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Drakan: Order of the Flame

Third-person action-adventure games of the Tomb Raider ilk have so far followed a simple formula of third-person perspective, attempts at character development and plot, and detailed locations and puzzles. Drakan certainly fits the bill, with the emphasis on attempting character and plot development, rather than actually succeeding. It's a shame the designers seemed more interested in working on Rynn's physique than imbuing her with any personality, but that's more than made up for by Arokh.

It gives me a small amount of satisfaction that developers Surreal have surpassed both of the last two tomb raids, even though Drakan doesn't accomplish much more than that. The puzzles are strictly average and formulaic. There are so many levers that need pulling in this game-world that it's almost a relief to be finally searching for a key. Many of Drakan's 11 levels are vast, but an excellent map function supplies a basic idea of where you are supposed to be heading, with the objectives scrawled on and crossed out as they are completed.

However, it's not long before Drakan plays its ace in the hole Arokh the dragon. Your partner through much of the game, Arokh is a huge red dragon used as a conduit to the history of the characters and items you need to recover. He's also a very powerful weapon. He looks incredibly cool, moves amazingly well, uses virtually the same control method as when you're on the ground and has some badass flame breath. The fireball is cunningly vital to some of the end-game sequences when you're tempted to use the more powerful poison, ice, lightning, and exploding options picked up after defeating bosses. But dragon-to-dragon dogfighting is the game's highlight in both single-player and multi-player. After proving yourself adept with a sword, slashing and sashaying all in the same move, it's a delight to find Arokh and get to the real good bits.

The engine does manage to convey some beautiful terrain effects, from cascading waterfalls to eerily lit lava-filled caverns, but while Drakan excels graphically with some fantastic textures (the giants and dual-sword-wielding guardians being the highlights)its visuals are let down by the enemies' overly square shapes. An adjustable fogging distance creates limited visibility to keep the framerates acceptable at the cost of obscuring the wonderful vistas.

In this fantasy world, the sound effects of weapon clatter and mood music are expertly used. While support for 3D audio is a luxury, the most benefit comes purely from a solid subwoofer to add resonating bass to the pounding explosions of dragon-to-dragon combat. With such excellent sound, it's a shame that Rynn doesn't have anything interesting to say for herself.

It's also a real shame that there are so many damn bugs running rampant. Clipping problems plague the engine, undermining the solid level design, and require liberal use of the quick-save feature to guard against falling through scenery to a bitter death (which happened to me three times). Other crashes occurred when trying to change items in the inventory while invisible.

By the end, the epic battles, intense puzzling, and terrific textures had me forgiving those deaths at the hands of bugs and scenery and clipping. Drakan has its problems, but it's still a worthier action-adventure than any of the recent Tomb Raider wannabes.

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