Sunday, May 23, 2010

Incognito: Episode 2 Review

Incognito: Episode 2, developed and published by Magrathean Technologies.
The Good: Multiple campaign paths, more weapons, improved AI, randomized planet hostility, still only $10
The Not So Good: Tedious dull shallow resource collection, RTS mode needs expansion, lack of helpful trade information, lacks side quests for monetary or item bonuses, multiplayer limited to direct IP
What say you? Baby steps forward for the hybrid franchise: 5/8

Way back in the dark ages known as 2009, a small independent title was released that attempted to merge space adventure, real-time strategy, and first person shooting. Known as Incognito: Episode 1, it was partially successful but incomplete. The second iteration (of five) in the series, conveniently named Incognito: Episode 2, is now here and attempts to start where the original left off, offering expanded, streamlined, and generally improved gameplay. Does it?

The graphics feature subtle enhancements. The game has a cell-shaded feel to it, which I honestly can’t remember if it was like that in the original game, but it looks pretty good. I do like the black-and-white introductory sequence (spoiler alert!). The textures are generally the same low-resolution affairs we encountered before, but the planets have been updated with more diverse animated appearances. The rest of space, though, remains quite generic. Combat effects could be better, as shooting something is quite underwhelming. The planet surfaces have been incorporated with more structures to make for increasingly plausible environments in which to fight. On the sound front, Incognito: Episode 2 features completely voiced dialogue: an impressive feat for an indie game. The effects aren’t terribly varied, but remain appropriate for the genre. The musical selection is appropriate for the genre. Overall, Incognito: Episode 2 offers good value for a $10 title.

Since this is a review of a sequel, I’ll cover what’s new and/or improved. If you aren’t familiar with the hybrid gameplay of Incognito, I direct you towards the review of Episode 1 to improve your understanding of the series. I can wait.

All set? Excellent. Incognito: Episode 2 features a brand new campaign with a new storyline and new characters. More importantly, the campaign is branching, offering choices as to which mutually exclusive mission to accept and producing several endings. This obviously adds to the replay value of the game, as it takes several plays to see all there is to experience. While Incognito: Episode 2 isn’t lengthy (it’s similar in duration to Episode 1), the varied nature of the campaign helps longevity immensely. There are some inane puzzles to encounter (shooting a locked door with a railgun: of course!), but the game is generally straightforward and offers up a mix of combat and passive adventures. Incognito: Episode 2 does lack optional side quests, a hallmark of the space adventure genre, where you could undertake short escort or combat missions for a cash reward. The excessively long load times from before have been drastically reduced, and the loading screens are pretty funny (“please wait...while you dream of faster computers” and “protip: keep your eye on the ball”). I am also happy to report that pirates did not instantly attack me two minutes into the game! Bonus! Multiplayer has been added (apparently in a patch to Episode 1…shows what I get for not paying attention), offering up deathmatch on four different ships. While the idea is nice in theory, equipping your weapons is very cumbersome as you must use the inventory system the base game utilizes: quite inefficient. While the game does include dedicated server files, it is strangely limited to direct IP confrontations only. Hopefully a server browser is planned for the future. Overall, I feel that Incognito: Episode 2 definitely gives you $10 worth of content.

The interface has seen some improvement, but still needs work. The inventory screen is the biggest offender: it really needs tool-tips to indicate what each of the icons stands for. Finding a specific weapon and ammunition for that specific weapon is impossible until you learn what they look like through trial and error. I do like the continued use of in-game displays for interaction purposes, like you are using a real computer. The universe of Incognito: Episode 2 is of decent size, and all of it is accessible from the get-go. While you are not given a randomized universe to explore in each new game, hostile planets are assigned by change, giving a small amount of uncertainty when starting anew. Additionally, some planets have perpetual battles between NPCs that you can avoid or take part in, which is a nice touch that adds to the feel of a living game world. Incognito: Episode 2 maintains the “one system fits all” approach for commanding the various game modes; thankfully, “W” does now move forward with respect to your camera view during space flight.

Historically a significant part of space adventures simulations, trade in Incognito: Episode 2 is inefficient at best. The same trade interface makes a return, complete with no indication of “good” or “bad” prices, even if you have visited other planets recently. There are simply too many planets to keep track of for the game to lack a comprehensive, same-page listing of goods. Daily fluctuations do occur, which makes keeping track of the best deals even harder. Your best bet is to pay attention to events (like drought) that would impact the supply or demand of goods across the galaxy; this is your only hope of making a profit in the economy of Incognito: Episode 2.

Remaining the most disappointing aspect of Incognito: Episode 2 is the strategy mode. First off, resource collection continues to be very boring and tedious. You simply place some power stations and a mining facility on clearly marked resource locations and wait. And wait. And wait. You see, you can’t collect any resources unless you are at a planet, as there is no automation in Incognito: Episode 2 to speak of. This means you’ll have to devote a significant amount of time to simply starting at the screen, watching numbers increase until you have the elements you need. This problem has not been alleviated at all in Episode 2; I would surely hope steps will be made in the near future to keep your mines running even if you are not present in the system. It would be much more interesting if established bases mined automatically while you were away (setting up an intergalactic economy) and send notices if attacked by enemy units so that you could intervene.

Combat barely qualifies as strategy. The game currently produces one unit (tanks) you can order to storm the enemy base. As you might imagine, this doesn’t grant the largest strategic variety. A simple rock-paper-scissors type combat would be just fine, with one unit in three category (infantry, tanks, air) designed to take out one of the other categories (like rocket infantry for tanks, mobile SAM for air units, and light air units for infantry). Incognito: Episode 2 would also benefit from defensive structures, holding off the attackers until you arrive to provide assistance. Hopefully, future episodes will include at least some enhancements in this area.

The first person shooting in Incognito: Episode 2 is very basic, but still effective. I mean, how complex does it need to be? Point and shoot. There are more guns to play with this time around, from shotguns to machine guns to railguns and the like. It’s not exactly an advanced system with hyper-realistic mechanics, but it is certainly sufficient for this game and no worse than similar hybrid efforts. The slightly improved AI uses paths for engaging the enemy (that’s you!), but still occasionally gets stuck on walls and is no real challenge for a human players unless they have superior numbers. I imagine this area of the game will receive continual improvement throughout the five Incognito episodes.

Incognito: Episode 2 is an incremental upgrade over the first episode: not as dramatically improved in one specific area as I had expected, but more of a general improvement. The new campaign features more choices as you progress through the missions, allowing for multiple play-throughs and more unpredictableness (what do you mean that’s not a real word?). Randomized planet aggression and perpetual battles also make for a more precarious time. The game could take a cue from other space adventure games and offer more optional side quests from minor NPCs, though. Trade needs a better interface: listing all of the known prices for goods across the galaxy in one giant list would alleviate the need to physically write down optimal trade routes. The least developed aspect of Incognito: Episode 1 remains the area of most concern: resource collection is dull, boring, and involves waiting for elements to accumulate with no intervention whatsoever. This part of the game could easily be automated as you are away, allowing for a dynamic economy to develop over time and informing you of enemy attacks that require immediate attention. The RTS mode is also disappointing, offering only one unit to construct and no defensive buildings whatsoever. You can still keep this part of the game straightforward while adding additional units and protective options. I’d like to see the developers tackle one aspect of the gameplay and add in some complexity in each of the future three episodes. Specifically, the RTS mode could use enhanced features the most, followed by improved trade, side quests, and better multiplayer features beyond simple direct IP. Incognito: Episode 2 doesn’t drastically improve any aspect of the first game, but it is still worth $10 on its own. Hopefully future titles will flesh out the skeleton the first two episodes have established.