Thursday, April 23, 2009

Demigod Review

Demigod, developed by Gas Powered Games and published by Stardock Entertainment.
The Good: User-friendly action-packed gameplay, multiple upgrades paths and cool powers for each demigod beget varied strategies, customizable game settings with several game modes, digestible game lengths, impressive graphics
The Not So Good: No tutorial, no story-driven campaign, only eight maps and demigods, temporary connection issues
What say you? A highly enjoyable multiplayer action strategy game with heavy role-playing elements: 8/8

Where has all the base building gone? It used to be that you knew what to expect in the real time strategy genre: gather resources, construct a base, raise an army, and pwn the enemy. Now with games such as World in Conflict and Dawn of War II, you skip straight to the killing. This more efficient approach certainly has time-related benefits (none of this hour-long-game garbage), but you are removing part of the strategic pie that must be compensated for elsewhere. Enter Demigod, which hopes to fill that void with role-playing elements, namely character upgrades and shiny gear. I like shiny things (they are pretty…and shiny).

Demigod is visually remarkable. As people in several PC gaming forums have mentioned, the screenshots are almost enough to make you buy the game based on looks alone. The eight demigods are varied in their appearances and have detailed textures with fluid animations. The eight maps are also varied in their appearances with spectacular backgrounds to accompany their distinctive architectural style. Weapons effects and spells are presented well, although the game can devolve into a mass of humanity (or whatever the creatures are) during large skirmishes. This is a very distinctive game in terms of appearance: one look and you know that’s Demigod. Despite the high-quality nature of the graphics, modest computer systems can still run the game at “low” settings and experience a lot of the visual excellence. This is a step up from the high system requirements of Supreme Commander. The sound is less well off: despite a nice orchestral musical score and satisfactory battle effects, the occasionally humorous voice acting is repetitive and uninspired. Not Men of War bad, mind you, but I grew tired of the voice acting after ten minutes in the game. I have had some issues with the sound: I actually had to turn my sound settings down (through Control Panel rather than in the game) to stereo headphones to get the game to function properly, which is not a big deal since I use headphones anyway. Apparently the on-board sound card I use (a RealTek AC 97) doesn’t like Demigod so much (or vice versa). Still, this was a minor inconvenience in what is otherwise a visual treat.

Demigod is meant to be a multiplayer game, but you can play against the AI in offline skirmish modes or a tournament (a series of four-on-four matches in a competition for favor points). Like Sins of a Solar Empire, Demigod lacks a story-driven campaign that could have been quite neat, introducing each of the game’s eight demigods and serving as a tutorial to each ability (I smell expansion pack). There are extensive tool-tips, but it’s hard to process all of the information while playing. It takes about two or three games to get a handle on each demigod since the manual does not give any information on their powers and abilities (it would have been nice for the poster that came with the Collector’s Edition to provide this information). Demigod is not complicated compared to pretty much any strategy game, but you still need to teach the game in an interactive sense, especially if you are trying to sell your game to novices. Demigod features four game types, centering on the destruction of your opponent’s citadel (the only goal in conquest mode). In addition, you can have alternative victory conditions: dominate lets you win by holding flags, slaughter lets you kill other demigods, and fortress allows for just eliminating fortresses. The strategy is still the same in every mode, so the additional victory conditions don’t change the gameplay much other than generally making games shorter. The game gives you a wide range of options to tweak settings, as long as you are playing a custom game online or against the AI: fog of war, flag capture times, favor items use, gold income, defense strength, and more can be changed to produce longer or shorter contests or ones with a different focus. Online options include automatically matches skirmish games, custom games, or the online pantheon tournament that pits the forces of light against the forces of darkness with persistent stats. If there aren’t enough players to fully populate a map, AI players will inhabit the extra slots. It’s odd that, considering all of the game options available for custom games (both single and multiplayer), that you are not allowed to disable AI players for skirmish and pantheon games. Of course, if you did that, you might be waiting for a while for a game to start. Then again, there are plenty of custom games with more than two human players.

