Most games are derivative in some way, but few are as open about their influences as Demigod, the upcoming RTS/RPG mash-up from Gas Powered Games (creator of Supreme Commander) and Stardock (them what made Sins of a Solar Empire). "The closest thing to Demigod is the Defence of the Ancients mod for WarCraft III" says the press material bluntly.
This rather cuts the legs out from under the pompous asses that would otherwise take one look at the concept for Demigod and stride onto the internet declaring it a brazen rip-off of the popular Warcraft mod. Yes, Demigod boils real-time strategy down to smaller maps and a more focused, skirmish style of play, centred around protecting a vital building. And, yes, you control a hero unit while the other units are controlled by AI.
The aim is to elevate your Demigod to the status of actual God, and you do this by levelling them up with experience earned by smiting foes, killing enemy Demigods and achieving mission objectives. It's all mouse-controlled, with on-screen icons and hotkeys to access the varied abilities and powers you accrue as your avatar gets stronger. Unusually for a game that shares DNA with the vast, imposing monolith of Supreme Commander, Demigod matches are short and to the point, designed to fit into lunchbreaks, and similar nooks and crannies of free time usually targeted by casual games.
Accessibility is the keyword, it seems, with reasonable technical requirements that should allow the majority of players to dive right in without worrying if the guts of their PC are up to the task. Online play is governed by Impulse, using a Hamachi-inspired set-up to remove the need for mucking about with routers and port-forwarding. Every player, regardless of technical expertise or internet setup, should be able to drop in and out of games without trouble.
Right now, the game is in its third multiplayer beta trial ahead of its planned European launch at the end of March. Included in the beta are four maps and eight Demigods, with five game modes to muck about with. Most of the gameplay features are ready and working, although the release notes repeatedly remind us that the balancing is still a work in progress.
Gameplay pits the forces of Light and Darkness against each other, with the expected victory conditions to meet. Slaughter mode requires you to kill a set number of enemy Demigods. Capturing status-boosting flags, or destroying enemy strongholds, can also be required, while Conquest is the long-term, hardcore option - nothing but total annihilation of your rival's heavily-defended headquarters will end the game.
There's also Pantheon, the game's persistent online mode, in which Light and Dark battle forever to see which will dominate. Your Demigod is consistent throughout all the play modes, bringing an MMO element to the game. Whatever improvements you make, you'll benefit from them however you choose to play.
In all game modes, each side is made up of a steady stream of infantry reinforcements, pouring out of magical portals, plus whatever combination of Demigods you and your team-mates have selected. Left to their own devices, the AI grunts will maintain the battle at a fairly steady stalemate - it's up to you and your powers to turn the tide in your favour.
Demigods fall into one of two categories. Assassins are those geared towards direct action, Generals are able to raise minions and direct them remotely. Lord Erebus, for example, is a General. He's a vampiric sort who can turn into poisonous mist or drain health from enemies with a bite, but his main contribution to gameplay is in his escalating ability to conjure up demonic troopers and send them into battle. The Rook, on the other hand, is an Assassin unit and one you'll probably be seeing a lot of in the game's artwork. He’s a giant with a castle built into his body, and a propensity for demolition.
Other memorable Demigods on offer include Regulus, an angelic sniper, and Sedna, a witch who rides a giant tiger. The Unclean Beast is a savage monster that skews the game into melee territory. Others, such as Oak, Torch Bearer and Queen of Thorns, are less innovative in appearance but all come with a unique skill tree as well as their own achievements. These achievements, unlocked for fulfilling certain tasks such as killing a set number of enemies with specific attacks, earn Favour Points which can then be used to purchase equipment and other status-altering trinkets from the game's item shops.
Play is fast and frantic, with the maps offering a decent array of tactical challenges. Zikurat and Crucible are tight corridor-based layouts, forcing teams into frequent bottlenecks of furious combat. The Brothers and Prison are more open, and make it easier to form more traditional RTS flanking manoeuvres on the fly.
Balancing is definitely the key, though. At the moment, health can be drained ferociously quickly by the many defence towers which litter the maps. Mana, your obligatory magic resource, can also bottom out after just a few special attacks. Both recharge slowly, or can be topped up by potions that must be purchased. Movement speed isn't exactly a priority, so respawning and trekking back to the action can be tedious.
At the moment the gameplay feels a little too repetitive, with too much time spent chipping away at the pre-placed defence towers and not enough battling against actual foes. The good news is that the abundant game options allow for most of these factors, from the damage inflicted by towers to the levelling speed, to be tweaked to suit, and with further balancing taking place behind the scenes there's no reason why such beta quirks should detract from what is shaping up to be a satisfying twist on RTS play.