Sunday, March 16, 2008

Review: Hard to Be a God

I had never heard of this work of Russian sci-fi/fantasy literature until this game, but it sounded intriguing to me. Kind of like a "first contact" star trek situation as seen from the other side, the low tech side. But I was also wary... an IP I'd never heard of, put together by a Dev house I'd never heard of, resulting in a game I had not heard of until its release? It could be trouble... or it could be a sleeper hit (after all, whoever heard of this "Cro-team" before the brilliance of Serious Sam?)

I took a couple weeks playing this one because (a) it's very long, and (b) my day job didn't leave me a lot of time lately.

Graphics -
The visual experience is passable for current gen equipment (and most likely playable on last gen), but they have some glaring (literally) flaws. First and foremost is the fixed camera angle and altitude. Don't be fooled by some of the promotional screenshots out there. While you can easily rotate the camera around your character, it very quickly becomes infuriating because the angle prevents you from seeing anything more than 30 feet away, rendering most ranged weapons absolutely useless. The character and creature models are diverse and detailed, and the textures skinning them are very good as well; the only gripe I have about the models is that despite it being almost standard in most games these days and despite there being lots of voiceover dialog, the human models do not have lips/jaws that move when they talk. It makes the game feel older tech than it is.

The landscapes are also lush and have plenty of polygons, but rather homogenized. I couldn't tell you from a screenshot which area of the game it was depicting, because they all look very artistically similar, bordering on identical. Sure, there are a few rocky areas and some town areas, but you spend most of your time stomping down dirt roads or tromping through forests and after a while it all gets visually tiresome. The water effects are very nice though, and there are little touches like the shadows of clouds drifting across the landscape to make it look immersive, but that same immersion is broken by two very big problems - namely, the "water on your eyes" flicker-wiggle so common to many a console game these days, and to a greater extent, the unabashed over-abuse of "bloom." Apparently the developers decided to use bloom not only for certain special effects but as their primary lighting source, as turning off bloom makes the entire game become cloaked in eternal overcast twilight, and the shading and reflectivity of the textures goes right out the window. Too many games overuse bloom (and depth of field for that matter) these days, and if you are like me and easily irritated by further bloom abuse, it's going to make you cranky here.

Now, one thing that can be applauded in this game is the motion capture of the human models. The characters move, run, walk, shuffle, and fight will remarkable realism that came as a pleasant surprise and helped mitigate many of my gripes about the game. The motions for the various moves of melee combat were particularly good. The various and myriad pieces of clothing and armor are also well executed.

Sound -
The sound effects themselves aren't noteworthy but that is often a good thing, as what most often would make SFX stand out would be low quality. The music however, can be a problem. While plainly somebody worked very hard on arranging the score, it isn't particularly stirring and it becomes repetitive rather quickly. It is nice that it shifts from pastoral normal music to a more agitated combat theme when something begins to attack you, because due to the restricted camera angle you might not always see it coming, particularly from behind or the sides. The voice actors also must be given some kudos, because they managed to smooth out some of the worst typos and translations I have seen in a game since Zero Wing. Although some of them were a little miscast, you really have to take into account what they were given to work with, and they do an admirable job.

Story -
The protagonist of the game (that being you) is a young imperial spy, fresh out of intelligence training... which makes it sound a lot more impressive than 2 years of hitting straw dummies with a dull sword and teaching you to play-dress up in various flavors of medieval garb. Your world is a feudal nightmare full of disease, death and violence, and you are sent on a mission to assassinate the leader of a rebellion in the city of Arkanar. This sends you through a number of "go here and do this" type quests to advance the main plot, while each step of the way also providing several optional side quests available for added experience. There are a dozen different factions all vying against each other and through clothing and armor you procure (mostly from the bodies of those you slay) you can disguise yourself as most of them, be it a rebel soldier, zealous monk, sneaky thief or noble don. In the course of carrying out your orders, you get caught up in a web of political intrigue and more, soon discovering that there are men in high places around Arkanar that are from another world entirely, called "Earth." The earthmen seem to be almost as Gods among the indigenous folk (who they often refer to as "aborigines") due to their technological superiority, and indeed some of the locals even consider them to be so. Your character is very soon in well over his head... who are these Earthmen? How did they get here? What do they want? Who is "the Prophet?" Are you descended from a visitor from earth?

An interesting premise, but... Really it would be a lot more impressive though if it weren't so haphazardly translated sometimes. There are plenty of "all your base" type lines (my favorite was a soldier besieging a city saying "I have no time to cope with your work! Do not drive me to distraction!" Whenever a line has a voiceover, the voice actor does an admirable job of interpreting what is really meant and delivering the line properly, even if at odds with the displayed text.

