I find myself thinking about the old SSI computer game Pool of Radiance. I stole several elements for my current 1E AD&D game, though not the main package. That is: the dungeon is the ruined city itself, separated by difficulty into quarters which connect with each other and with the outside. Then you have the overland map with scattered small dungeons which generally tie into the city adventure.
I like the setup, though I think it was developed mainly to accomodate the limited computing ability of the time. Separating the world into 16×16 (as I recall) blocks was 1988′s equivalent of using fog to disguise limited draw distances in 3D games.
The continuity of characters that you could port over to other Gold Box games like Curse of the Azure Bonds, then Secret of the Silver Blades, and ultimately Pools of Darkness was cool. Unfortunately you lose all your stuff every time :/ (I might be wrong on this regarding Pools of Darkness).
That said, the solid-ness and interactivity of 1990′s Eye of the Beholder is just timeless. While it has semi-realtime rather than turn-based combat and exploration, there is so much you can do with the persistent world and puzzles and stuff. I based version 2 of our Hirst Arts dungeon tiles on this game. The Eye of the Beholder sequels aren’t that hot, and games made with its engine were not much better than it. One, Dungeon Hack, was nice because it procedurally generated your dungeon randomly or by seed every game. Just one character in the party, though.
Then we have Ultima Underworld in 1992. Nice, actual 3D, lots of cool environmental opportunities, but we haven’t figured out that WASD+mouse is the definitive FPS control scheme. The engine was used for System Shock, which I love.
1998 saw Baldur’s Gate, which while pretty, eliminated 3D and most environmental interaction. I think it was a huge step back in gameplay in favor of eye candy. The engine produced Icewind Dale (superior to Baldur’s Gate I think) and Planescape: Torment (one of the best-written games I know of and the most creative of the BG engine).
Both Neverwinter Nights and Dungeon Siege were released in 2002. While NWN was easier to develop for and more fun to do multiplayer, and had more depth in general, DS was very pretty and technically had some excellent features like rolling area loading so there aren’t loading screens. In total I think NWN was very much in the vein of Pool of Radiance, while Dungeon Siege was more like Diablo (though not random or procedural, just the gameplay). In any case, a HUGE step up in graphics and as good or better gameplay than Baldur’s Gate.
Since then I haven’t played many new RPGs. A little NWN2 (SO SLOW AND BORING but I hear you just have to get past the first dozen hours and it starts getting good). Mostly I’ve been mining old games that I never got a chance to play.
Speaking of, I picked up an Avalon Hill copy of Wooden Ships and Iron Men at a thrift store yesterday for $4, which is pretty sweet. It has the rules, advanced sheet, two boards, almost all the counters. I might just send it along to someone else who needs spare counters because I see a nice version out there with stand-up ship figures. Do want. Not just for WS&IM, but because those counters would be cool for naval actions in D&D.