Monday, July 26, 2010

The Scourge Project: Episodes 1 & 2 Review

The Scourge Project: Episodes 1 & 2, developed by Tragnarion Studios and published by Bitbox Games.
The Good: Cooperative and competitive multiplayer, pretty constant action, special abilities, looks very nice
The Not So Good: Conventional weapons lack recoil, pointless order system, braindead enemy AI, linear levels, only three competitive multiplayer maps, checkpoint-only saves, hardly original
What say you? This budget cooperative third-person cover-based shooter offers simple, if derivative, thrills: 5/8

Heard of Gears of War? Me neither, but apparently it was released on something called an “XBOX” a full year before the proper PC release. I never played it because I am too cheap to pay for games and Microsoft hasn’t sent me a game in four years. To the rescue is open PC development, where small studios from around the world can release titles digitally for all of us to enjoy and/or ridicule. The Scourge Project (Episodes 1 & 2) is a cooperative third person shooter that uses extensive cover. See why I brought up Gears of War? It all makes sense now! I waited until the issuance of a patch meant to improve various aspects of the game to review it, so now that it’s here, how does this $10 budget title stack up against the competition?

The Scourge Project (Episodes 1 & 2) has lovely graphics. The levels take place in a variety of futuristic industrial locations and outdoor settings, each of which have a nice attention to detail with plenty of objects scattered around the maps. The characters are also nicely animated with a high level of detail (probably why the game is third person, to show off the character models). The weapon effects could be better and more varied, though the game uses a ragdoll physics that can result in flying corpses when grenades are utilized. I was impressed with the quality of the graphics. The sound isn’t too shabby either, featuring decent (if uneven) voice acting and background music. Indeed, The Scourge Project (Episodes 1 & 2) certainly delivers a very nice presentation, especially for a $10 price tag.

The Scourge Project (Episodes 1 & 2) follows four hard-boiled characters as they infiltrate some evil corporation’s headquarters in the noble task of shooting people in the face. The single player campaign takes place across two episodes (Episodes 1 & 2, if I am not mistaken) that will last a handful of hours (depending on the size of your hands). You can play the game cooperatively with three others (how it’s meant to be played) or take it alone with AI filling out the roster. If you dislike working with others, you can play in a true single-player action mode, although the game does not reduce the enemy count, making it extremely difficult. The campaign features very linear levels: simply move from point “A” to point “B,” shooting people along the way in each new room you enter. There’s usually no strategy in approaching the next situation since the levels lack several pathways, although the occasional defend objective does offer multiple routes that must be covered. Objectives are straightforward (usually at the end of the corridor you are currently in), but the game does not indicate whether an objective is above or below you, leading to some minor confusion. The Scourge Project (Episodes 1 & 2) uses the console model of restricting your progress to being saved only at checkpoints, though these checkpoints are frequent enough where it’s not a huge issue. I will also note that cut scenes can be skipped and the game loads the next portion of the level during play, inducing a delay in opening the next doorway. The game also slows down during dialogue, I suppose to restrict you to the current room. The Scourge Project (Episodes 1 & 2) also features competitive multiplayer modes across three maps using Gamespy for matchmaking. You can play deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag, or a domination mode termed “frontier.” Sadly, I was never able to find any servers to join, and The Scourge Project (Episodes 1 & 2) doesn’t allow for bots during competitive play. Still, I appreciate the inclusion of multiplayer features. For a budget level game, The Scourge Project (Episodes 1 & 2) does offer a compelling roster of options.

