Thursday, May 19, 2011

Shattered Origins: Guardians of Unity Review

Shattered Origins: Guardians of Unity, developed by Elder Games and published by Rawen Group.
The Good: Direct control of any ship in your fleet, ship upgrades and abilities, skirmish and survival modes
The Not So Good: Unsatisfying superficial combat with limited tactical options, tedious ship component upgrades require manual docking, insufficient ally commands, significant waiting for resources to accumulate, lacks alternative career paths or dynamic interactions for campaign variety, no “repair all” button for quick fleet restoration, scarce strategic decisions
What say you? A space adventure combat game with strategy elements and unrealized potential: 4/8

This review also appears at The Wargamer

Space is dangerous. Between the lack of air, unfiltered radiation, and threat of poison gas fumes from Uranus, it’s not a nice place to be. It doesn’t help that, in the future, humans continue to pummel each other with brightly-colored laser beams. Yes, strategy and adventure games alike have accepted the fact that the future, like the past, will be filled by war. While these two genres approach the mayhem from slightly different perspectives, what if there was a way to combine the personal approach of adventure games with the deep tactics of strategy games? Shattered Origins: Guardians of Unity hopes to answer that question, as this title hopes to combine the personal approach of adventure games with the deep tactics of strategy games. What a coincidence!

Shattered Origins: Guardians of Unity looks and sounds like an indie game, which in this case is not a compliment. Not that this is a huge issue, but space games are known for some pretty spectacular graphics, and indie games are no exception to this rule. So it comes as a bit of a downer when a title comes with more simplistic graphics. Shattered Origins is populated with low-resolution, blurry textures, from the ships to the asteroids to the backgrounds: nothing looks crisp or detailed. The ship models have decent variety, though, and the weapon effects are acceptable. The explosions are underwhelming balls of fire, and you’ll never get peppered with enemy debris during an intense firefight. The sound design is typical for a small team: while the fully voiced dialogue is commendable, its quality is below average and very foreign (especially in the tutorial). The odd background music is not really appropriate for the space setting, either. Overall, I wouldn’t say I was disappointed by the graphics and sound of Shattered Origins, but they certainly didn’t impress me.

Shattered Origins: Guardians of Unity has you shooting people who are colored “red” on your HUD. The main part of the game is the campaign, which follows the Guardians as they take on various threats throughout the universe. The game utilizes a star map to jump between maps (which have little effect on in-game tactics, just offering more or less asteroids) and complete primary and secondary objectives. These missions are generally clear with on-screen arrows displaying where to go, although I found these hints to be buggy at times: directional arrows drastically swapped sides of the screen or pointed in a confusing, incorrect direction (see this video for an example). Disorientation is increased further by the lack of a mini-map or sector layout diagram. The campaign is full of constant interruptions about new missions and incoming enemy units, and the objectives are presented in a very linear manner. The universe of Shattered Origins does not feel dynamic or life-like, unlike most space adventure games: it’s just you and the enemies, and there is no trading or mining to supplement your combat-oriented missions. This also means that destroying enemies doesn't give you additional income by selling their cargo. All of the missions are combative in nature, involving a battle against evil red ships. However, there is the occasional mini-game, like tower defense or arcade games, to break up the strategy and combat elements, but they are only mildly interesting. After you are finished with the campaign, you can try out one map at a time in the skirmish mode, or hold out against waves of enemies in survival. There is no multiplayer in Shattered Origins, though, as the game is purely a single player affair. The tutorial does a decent job teaching new players the controls and mechanics of the game.

Your home base is a gigantic cruiser, which is where the real-time strategy portion of Shattered Origins takes place. The resource of choice in the future is crystal, automatically collected once you click on the “mining operations” icon (which you will need to do again once each asteroid runs out: slightly annoying, but designed so you simply can't let the game run overnight). Crystal is used for everything (ships, research, buildings, upgrades, repair), which results in a ton of waiting for resources to slowly trickle in while nothing else happens. I can’t remember the last time I simply sat in my chair, doing nothing, for so long while “playing” a game: resource collection takes entirely too long, and since everything in the game uses crystal, I just left the room and let the game run for an hour, raced up the tech tree, and built a huge fleet. Seriously. All you have to do is come in everyone once in a while and press the “mining operations” button to send out a new probe. You can hold production or research for a temporary income bonus, which is odd considering you can “hold” production (and benefit from the increased revenue) even if you aren’t actually producing anything. You also have to start over after every mission, rebuilding all of your cruiser components, even if you are on the same cruiser as before: that makes absolutely no sense to me.

