Monday, October 13, 2008

Hinterland Review

Hinterland, developed and published by Tilted Mill Entertainment.
The Good: Interesting integration of city management into an action RPG, variety of town occupations to recruit, lots of loot to enhance combat and production, randomized maps, low price
The Not So Good: Repetitive plain combat, oversimplified resource collection, shallow resource-gathering quests, uninspired graphics, needs a tutorial or more descriptive manual for the nuances, lacks cooperative multiplayer
What say you? The action role-playing game gets city builder trappings with generally pleasing but limited results: 6/8

The seemingly vogue (strike a pose) thing to do these days is to combine different genres into one gaming product. There have been a number of recent titles that have attempted to bridge the genre gap: Loco Mogul, Savage 2, Depths of Peril, and SpellForce 2 (OK, maybe not that recent) just to name a few. Now that we have solid games in pretty much every genre, it’s time to expand our horizons by uniting genres in a pact of success. Hinterland (from the German meaning “land of hinter”) is a action role-playing game in the tradition of Diablo that has added city management to the equation. This is not surprising since the developer is Tilted Mill, who is responsible for unleashing Children of the Nile and SimCity Societies on the world. How will the introduction of city building elements change up the typical hack-and-slash action role-playing game?

Hinterland uses our good friend the Torque game engine, also utilized in Penguins Arena, KingMania, and Shelled! Online, for one main reason: it’s a pain in the butt to make your own graphics engine. And it’s expensive. The result: an average looking role-playing game. The key word with Hinterland is “generic”: generic environments, generic character models, generic architecture. The game is played entirely from a fixed isometric perspective and far out enough where you are never getting up close and personal to the characters. Since you cannot zoom your view, quality maps are needed and Hinterland just does an average job at this: navigating through the regional map can be confusing at first and the mini-map cannot be zoomed to show enemy locations in a larger range. There is some detail in the enemies and some of the 3-D models do look nice, though. Also, troops will actually wear the gear you give them, so that is a nice touch. Still, you won’t be able to pick out Hinterland from a screenshot lineup of action RPGs released in the past ten-or-so years: all of the lush green landscapes become repetitive very quickly. The special effects are also lacking: spells are underwhelming and combat is bland. Loot locations are clearly indicated: one of the few good effects. In terms of sound design, Hinterland comes with some good background music and (again) generic effects to accompany the action on-screen. You know what you’re going to get with any fantasy-based soundtrack these days and Hinterland certainly doesn’t change anything. The developer pretty much admitted that awesome graphics was not a focus of the game, so as long as you lower your visual expectations, Hinterland will not disappoint as much.

Your goal in Hinterland is to kill everything surrounding your newly founded town. You do this by recruiting new townspeople to fulfill jobs, go out and defeat monsters to get new loot, and slowly build up your town to a dominating entity. If you’ve played any action RPG and city builder, the hybrid mechanics will be at least somewhat familiar, but Hinterland lacks a guided tutorial (“how to play” consists of a couple of sentences) and the manual lacks pictures, making the user interface more mysterious than it should be. You will control one main character that will be assigned a background; these fourteen backgrounds (examples: mercenary, chemist, assassin, architect) will grant some sort of starting bonus for your character, although hard numbers are hidden from the player. Your initial background is randomly chosen (although you can change it), intended for those people who have a hard time making up their mind. You’ll end up playing Hinterland the same way no matter which background you choose, although your beginning focus might shift slightly. The game world is randomly generated for each new game, although the countryside usually consists of the game elements: progressively more difficult enemies as you get further away from your town. You can customize some aspects of the world: overall difficulty, map size, presence of annoying enemy raiders, and randomized resources. Hinterland does not feature any sort of multiplayer (cooperative or otherwise), but the game doesn’t need it.

Periodically, new citizens will appear in your town square looking for work. They will hold one profession that will contribute something to your town. In order to hire them, you must invest some gold into constructing a house (or use an existing one for a much smaller fee) and fulfill their minimum requirements such as hero notoriety or certain resources. The lower-level citizens usually gather food (the game’s only finite resource) by farming or hunting. Later on, merchants, innkeepers, weapons makers, and magicians will populate your town for a much steeper cost. If you don’t like the currently available potential residents, you can spend a small amount of cash to advertise your town and introduce a new slew of villagers. An interesting dynamic of Hinterland is that your party consists of townspeople, so if they are helping you kill bad guys, they are not making food or weapons or potions or whatever else they do. Thus, you need to balance who you bring along against the needs of your town and your overall strategy.

