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RPG Codex Report: Gamescom 2015 - Project Daedalus, Hard West, XCOM 2, The Mandate and Fallout 4
Editorial - posted by Crooked Bee on Tue 22 September 2015, 13:07:55Tags: Bethesda Softworks; CreativeForge Games; Daedalic Entertainment; Fallout 4; Firaxis Games; Gamescom 2015; Hard West; Perihelion Interactive; The Long Journey Home; The Mandate; XCOM 2
[Report by Bubbles]
In my previous report, I noticed that the adventure game developer Daedalic seemed to have undergone a severe creative decline. Of the six presentations I had been able to book with the studio, four had been for rather shallow looking published games, and one had been for a self-developed "adventure" that looked like an interactive cartoon with minimal gameplay. The sixth presentation, however, was different.
Of course, citing classic games (and classic TV shows) as references for a project that actually has very little in common with them is a well-known marketing strategy; thus, the conscientious previewer needs to closely investigate the features of a newly announced game to make sure that it actually has the potential for good, old-school gameplay. Here's what we know: Project Daedalus is a roguelike space game that takes place in a randomly populated version of our galaxy, "based on data from the Hubble telescope." The player takes control of a group of four astronauts who launch from Earth in a small ship to test a newly developed faster-than-light drive. Predictably, the test "goes horribly wrong" and strands them at the other end of the galaxy; now the crew have to find another way to get back home. Unfortunately, their ship was not designed for long term deep space travel, and so it quickly begins to fall apart. If the crew want to make it back to Earth, they need to perform makeshift repairs and gather the materials necessary to keep the various systems of their vessel in functioning condition. The most common means of gathering materials involves finding a suitable planet (easily accomplished by using the ship's scanner… unless it breaks), manually steering the ship into its orbit, and then sending one of the planetary landers down to the surface to start harvesting. Piloting the lander is done manually by operating the thrusters and paying careful attention to environmental factors like local gravity and wind conditions; the presenter compared this aspect of the gameplay to the Moon Lander games, "except much more complex." As the lander takes damage, it will eventually be destroyed; if that happens, you will permanently lose the crew member who was chosen to pilot the ship.
All the environments in Project Daedalus are rendered in 3D through the Unreal Engine; they really look rather pretty. However, the gameplay itself – whether in space or on a planet – is limited to a 2D plane, which greatly simplifies navigation. As a counterbalance, the game features a semi-realistic physics model: if you want to go into orbit around a planet, you need to manually steer your ship into the right position at the correct speed, otherwise you'll just zip into empty space and waste valuable fuel. In the demo, the various navigation mechanics looked quite challenging; particularly the planetary lander segments caused Andreas a huge amount of trouble as his vessel tumbled into mountains and bounced down their slopes. Thankfully he was playing with an invincibility cheat. It remains to be seen exactly how difficult these mechanics will be in the final version; I'm not particularly wild about the idea putting a crew mate's life in grave risk every time I want to touch down on a planet, but I can't really argue in favour of fully automated systems either. Piloting a space ship and touching down with a lander should be hard work, and, unfortunately, the game does not offer the kind of mechanics that would allow for character skill driven gameplay.
In fact, the game doesn't seem to have any sort of character or ship development whatsoever. Project Daedalus is built around the idea that your ship is going to slowly degrade and decay – forget about upgrades and improvements, your main objective will be to just keep the damn thing in one piece for long enough to get back to Earth. Your crew also don't have any traditional stats; they only have traits. These traits express the various aptitudes and areas of knowledge of your crew members, and range from the obviously useful (Biology, Engineering) to those of highly questionable utility (Flowers, Quirky Cats). Andreas kept a tight lid on how exactly these traits would become relevant during the game: "many things are explicitly not explicit." Their only use that was shown in the presentation was for appraising new items; for example, you might find a strange glowing rock on one of the planets and bring it back on board. A biologist may say "Nutrients detected!" and recommend licking the rock to preserve food supplies, while an engineer might recognize it as a power source and argue that it should be hooked up to the engine. The player will have the ultimate choice of how to handle these events, but the crew will serve as an ever-present advisory council. Every crew member has a few different areas of expertise; I counted about six traits per person in the demo. You can only select your crew from a handful of premade characters (the current plan is for a pool of 12 recruits) who all have their own predetermined traits; thus, finding your favourite combination of crew traits becomes an important part of the roguelike's metagame.
