Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Ship Review

The Ship, developed by Outerlight and published on Steam.
The Good: Out of the ordinary mechanics with an amalgamation of different genres, player needs adds another dynamic to hunting your target (if you stay alive long enough), atypical Clue-like weaponry, emphasis on weapon variety for subsequent murders, realistic defecating sound effects
The Not So Good: Some graphical glitches, sluggish pace may irk some people
What say you? A slow but tactically pleasing mix of surreptitious action, snooping, and player management: 7/8

User-created modifications to commercially released computer games really started to become popular with the release of Team Fortress for Quake and especially Counter-Strike for Half-Life. Some of these mods have become so popular as to spawn full commercial titles available for a small price. The Ship was originally developed as a mod for the first Half-Life, but now it’s a standalone product utilizing the Source engine used for Half-Life 2. In The Ship, you are given a target to hunt, but an unknown assailant is charged with killing you as well in a deadly dance of death. Is The Ship a ship of fools, or a ship of…not…fools?

Despite the fact that The Ship uses the Source engine (which has been put to great use in Half-Life 2: Episode One), the game isn’t as graphically spectacular as those flagship titles. The only time you’ll really notice any Source-ness in the game is with the swimming pool water effects; otherwise, The Ship just looks like a mod for Half-Life 2. That’s not to say the game looks terrible, because the large ships look realistic and the characters in the game are detailed. The game could have looked better, but since I concentrate more on gameplay than eye candy, it doesn’t bother me that much. The six ships in the game all look the same after a while, using the same rooms and hallways (with generally the same textures) over and over again. There is also a bug currently where character models will be “stuck” doing an action even after they have finished; it is quite strange to see someone floating around the room, still using the sleeping animation even though they are really walking. These kinds of bugs show that The Ship is not completely finished, but if you can get past the graphical hiccups (I can), then everything will be OK. The sound effects in The Ship are sporadically effective. The old-time music adds to the overall setting of the game well, although most of the ship is draped in silence. All of the conversation in the same is mostly unintelligible mumbling, but The Ship does have “realistic” pooping sounds, so that’s a plus. The Ship looks and sounds like a mod, but considering the price (a budget-level $20) I don’t mind this very much.

The Ship can be played against the AI in single player competition or online over the Steam network. The single player match is really intended as practice, as the AI is not as crafty as real human competition. The I of the AI is poor, as your computer opponents will run into each other and they will generally not use advanced tactics to hunt you down, staring you down with weapons drawn as they inch ever closer. The AI also seems to “know” when you are hunting them and tend to eliminate you more quickly than human opponents would. Once you get the mechanics of the game down, you’ll want to jump online and get killed by real people. The Ship features four modes of play, although most of the servers will use two. Deathmatch really eliminated the unique premise of the game, and the ships are entirely too big for one-on-one duels. In Hunt, once anyone kills their target, a timer counts down to the end of the round; you are assigned a new target at the beginning of each new round. In Elimination mode, the last one alive is the winner. Hunt games tend to move much more quickly and involve more killing, while elimination games are slow, methodical affairs that can involve a lot of time waiting for the next round. Luckily, most of the down time can be spent searching for weapons or fulfilling needs (more on that shortly). Each of the games can be customized a number of different ways, such as adding neutral AI passengers (to serve as distractions) or increasing the importance of needs. The Ship offers a decent enough number of game types to keep players interested and stay true to the basic formula of the game.

