Friday, February 01, 2008

Savage 2: A Tortured Soul Review

Savage 2: A Tortured Soul, developed and published by S2 Games.
The Good: Unique gameplay amalgamation is fantastic and fresh, each class has its role, interesting melee combat system, stalemate avoidance, cheap price and a free five-hour demo
The Not So Good: No manual means a steep learning curve, occasional lag and connection issues
What say you? A stellar action role-playing strategy shooter…thing: 7/8

We’re getting very close to the point where we will see a game that combines every single computer gaming genre. And that will be one long acronym. Adding role-playing conventions to shooters or strategy games is becoming very popular, especially with the success of massively multiplayer online games (or, as the kids call them, FUBAR). So here comes Savage 2: A Tortured Soul (there was a Savage 1? Why was I not informed?), a mix of (deep breath) first person shooters, role-playing games, and real-time strategy. I’m guessing one of two things will happen: the game will be a great mixture that takes advantage of disparate genres, or a complete unfocused mess. Let’s find out which!

Savage 2 has comparable graphics to any recent role-playing game, though it lacks the obscene polish of contemporary first person shooters. The characters have nice detail: the dream catcher on the back of the summoner, the dwarf–like builder, and the giant behemoth. Character models are varied between classes and designed well: it’s easy to spot a particular class at a distance. Spells also come with pleasing effects, especially the more powerful effects that feel like magic rather than a simple light show. I also like the ominous sign of a hell spawn unit: the sky turns dark and glowing ash falls from above. The environments, however, are a generally bland and undetailed mix of green maps; there are trees and buildings and such, but when you compare the attention to detail found in games like Call of Duty 4 to Savage 2, it’s a bit disappointing. But at least the game will run fine on most everyone’s system. The audio in the game is typical for whatever genres Savage 2 would like to claim: voice notification of events, good background music (I especially like the first ~30 seconds of the menu theme), and a voiced tutorial (though it sounds like “some guy” instead of an in-game character…out of place for a fantasy setting). I’m not one to focus on graphics and sound anyway as long as they don’t negatively impact the gameplay, so Savage 2 certainly looks and sounds good enough for my tastes.

Savage 2: A Tortured Soul is an online team-based game that combines several genres into a coherent package. The game currently features only one game mode, where you must destroy the enemy base, but more are apparently planned for future updates. You can play the game for free with a handful of limitations for five hours; after that, it’s $30 for a lifetime membership with no monthly fees, which is pretty cheap. Savage 2 also archives replays of every game ever played (how much hard drive space does that take up?): an impressive feature. Savage 2 also keeps persistent stats; while they don’t provide any in-game bonuses (thank goodness), they do determine which servers you can join. Currently, there are beginners servers for levels 1 through 4, and veteran servers for levels 5 and above. As more people purchase the game, the veteran servers are becoming more populated and games are generally a lot more organized there. This keeps the new players from being completely dominated as they are learning the game. Games are easy to join using the in-game browser, though the filters always default to show all severs even if you filtered out full and empty ones the last time you played. Savage 2 is also has modding support: the interface is in XML and the game ships with a map editor, expanding upon the paltry amount of maps that ship with the game. I should also mention that Savage 2 has no intro movies; it’s been quite a while since I’ve played a game I didn’t need to wait or press “escape” before starting. Since Savage 2 is a different breed of game and it takes a while to learn each class and the appropriate strategies, it is an absolute travesty that the game lacks a manual. There is a tutorial, but it lasts too long so you can’t remember specifics. This makes getting into the game a lot more difficult than it should be. You can scour the official message boards looking for threads that explain the basics, but this should not be necessary. Also, leaving before a match is over gives you a loss. I realize why they do it, but since I have a baby daughter, I have to quit in the middle of the game quite often, and it's left me with a less than desirable win-loss record.

Each round, a commander is voted into office and he/she plays the game in a real-time strategy mode. Commanders can use the team income (derived from mines) to build structures, recruit builder units that are not autonomous, and cast spells on friendly and enemy units. Savage 2 features a pretty linear technology tree: mines for income, garrisons for forward spawn points, an armory for advanced weapons, defensive towers, and three buildings to unlock better units. Players can earn gold by killing enemy units, which in turn can be pooled to help construct buildings. Builder units can construct mines on their own, but the rest of the buildings aren’t available for regular players unless there is no commander. The commander must decide whether to focus on defenses, more powerful units, or expansion, so the limited technology tree doesn’t limit strategic choices. The spells involve giving or taking away health, armor, and speed; in a close battle, the commander can intervene and give his squad a slight upper hand. The commander can also revive fallen allies and reveal the fog of war. The limiting factor for using spells is the cooldown time that prevents spamming. Commanding is almost like a completely separate game and it’s fun most of the time; occasionally it can get boring as you wait for money to build up, but casting spells can fill the void.

