Saturday, February 14, 2009

Incognito: Episode 1 Review

Incognito: Episode 1, developed and published by Magrathean Technologies.
The Good: Combination of several gaming genres, accessible controls that carry over between modes, comprehensive in-game tutorial videos, random event-based trading system, resource collection uses actual elements
The Not So Good: Superficial game modes, odd ship controls, long load times and laggy performance, tedious element collection, extremely short, unfair moments of difficulty, budget-level graphics, no multiplayer components
What say you? A noble but shallow attempt at a complete space adventure…so far: 5/8

I had a choice when deciding what to write for this introduction. I could have opted to discuss episodic gaming and how digital distribution has allowed developers to release small samples of their game as it is completed. Or I could have gone with the genre amalgamation option, noting that an increasingly large number of games have combined elements from several types. But I chose the third option: just mention both and make the introduction longer. It’s win-win! And that (I think) brings us to this review of Incognito: Episode 1, a game that combines trading, shooting, action, and strategy games into one space adventure. Most games of this ilk tend to focus on one or two of the classic aspects of the genre (trading and combat), but Incognito: Episode 1 is throwing caution to the wind and offering more variety. Do too many ingredients spoil the pot?

Incognito: Episode 1 shows that you get what you pay for: a $10 game delivers $10 graphics. While there are some highlights to be found, from several of the character models to the futuristic design of the interior of your spaceship, the game as a whole is filled with lower resolution textures and unexciting design overall. Space stations have some nice textures, but planets look like giant blobs and the amount of environmental additions to make believable settings is very low as space stations and planet surfaces are quite bare. Space is a pretty boring place in Incognito: Episode 1, with black backgrounds that are atypical for a setting that usually presents over-the-top visuals (one could say it's...incognito. Ha ha ha ha ha!) Incognito: Episode 1 uses this thing as the graphics engine and it looks no better or worse than your average independently developed title. I do like how the video and screens are shown in the game world instead of magically superimposing themselves on top of your view: it’s probably the most memorable aspect of the graphics. Incognito: Episode 1 looks a lot like one of those 3000AD games or any other independent space adventure. My main issue with the graphics is the extremely long load times when new things are visited or selected: entering your ship or targeting a planet can lock up the game for 30 to 45 seconds while the game loads the information. This should simply not be the case, and it makes Incognito: Episode 1 quite annoying to play. As for the sound, we get some music that’s entertaining most of the time (the battle music is quite annoying), generic sound effects, and corny voice acting. At least every conversation in the game is voiced. I can say with a high amount of confidence that I got exactly what I was expecting with the presentation of Incognito: Episode 1.

So you’re minding your own business, trying to commit suicide, and this computer hijacks you to a distant galaxy (far, far away, no doubt) in order to do her bidding: a typical Monday. Thus is the introduction to Incognito: Episode 1, where the protagonist (you can name him...might I suggest “Ben Dover”) is now in charge of a ship and must complete missions in order to progress onward and upward. Incognito: Episode 1 borrows several aspects from different genres (first person shooter, action game, space trading adventure, role-playing game, real time strategy) in an attempt to produce a cohesive gaming experience. Incognito: Episode 1 does an excellent job easing new players into the game by carrying over controls between the different modes and having almost comprehensive video tutorials for every aspect of the game accessible from within the ship. There isn’t much content here in terms of quests: only five that will take about two to three hours to complete. The currently galaxy consists of about twenty galaxies containing a total of seventy planets and other objects. There isn’t any aspect of randomization with the universe, so the quest order and the resources available at each planet will not change in successive games. Incognito: Episode 1 also lacks multiplayer, making the adventure a purely solo affair.

You’ll start out inside your ship, basically a repository for the tutorial videos, engineering upgrades, and buying sandwiches. The medical bay contains some options that actually do nothing (by design, I found out), and there’s nothing inside the ship that couldn’t have been accomplished with a pull-down menu. In fact, the large loading times involved with entering your ship (and subsequently going back to space) makes wandering around the deck actually fairly annoying. Once you enter the cockpit, you’ll enter the space flight mode. The controls are quite strange, using the mouse to look and the WASD keys to move up/left/down/right; this combination makes navigating through 3-D space difficult, as looking up and pressing down results in strange movement. You can never look completely “up” (or “down,” for that matter) either, and since most of the planets are located above or below you, this becomes an annoying problem. I would have much preferred a control scheme similar to pretty much every other space adventure game: full mouse look freedom and “W” to go forward. You are limited in your movement because your reactor core may overheat, although this only becomes an issue during the rare instance of combat (which the controls, again, make much more difficult than it should be). Finding things in space is fairly simple: pressing “TAB” will open the planet finder that will list all of the notable objects in your current system, and then show a track to that object once selected. Simply getting close to a planet or station will automatically dock with it (even if you are flying at full speed).

