wind whistling around and agonized moaning can be heard from the player's spirit as it is returned to it's body. Horizon's combat animations are typical for the genre. It's just the standard attack animations broken up occasionally by slightly more flashy attack animations when the player performs a 'style' or special attack.
Now the bad, some of the character animations look absolutely horrendous. When the Humans and Half-Giants run it looks like they are trying to knee themselves in the eye. It is strange that they went through the trouble of creating a separate animation for every stage of the crafting process (smelting, smithing, mining, etc) but didn't spend more time on something that the players are going to see a lot more often like the running animations. Even the races that don't look like they're trying to knee themselves in the eye when they run still look choppy. About the only race which doesn't look bad doing anything is the Dragon. Apparently they realized that being the only game which allowed players to choose Dragon as their race they were going to get a lot of people wanting to play a Dragon and wanted to make that race look as nice as possible. Some of the weapon graphics are absolutely silly looking. The Maul for example: its head is the size of your player's torso. Who in their right mind would carry around, or even worse, try to swing something with a block of iron on the end the size of their body? A lot of the staves in the game look like a tree branch which was recently torn from a tree, still complete with leaves and all.
The sound in the game is very well done. It does a really good job of adding to the atmosphere of the game. Both the music and ambient sounds change based on what's happening around your character. If you enter a dark creepy forest, the music and sounds change accordingly. The same happens when you enter combat. Combat sounds are nicely done. The spell sound effects fit the spell graphics and the melee combat sounds are believable. The only problem I see with the sounds in the game isn't really a problem with the sounds in THIS game, but a problem with the sounds and music in this genre in general. After so many hours of playing the game you've heard it all a hundred times. You can only enter a forest so many times and still get that anticipatory feeling when the music switches to that dark creepy ambiance inducing beat.