The Scourge Project (Episodes 1 & 2) features conventional controls for a shooter (moving, crouching, running). The game emphasizes using cover, and you can “enter” cover by pressing spacebar while near a wall, peeking out and firing aimed shots or employing blind fire for suppression. Interestingly, the level designs don’t use cover enough, pitting you against the enemies in large open areas or hallways more often than you would expect. This is a concern because two shots or so is enough to incapacitate, so the use of cover is an absolute requirement to survive. Silly is the inability to jump: you must enter cover and then vault over low objects. Also silly is “falling”, where you float slowly towards the ground. As I mentioned a couple of sentences ago, you don’t immediately die in The Scourge Project (Episodes 1 & 2): allies can revive you with a simple button press, and you are given a pretty long period of time where you can be brought back from certain death. Soldiers are also given two disappointing special abilities: press the middle mouse button for a shield, or hold down to shoot a linear shockwave (which is no better than simply shooting the enemies). You can issue orders to your teammates, but they are pointless: there is no cursor to aim an attack, revive, move, or use order properly and you can’t cancel an order, so teammates are constantly left behind by old “move” orders. You will occasionally need to hack a console or extract DNA, but it’s a simple press-and-hold process, unlike the (admittedly annoying) minigames of Alpha Protocol. I will also mention that the game didn’t like having my gamepad plugged in, and issue I’ve experienced in a couple of other games I can’t currently remember.

Your squad consists of a team of four individuals, each with a different character model but not much else: there is no difference between the characters’ attributes, including specialized weapons or abilities. They might as well be clones of the same generic soldier. The Scourge Project (Episodes 1 & 2) features futuristic takes on modern weapons that are very conventional and uninspired: a submachine gun, assault rifle, machine gun, shotgun, grenade launcher, sniper rifle, and pistol. There’s no innovation here, no memorable unique weapons to speak of. Additionally, none of the weapons exhibit any recoil: just aim once and hold down the left mouse button until the enemy is dead. While this lack of complexity makes The Scourge Project (Episodes 1 & 2) easy for beginning players, it also means successfully killing foes is excruciatingly trivial (and violates physics, to boot). The Scourge Project (Episodes 1 & 2) does not allow you to aim unless you are looking down the iron sight, the only realistic concession the game makes. You can also engage the enemy with melee attacks, although you really shouldn’t be that close to the oncoming troops. Large vats of ambrosia are scattered all over the maps (for being such a precious resource, it sure is easily obtained), used for powering your disappointing special abilities. Health is recovered over time, but since you can only take two or three shots before becoming incapacitated (the other realistic concession The Scourge Project (Episodes 1 & 2) makes), you must use cover in order to survive. You gain experience over time, or so says the interface; I can’t find any use for the experience points, maybe it makes you more accurate or something, but I honestly have no idea. Now, the AI. Apparently, it has been vastly improved from the release version of the game (why I waited to review), and the friendly units are capable: they engage the enemy and will prioritize reviving other characters when not under direct fire. They do have a problem keeping up with you at times, as evidenced by an automated reorganization tool that’s triggered to magically transport friendly units to your current location. However, the enemy AI is not good: it leaves cover too often, moves very slowly towards you while getting shot, never works together, and spawns in magic locations. The enemies work more as cannon fodder than an intelligent foe that must be feared, but at least low health forces you to at least be slightly cautious.

Despite the fact that The Scourge Project (Episodes 1 & 2) is quite derivative, it’s not terrible. Yeah, the weapons are too easy to use due to a lack of recoil and the level design is very linear, but in cooperative mode the shooter is certainly competent. The use of cover is a must, which makes it all the more curious that a lot of the combat rooms don’t offer enough of it. Still, the special abilities make the action slightly more mixed and your AI teammates aren’t totally useless, engaging the enemy from behind cover and reviving others when appropriate. This makes using the terrible (due to the lack of a cursor to aid in placement) order system pointless. The enemy AI does need some more work, though, as it likes to slowly move towards you out in the open if not scripted to stay behind cover. The Scourge Project (Episodes 1 & 2) is meant for cooperative online play, and in this setting the game is most enjoyable. You also get classic competitive multiplayer modes for those who hate working with others. The Scourge Project (Episodes 1 & 2) isn’t as complete or varied as Gears of War or Alpha Protocol, but for $10 it doesn’t have to be.