All of these smaller game elements come together in the core gameplay system of Project Daedalus: the interaction with alien species. After their failed FTL experiment, the crew discover another method of transportation: a series of warp gates that lie in the territory of various alien species. In a combat-heavy game like Star Control I, you may have been tempted to solve your problems by firing up your blasters and blowing the filthy alien scum to smithereens; in Project Daedalus however, you are strongly discouraged from choosing violent solutions. After all, you are piloting a mere exploration vessel with extremely limited armaments, and any combat you engage in will make your ship fall apart even faster. As a consequence, you must conduct yourself very carefully to avoid armed engagement whenever possible. For example, drilling for iron on the ancient burial grounds of a powerful iron-based species would probably be a very bad idea... unless, of course, you absolutely need the iron to repair your failing life support system. In that case, you would have to carefully weigh your diplomatic options and try to figure out a way to get the iron without being blasted to pieces – perhaps by making powerful allies who can protect you. Or maybe there are some planets with naturally occurring iron deposits nearby that might be mined without causing offence; but how do you find out which planets those are? One solution might be to make contact with the iron-based aliens and figure out how to ask them about iron deposits without upsetting them. But making first contact is a complicated endeavour in itself: for starters, do you approach the aliens with raised shields or with lowered shields? One species might see a ship with lowered shields as an invitation to shoot, while another might be put at ease by the lack of protection. If you manage to open communications, your universal translator can turn their garbled speech (the species are all "fully voiced" with a range of dynamically generated sounds) into intelligible text. Each species has its own kind of speech impediment; some might hissssssss at random intervals, others could slur their words or affect a strong lisp. They also come with their own portraits and a system of their personal likes and dislikes, so you can, ideally, form a clear image of the species in your head. Unfortunately, it looked to me like these species were not pre-determined, but were instead the merely the result of a random generator; thus, I wouldn't expect to see anything like the carefully characterized species from Star Control II in this game. It remains to be seen whether the final version of this system will be robust enough to make the alien species seem "real" in their own right, or whether they will simply come across as a random combination of oddities.
The actual inter-species dialogues are handled through a keyword based system. Your dialogue choices are split into a bar at the top and a large window below it: the bar lets you choose between three possible verbal actions (Question, Praise, and Dislike), while the window gives you a selection of keywords you can apply the actions to. For example, if you want to make peace with the iron-based species, it might be a smart idea to start your conversation with "Praise Iron"; if you want to approach their enemies for protection, you might start off with "Dislike Iron". Of course you can also ask your crew for advice; their special traits might be helpful in figuring out the right keywords to talk about. Again, our presenter was frustratingly vague about the capabilities of this system, and how many different types of diplomatic situations it could be applied to. He did, however, show one example where he found an alien artefact known as a "flux capacitor" on a planet and tried to figure out what to do with it by asking around with the other species. One of them accepted the capacitor as a quest item and gave him a reward for it. Andreas also talked about having in hidden keywords as Easter eggs, so that choosing "Praise Enterprise", for example, might give you some sort of cute in-game message. As I understand it, the possibility of entering "hidden" keywords strongly implies that we can type our own keywords into the UI and see how the game reacts to them; unfortunately, the presenter once more did not elaborate further on this feature.
Project Daedalus is a game with great potential: especially the diplomacy systems could, in theory, provide players with a large variety of complex and dynamic challenges. Unfortunately, it's still completely unclear to me how deep these systems will actually be. If the gameplay just boils down to a series of moon lander minigames, combined with quests along the lines of "find item x to pass through the gate", "ask species y about item x to find out where it's located" and "praise z to make peace", then the game could get boring very quickly. The randomized races are also a red flag for me; much of the charm of the Star Control II races derives from their careful design, which couldn't possibly be emulated by a randomizer that simply throws different traits together. And yet, there are also many positive signs to be found: making a roguelike that has diplomacy instead of combat as its main gameplay element is in itself a laudable choice. Additionally, the introduction of constant ship attrition strikes me as a clever way of implementing complex resource management and maintenance mechanics without having to offer a traditional ship upgrade system; that kind of system simply wouldn't fit the premise of this game. The crew traits also add a welcome measure of mystery to the gameplay: how exactly could an interest in "quirky cats" ever be relevant to space exploration? And finally, the developer's excellent taste in pop culture should also not be completely discounted. Could a game inspired by Star Control 2 and Farscape really be all that bad? (Full disclosure: he also asked for "Firefly fans" at one point, but I would interpret that more as a last ditch attempt at mainstream popularity. Naturally, all the uncultured swine in the room knew Firefly.)