There’s been some complaining by inferior review sites about the matchmaking in Demigod, and a week or so after release, it has been improved. While finding players in skirmish and pantheon games is usually no problem, trying to get a custom game going is more difficult because of the increased numbers of players involved. Demigod features a peer-to-peer system that takes a while (a minute, usually) to initially connect to everyone, but once (or if) you do, the latency is halved (since you are directly connected to everyone, instead of having to pass through a host first), producing a smoother gaming experience. In theory, anyway: I have still experienced a noticeable amount of constant lag when playing a majority of online games, on top of the occasional disconnect. A common problem is all of the other players dropping before the game loads, producing a contest against all AI players: not the kind of multiplayer experience I was expecting. People manually joining and dropping from custom games (and the auto-match modes) may explain this and it can really make for some headaches. I don't think peer-to-peer is a great system to use for a game such as this, considering the wide range of routers, firewalls, and quality of bandwidth around the globe. It is a lot easier to use Impulse’s game browser: information on game status (waiting for players, starting, full) and password protection is missing in the woefully inadequate browser inside Demigod. The matchmaking system does work much better in skirmish and pantheon tournaments than in custom games, with wait times usually less than a minute at peak times, but then you are playing with and against AI players on a random map with standard rules and an unknown objective. It's luck of the draw whether you are matched with players overseas, and if you are, you can expect some connection issues until the development team straightens out the problems with the addition of additional servers.

Demigod contains eight (with plans to add at least two more for free in future patches) demigods, each with their own special abilities and attributes. They are divided into two groups: assassins that play more like a role-playing character and generals that control subordinate units (like in a real-time strategy game). You only control your one demigod and their minions if you are a general, as other troops on the field of battle are completely automated. While this sounds quite limiting, it actually works quite well and since the reinforcements follow a set path, their behavior can be predicted and taken advantage of. Plus, this automation cuts down significantly on micromanagement, and I know I would have just box-selected everyone and attacked a single target anyway. Demigods are given the usual RPG attributes: hit points, mana, armor, damage, attack speed, movement, range. These can be upgraded over time by spending experience points or by purchasing new clothing using the gold earned from killing things. Demigods can also attain new talents through the skill tree by selecting one upgrade every time they level up. Upgrade trees are nicely varied between the characters but still intuitive to use, as new skills are able to be unlocked at set experience levels. Despite only featuring eight characters, Demigod features a pleasant assortment of roles: melee, ranged, slow moving but powerful, battle mage, healer, spells, and an undead army. Some of the spells are quite impressive in their destruction, and coordinating with other and complimenting each other’s skill sets is the path to victory. There’s no demigod that is useless or underpowered if used correctly. Death carries a time penalty before respawning and gold awarded to the enemy, so it should be avoided by using health potions or a teleportation scroll.

There are only eight maps (again, with plans to add more later), but thankfully they are well designed. There are usually multiple paths to the enemy base, each with their own benefits. Maps can handle two-on-two up to five-on-five matches, with about two maps per battle size. There are a number of objects along the way to the enemy citadel (the object of your destruction). First, at your base you have your own citadel where you can spend gold to upgrade buildings and reinforcements and the item shop to purchase items. Towers are located on each half of the map to serve as a deterrent early in the game: they are a formidable opponent until about level 10. Flags scattered around the map give a range of extras, from controlling neutral structures (that can spawn more reinforcements or sell expensive but powerful items) to mana, experience, hit point, and reinforcement bonuses. Gold earned by killing enemies and controlling mines (tied to flags) can be spent a number of ways. Citadel improvements include better building heath and more powerful reinforcements; creeps can become quite a problem if improved. Items and artifacts are divided up into groups according to their use: potions, armor, helmets (for mana), shoes (for speed), gloves (for attacks), rings, and minions for generals. There are a lot of items to choose from and it’s overwhelming at first; I would like a filter to show all items that grant specific bonuses, such as mana and attack speed. In an unrealistic twist, Demigod allows you to equip more than one item of the same type (up to the five-item limit), so you can trot around the map sporting five gloves. You also get three slots of potions and scrolls and one slot for a favor item, purchased with points earned in previous games.

