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RPG Codex Gamescom Report, Part 2: Futuristics and the Popping of Moles
Editorial - posted by Crooked Bee on Thu 28 August 2014, 20:48:24Tags: Clandestine; Hellraid; Little Green Men; Logic Artists; Obsidian Entertainment; Pillars of Eternity; Raven's Cry; Reality Pump; Techland
In this article, Darth Roxor continues to recount his impressions of all things he saw at this year's Gamescom. Part 1 can be found here.
[Written by Darth Roxor; edited by Infinitron]
As promised, here’s Part 2 of my Gamescom report. In today’s episode, you will learn about Little Green Men’s Starpoint Gemini 2, Logic Artists’ Clandestine, Obsidian Entertainment’s Pillars of Eternity, Techland’s Hellraid and Reality Pump’s Raven’s Cry.
Warning: May contain games streamlined for modern audiences.
Starpoint Gemini 2
A quick preview of Starpoint Gemini 2 was what opened my second day at Gamescom. It was handled by engine developer Hrvoje Kelemenić.
Starpoint Gemini 2 is a space simulator where you take up the badge of ship captain and go off on an adventure full of trading, bounty hunting and exploring. The main inspiration behind the game is Freelancer, which the developers name-dropped constantly while discussing its various systems and features.
The showcase’s first half was dedicated almost solely to the topic of customisation of your ship and crew, and I have to admit it made me sweat Excel spreadsheets. For starters, you get to choose one of three classes for your captain, each with its own specialisations. The commander is mostly focused on ship and crew management, the gunner is a combat specialist, and the engineer augments allied and enemy ships in various ways. There are 70 ships to choose from in the game, from small-time corvettes to massive warships. Your ship has many elements that need to be managed, including various combat abilities, perks, crew members, officers (who bring benefits similar to the various commander classes), and all sorts of utility, offence, defence and engine systems. You can also hire mercenaries and get your own mini-fleet, but you must observe them carefully, since they may rebel if their paychecks don’t arrive on time. The sheer number of possibilities is insane from the looks of it, and I can’t wait to min-max my own USS Munchkin.
Cruising through (un)known space and becoming rich & famous is apparently this game’s chief goal, and there are many activities you can undertake to reach that goal. The game world is very large (Hrvoje told me that travelling through it diagonally from one end to the other takes about 20 minutes) and densely packed with opportunities, as well as planets and factions with which you can trade and cooperate. If I understood correctly, factions are divided into three “categories” - pirates/outlaws, local planetary populations and system-wide corporations – and each one has a reputation slider that changes dynamically depending on your activities. The reputation mechanic can be seen as more of an outlaw-lawful alignment system, though, as it’s been designed specifically for the purpose of not allowing you to be friends with “everyone”. Thus, helping pirates assault merchant ships will piss off the corporations, etc.
Travelling between systems, you may run into all sorts of random encounters, such as wanted pirates after your booty, two rival factions terminally settling their differences, anomalies, or floating wrecks waiting to be scavenged. Very often these moments will require you to roll out your guns, and while I didn’t see much of the game's combat system, it seems intuitive and mildly tactical. A lot of it is automated, like the actions of your fighter-bombers or smaller turrets, and you need only handle the movement and the big guns of the mothership itself. Commands like focus-firing or firing at will change the effectiveness of your gunners, while your skills, which use a mana-like resource, will apply various effects. You can also fine-tune the percentage of power routed to your guns, shields and engines. What I liked a lot was that different ships have gun ports placed in different locations, which makes skillful combat manoeuvring imperative for keeping the enemies within range of your most valuable weapons, while also trying to evade theirs.
Starpoint Gemini 2 has been in Early Access for almost a year now, and Hrvoje said that the feedback they've received from the community has been priceless. Some of the fruits of that, in particular some very convenient additions to the game's HUD, I could see for myself. He also said the game comes with very robust modding tools, and that there are some very good mods already out there. This bodes well for the game's future, especially considering that the developers plan to update it with new content post-release.
There was more to see, but, unfortunately, I had to cut the presentation a bit short, which I must admit made me feel like an asshole. This showcase was not on any schedules I had, and the only reason I went to see it was because I had 30 minutes free before my Clandestine presentation - although I could have checked it out later when I had a longer break. Frankly, I didn’t have high expectations from Starpoint Gemini 2, and I thought its presentation would be over quickly. Which in hindsight proved to be an incredibly dumb assumption, because it was one of the coolest-looking games that I saw at Gamescom. Mea culpa.