We'll know the answers to all of these questions soon enough, as Project Daedalus is scheduled to be released for PC, Mac and Linux in the first half of 2016. Perhaps the lack of a simultaneous console release can be taken as an indicator that this game may be able to buck the general trend of decline at Daedalic; we won't know anything for sure until the game is actually released. Of course, some of our forum members are going to buy Project Daedalus no matter what – during Gamescom, it was announced that the game's soundtrack would be created by none other than Kai Rosenkranz of Gothic and Risen 1 fame (the announcement video for Rosenkranznatics can be found on youtube along with a short presentation of the game). Rosenkranz has a substantial fan base on the Codex, probably aided by the fact that he bailed on the Risen series just before it became terrible; thus, his work has always been associated with decent-to-great games. Now he's chosen Project Daedalus for his return to the gaming industry. A mere coincidence or a profound omen of things to come? We shall see.
I attended this presentation on Friday morning at the Cosmocover booth. When I announced myself to the receptionist, he greeted me with a slew of Game of Thrones-related puns about my name before recommending that I perform a dropkick through the door to the presentation booth to make sure that I get a seat. Cosmocover were clearly working hard to be the zaniest PR company at Gamescom. By contrast, my presenter Kacper Szymczak from the Polish developer CreativeForge was a reasonably serious sort of guy, who managed to suppress his base potato nature for long enough to conduct a professional presentation. Kacper was the lead designer on Hard West, and he began by laying out the main features of his new game: Hard West was a turn based squad combat game with strategy elements, not entirely dissimilar to the new XCOM. It was set in the "Weird West", a version of the Wild West that was "full of supernatural elements, ghosts, demons, shit like that." The player would lead a squad of up to four characters through eight story-driven scenarios (a better term might be "mini-campaigns", since each scenario contains multiple missions) that all had different plot hooks. As one example, he mentioned an "expedition scenario" that involved leading a group of explorers on a search for the golden city in Latin America. The scenarios would feature a variety of protagonists; the gameplay would be focussed on combat, but it would also offer resource management and a healthy amount of choices&consequences.
To demonstrate some of the more complex mechanics, Kacper fired up a mission from one of the scenarios: the player's squad had hurried to rescue the seer Cassandra from a public execution in the main square of a small western town. When the group arrived, the game did not immediately switch to combat mode. Instead, the characters could scout around the map and try to find the best vantage points and best places for cover before they launched their rescue operation. However, if you moved a character into the vision range of one of the enemy guards, the guard would gradually become suspicious; if you loitered too long, they would eventually recognize you as a threat and shout out a warning to their colleagues. Kacper offered two basic approaches to work around this problem: option one was to send in a squad of "small, wimpy guys" with easily concealed weaponry. This kind of group had "low heat"; they could avoid detection by enemies more easily, which gave them a chance to explore more of the map and find the ideal vantage points before launching an assault. Alternatively, you could send in a "high heat" group of dangerous looking brutes with big guns; these guys would be more effective in combat, but they could also be discovered very quickly. To compensate for the lack of scouting ability in high heat groups, the game offers a "threaten" mechanic: a squad member can walk up to an unsuspecting guard and hold them at gunpoint to prevent them from sounding the alarm, which opens up additional tactical possibilities for the rest of your squad. Your group's ability to threaten people scales directly with their heat; holding somebody at bay with a pea shooter is simply less effective than pointing a big shotgun at them. A well-managed high heat group can threaten a lot of enemies at once: Kacper claimed that you could rob a well-defended bank without ever raising the alarm if you managed to equip and position your guys correctly. Of course, you can only keep people threatened if you keep them in your line of sight at all times, which will greatly limit your positioning options. Thus, a low-heat group that sneaks through areas should still be able to position itself more effectively than a high-heat group that relies on threatening enemies.
Once combat starts, the characters have a variety of tactical options at their disposal. Most weapons have a different firing mode; revolvers, for example, can be fanned to produce faster shots with lowered accuracy. You can also look around the map for visual clues about an enemy's position. In the demo, Kacper showed us a suspicious man-shaped shadow that was cast from a position outside of our line of sight. Now that our presenter knew where the bad guy was, he could use his character's special "ricochet" ability to bounce a bullet towards the enemy's location without having to reposition himself. These special abilities are managed through a very neat looking system that was based on playing cards. When your squad finishes a mission or explores a location, they might be rewarded with one of 24 "cards". Each of these cards can be assigned to one of your characters to unlock a special ability for them. Furthermore, these cards can be arranged into poker hands that give extra bonuses to a character based on the rarity of the hand; for example, if you outfitted one of your squad members with a card combination that amounted to a royal flush, he would gain an extremely powerful passive boost. However, you would have to keep all of these ability cards on the same character, which would limit your build choices for the rest of your squad. I'm not quite sure if this downside will be sufficient to compensate for the big passive bonuses from a complex hand, especially with so many cards available in the game; we'll have to hope that the developers will be able to balance this mechanic.
