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Mage Knight Apocalypse

Mage look.

It's not easy being a dwarf. Spending all day mining and grumbling and tripping over your beard. Coming home to a wife with a hairy chest; and I'm not talking wispy strands here, but two thick welcome mats (or not-so-welcome mats as the case may be). It's no wonder they drink skullsplitter mead by the dozen every night. For my first outing into the lands of Mage Knight, I chose the stereotype - the race, sorry - of the dwarf. The idea of a ruddy-cheeked roaring drunk with a shotgun (yes, these are gunpowder dwarves) was just too appealing - obviously I was a farmer in a previous life. Striding, or indeed stumbling off into the world, a couple of things quickly became clear.

Firstly, this is an RPG set very much in the Diablo tradition - it's a combat heavy click-'n'-slash which is loot-driven with a skill tree character advancement system. And secondly, the beating heart of the combat might be steady in some aspects, but it suffers from a number of dangerous murmurs.

The blasting and hacking of monsters is facilitated by a helpfully re-definable layout of hotkeys, so the skill upgrades you acquire can be easily employed. Incidentally, the skill and stats system is entirely usage based, so concentrate on whacking beasts with a mace and your strength and blunt proficiency will increase. Choose ranged gunnery instead and that raises agility and unlocks goodies like armour piercing and ricochet shots. Each of the five characters you can elect to play has a commendably varied set of powers, from the paladin to the vampires, and it's enjoyable to experiment with these different combat tactics.

I'm a celebrity on LSD - get me out of here!

Unfortunately, both the camera and combat AI interfere with the entertainment. When manoeuvring around, the camera angle has to be manually turned to follow the action, a clumsy system which can be unhelpful and disorientating in a heated battle. And while the AI is okay to a point - archers will flee if engaged in melee for example - at other times monsters will behave like idiots, with half of them standing there while you pick off the others. The computer-controlled characters who join your party suffer from pathfinding problems and similarly dodgy AI, with an annoying habit of stopping for no reason, until you re-order them to follow.

Not only can mobs be picked off or kited (killed by keeping them at range) easily, but should your character die, you simply click the revive button, resurrect and carry on where you left off. There's no death penalty and solving any encounter is a mere matter of attrition because enemies don't respawn. This gives the game an ongoing plodding feeling, as you wade through the large levels with no real sense of possible failure.

Early on, advancing your skills and finding shiny new weapons and armour (which can be customised using magic stones) provides some reason to keep going, but even that eventually fades as the loot is given out too freely. The campaign is "monty haul" by nature and looting endless trinkets from the massed corpses of the vanquished becomes tiresome, especially as you have to keep returning to town to sell up because your backpack is stingily small. Flogging your wares is made more unpleasant by the clunky vendor menu.

You could argue with a dwarf. Or you could set his beard on fire.

The quests themselves are also poorly designed and executed in places, such as the defence of the dwarven city, which should be thrilling, with multiple objectives and invading troops pouring down the narrow streets. However, the whole scenario feels static, with no time limits, a few stationary set-piece scraps and objectives which can't be failed: "The chief engineer must be protected from the enemy forces!" Quite why he must be protected, lord only knows, as the enemy are just standing around in front of him and won't touch so much as a bristle of his beard even if you go and make a cup of tea after turning up on the scene. Of course, you'll die, but you can always revive and return. I've had more tense moments watching crown green bowling. Or crown green paint dry.

The main linear quest path provides the bulk of Mage Knight, with little in the way of sub-quest trimmings, and the replay value is low despite the temptation of trying out new characters. Happily, there's a co-op mode so up to five players can have a crack at the campaign online. Unhappily, there are serious connection problems - 90 per cent of attempts to join a session fail - and even when successful the game's pretty badly lagged and flaky.

In the end, my dwarf took to the mead again to alleviate the tedium of this laboured RPG. There's some early enjoyment to be had from progressing your character, but it doesn't last, and the co-op mode is currently too bug-ridden to provide any extra life.

4 / 10