Starpoint Gemini 2 is currently on Steam Early Access, and its projected release date is September 2014.
Like I said before, the Clandestine presentation came right after Starpoint Gemini 2's. The presenter was Alex Mintsioulis, Logic Artists’ user experience & QA manager.
Clandestine is a spy thriller-themed game that’s meant to take the stealth/espionage genre back to its roots. Alex said that the team at Logic Artists really loves stealth games, and that they've been observing the changes that the genre has been undergoing, as seen in series such as Splinter Cell or Hitman, with massive disapproval. The spies of today go everywhere alone, brandishing huge guns and causing explosions, racking up Rambo kill counts without breaking a sweat. Clandestine is meant to reverse this trend completely. As an example of this more old-school stealth approach, he pointed to the first Mission: Impossible film, where Tom Cruise loses his team at the beginning, and his first step afterwards is to assemble a new one because he knows he is useless without backup.
The game takes place in the early 90s, and presents a scenario where agents from both sides of the dismantled Iron Curtain are being murdered by unknown perpetrators. The player(s) will take control of a team of two agents sent to resolve this mystery – Katja, the rebellious Russian field operative, and Martin, the crackerjack American hacker.
The 90s setting is something Logic Artists decided to include mostly for reasons of verisimilitude, as it was easier for them to design missions with “retro” tech, instead of going overboard with modern electronics, and trying to fit a plausible spy scenario into a world where every citizen carries a smartphone with a camera, internet connection and GPS. Not to mention the CRT monitors and Windows 3-like aesthetics during hacking have a very high cool factor.
Clandestine offers players two layers of gameplay, something which reminded me a lot of pen and paper Shadowrun - the mission area proper that must be infiltrated by Katja, and the local security grid that Martin must crack.
Katja’s side of the mission seems to play a lot like a typical stealth game. Navigate around the building, evade patrols, collect evidence and get out unseen. She has an array of tricks up her sleeve, including stealthy takedowns, various grenades (frag, flash, smoke, etc), experimental gadgets and a pistol with special ammunition. All of which are selected from a pop-up radial menu, though Alex assured me there will be hotkeys as well in the final game. The pistol is the only direct-fire weapon in the game, and its use in straight-up shootouts should be avoided as much as possible – Katja can’t take a lot of damage, her health won’t magically regenerate, and supposedly the enemies are deadly, even though the game features a cover-based shooting mechanic. She will also continuously stumble upon locked-down computers and electronic security measures which she won’t be able to handle. And this is where Martin comes in.
Martin’s entire “gameworld” is his computer interface. From here, he can track Katja and the enemies on the mission map, hack security mechanisms, arrange supply drops and access password-encoded computer files. He can open locked doors, tap into cameras (both local and Katja’s personal one), shut off alarms (or turn them on as a distraction), overload machinery to set off explosions, etc. Basically, all the typical hacker stuff you’d expect in a game like this. He also has a limited pool of special actions he can perform, like arranging an ammo or medkit drop somewhere on the map, or bribing guards to turn them non-hostile. These special actions come with a cost, and add another dimension to managing your budget, which can also be spent on upgrades and resources between missions.
What I really liked was that the game tracks how covert you were during a mission, and the less stealthy you are, the more “forensic evidence” you accumulate. Forensic evidence comes in two types, physical and electronic, and it carries through the entire game. No specific examples as to its consequences were given, but I suspect it’s not just for show. Katja can leave behind evidence by being spotted, leaving around bodies and all that, while Martin does it by botching his hacking or using “brute force” measures. So, for example, if you want to hack something, you can either take a longer, more roundabout way of doing it, leaving behind little to no evidence, or you can use a brute force action to make it happen almost immediately. These kinds of actions are not advised, and should be reserved for when you really need something done on the spot during a critical moment.
Finally, one of the most promising features of Clandestine in my opinion is the coop mode, where one player takes the role of the handler, and the other takes the role of the field agent. I can imagine this being ridiculously fun if you have someone like-minded to play through the game with you, not to mention that it adds a whole different level of cooperation, quick thinking and unorthodox gameplay methods to the game.
At the end of the presentation, Alex told me that the team is really looking forward to releasing Clandestine, and he also said a few words about how good it is to be independent. With no one looking over their shoulders, the Logic Artists can do what they really want to do, and fall back to “older” design formulas, such as non-regenerating health and a more abstract approach to realism. There are a few things about Clandestine that are quite “gamey”, and the developers aren’t even trying to hide it - as Alex stated, realism is all well and good, but it needs to go when it stands in the way of gameplay.