The active abilities in Hard West seem nicely varied and extremely powerful. One of the cards grants the aforementioned "ricochet", another grants an ability that gives the user a few extra action points, and a third temporarily lowers the hp of all friendly and enemy units on the map to 1, so that every hit is a kill. If you used these three abilities together in one combat round, you might be able to kill all your enemies without even allowing them to take a shot: "you can finish the combat in the first round." These ability combos seemed rather powerful to me, so I asked Kacper at the end of the presentation how he was planning on balancing them. Only then did he mention a rather important aspect of the combat system: the "luck" meter. In practice, the luck mechanic works like this: every time you use a special ability, you lose some luck. Having low luck makes you easier to hit and also makes it harder for you to hit enemies. If you want to replenish your luck during combat, you have two main options: you can either try to pull off a chain kill (which will be more difficult if you are already at low luck), or you can take damage, which will also make you luckier. Since losing luck has such drastic consequences, you might be tempted to simply avoid using abilities as much as possible, and instead remain at high luck to reap the passive benefits. But no, this has also been accounted for: every successful hit you make also decreases luck, and being missed by enemy attacks makes you more unlucky as well. Now, I'm fully supportive of artificial and "gamey" design elements when they stand in the service of balanced gameplay, but this whole mechanic just seemed tremendously strange to me. Where did such an idea even come from? Thankfully, all was revealed in the end, when Kacper asked for my contact info and I mentioned that I was from the Codex. His face lit up like the morning sky on a fresh spring day, and he proclaimed that he was very happy indeed to make my acquaintance. He asserted that we were a great community that had offered a lot of constructive criticism to the developers; we had really helped them to make a better game. As evidence for that claim, he mentioned the luck mechanic in particular, which had been designed "based on Codex input." Is this yet another feather in our most prestigious Codex Cap, or merely further evidence that the posters in Strategy Gaming shouldn't be allowed to talk to strangers? We report, you decide.
The developers are also attempting to bring some spice into low-health situations that might otherwise prompt an automatic reload from players. When a character in Hard West drops to low hit points, he will receive an injury. This means that he will be severely weakened for the remainder of the battle, and if he survives, he will sustain a permanent stat loss based on the injured body part. For example, a character who was shot in the foot would never be able to move at full speed again. But even injuries have their positive side: the character is now a "survivor", which gives him more grit and confidence, and increases his aim in combat. This is another feature with a fair share of potential problems; if the bonus for surviving is large, then it might actually be useful to let your characters get injured in low-priority body parts once or twice just to reap the rewards. Imagine, for instance, a sniper type character who picks the best vantage point on the map during the scouting phase, and then stays in that one spot for as long as possible – how much would an old foot injury really matter to him? On the other hand, if the survivor bonus is low, or the downside very large, then I suspect most people would either reload upon receiving an injury, let the character die and move on, or save them for story reasons and then replace them with another, healthy crew member who would be superior in battle. It seems to me that this system will need to maintain a delicate balance to work properly, and I am not sure if it is interesting and useful enough to justify that effort.
Hard West also features an overworld travel map. Some locations are unlocked as part of the main story in each scenario, while others can be unlocked through exploration – think Wasteland 2, only prettier. The final game is supposed to have "dozens of locations" to discover. Many of these locations are going to feature non-combat events that are presented through text windows; in the demo, the group stumbled upon a grisly scene by a riverbank, where dead bodies were lying splayed out in the sun. The corpses had not yet been looted, and one of the companions wanted to fill his pockets. However, looting dead bodies was considered to be "bad luck" in the world of Hard West. Therefore, the group leader had a choice to make: should she allow the companion to rummage through the bodies with the promise of finding useful loot, but risk bad luck for the group (presumably, this means losing luck points), or would she play it safe, but alienate her companion in the process? These small decision events should add a lot of colour to the game, even though the magnitude of their consequences is still unclear. Kacper also mentioned other types of decisions that will emerge during the scenarios. For instance, Cassandra has a special ability that allows her to see into the future. This can be used to predict ambushes and scout out maps, or it may simply be used to cheat at poker. Unfortunately, using this ability tires her out, making her less effective in combat. Thus, you need to carefully consider when Cassandra should use her ability, and when it might be better to keep her in top fighting shape instead. The main quests are supposed to offer multiple solutions as well; Kacper mentioned rooting out the members of a secret order, which could be accomplished by either gathering clues and talking to people, or by simply killing all the suspects.