Both races in Savage 2 feature pretty much the same units: a construction unit, a scouting unit, an infantry unit, a tank unit, a healer unit, two siege units, and two powerful units unlocked by spending kills. Most units in the game have a melee attack, a ranged attack, a couple of area spells, and a special action (squad leaders also get a spawn point they can place). The beasts and the humans do differ somewhat on their spells and such, but in general the classes are the same and have a specific role in the game. You can change your class during the game between respawns based on your team’s strategy and which classes everyone else is playing. More powerful units cost additional gold to play, so keeping them alive is important. Your respawn time, by the way, is tied to your economy, so if you are losing badly, it’ll take a while to respawn. This tends to shorten the end-game once there is a team with a clear advantage. Each unit is rated in several areas: health, mana, stamina, armor, and experience. Kills, in addition to performing certain tasks like casting spells or repairing structures, give experience; when you level up, you are given attribute points to improve your base stats (health, mana, stamina, damage from spells, attack damage). These improves stats aren’t huge bonuses, but they do allow you to customize your character somewhat. Of course, if you choose to switch classes during the game, then you’ll be stuck with the upgrade path your chose. Items can also be bought to influence your stats: things like armor, health and mana potions, and speed increases. You can also collect small items from NPCs; persistent items that can be used in any future match will be implemented in a future patch.

The combat system of Savage 2 is slightly more advanced than simple attacking. While you can attack with the left mouse button, attacks can be blocked with the middle mouse button, and blocks can be blocked with the right mouse button. Blocking or blocking a block results in stunning the enemy, allowing you to get a couple of hits in before they recover. The melee system is a great way of introducing some skill (and luck) into the equation, although multi-person battles tend to just be mass attacking. Ranged attacks are performed simply by aiming and shooting, and spells are simple to cast as the game locks on appropriate targets near your cursor. I would have liked the interface to indicate the type of spell (friendly, enemy, attack, etc.) in the icon; I always have to check what they mean at the respawn screen since no information is provided in-game. Players can also place turrets and armor or mana depots, and some classes just involve area of effect spells. Savage 2 has a fast pace, though individual games average between 45 minutes and an hour, mainly because you’re always doing something. There is some running around on the larger maps, but forward spawn points are plentiful if you have good leaders. The game time could be reduced if the income rate was increased, but there is a limit to the game length since mines will eventually run out of gold, preventing teams from repairing structures and building replacements. Savage 2 plays like a first person shooter with spells and its gameplay is really fun if you can get a group to work together; this is much more likely on the veteran servers. People do need to work together since the classes are so specialized, but a squad with varied abilities working together can dominate a game. Savage 2 is one of those addictive online games that features a unique combination of gameplay elements. There have been some epic come-from-behind games I have been a part of, especially on the veteran servers with higher level players that are a lot more coordinated. Battling back against seige units and hell spawn, then raiding an enemy base for victory is a feat unmatched in many online gmaes. And now, for the bad news: I have had problems with lag in Savage 2, rendering the game essentially unplayable. It is very inconsistent, however; 80% of the time everything is fine, but there are usually one or two players on each server asking everyone else if they are lagging out. This is a problem in an online-only game, and hopefully a solution is not too far away.

I like Savage 2. The game features a polished combination of first person shooting action with role-playing spells. The commander mode, while alone is a somewhat superficial strategy game, is a fine change of pace as a component of Savage 2. While the effects and character models are good, the environments are bland and repetitive and could look more realistic. The specific classes require good teamwork in order to be successful. The online stat tracking (including replays of every game ever) and in-game experience model infuses some role-playing into Savage 2. Savage 2 reduces stalemating through finite gold supplies and increased respawn times for losing teams. When players are working together, the gameplay parts of Savage 2 assemble nicely to produce an exciting gameplay experience. Savage 2 is simply different and refreshing, something that sets it apart from more conventional games like Call of Duty 4. Savage 2 feels like Enemy Territory: Quake Wars: a couple of innovations makes for an interesting game, though I would say Savage 2 is a bit more original. There are a couple of problems with the game that keep it from earning a perfect score: occasional but annoying lag and the lack of a manual. Still, Savage 2 is certainly worth a download and it is a great effort from an independent developer at a cheap price.