As a drooling GPG fanboy from the days of the excellent Total Annihilation, I scoured interviews, reading with joy the description of the single-player game as a mixture of "fighting games and racing games. Each demigod features a single-player game where they fight to ascend to the Pantheon." Yet, either that's not in here, or it was Molyneux-inspired wishfulness, or that description was carefully disingenuous. Yes, there's a good-fun skirmish mode against relatively clever AI, and a very simple multi-stage tournament mode that features a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cinematic of the winning character on a podium, but no sign of the plot that's detailed on each character's homepage, or anything vaguely approaching a fighting-racing hybrid.
What's also missing, more tragically, is any form of tutorial. If you're a non-hardcore player, who's not played Warcraft III, you may lose a few times before you get a hang of what's going on; even you hardcore players are going to click uselessly a few times on their uncontrollable troops, attempting to order them around, before working out what's going on. Be thankful then that the UI is very nicely crafted and that the controls are mostly responsive and straightforward (despite my confusion between left and right clicking), which means all players should be able to pick it up eventually. A bit of hand-holding would have been very nice though.
Particularly in need of explanation is the rudimentary achievement system. If I hadn't read the official forums, I wouldn't have known that favour points could be used to permanently unlock special items for use in multiplayer. I wouldn't have known that because, while I was playing, achievement points weren't retained, nor was spending, or my standing in the Pantheon (an online, Guild Wars-style persistent war). Just another bug, apparently, but it wasn't fixed last time I played. Moreover, this fillip to character advancement by letting you buy much-superior upgrades forever, doesn't seem fair in a win-focused RTS as opposed to the carefully-balanced updates that, say, Team Fortress 2 introduces - but I guess merit-based advantages are a problem with all online games that allow advance but don't segregate by level. Surely better players should be handicapped? Or have I just revealed my commie colours?
Thankfully, the multiplayer has been mostly fixed since the awful early days (my early multiplayer battles were conducted entirely through hamachi, as the servers were unresponsive), but it is still awfully tardy in finding a match and a little bit laggy once you're in. Until players really start cooking up reliable killer builds or working together effectively, the games are still quite open, but there's not much difference between playing alongside an AI and a human player. I'm not sure if that's praise for the AI or a criticism of the strictures of the game.
While the map backgrounds are up there with the best digital art, featuring 3D titanic statues frozen in struggle against planetary backgrounds, perfectly in tune with the game's theme, the actual on-the-ground elements are either elegantly minimalist or insultingly raw. The simple towers and fortresses mostly stop early rush-tactics and force most games into the same pattern of slow combat and levelling. Moreover, there are only eight maps in total, with no map editor. Curiously, CEO Brad Wardell has said that they will allow players to create new AI models, but there's no mention of being able to create custom maps - presumably because you can't really vary a plain 2D plane in an entangled geometric shape massively, except to drop the buildings, flags and spawns in different locations.
This limited selection of units (six-ish) and maps also doesn't quite have the tactical complexity of say, Company of Heroes; this is very much RTS-lite, where the challenge is in the strategic selection of your character's skills and items, rather than planning clever tactical moves to entrap your enemy; most battles are toe-to-toe struggles leavened by the judicious use of abilities. Moreover, the penalty from dying isn't enormously terrible, and is easily avoided through judicious use of teleport scrolls. This isn't to say I didn't find the game fun - just that I'm not yet sure of it's lasting appeal.
The polish of the game - the truly glorious soundscape, the astonishing art of the characters and the maps, and the clear joy of the basic idea - do point to a talented crew of developers, but the endless bugs, the limited content, the badly balanced upgrades, and the half-implemented ideas feel like the game was polished before it was finished. What Demigod wants to be, if games have hopes and 8-bit dreams, is to wake apotheosised into the RTS equivalent of Left 4 Dead. But what keeps Gas-Powered crew up in the night is that this could be the twisted, limping form of the RTS Shadowrun. We know they're going to work flat-out to avoid that fate.
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