There's also a large amount of books placed throughout the game to give background and depth to the world if you are so inclined to read them... but honestly I couldn't get into it.

Gameplay -
The controls are very straightforward and it's a good thing, too, because the tutorial neglects to even tell you how to draw your weapon before expecting you to use it (it's the "tab" key, incidentally). Combat is smooth and largely simple, but a bit too console-ish for my taste. However, I must admit that even for a console-style 3rd person hack and slash, it has some nice moves. The direction the camera is facing determines the direction your character moves to face, and WASD moves him up/down/left/right with respect to the camera (not respect to himself). Left clicking performs standard attacks with your equipped weapon, clicking multiple times leads into a combination of up to 3 successive attacks. Space bar blocks/parries (arrows can only be blocked if a shield is equipped). Right-click performs a special move called a "perk," and middle-click performs a downard attack that is instant death for any enemy who has been knocked to the ground, though it takes longer than a normal attack and leaves you open while you do it.

The weapons are divided into four categories - Light, medium, heavy and ranged. Light weapons are quick and low damage and heavier weapons are slow but fearsome. There are different fighting moves (and perks) for every weapon type be it one handed, two handed, dual wielded, or with a shield (and a sword and shield together count as a heavy weapon, apparently, as far as skill goes). Your damage with each weapon, and the perks available to you with it, are determined by the number of skill points you spend on that weapon. Yes, it's an RPG, you level up and spend points to make your character grow stronger. Each level you gain gives you one point to spend on a melee weapon discipline, and two points to spend on tertiary stats such as max health, stamina, medical skill or diplomacy. It quickly becomes apparent that combat is all about the "perks," as the normal melee attacks are rather weak by comparison. Ranged weapons, as mentioned previously, are largely a joke, even the earthmen's railguns and laser pistols are of limited use (especially considering the low availability of ammunition for them on your backwards little mudball). However, combat does not advance your character much after you pass the first few levels. The only way to really get enough experience to advance your character is to get the exp rewards from finishing items in your quest log, and to seek out side quests. You get scant experience for fighting, but thousands of exp for completing a "go here and kill this" task.

One thing that is nice, though, is there is very little "dicerolling" in melee combat. The damage of your hits does have a slight variance from attack to attack even aside from armor considerations, but if your sword's polygons pass through the space occupied by some living thing, it registers a hit (unless they are blocking of course). That means that some of the moves which are wide, sweeping motions will hit several enemies at once, which is always nice. The down side of this comes from a fairly large oversight - your sword does not differentiate between friendly and hostile targets (unless said friendly is specifically following you due to plot concerns). This often got me into trouble when I was supposed to be helping, say, gate guards fend off an attack from the forces of the Prophet, and my sword nicked one of the guards so they all turned on me. I suppose this dynamic was left in place so that you could (for example) disguise yourself as a thief to infiltrate a bandit camp and then kill the leader before anyone realizes you are an enemy, but it caused me way more problems than opportunities to be duplicitous.

There definitely is a little bit of a learning curve, but most gamers will be up to speed quickly with a little practice I think. Just remember, the space bar is your friend. Most enemies you fight will have triple or more your HP, so blocking is imperative. Also, don't bother with horses until you are too rich to care about dropping 5 to 10 thousand gold on a whim, because the horse will only be useable on your current visit to the current area you are in... travel to another zone of the world and it's gone. Often this is a very large ripoff.

Disguises often are crucial to the plot. There will be many a time when you can't get through an area unless you are disguised as an FRA (Free Republic of Arkanar, the rebel faction) soldier, and most often nobles won't be very helpful at all unless they think you are a noble as well... however imperial solders will attack you on sight if you are dressed as FRA, and noble Dons are ripe targets for cutpurses and attacks from rival Dons.

Oh, and anyone familiar with Final Fantasy series games, or Baldur's Gate or Neverwinter Nights will feel right at home when it comes to loot, as you can just stroll into most houses, pack up everything of value in the boxes inside, and stroll right out again with nobody even looking at you sideways. I even looted a few chests in a merchant's shop then sold the contents right back to him.

The Final Word -
Hard to Be a God was an aggressive undertaking, and it breaks the mold in many ways but in many places it lacks polish and depth. The plot is long and interesting, but after two weeks it didn't interesting enough for me to put up with the endless amounts of plodding travelling and the aggravations outlined above. When all is said and done, I don't even want to look at this game again, but I regret that. It could have been somebody, Stella. It could have been a contender, instead of a bum, which is what it is.

Grade: C-

Here's a trailer for the game, but don't let the camera angles fool you.

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