Finally, the presenter showed off a "bank robbery" map; he noted that the bank manager had made a deal with demons, whom he would summon by telegram (obviously) as soon as he noticed danger. However, the crew could cut the telegraph wires to stop the demons from arriving. Kacper explained that all the maps and mission objectives were handcrafted to avoid repetition. With these words, he scrolled over to a part of the map that was under "demonic influence": everything was slathered in gore, and a "corpse cart" stacked with human body parts lingered balefully in a corner. Clearly, the developers were not aiming for subtlety. One of the major decisions on this map involved determining the fate of a prisoner: "he's called the Child Eater, for a very good reason." The player could choose to release him as a powerful ally, but this act might have dangerous consequences down the road. By this point, I had noted down two potential major issues with Hard West: firstly, that the various abilities and passive bonuses from poker cards could cause the gameplay to devolve into a repetitive, unbalanced mess, despite the developer's best efforts to prevent that. And secondly, that the presentation of the game's horror themes was simply too over the top to be horrifying in any way. I don't know if meeting a guy called the "Child Eater" on a map littered with human viscera was intended to be funny, but I really struggled to take this stuff seriously. The combat animations in the demo also looked quite silly to me, with every successful shot causing veritable fountains of blood to gush out of the target. If Hard West is actually meant to have a pulpy, over the top atmosphere, then I'd say the devs have done a pretty good job of realizing that. If, however, this game is supposed to evoke a genuine sense of horror and terror, then, in my opinion, it has missed its goal by miles.
Hard West is scheduled to be released later this year on PC, Mac, and Linux. Apart from my concerns about balance and atmosphere, the game seems to offer a fun variety of scenarios and an impressive range of interesting combat abilities, which is a rare combination in today's gaming landscape. I'll be keeping a cautious eye on it.
Yes, I attended two presentations on turn based squad combat games back to back. Although "attended" might be too lofty a word to describe my experience with this particular game. XCOM 2's developer Firaxis was based in the 2k megabooth, which was entirely too large for its own good. When I approached the receptionist and told him that I had two bookings for XCOM 2 and Mafia 3, he responded that he had no record of my bookings and was unable to let me in. I told him to check again. He proceeded to stare at his screen in total silence for over a minute; then he told me that his computer had crashed. He borrowed somebody else's laptop and when through a laborious log-in procedure; finally, he confirmed that I had indeed been booked for the presentations, but that I had now missed by appointment and that he had to change my schedule. The whole process was agonizingly slow; by the time he had entered the dates and written them down on a piece of paper, I'd spent a full 15 minutes with the guy. Finally, the receptionist opened the security barrier and told the guard inside to let me through.
I had a few more minutes to spare, so I looked around the room. The 2k lounge was busy and ostentatious. The walls were littered with framed soccer and basketball jerseys; the spaces in between were filled by large flat screen TVs that covered various sports and racing events. The bar was offering several varieties of coffee, most of them sold out. Almost all of the people in the booth seemed to be developer and publisher staff; they chatted loudly about the challenges of child rearing, the weather in Ireland, and the stress of having a long commute. Finally, I made my way towards the presentation booths. There were about two dozen booths, all of them managed by three receptionists whose job was to stand in a long corridor all day while holding a clipboard to check off the names of the booth visitors. You may wonder why these poor people were not allowed to take a seat at some point: perhaps it is enough of an answer to tell you that they were all tall, slim women in their early 20s, wearing extraordinarily tight red dresses. When I approached the woman in charge of the X-COM 2 presentation, she was in the process of giving a series of increasingly tight hugs to a grinning booth visitor while giggling girlishly and screaming "He's my husband! Naah, just kidding!" "That guy must be from IGN," I thought. I decided to give her some time to calm down, and booked a Mafia presentation with her rather disgusted looking colleague instead. This led to a few minutes of flipping through the clipboard, confirming that I had made a new appointment, asking how my name was spelled, how rpgcodex.net was spelled, and then informing me that I had just missed the start of the Mafia 3 presentation, that all the doors were now physically sealed shut due to company policy (this was a transparent lie, presumably also due to company policy), and that I had to come back in 25 minutes. Somewhere, in some other Gamescom booth, people were learning interesting new things about video games. I realized that there was only one decent thing to do: I had to simply forget about that stupid bloody action game and focus all my attention on getting into a XCOM 2 presentation, which would no doubt be cool and interesting and justify all the goddamn time I'd wasted so far. I spent another few minutes repeating my registration process with Ms. Giggles, and then parked myself in a crowd of other waiting attendees. We were 15 people, standing in that corridor, waiting for something to happen. Finally, two of the doors opened simultaneously. 14 people walked into the Mafia 3 booth, and I walked into the XCOM 2 booth.