You are given several options to interact with a planet or station. You can scan the planet to discover useful elements and other pertinent information, check the news for trading opportunities, or send a probe to the surface (I prefer to probe Uranus). Trading is a tedious, old-school effort of writing down prices: the game does not give any indication on “high” or “low” values with color or anything else. However, trading is affected by random events, such as drought, boredom, and war: paying attention to these news items and quickly setting up a trade route will reap a significant profit. There are a number of goods to trade (ten, to be exact), but trade is only “worth it” when there is an event causing their shortage, and since shortages usually only occur for a week or so, you must act quickly. When you probe a planet (such as Uranus), you will enter the real-time strategy mode or the action mode.

Ship upgrades require specific resources and, in a neat twist, Incognito: Episode 1 uses real elements from the real periodic table. Each planet contains a specific mix of elements that you can mine, and you must collect a particular assortment of elements to make upgradable items. As an example, a heat shield (the first thing you will need) requires five moles of calcium, three sodium, six cobalt, four iridium, and two lead; it’s just a matter of finding the planets containing these resources and collecting them. This makes a lot more sense than using coins or power that magically turn into tanks. The real-time strategy aspect of Incognito: Episode 1 is very basic: your constructor probe can put up power plants and mining stations, so it’s simply a matter of placing power and mining facilities and waiting for resources to accumulate. This is a boring process of just staring at the screen watching numbers: this isn’t a role-playing game! Tanks (the only military unit) are automatically supplied to you, and can be given only simple “move” and “attack” orders. Incognito: Episode 1 doesn’t exactly have the most sophisticated strategy components.

In addition to waiting in the real-time strategy mode, you might also enter the first person mode on space stations or planets. This is a pretty basic shooter: point and kill. There is a standard variety of weapons to choose from (sub-machine guns, rifles, shotguns) that can be bought from space stations. Your AI opponents are not that smart but deadly accurate, mostly because they are heartless robots bend on your destruction. Occasionally, you will have to hack a door by playing an anagram mini-game (coming with many words from the letters contained in a bigger word); I thought this was a pretty novel aspect of Incognito: Episode 1. Connected to the first person mode is the ability to enter neutral tanks and take control of them directly, using an unlimited amount of ammunition to dispose of the enemy. Like the FPS mode, there is little room for error here, as the health is realistic and death is quick. I died a lot while playing Incognito: Episode 1, from importunely meeting the lone pirate ship upon exiting the first planet to running into “dust bunnies” before I could reach a tank (that one happened five times in a row). The unflinching difficulty of Incognito: Episode 1 starts to wear on you; having an option to adjust the diffculty (giving you more hit points) would be quite welcome for players that would like a more casual and less stressful gaming experience. About the only role-playing elements is the power to somewhat customize your character with ratings in pilot, trader, fighter, and engineer abilities; I didn’t really see a significant impact on gameplay by choosing radically different starting attributes, especially since you’ll have to complete the same quests anyway.

Incognito is great in theory but only O.K. in practice. It has a lot of aspects to the game, but it doesn’t do any of them particularly well or have a unique tilt, so ultimately the game is only somewhat interesting. The game is clear thanks to the video tutorials and using the same control scheme in each game mode, but none of those game modes are particularly advanced. The first person shooting and tank combat are both standard fare, space navigation uses controls that are counterintuitive, the RPG elements are in short supply, and the real time strategy mode only has basic units, few things to build, and a tedious (albeit with real elements) resource collection process involving a lot of waiting around. Trading is nice with randomized shortages, but other than taking advantage of these, there is no profit to gain. In addition to the shallow game modes, Incognito: Episode 1 lacks features like adjustable difficulty, multiplayer, and the game is quite short. Incognito: Episode 1 also has some performance issues with significant lag when loading new locations or planets. You can liken Incognito to Spore, where disparate gaming mechanics are present, but none of them are fully complete. Is Incognito: Episode 1 worth a measly $10? I would say so, as I found the game mildly entertaining on several occasions. The different game modes do offer up some variety, even though the depth is lacking. Incognito: Episode 1 feels like an incomplete game, which it is, actually. Episode 2, planned for release at the end of this year (2009, for those keeping score), is scheduled to contain enhancements to several aspects of the game that I just complained about, such as side quests, custom ships, multiplayer, and probing Uranus (just kidding about the last one). I am curious how the entire package will come together when all the episodes of Incognito are complete, as Episode 1 is full of unrealized potential at the present time.