The only resource you need to worry about is food, and it is trivial to balance: just hire a trapper or farmer whenever you hire someone else and you’ll be fine. There is a huge amount of space available in your town and it’s very easy to just spam food-producing citizens as they will always be available for hire. Since the food balance is clearly displayed with a tool-tip, it’s a very elementary balancing act. This limited resource balancing leaves a lot to be desired; after the supremely complex nature of Civilization IV: Colonization’s resources, only having food to worry about seems very underwhelming and shallow. There are other resources, but they are infinite and automatically captured when you defeat all of the enemies in the area. What happened to the complex resource interdependencies of Children of the Nile or Imperium Romanum? Hinterland overly simplifies the town’s production and subsequently makes the city management aspect of the game much less interesting. You can upgrade buildings for a price to make them more effective or unlock more advanced weapons and magic, but this is the limit of the depth associated with the city management aspects of Hinterland.

The king (if you have the option enabled) will occasionally give you quests, but it’s not as exciting as it sounds. The missions only entail giving him a set amount of food or cash, with the occasional “build this” quest. Completely the quest will raise your fame (required for high-level citizens) while failing it will decrease it. Like a lot of things in Hinterland, the quest system is very superfluous and rarely significantly impacts the game and never offers interesting objectives to compliment the main goal of killing everything. Because I can’t think of another paragraph to put it in, I will also mention that high-level citizens can conduct research that the manual and game does an extremely poor job at explaining its purpose, and new weapons can be automatically sold to the merchant when they are produced. Citizens can also be told whether to engage enemy raiders when they enter town.

Most of your game time will be spend running around the map killing enemies. You can have up to four people in your group and the combat is very simplistic: point, click, and die. Maybe more sophisticated RPGs have spoiled me, but Hinterland’s combat is automated for you with no strategy or skill required, other than having good weapons to start with. Defeated enemies will have a number of weapons on them that can be equipped or sold to a merchant (if you have one employed) for a very small cash return. Early in the game, all of your income will come from dead bodies; you can employ gold-producers like tavern keepers later on, but you will still rely heavily on stealing from the dead. One thing that is interesting about the weapons you can collect from dead enemies is that they commonly double as tools for citizen: the hammer you bashed that goblin’s head in with can also increase the production of your craftsman if so equipped. You will also periodically pick up enhancers, like seeds and plows for farmers. These increase the amount of stuff they produce, although the game is vague about how much it actually helps.

Controls are straightforward: WASD or hold down the left mouse button and point. Once you click on an enemy (difficult since they move towards you once you are in range), your character will continue to attack them automatically until death occurs. Hinterland could benefit from more sophisticated combat, like “blocking” or anything requiring some sort of skill. Your party will attack whomever they please, as you cannot issue them orders like “attack my target” or “hold back” or “flee” if they are low on health. Party members will leave once significantly injured, and if they are really significantly injured they must be replaced. Like in most RPGs, characters (both yours and your teammates) will gain experience and level up over time. Combat will increase your character’s attack, defense, and health, indicated by a subtle white background and big and small icons that aren’t very informative. Once enough of these traits are upgrades, you get to select a combat or town trait as well; these usually increase some stat like attack or income. Your focus and goal in Hinterland is to attack the enemy units, so you will spend most of your time selecting enemies to engage and getting new items off defeated enemies. Since there is only one objective in the game (hurt everyone), your approach in subsequent games will be very similar, even with randomized maps and different skill sets.

Hinterland is a great idea that’s almost executed well. It’s a simple game that’s too simple, stripping down the conventions of two genres into a causal game devoid of much complications and depth. The city building aspects could be enhanced with more resources to balance and an intricate production relationship model (shields require wood produced by lumberjacks, for example). The role-playing combat needs more sophisticated combat other than click and die, perhaps some blocking or timing element. Still, Hinterland is pretty darn addictive for a simple game: growing your town, producing better weapons and spells, and taking on more powerful enemies is certainly fun. But there is much room for improvement in Hinterland, and hopefully the developer will dedicate some energy towards developing some game enhancements that are needed to make a more complete product. The saving grace for Hinterland is the low price: I would definitely say that I got $20 worth of enjoyment out of this game. Hinterland is a solid concept that, with some additional growth, could deliver on the promise of a unique experience.