There's nothing sadder than meeting a community manager who doesn't have a community. When my presenter Kevin Schultz saw that I had come as a group of one, he began to pace around the room, checking the technical equipment and making sure all the cables were still plugged in. After a minute or two, he popped outside into the corridor to see if there were any eager fans waiting for the presentation. There weren't. Then, silently, he sat down next to me, arranged his features into the best approximation of a smile that he could muster, and asked me if I was familiar with the XCOM franchise. I had some hard questions prepared for this man, but I just couldn't bring myself to be aggressive to him. Instead, I lobbed him some disgustingly easy questions about whether Firaxis wanted to preserve the legacy of the old games ("We do."), if they were listening to their old school fans ("We are."), and if managing expectations for their games was difficult ("It is."). Finally, I tried to touch the issue of XCOM 1's enemy spawn system, commonly known as the "pod activation system." The first game's spawn system was extremely limited and predictable, and many Codexers considered it to be in dire need of changing. Kevin answered that the developers were aware of these problems and were working on a solution, but that they had no information to share yet. Afterwards, the two of us watched the base gameplay trailer, which actually contained very little gameplay. At one point, there was a cute little gag about a place called "Gamescom" where the first resistance fighters against the alien invasion had gathered. I felt sad. Then Kevin gave me his card, we smiled at each other, and he sent me on my way.
This was easily the biggest waste of time of my Gamescom experience. I spent almost 80 minutes in the 2k booth with absolutely nothing to show for it. The organization was a shambles, the "presentation" was nothing but a youtube video, and the presenter was unwilling or unable to say anything of substance. I know that big publishers are meant to be a powerful source of PR for the developers they represent, but surely Firaxis was not benefiting in any way from this awkward display of total press disinterest. And yet, this was not the worst presentation of Gamescom.
When Crooked Bee had finally managed to secure this booking for me, she gave me two tasks: to take as many pictures as possible, and to steal a Fallout 4 branded cup. I accomplished both of these tasks, and very little else. The Fallout 4 presentation was housed inside the Zenimax booth in the press area. Brother None had already warned me that interacting with this publisher might not by all people be construed as the most pleasant experience, according to certain subjective standards that he, by way of expressing his own personal opinion, which was in no way the opinion of inXile or any other corporate entity he was affiliated with, past or present, happened to share at that precise moment in time. However, I was still insufficiently prepared for the experience to come. Getting inside was easy enough; the receptionist looked at my name, noticed that I was working for "rpgcodex.net", and said: "So, you're a German working for an English language publication? That's cool!" I passed into the tiny waiting area and took some pictures.
There was nothing to do except stand around and wait. The two main attractions were an open unattended box of Fallout 4 t-shirts and a food display consisting of an old pretzel and two meat sandwiches that had started to turn. I could look across the food counter to the other side of the booth, where the Doom presentations were being held; the people over there seemed to be having fun. After ten minutes of waiting, the entrance door opened again, and a swarm of about 30 college-aged males poured through the narrow corridor. I fled through a newly opened side door, which led me straight into the "Fallout 4 cinema." Everybody else swarmed in after me. The room was pitch black. A bulky dude, possibly a security guard, closed the door behind us and issued a few company-mandated words of greeting: "Welcome to the Fallout 4 presentation. Enjoy the film. Please don't take any pictures." Then we heard a short recorded audio message from Todd Howard, who welcomed us to Gamescom and told us that we were going to see something really cool. Then we watched the SPECIAL series: Strength video. The violent death scenes got a few laughs. Afterwards, we watched about 8 minutes of continuous gameplay footage; the male protagonist was killing an endless stream of ghouls who were swarming at him from all directions in the middle of a ruined city. BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! Scores of feeble ghouls fell before the mighty Vault Dweller, some of them in slow motion. The guys around me whispered to their neighbours: "Whoa!" "Wow!" "Geil!". This was what they had come for. Then the film ended. The showing had taken precisely 10 minutes. Some people got up and gave a standing ovation. The security guard spoke again, and I quote his exact words: "Thank you, that was all we had to show you today. You can leave now." He didn't have to tell me twice; I was the first out the door. As we left, a staffer sauntered towards us and started handing out the Fallout 4 t-shirts from the box. There were only four shirts left, and they were all size M. Finally, I remembered that I was supposed to bring a branded cup, so I grabbed a cup full of coffee spoons from the bar on my way out. The lady behind the bar didn't care. I didn't care either.
If there's a lesson to be learned here, it might go something like this: don't waste your time with bad games from bad companies. Zenimax didn't need to offer us interviews or in-person presentations. All it took were a guard, a cinema, and some t-shirts to make Fallout 4 the most well-attended and most well-received presentation of my Gamescom visit. This game was a commercial success from the moment it was announced; the question of quality never even figured into it.