Clandestine will “push the technical limits of the Unity Engine™”, and should appear sometime around Q4 2014/Q1 2015.
P.S. According to Alex, Logic Artists are big fans of the RPG Codex, which is why after the Clandestine presentation I was also shown... *suddenly, men in black take away the hapless Darth Roxor for questioning, lock down the area and burn the original manuscript of this article*
Pillars of Eternity
You are probably wondering what a preview of Pillars of Eternity is doing in this article, a game that doesn't have much in the way of futuristics. The answer lies in the second part of the title, as well as in the warning placed in the introduction.
The beta gameplay presentation I was shown was fairly short, barely 30 minutes long, and it was handled by lead programmer Adam Brennecke, who played the game, and lead designer Josh Sawyer, who talked about it. I hope they found my handshake satisfactory because I practiced balancing it properly for an entire week just for this occasion.
The presentation started with character generation. The developers decided to create a demigod paladin for the purpose of the showcase, and this already made me question a few of the game's design decisions. For starters, the very idea behind the “paladin” class. The paladin in PoE is not a devout warrior class of any kind, and one of its “subclasses” is in fact composed of outlaws. Why use the name then? If your aim is to create a “tanky fighter with buffs”, there are so many other options that would be less counter-intuitive. Furthermore, the player can choose a background for the character, which gives you some special dialogue options, but these options are always just for flavour. Obsidian’s reasoning for this is that they want the character to be a “tabula rasa, but with some context”. That’s fine, but I feel that it’s kind of contradicted by the subclass choice, as the subclasses have built-in “alignments”, and receive bonuses or penalties during gameplay depending on your “roleplaying choices”. So, you are given a blank slate on one hand, but then you are pigeonholed with the other. Another thing that I thought added to the chargen’s generally confused state was the game's array of classes and attributes. PoE was supposed to have its own system, different from D&D because Sawyer figured it doesn’t transfer too well into a real time computer game. Sure, sounds like a good idea. But then when you show me your “traditional” races and classes, followed by attributes which you say are “just like D&D but with different names”, I can’t help but feel that you're being disingenuous. Not to mention the assurance that these stats have all been designed in a way that none of them are “dump stats”, after which I see Adam pump one of them to the max, set one to 9, and leave two more at average values at best.
After the creation of Sassy the Paladin was complete, the actual game began, and the party began running around a generic_fantasy_village. It essentially boiled down to just that - running around. Due to limited time, I only got to see a few dialogues, which were fast-forwarded through, and no side quests were shown, although Josh did say a few words about the place. I liked the fact that the entire beta area is supposedly completely detached from the main story, serving as a big node filled with nothing but side content. I also liked that sleeping at inns actually has significant benefits now – the higher quality the room, the larger and longer-lasting bonuses it grants the party. The beta also included a ‘turbo’ button to speed up walking around. When I asked whether this button would stay, Josh replied that probably not because it could ruin immersion.
After a quick tour of the village, the party was given its “main quest” for the presentation – hunting down an ogre that's threatening the local folk. Sawyer offered a quick characterisation of the ogres in the Eternity setting, explaining that they are savages who live in matriarchal societies. Once in a while a male becomes angry about his status and runs off to live as an outcast. An outcast like that was our target. The party entered the wilderness, and that was when things started to get ugly.
The party soon ran into its first enemies – the local fauna. The first of them were a group of hostile beetles, which came in two sizes – overgrown and super-sized. To start with what looked good, I definitely liked the fact that most (if not all) enemies have different sets of resistances, weaknesses and strengths. It was also nice to see a detailed bestiary in the journal, that gradually fills up with more information the more enemies you kill. Meanwhile, the player characters seemed rather brittle. Even the fighter sent off to “facetank” took a lot of damage, and he couldn’t disengage easily or kite around because the system has some sort of an attack of opportunity mechanic. However...
For all the talk about how different this system is from D&D, and how each class has its own unique abilities instead of just “left click to autoattack”, when observing the game I sure as hell couldn’t see that. The fighter and paladin stood around bashing the beetles (that is, when Adam didn’t forget to tell them to do that), the rogue stood around shooting her bow, and the mage cast some magic missiles. I’ve seen this stuff before more than once, with the only difference perhaps being that damage in PoE came in increments (Sassy was hit for 0.3 damage!). Furthermore, I can’t really say that these encounters looked very exciting or even tactical – the smaller beetles would die outright, and then the fight would boil down to 5v1 bashing of the big beetle, which not only refused to die, but would also readily maul the poor fighter. The same thing happened again in a fight against overgrown spiders, and the demo finally ended with a total party wipe when the quest target ogre proceeded to two-hit-kill all of the party members.
