Friday, January 04, 2008

Stranger Review

Stranger, developed and published by Fireglow Games.
The Good: Very interesting magic system, malleable user interface, spells are cast automatically for reduced micromangement
The Not So Good: Sporadic pathfinding, tedious pace, limited multiplayer features, difficult
What say you? A generally good strategic role-playing game with a few limitations: 6/8

Because it’s my favorite genre, I’m usually pretty informed about upcoming strategy games. So it’s a bit strange to be strangely surprised about a strange game called Stranger, strangely enough (there, I think that’s out of my system). I am familiar with the developer, as Fireglow is responsible for the Sudden Strike series, one of the first purely tactical strategy games when most everyone was concerned with resource collecting and the like. Stranger combines classic tactical gaming with role-playing elements, something that’s become trendy in recent times. Are the RPG additions purely a gimmick, or do they enhance the basic gameplay?

Stranger features some good 3-D graphics and sound. The game is played from a fixed isometric perspective, so you won’t get up close and personal with the units; still, they are detailed and animated well enough from a distance. The effects are average for the role-playing and strategy genres: some neat spell effects and the general chaos of combat are present and accounted for. The cut scenes are meant to look like a comic book, a presentation method that’s becoming tired and unoriginal. I was able to crank the level of detail all the way up and experience some interesting lighting and shadow effects with no slow down, so that’s a plus. While Strange might not have the extreme level of detail present in some other games, it does look good enough for a contemporary game. The sound is basic at best. The only voiced dialogue is in the cut scenes, requiring a disturbing amount of reading during conversations. The background music is appropriate but not spectacular. So in the end, Stranger holds its own in the graphics and sound departments.

Stranger can best be described as a role-playing hack-and-slash with more characters at your disposal and some strategy conventions. The game comes with fourteen single-player missions; this may not sound like much, but the pace of the game is very slow and each mission usually comes with multiple primary and secondary objectives. Your characters and items will carry over from mission to mission, although you’ll sometimes be given different starting avatars. The story is pretty generic, but nobody really pays attention to that anyway. The objectives are usually “go to” or “attack” quests; side quests and exploring levels will usually grant some cool weapons that make it worth the journey. Most of the levels in Stranger are multi-tiered, usually a surface level tied to underground levels through caves and such. While interesting, it doesn’t impact the gameplay that much other than making a level larger in scope. Stranger comes with some very disappointing multiplayer options. While the game does support LAN and known IP games on nine maps, there is no matchmaking so you can’t search for games. As a person that enjoys multiplayer gaming, it’s a sad omission. There's no excuse for this limitation with today's technology. I'm getting tired of playing otherwise decent games that lack proper multiplayer support.

It’s clear that the developers of Stranger came from the real time strategy background because the user interface is excellent. You are free to move and resize any of the windows scattered around the screen, including the minimaps and command interface. Since you’ll typically be controlling no more than 10-15 units, each unit gets their own avatar in the upper left and information window in the upper right that can display weapon, experience, and spell details. The interface in Stranger makes it a snap to find everyone under your control and controlling the game is so easy. This is a far cry from typical role-playing games with their huge and obstructive inventory screens. The controls are typical RTS fare: left click to select, and right click to move. Because there are more commands and options than most strategy games, you’ll need to memorize some of the keyboard shortcuts to reduce some of the clicking.

Units can be told to assault (attack move), attack, get items, rotate, change behavior, dismount, repair, take off, land, follow, hire, stop, and keep a formation. Thankfully, they will do most of this automatically if you set the correct behavior (this includes picking up dropped loot). Unfortunately, units will not attack using the default right-click move order (you need to use an assault command); if you are walking and being attacked, wouldn’t you automatically retaliate? All moves should engage enemy units by default, and having to press the attack move key before issuing simple movement commands every time gets annoying. In addition, the pathfinding of Stranger is poor at best. Units will get stuck or just not move on occasion. This is not that big of a deal when you are controlling only a handful of units, but when big armies can’t stay together, we have a problem. Each unit can carry a variety of weapons, including their fists, crossbows, swords, and armor. Units gain experience through combat in five areas: melee combat, ranged weapons, dodging, crafting, and magic. Special abilities can be bought using experience; examples include sword mastery, fast regeneration, double casting spells, and changing field intensity or radius.

Stranger features an incredibly intriguing spell and magic system. Spells can only be cast in a magic field, magic fields are produced by holding crystals, and crystals are taken as loot from defeated enemies. Each spell in the game belongs to one of seven color groups, and in order to cast them, the character must be surrounded by only those color crystals. The basic crystals (red, blue, and green) make up the entry-level spells, while crystals can be combined to form fields that allow for advanced and powerful spells (magenta is a combination of red and blue spells, for example). Crystals are held in a common pool and then manually distributed to your characters so that they can use their spells. As you can imagine, there is a whole realm of strategy just surrounding crystal usage. Since you can counter enemy spells with your own crystals, the best approach is to “overpower” your enemy’s fields while still allowing your mages to cast their spells. This does introduce some micromanagement into the equation, since you must distribute all of the crystals yourself, but since units will automatically attack and use spells on their own, you have time to do it. The amount of crystals doesn’t seem to matter, just that you have more than the enemy. It is hard to see the radii of the crystal fields; I would rather see a simple circle than the funky and hard-to-see beams of light that are used. I really like this scheme as it allows for some really interesting strategy, countering enemy plans while allowing for your powerful spells to be cast. The ramifications for multiplayer are outstanding, which makes the meager online features only more unacceptable.

In addition to the crystals, you will also pick up weapons along your way that will be added to your inventory. You only have finite storage space, so you will either need to capture depots or melt items into liquid metal (come with me if you want to live!) to form new weapons at a forge. While you will typically start each level with a couple of heroes, you will need to hire some reinforcements with crystals as payment. There is generally a good selection of lower-level cronies to pick from. You can also take control of “cretions” (yeah, spell check does not like that word), which serve as spell buffers to prevent enemy attacks. Overall, Stranger is a great game, thanks to some innovative mechanics. It’s not quite a RPG and not quite a RTS, but it is fun and would feel like more of a complete title with a couple of enhancements.

Stranger introduces a couple of seemingly unique features that makes it worth playing. The spell system alone is great and allows for some really interesting gameplay. The user interface is useful and modifiable, providing detailed information without taking up the entire screen. The AI does a good job engaging the enemies (assuming you issued an assault command) and using their spells so your attention can be turned towards other tasks. Fortunately, the problems of Stranger are few: pathfinding and multiplayer. If only these two issues were fixed, then Stranger would be a completely enjoyable game. As it stands, Stranger should be commended for offering an inventive title in a world of copycats; most people will probably be able to look past the minor faults and enjoy the unique gameplay.