Unless you're a German or a role-playing-game fanatic, the chances are you don't know very much about the Gothic series. Huge in the land of sauerkraut and sausages (we're talking Hasselhoff-esque levels of popularity here), the first two Gothic instalments also won praise for being among the first RPGs to successfully create a convincing world. Yep, years before Bethesda released Oblivion, a tiny German developer had produced an open-ended game where the inhabitants ate, slept, went to work, shot the breeze with their mates and, on occasion, strummed away at a lute (well, we've all done it).
Gothic 3 follows the same basic blueprint as its predecessors. You play the same bearded, nameless hero, again arriving in a new world and essentially left to do whatever you like. Whereas the previous games were set on the island of Khorinis, you've now made your way to the mainland, Myrtana. And it's in a huge mess: orcs have conquered the country, besieging the king in his fortress city and subjugating the rest of the population, forcing them either into slavery or into the arenas to fight as gladiators. Other humans have either joined the orcs as mercenaries or fled to the forests to join the rebels. Thanks in part to this unrest, the bordering nations of Varrant and Nordmar are also in flux.
Dropped into this chaos, you're free to approach the situation however you see fit. You can simply wander through the gigantic world (it's around four times bigger than Gothic 2), hunting creatures and getting your hands dirty with various side quests, or you can sink your teeth straight into the main plotline by siding with the rebels, the orcs or both.
Unlike most open-ended RPGs, Gothic 3 presents no obvious good and evil paths. The orcs, for instance, aren't just a bunch of savage killers, but a proud martial race with a fierce sense of duty and honour; the mercenaries that serve them are simply trying to make the best of a bad situation; and the rebels are striving to throw a hostile occupying force out of their homeland, but are also plagued by greed and infighting.
These factions, along with the others in the game, will offer you quests and other work, rewarding your successes with gold, experience and increasing respect. Clear out the nest of bandits troubling the village of Cape Dun and you'll earn favour with the orcs; continue doing jobs for them, or prove your prowess in the arena (orcs respect a tough guy), and eventually they'll grant you an audience with their leader. Even if you've decided to side with the rebels and chuck the orcs out of town, this comes in handy: you can now get close enough to the orc boss to slip a dagger between his ribs.
Eventually - around two-thirds of the way through the game, which should take at least 50 hours to complete - you'll have to make a final choice and join one of the main factions (see 'Faction stations', p97), but until then you're free to work for whoever you choose. It's a nice system, but nothing that'll surprise Gothic fans.
The gameworld is a huge, beautiful thing; it's not quite as eye-caressingly gorgeous as Oblivion's Cyrodiil, but it's not far off, particularly if you happen to possess the kind of processing monster that'll allow you to turn all the graphics settings up to 11. It's certainly more varied in its environments than Cyrodiil: grasslands, forests, cliffs, mountains and deserts all put in an appearance - and that's just the stuff above ground. Naturally, there are cities, towns and camps dotted around, and plenty of inhabitants, some friendly, some... Not so much.