The party wipe at the end was actually a direct consequence of how buggy the beta build was. I don’t know whether it was the influence of my RPG Codex Aura of Trolling +3, but Adam and Josh said it was probably the craziest presentation they gave during their entire stay at Gamescom. They even ran into bugs whose existence they had no idea about. For starters, they had to restart the game right after accepting the “main quest” because one of the characters lost the ability to cast magic. Later on, when the fighter got knocked out by beetles, he refused to wake up, and only using one of the limited rests in the wilderness brought him back. And in turn, the resting did not recharge the characters’ used-up memorised spells and abilities, which meant the party arrived at the ogre’s lair seriously gimped. And to make matters even worse, the mage decided to just run off uncontrollably instead of casting spells during the final showdown, and by the time Adam regained control over her, it was far too late.
After the wipe, the presentation proper was over, and it was time for questions. Unfortunately, time was short, and I only managed to ask one question that interested me personally. After learning about the dreaded Bîaŵac ([bi:au:ak]) in a recent Kickstarter update, I wanted to ask about Sawyer’s background, and to get some references for the languages in Eternity. It may be that my question was unclear, because instead he explained how the internal lingua eternia is based on various real languages, like Welsh or Italian, but stripped of real world cultural context, and with some added game world dialectal modifications based on each land's and realm's neighbours. I found this information satisfying enough, but unfortunately, I wasn't able follow it up with more questions. Someone else asked whether Obsidian is marketing the game mainly towards players who played the original Infinity Engine games, or if they are also focused on newcomers. Josh replied that their goal is to create something which is “essentially a classic IE game, but a new and different game in fact”. He also said that the final game’s early areas will be a “big tutorial” of sorts, so that newcomers can get used to the entire deal. That was the last question before the devs had to close up shop.
As you may have guessed, Pillars of Eternity didn’t impress me much. I identified three chief reasons behind this, but I’m not sure which contributed the most. First of all, the overall bugginess, which obviously skewed the game’s image rather significantly. Second, how generic and unexciting everything felt mechanically. Third, the area chosen for the presentation. I mean, if you're showing the game to the press, your motivation should be to sell it. How can you expect me to have positive impressions of your showcase, when all you did was show me a generic_fantasy_village, some adventurers bumrushing a bunch of overgrown beetles and spiders, and a stereotypical ogre with a huge club? Maybe the full game will have plenty of cool-looking areas filled to the brim with creative enemies, memorable encounters and wizard duels, but I simply didn’t see that during the Gamescom presentation.
Pillars of Eternity is now in beta, and open to selected Kickstarter backers. Its projected release date is Winter 2014.
Hellraid is a first person hack’n’slash developed by Techland. I have no idea who the dudes that gave the presentation were, because they didn’t introduce themselves. The game was demonstrated using a console controller, which left me even more suspicious.
The presentation suffered from one of the same flaws that the Pillars of Eternity presentation did. The level they chose for the presentation was at the very start of the game. It was a bit jarring, because the developers kept talking about all these things that would be in the full game, like enemies with various strengths and weaknesses, and a wide selection of weapons. They even showed us the game’s skill chart, which is available to the player during level-ups (and I admit it was really damn huge). But all this talking did not amount to much when what we were watching on screen was a bloke slashing skeletons with a rusty sword and taking a skill that “makes him more tanky”.
Still, a good chunk of the core gameplay mechanics were shown, many of which reminded me of Dark Messiah of Might and Magic (weapons that have a proper “heavy” feel, dodging around, the mighty foot, experience and inventory), and others which reminded me of Hexen/Heretic (magic staves that act like guns, dark visuals and groups of about 6 enemies constantly on screen). I liked that the presentation felt very “honest”, in that the player did not have IDDQD or super starting gear, and was actually taking quite a beating, which was a good way of measuring the game’s potential difficulty. The items found along the way were standard Diablo-like Prefixial Nouns of Suffixing, but the different types of items did differ in use. For example, two-handed weapons were slower, heavy armour slowed the player down, maces were good against skellingtons, etc. Basic stuff, to be sure, but it's something I think is important in a game like this. I didn’t like how the magic staves ran on regenerating mana-ammo, but at least health didn’t regenerate and required proper healing potions.