With all that crystal you amassed, you can spend it on several things. The first is additions to your cruiser that allow for ship construction, mining, and research. Shattered Origins has a small variety of ships to choose from, ranging small “small and fast” to “big and powerful”. Since there is no population cap (apparently there are an infinite amount of pilots on the cruiser…lucky you!), you can simply wait and build to your heart’s content, constructing an insurmountable force. The research tree gives you multiple paths to choose from to access the game’s twenty or so techs, but not really: you still must discover almost all of the techs (even if you know your overall strategy is not going to use them) to advance up the tree. Shattered Origins offers few strategic decisions (especially if you left the game running like I suggested): just choosing between building a new ship or conducting research or constructing the occasional required cruiser component. The combination of slow resource collection and limited options for those resources makes Shattered Origins an uninteresting strategy game.

What is interesting, however, are the ship upgrades you can research and then place on your ships: there are a number of weapons and abilities to choose from, which can alter the tactics you’ll employ. Still, there’s only around ten options in all, so the possibilities are limited. While you can repair ships from space, there is no “repair all” button to quickly fix your entire fleet at once, so you must cycle through each vessel individually: a bit of a time waster, but at least it gives you something to do while you wait for the resources to accumulate. You do have to dock each ship that you want to upgrade with new parts, however, and there is no “dock” command to make the AI do it, as this action must be performed manually (complete with repetitive cutscenes as each craft enters and exits the hanger). Pilot experience upgrades, though, can be allocated in space, upgrading weapon, fire rate, or repair values.

What sets Shattered Origins apart from a typical space strategy game is the ability to directly control any ship in your fleet, much like a space adventure title. This is easily the best feature of the game. Since the upgrades are ship-specific (a product of the tedious system described earlier), each ship is different and each pilot has independent experience levels, making for a varied fleet instead of the same ship fifteen times over. There is a distinct difference controlling a level 1 ship compared to a level 5. Shattered Origins is controlled using the mouse (reminiscent of Freelancer); it’s a bit touchy, but generally a functional method. Spacebar is used to move, which means there is no incremental engine control: it’s all or nothing, which is extremely odd. It’s like the only way to drive your car is to floor it or not touch the accelerator at all. As you can imagine, this makes for less than precise control. Left-clicking shoots, and you can even turn on an aim assist that locks on to an enemy once you start shooting (anyone true gamer should immediately turn this off).

Your ships have health (called “stability”) that, when lowered, reduces the effectiveness of weapons and abilities. There is also a cool-down for weapons and abilities that prevents you from constantly using high-level items. Shattered Origins has very superficial combat: coupled with the lack of subtle engine control, there is no system-specific damage or directional shields (like, say, in Starpoint Gemini), so it’s simply point and shoot until they die. Enabling aim assist makes combat a trivial, oversimplified effort. Feedback is also poor: you can’t tell if you are actually hitting the enemy until their health drops significantly and they start to smoke. AI is decent enough (although since the battles are so arcade-like, it’s hard to tell how sophisticated it may be), and your allies will do a good job engaging the enemy. You can issue some orders to your friends (attack, follow, patrol, hold), but Shattered Origins lacks more advanced options like formations (and the aforementioned dock order) common in real-time strategy games. With bland combat, tedious repairs, and limited strategic options, Shattered Origins falls short of its promise.

Shattered Origins: Guardians of Unity is a neat idea buried under questionable design issues or limited features, an all-too-common problem with indie games. The thought of combining real-time strategy games and combat-focused space adventure is certainly intriguing, but Shattered Origins falls short for a couple of reasons. First, the combat is shallow: the lack of location-specific damage, advanced shields, and incremental engine control makes for bland fighting with little tactics (especially if you choose to enable aim assist). I really like the ability to switch between ships at any time, allowing you to take control of the most powerful or most vulnerable, but the orders for your allies are limited (although the AI does a good job engaging enemy ships effectively). You can perform ship repair and pilot upgrades in space, but new components must be installed manually by flying each ship to the hanger; a “dock” command would alleviate some of the tedium here. Some upgrades imbue neat abilities, so there is definitely some fun to be had outfitting and customizing your fleet. Your strategic options are a bit restricted, however: just some buildings and research paths to choose from as you encounter steadily more difficult foes. The campaign offers linear, scripted objectives and no freedom through trade, mining, or exploration options. Resource collection takes way too long, which results in a lot of staring at the screen (or going to grab something to eat) while crystal accumulates at a glacially slow rate. The skirmish and survival modes round out the single-player-only package. In the end, Shattered Origins takes a couple of incomplete game components and combines them to make an incomplete game.