I didn't want to end an article with Fallout 4, so I moved the hotly anticipated space RPG The Mandate into this slot instead. This was a two-on-two presentation: the presenters were two lower ranking members of the dev team from Perihelion Interactive, while the journos were me and a guy from Eurogamer. This was my first brush with AAA journalism greatness, so I paid close attention to my colleague's every movement; unfortunately, he spent most of the presentation in a state of graceful hibernation, just holding up his microphone and staring blankly at the presenters. And who can blame him? The presentation opened up with a long string of buzzwords and marketable brand names. The Mandate was inspired by Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and Firefly. It was "Pirates! in space." It was the first ever space game that would offer both ship management and crew management – all other games had only offered one of the two, but never both! The developers were "bringing 36th century space to 21th century games," while "drawing inspiration from the history of the Napoleonic Empire." As far as I could tell, all of this meant absolutely bupkis, but at least it was funny to listen to.
Character creation in The Mandate was about shaping the future through choices and consequences. In concrete terms, that meant choosing a Mass Effect-style backstory delivered through a text adventure. These choices made in this adventure would have "short term, mid term, and long term consequences": "if you choose not to help a guy during your backstory, he might come back to haunt you." I've heard this kind of talk three times for each of the Mass Effect games, so I'm sure the devs will forgive me for not feeling particularly hyped about this feature. The discussion then turned to the ground breaking inclusion of crew management in a game that also featured ship management. That's two games in one! Of course, as the captain, you were too busy to interact with the common plebs of the crew directly; instead, you would "only interact with your officers", issuing them general orders while the rest of the crew remained background noise. Thus, "crew management" really meant "officer management." The devs explained that your officers would "level just like you"; you, the captain, would start at level 3, while the officers would start at level 1, but otherwise there would be no difference. Here's a feature that will knock your socks off: when officers die, they're going to get a funeral on the ship, with a little coffin and everything. You, the captain, will personally pop down for a cutscene to deliver the eulogy, "Total War style". Amazing, no? And that's what the developers had to say about crew management.
Next up: ship management. The Mandate would offer "50 different ships, with 36 different variations." I'm not sure if you're supposed to multiply, add, or subtract these numbers to get the total number of ships, but either way that's a lot of ships! Of course you could command multiple vessels as well: the maximum were six ships, which were grouped in a "battle squadron;" five of these ships would be controlled by NPCs. Oh, and there were star bases of course. This is what the devs had to say about star bases in The Mandate: "they are basically a complement to your ship." You could assign officers to manage your star bases for you, which would be beneficial in various yet-to-be-finalized ways. The developers were eager to stress that The Mandate was "not a 4X game," which is apparently something that a lot of people are confused about, but that star bases would indeed bring some sort of economic benefit. Moving on, they mentioned the fun and exciting space combat. And the fun an exciting boarding combat. These two types of combat ran simultaneously: when you engaged an enemy ship in battle, you would give orders to your officers aboard your ship, you would give orders to the captains of your escorts, and you would also give orders to your boarding crews aboard the enemy ship. The developers stayed vague about the concrete types of orders you could give during ship combat, but they did mention that you could order your officers to target different sections of the enemy ship depending on where their shields were weakest. This added a layer of tactical depth to the gameplay.
Boarding combat represented a turning point for our presentation; this was the only aspect of the game that could be shown and explained in detail. The other aspects – the character creation, the ship management, the crew management, the star bases, the emotionally engaging Total War-style funeral speeches, and the pew-pew space combat – were "not ready yet." Of course, The Mandate was only kickstarted in December 2013, and this doesn't seem like the kind of game that could be done in two years, so I have no complaints about this. So then, boarding combat: basically, you get a bunch of squads with different specializations, who had previously been organized and trained by your officers. Now, you would command these squads on a "fast-paced" mission aboard the enemy ship, simultaneous to the ship combat that was unfolding on the outside. To me, this basically looked like an RTS game where you sent a few dozen soldiers from one end of a corridor maze to the other, cleaning up trash mobs along the way. Although these squads were under your command, the individual members were being controlled by "one cohesive AI", a revolutionary new system that was still being worked on, but that would, eventually, simulate real life squad tactics by dynamically adapting to the squad's environments and to the presence of enemies. Speaking of the interior environments, they apparently featured "procedural textures" in the Unity engine, which was supposedly a very cool thing that I honestly understand nothing about. Finally, the developers added that they were approaching boarding combat "from an MMO perspective", because many of them had worked on MMOs before. I don't quite know what that was supposed to tell me; maybe they meant that they had experience with raid design.