The much celebrated strategic zoom from Supreme Commander makes a return in Demigod, although it’s much less useful here (especially since the minimap is much more helpful in gauging what exactly is going on). Since you are only controlling one character (and his or her minions), activating spells and using items is quite straightforward, either with the mouse or keyboard. Demigod features easy access to all of your equipment and lots of tool-tips to help with on-the-fly questions (of which there will be initially very many). Strategy veterans will want to play against the “hard” AI where they are on even terms with you, and generally the AI plays well. There are instances of indecisive movement that results in their death, but the AI does a good job using abilities at the right time and purchasing upgrades. They are obviously not as good as human competition, but they are a fine substitute. Games in Demigod are fast affairs with action from the first twenty seconds onward. That’s not to say that games are overwhelming, they are just paced well to keep the gameplay interesting: an entire game takes around 20-30 minutes. The strategy of Demigod involves choosing and using your upgrades to counter others and promote your demigod’s advantages. Since you only have four spells (more if your demigod has different modes), on-the-field tactics is less important than correctly using your spells and coordinating with others: Demigod plays more like an action RPG than a classic strategy game in this sense. The game allows for multiple strategies, even with the same demigod. There is always more than one way to upgrade a single character, taking advantage of each demigod’s skill set. For example, the vampire Lord Erebus can be skilled at draining health for his own use, command a large army of fallen soldiers, or stun enemies while sending their health to allies. Or all of the above, if you desire. Thus, the same demigod can be played completely different ways depending on your desired strategy. You can also choose upgrades and items on the fly to counter enemy strategies. It’s difficult for new players to do this since the upgrades are made in real time, though (this is where the lack of a tutorial is missed). Demigod features a lot of back and forth with almost constant action. You are never defeated in the first five minutes if you happen to lose your first encounter with enemy forces. In fact, I’ve had games that have swung dramatically between the two sides as demigods died and waited to respawn. The map design is fantastic, eliminating the control point bouncing seen in Dawn of War II and offering all straight-forward action. Demigod is easier to handle for beginners since you only have to worry about a handful of units (or only one if you choose an assassin), yet deep enough to use a multitude of strategies for each character. Despite only controlling a single unit, the action is intense and the game is a great marriage of role-playing and strategy.

Demigod is a wonderful mixture of constant action, strategy, and role-playing. The game is approachable yet provides strategic depth thanks to the numerous upgrades and equipment you can outfit your character with. The eight demigods offer an option (or three) for every play style: melee, support, ranged, magic, or army commander. In addition, each individual demigod can be developed down several paths, further extending the strategic variety; they are well designed and distinct in their approach. The game’s outstanding, yet well performing, graphics don’t hurt the overall product: the chaos of battle is beautifully illustrated. Games are quick and don’t feature stalemates, and the numerous customization options let you tweak the rules as you would like. There are still some hiccups regarding multiplayer lag and the proliferation of AI opponents in online games, but I am fairly confident that, given Stardock’s track record, that these issues will be solved in due time. Demigod will inevitably get compared with another action strategy game, Dawn of War II, mainly because I am going to compare them now. I like both games a lot, as they both offer up quick, action-packed gaming, but still reserve the place for strategy. Whereas Dawn of War II puts more of the strategy in troop placement, Demigod injects its strategic element in building your character, so it depends on whether you prefer tactical gaming or role-playing as to which game is “better.” Of course, you could (and probably should) just end up playing both and make everyone happy. Despite the lack of a tutorial and dearth of out-of-game documentation of demigod abilities, the learning curve of Demigod only takes a couple of games to learn a new character, and that’s the point of the single player game since it lacks a story-driven mode. We could use more maps, although the ones that are included are very well designed and keep the action moving forward (unlike the aforementioned Dawn of War II, where troops can be scattered across the large maps). Still, all of the issues with Demigod are quite minor when compared against the awesomeness of the entertaining gameplay contained herein: this is how you make an accessible game that combines genres effectively.