Hands-On Preview: Little green men touch down in a medieval fantasy setting
Later this year, Akella and Nobilis will release the medieval/sci-fi RPG Hard to Be a God. Yes, that's right, it has both a medieval setting and futuristic technology: you'll get the chance to blast giant spiders and wild boars with hi-tech needle guns and more. This is thanks to the novel of the same name by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, which recounts the conflict between a church-based medieval mindset with technologically advanced visitors. Arkella has now taken this clash of cultures and ideologies and wrapped it into a traditional RPG game, and I was fortunate enough to get my hands on an advanced copy.
If the name Strugatsky sounds familiar, it could be because another of the brothers' novels served as the inspiration for GSC Game World's S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. Unlike that game, however, Hard to Be a God does more than give just a passing nod to the source material. Hard to Be a God doesn't recount the plot of the novel?instead, it extends the events of the novel and gives the player the chance to explore its plot. It seems to be set after the events of the novel as the player works ot understand the mysteries surrounding a catastrophe in the city of Arkanar: a mysterious group has burned to the ground the home of don Rumata, but it's not clear who did it or why. It is certain, though, that Rumata's secret lover Kira was also killed in the attack, and that Rumata blamed it on another noble, don Reba, who was probably killed by Rumata. If that sounds complex, don't forget that the medieval city of Arkanar is the site of a silent alien ?invasion.? Explorers from a future Earth live in and around Arkanar, observing and studying, but under a looser version of the Prime Directive, not using advanced technology to change the course of society?at least at first. The game integrates the science and sword themes well, making the futuristic elements part of the mystery and hinting at what's to come. Players don't get their hands on anything hi-tech until many hours in. Anyone who enjoys the complex twists and turns of this sort of RPG plot will likely appreciate Hard to Be a God.
Unfortunately, though, the mechanics of the storytelling leave a bit to be desired, leaning heavily on overused RPG mechanics. In traditional RPG fashion, the story is told in dialog boxes with characters standing still on-screen. In theory, the dialogs are supposed to be interactive, with the player making choices to respond to what the NPCs say. Most of the time, though, there's only one choice, or if there are multiple choices, they don't really seem to affect how the plot unfolds. And like a lot of RPG scenes of this sort, the exchanges tend to go on for a long time as the writers try to work in a major info dump. What's more, the dialog in the preview version suffers from a series of translation flubs that don't usually get in the way of understanding, but do make for a few laughs, as when characters say things like ?don't make a full of me.? Hopefully they'll get this worked out before the final US release. Even with all these little quirks, I still was drawn into the mystery of the Strugatsky-based characters and plot. The plot twists and character details were enough to make me want to keep playing and find out what the game had in store for me.
From the very first quests, the game throws the player into the middle of the intrigue by having him play as a low-level government agent who mixes it up with local thugs, scared informants and the like. At first, it seemed like the game was trying to talk me into considering options other than fighting for completing my mission, but the bad guys gave me little option: they tend to attack first and ask questions later. Even the game information released by Akella suggests that there is more than one way to skin a quest, with different endings for players with different styles. In practice, though, the game felt as linear as most games, to the point that some of its large maps corral players onto certain paths by using rivers, gullys and impassable hills. In the same vein, there isn't much character customization that happens at the beginning of the game: you choose a name and go. Along the way, though, you can acquire disguises and outfits that give you access to different areas. For instance, if you dress as a thief, you can wander freely through some of the bad parts of town. This may be a way to find alternate solutions to a quest, since people will react to you differently depending on the clothes you wear.
The combat system of Hard to Be a God isn't terribly complex, but it will offer hardcore RPG enthusiasts some statistics to sink their teeth into. The game promises some two hundred different weapons alongside two hundred varied pieces of armor, and from what I saw, each item had its own unique stats, description, and graphic. Weapons fall into four main categories: light, medium, heavy, and ranged, and players can build skills in corresponding areas as they level up. As they level up, characters earn points that can improve their skills in the different categories, and along with these skills come power attacks that can do double damage or more. The combat is often challenging, though mostly due to the extreme number of hit points given to the bad guys?they can't inflict a whole lot of damage, but they'll wear you down if you have to fight a couple in a row. You do have a defensive posture that will protect you, but it isn't perfect. If you get caught in the middle of a group of opponents, you can hang it up: your shield isn't able to deflect attacks from multiple directions, and the enemies are plenty aggressive. If you're fighting a guy and any of his allies are in earshot, you'll quickly find yourself facing a platoon. On the other hand, if you have any allies around, they'll fight at your side. This alertness means that the familiar RPG creep tactic?move just inside the attention range of one guy, draw him away from the group, kill and repeat?won't work here.
Oh, and did I mention the mounted combat? If the rest of the combat system is reduced mostly to a familiar attack-block-run routine, mounted combat adds a bit of spice that most RPGs lack. Horses are expensive and money isn't all that easy to come by, but if you get yourself a horse, you'll be glad you did. Of course it will move you around the world a whole lot faster, and since these are pretty big maps, you'll want that. But the cool part is hopping on your horse and chasing down foes so that you can time a sword stroke as you pass. You'll do extra damage and they won't have time to hit you back. It's a bit tough to get the timing right and it's hard to maneuver the horse in tight spots, but it's worth the effort.
Without a doubt, the graphics are one of the best features of Hard to Be a God. If the combat system isn't groundbreaking and the dialog really wants a good copy editor, the graphics leave little room for complaint. There seem to be ten or so main maps in the game, and each one I saw was packed with visual detail and had its own unique feel. The villages are packed with folks who seem to be wandering around, going about their business. Their homes and places of business are filled with furniture and items you'd expect to see, like plates, forks, decorations, and more. One little detail that really caught my eye were the moving cloud shadows. They move lazily across the landscape and make things look a whole lot prettier. In other places, you'll see bits of leaves and so on floating in the air to give the sense of a real atmosphere. There are plenty of plants and trees all over the landscape that help it feel like a real space?none of the bare land you used to see in older games. And everything your character wears appears on your avatar. A lot of care obviously went into making Hard to Be a God look as good as possible.