Finally, it was time to ask questions. The Eurogamer guy had turned off his mike and was already packing up, but I was eager for more info. I asked them a question based on a suggestion from famous forums poster Zorba the Hutt:
Bubbles: Your game is really extremely ambitious. Many people feared you were going to cut down on some features -- instead, you've been announcing new ones. Do you think you have a handle on feature creep? Should we be worried that this game may end up running out of money?
The devs smiled and said that they had this well under control and were well funded. As they were speaking, I noticed a sudden movement from my right: my Eurogamer colleague had stopped packing and was now leaning forward in his seat, staring straight at the developers with a strange, hungry look in his eyes. He interrupted their answer: "You know, I'm not impressed by what I've seen here today. I've seen failure many times, and this looks like failure to me." Mr. Eurogamer went on to explain that he considered the scope of the gameplay to be vastly unrealistic; a game like this had "never been achieved before", and the devs had not convinced him that they could achieve it. The Mandate was "at least three games in one." (By the way: one of the presentation slides had also mentioned planetary exploration and away missions, although the devs had not been eager to talk about those aspects of the gameplay.)
Our interview partners did not seem prepared for this change in atmosphere; they were dead silent for a while, just listening to my colleague tearing them to shreds. If the Codex had made a remark like this, they could have just shrugged it off, but this was Eurogamer – they could not ignore him. They tried multiple angles to defuse the situation: first, they mentioned that they were currently working with "8 or 10 development tools" and were committed to getting them all "working perfectly for the community" at launch to enable easy modding and further content creation. However, this unfortunately required more development time. That little factoid didn't really address any of Eurogamer's concerns, so instead they tried to argue from a position of experience: "We haven't discussed this openly, but many of the people on the staff are veterans from other games [this means MMOs, mostly]. One of our guys has worked on the Assassin's Creed games." Again, I fail to see how that was meant to reassure us in any way; as far as I'm aware, none of the Assassins Creed games were funded through Kickstarter, and none of them promised full moddability, simultaneous fleet and boarding combat, or a revolutionary RTS AI. Then they took their final stab by explaining how the game would be financially viable despite its large scope: "we have a publisher" [EuroVideo, who according to a Kickstarter update also allows the developers "full creative control. Full stop."], which meant a lot more funding. The Mandate was really a long-term investment: "we're also laying the groundwork for future RPGs with this release." This was a slightly more convincing, although it didn't address the problem of the massive delays in the game's development schedule. The fact that a game of this scope was originally announced as going into beta in January of 2015, 12 months after the start of pre-production, strikes me as utterly absurd. Since then, the game's alpha has been postponed twice, and is currently scheduled for "we will get back to you." Unfortunately, the devs had nothing more to tell us, so we had to take our leave. They made sure to bribe me with a shoulder bag and a bunch of cheap swag, including a USB stick in the shape of a star ship. My colleague from Eurogamer was a bit too old for swag, so instead they invited him to next year's Gamescom, where they expected to have "more stuff to show." Naturally, The Mandate does not have an official release date yet.
This concludes the coverage of my Mandate presentation. However, conscientious reporter that I am, I also ventured into the hands-on booth to try out a bit of boarding combat myself. I went there late on Friday afternoon, after all my other work had been accomplished. There was no time pressure, just me and the game in a mostly deserted booth. It was awful. The hands-on was a "pre-alpha", which meant that there were no group selection options, only rudimentary AI, and almost no gameplay beyond "click to move." I pressed hotkey 1 to select group 1 and told them to move towards the other side of the map; on the way, they engaged a bunch of enemies and killed them. I did the same with groups 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8, watching them slowly walk through a string of comically oversized featureless corridors that were meant to resemble the inside of a ship while auto-killing the occasional enemy squad. A few of the squads had grenades which I could lob at enemies, but this did not contribute to the fun. Occasionally, other people tried their luck at the other hands-on stations; all of them gave up within a minute. The controls were clunky, the gameplay was shallow and dull to watch… there was just nothing to enjoy here. If this pre-alpha had been merely intended for testing, it would be perfectly fine. But this was promoted as a big, public hands-on on an expensive looking stage in the middle of an overcrowded convention floor; the devs even encouraged us to go check it out during our presentation. That somebody could put so much promotional effort into something so rough and unconvincing is baffling to me. I couldn't quite tell you if the Mandate devs are scam artists, if they are delusional, or if they're merely suffering from some truly incredibly bad luck; either way, there seems to be something deeply wrong with this project, and I'm very excited to see what's going to happen next.
Next up: The final feature! Only one game remains. Are you brave enough to face… Expeditions: Viking?