All of the weapons you’ll need to dispose of your target are scattered around the map; they are randomly seeded but “good” weapons end up being located in the same locations each round. Finding a viable weapon is your first priority, as being hunted and having no defense is not a good thing. Each successful kill results in earning money (used to determine the winner), and different weapons earn different amounts of money, depending on how often they are used. This means you’ll have to spend time using diverse weapons during the game instead of finding and sticking to just one. Another consequence of the cash system used in The Ship is that the eventual winner may not have the most kills, just the most unique kills using a variety of the game's weapons. The types of weapons in the game consist of everyday items like golf clubs, knives, croquet mallets, frying pans, syringes, and a limited number of guns (like flare guns that set people on fire). Almost everything in the game can be used as a weapon, but The Ship doesn’t have quite the amount of freedom I’d like to see. For example, I could use numerous items in the cabins you start in (lamps, desk drawers, suitcases, radios), but I suppose this would lead to too many weapons and eliminate some of the searching required in the game. There are also some environmental traps available on the ships of The Ship, such as dropping lifeboats or enclosing your target in a freezer. These dangerous areas usually contain some pretty good weapons in them (which is why anyone would walk into a potentially deadly sauna) and add another phase to the game, although I've never personally experienced or seen one of these kinds of deaths (though others have said they have). You can also find different outfits in the game that can be used to disguise your character (making enemies positively identify you again). Your current target’s location is displayed every 30 seconds, which prevents camping and also makes the game move along faster; some of the ships are very large and it would take forever to find someone if you weren’t given additional information. The game also has maps of all the ships (and the locations of needs-fulfilling objects), so learning the layout of the ships is a simple affair. Unlike most first person shooters, The Ship has some restrictions to the killing: you can only kill your target and your hunter, or be thrown in jail and fined. This can lead to some mean exploits, such as misleading someone that you are their hunter, then having them kill you and sent to jail. You’ll also need to do all of your dirty deeds away from police officers and security cameras, as just pulling out a weapon in these locations will result in a fine and jail time. There are some measures in place to deal with those people who are just there to kill people, as those players with large negative scores are eventually kicked from the server. You will also retain all of your possessions if you are killed by a non-hunter, so suffering this fate is not that big of a deal.

You aren’t just spending time hunting and killing on The Ship, as you’ll have to attend to everyday needs just like a real person. The Ship requires everyone to sleep, eat, drink, wash, use the restroom, socialize, and be entertained during the game, although you will need to be alive for a good amount of time for any of these to become a major concern. Not only does this give you something to do between rounds, but it also means that you can be killed while fulfilling needs, as the game prohibits movement during tasks. This is a pretty cool aspect of the game, as you can stalk your target, wait for them to take a nap, and then stab them in their sleep (I murdered someone with a frying pan to win a round once; that was pretty awesome). You’ll need money to fulfill most of your tasks (buying food and drinks), and you can acquire additional funds from the bank. When you successfully make a kill, money is deposited into your account, and this amount of money is used to determine the victor. You can withdraw money to spend on needs or bribe police officers to look the other way while you dispose of a target (preventing people from camping in front of police officers). If you are killed, you lose all of the money you have on hand (you start each round with $250), so you’ll also need to make deposits from time to time. There are some other rooms you can spend some time in, such as a sick bay with medicine or various shops for new clothes. Despite the amount of time between matches (especially in elimination mode), almost all of this spare time is taken up searching for weapons and fulfilling needs, so you’re not just waiting for the next round to start.

The Ship is certainly a unique idea, and there’s really nothing quite like it available for the computer. The deliberate pace of the game might turn off those gamers used to constant action, but The Ship allows for more advanced tactics than aim and fire. The needs in the game add some variety to the gameplay and allow for some sneaky kills. The graphics of the game scream “mod,” but they are good enough to cause a low amount of displeasure. Humor also permeates throughout the game, from the weapons to the description of the Bible. The Ship certainly goes against the recent trend in shooter games, eschewing fast and furious action for more subtle and planned attacks, and I really enjoy the more relaxed pace of the game, where anyone can become successful at the game without having perfect reflexes. The Ship also has a good amount of tension, as you try to figure out who is hunting you, making you suspicious of pretty much everyone on board (I know that bench looked at me funny). It’s obvious why The Ship was selected for a Source facelift, as the core gameplay is a unique and successful mix of several different games and genres.