Most of the enemies during the presentation were rather generic undead, although I was positively surprised to see some that must have been inspired by enemies from certain classic games. For example, a zombie that threw chunks of its own flesh at the player, as if taken straight from Quake 1, or another one that would get close to the player, yell and go off in a violent explosion, not unlike the wights in Myth. For good measure, you could use the mighty foot to kick them into enemy mobs.
The developers seemed to be pretty proud of their engine, which is the newest version of the Chrome Engine, but if you ask me, on a technical level the game looked pretty much identical to some of the Call of Juarez games (which use the same engine). Besides that, the game also has some decent music, and hilariously cheesy voice acting.
After the presentation ended, I asked the developers just how much inspiration they were taking from old games like Hexen and Witchaven (I loved how suddenly everyone inside gaped at me when I mentioned them). The answer I got was that they really loved playing them, but today they feel “clunky”, so Hellraid is meant to deliver a similar experience to a new generation.
Hellraid’s release date is unknown so far, but it’s likely to come out around 2015.
Reality Pump’s Raven’s Cry was the last game I had the pleasure of viewing at Gamescom. The presentation was given by producer Tim-Oliver Siegwart. I had to attend it in German because there were no more English presentations remaining that day, and while I do believe I comprehended the vast majority of what was said, I apologise in advance for any possible misunderstandings.
Raven’s Cry is an action-adventure/light RPG that I would describe as being heavily influenced by Sea Dogs, although Tim said most of their inspirations come from Sid Meier’s Pirates!. You assume the role of Jack Sparrow Christopher Raven, a ruthless pirate out to find the people who killed his family, in a rather gritty, no-bullshit depiction of the 17th/18th century Caribbean.
During his quest, Raven will sail to many ports and islands with his crew. Most of the ports are in the hands of the four colonial powers, France, Spain, England and the Netherlands, and you will have the choice of working and trading with them as you see fit. You can roam around the game's towns freely, looking for quests, fights and other business. By completing assignments, Raven gains not only gold to spend on his ship and crew, but also experience points that can be spent on upgrading his abilities, via a system of skill trees dedicated to different aspects of combat and ship management.
The naval gameplay look fun, like more than just a tacked on minigame. There are various types of historical ships you can acquire, and during naval battles you have the typical arsenal of cannonballs, grape shot and chain shot. Your crewmen gain experience for successful operations, but they can also die in battle, which leaves you with the necessity of acquiring replacements (either cheap greenhorns or more expensive veterans).
What left me sceptical, however, was the game's melee combat system, as it reminded me way too much of Risen 2, albeit with a few slight differences/improvements. The fights did seem pretty deadly, for both parties involved. They're mostly based on parries and counterattacks, but combatants also come with a few tricks up their sleeves. The protagonist, for example, may use a single-shot pistol with a very long reload time and animation, an assortment of dirty tricks, or use experience points to train his pet raven (parrots are so passe) to aid him in combat. That said, although it seemed like a lot of the combat animations in the demo were still bugged or placeholder assets, the system appeared rather clunky to use even when accounting for that. The game also had a few actual minigames, like one where you arrange cannons at a fort to repel invading ships, but how mandatory those are, I cannot say.
The last section of gameplay that I saw featured treasure hunting. Following a treasure map, Raven landed on an island full of aggressive natives. The game has a basic stealth system, just like Two Worlds 2, and if you wish you can go Alpha Protocol on the enemies’ asses and take them down quickly and quietly without getting bumrushed. I liked the fact that the environment and weather can affect your character's performance – rain makes it likely for your pistol to fail, sand will slow you in combat, etc. After killing the native chief, Raven entered the old temple in which the treasure was hidden, but first he needed to solve a bunch of basic puzzles to evade its traps. And then the demo ended.
Technically speaking, the build of Raven's Cry that I was shown still has a lot of placeholder assets, including the animations, HUD and voice acting. It still looked visually stunning, though, thanks to its use of the latest version of the Two Worlds 2 engine.
The game struck me as being rather similar to the other games developed recently by Reality Pump. Fun, big and with some good ideas here and there, but ultimately not particularly deep or very unique. How it will turn out in the end remains to be seen.
Raven’s Cry should be released in October 2014.
And those are all the games I saw at Gamescom this year. If you wish to read about my general impressions of the event, be sure to check out the upcoming Part III of my report – A Misanthrope’s Delight.