Which brings us to combat - never one of the Gothic series' strong points. Taking place in real-time and involving only the mouse and the movement keys, it's something that requires a period of adjustment - during which you'll find yourself laid low by any enemy that doesn't resemble an oversized chicken.
There have been a few tweaks, but the system remains similar to that used in the previous games. You now block by holding down the right button, and can use jabs, swings and devastating power attacks to break through your opponent's guard. The idea behind it is clearly to add a tactical, fencing-like element to the combat, but much of the time you find yourself simply hammering the fast attack to put your target under a withering hail of weak blows. If you don't time them right, you get smacked up faster than you can say, "Please don't kill me." An improvement it may be, but for us, it's still not quite there - though it gets better if you decide to develop your melee skills (more on that in a moment).
One Gothic staple that remains is the 'killing blow' mechanic. When you beat a human or orc, they don't die outright. As they lie helpless on the ground, you have the option of either allowing them to live or delivering a final thrust that'll finish them off. While the latter is always tempting, it's worth remembering that murder is a crime in the game: if someone sees you killing someone, you're going to get in trouble.
The character-development system has undergone a rather substantial revamp. Some things are still the same: you gain experience by killing things, eventually accruing enough to level-up. Each time you do so, you're handed ten 'learning points' to spend on improving your attributes or on learning new skills. With no character classes, you can pretty much mould your bearded, nameless avatar (the ponytail's gone now, thankfully) into anything you like. Fancy turning him into a bow-wielding hunter? Easily done.
How about a sneaking rogue? Or a badass mage? No problemo. You can mix and match these abilities, but it's wise to concentrate on one or two things only, unless you want to end up as the living embodiment of the phrase 'jack of all trades, master of none'.
New to Gothic 3 are handy skills such as 'Murder' (stab enemies from behind to kill them instantly) and 'Fighting with Two Swords' (yeah, you can probably work this one out yourself), which basically give you even more freedom in the way you develop your character. You'll still be a funny-looking bloke with a goatee, mind.
There's no level cap, so you can keep developing skills and abilities all the way through the game, and, unlike in Oblivion, enemies and other characters don't level-up with you, meaning you're not going to slay a dragon and then get iced by one of the aforementioned oversized chickens on your way home.
Instead, each type of enemy has been given a minimum and maximum level, and where they are when you meet them depends on whereabouts in this range they are.
This means that certain foes are going to be impossible to beat till you get further in the game, while others will soon become mere fodder for your sword edge. A wise decision by the developers, in our opinion: it ensures there's a reason for you to level-up (so you can get to certain places and complete certain missions) and makes the world more believable. In Oblivion, bandits end up toting equipment worth many thousands of gold coins, which doesn't make sense - that doesn't happen here.
If it all sounds a little too good to be true, that's because it is: while there's nothing particularly wrong with the game concept, the execution could be much, much better. We can accept small quirks and bugs, such as poor path-finding and bodies floating 4ft above the ground, with a bit of a chuckle. We didn't find the frequent crashes to desktop quite so charming, and we hope JoWooD has a patch in the works to sort this out.