Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog

Devastation (PC, 2003): The Apocalypse Isn’t Apocalypsey Enough
August 6, 2010, 5:27 am
Filed under: Devastation (PC, 2003, US)

I’ve collected a pretty big cache of crappy PC games that I am slowly making my way through in a rough chronological order. (Insert lonely loser joke here.) This is probably the only reason why the generally little-known first-person-shooter “Devastation” ended up on my hard drive when it did. (Well, that, and my Xbox 360 decided to fry, and I had nothing else to play until the new one arrived.)

San Fran, like the rest of the world in the year 2075, is in a technological Dark Age lorded over by the megacorporation Grathius (which employs its own pacification squad and patents cloning technology), generally running everything into the ground. Crumbling cities, no economy, poverty. This leads to ragtag cyberpunky bands of 25-year-old resistance fighters trying to sabotage said corporations. Various missions take you into enemy territory around the world as you attempt to wreck / thieve / otherwise exploit various Grathius installations. Along the way, you slowly collect a group of fellow terrorists (all well-meaning, of course) who lend a helping hand (or, more frequently, stand around and get in the way).

Graphics running on the old Unreal 2 Engine, it is not necessarily a pretty game—character models are terrible looking–though the environments are littered with a surprising variety of “junk” (moldy pizza, dead rats, Coke cans, busted ashtrays…apparently there is no garbage collection in the future). The squad you slowly recruit  can be commanded in basic ways (attack, follow, hold) which, for its time, was neato (though irritating, since they notoriously don’t obey). Over 50 weapons to use, some of which are sci-fi lazery things; especially notable is a remote controllable live rat (in first-person perspective) who you can strap a microbomb to and steer into a room full of Grathius employees, wee! The game got “eh” reviews at its release, though the inclusion of online multiplayer (as well as create-your-own-map development tools) made it a favorite of modders at the time.

How about some interesting specifics? Enumerated lists are way underrated:

1. Sometimes it’s the little things. A simple press of the minus key removes elements from the HUD, essentially shrinking it in size, all the way to nothing (giving you the whole screen to play) if you choose. This is the sort of customization that will keep PC gaming alive, I think. (You’ll rarely, if ever, see such options on a console game.)

2. Although there are only simple commands–attack, follow, hold–your AI teammates (three lesbi-wannabes and some street dudes, interesting mix) are responsive and tough, though a bit aggressive. (Case in point: One of them jumped recklessly into a flooded dry dock only to have his leg chewed off by a rogue shark. Ouch! And, off the team. Then I had to go find a harpoon gun, jump in, and waste the shark, so the rest of us could pass.)

3. Exchanging weapons with AI teammates is a one-button affair, yay. Ah, the simple days…

4. The voice acting is endearing–that’s my way of saying it’s bad and clearly done by nonprofessionals. But the voices are distinctly Brooklyn-sounding, like right off the street, and the accents do not sound fabricated, but real. Something about that I like.

5. For several years, I’ve been wondering why developers of certain games (especially games like Fallout 3, which require a lot of “walkin’ time” around a barren landscape) don’t include the option for players to insert their own music. (Yes, the in-game radio in Fallout 3 is spectacular, though the playlist is annoyingly short and repetitive. And yes, modding can allow you to do just about anything, but I’m talking about tech properly built into the game itself.) “Devastation” to the rescue. The game, believe it or not, includes its own music player—just drop any of your .wav files into the included .ogg-maker and dump them in the game directory and viola. YOUR music while YOU play, complete with a track changer built into your HUD (which you can hide if you choose).

6. Midway through, you and your team discover and rehabilitate a “spawning device” which basically makes you immortal. Health drops to zero? You respawn back near the beginning of the map (in the spawner), re-choose your loadout, and continue on without losing any progress (other than having to traverse cleared territory to get back into the fighting). The spawner is packed up and moved from place to place with your team as you start each new chapter. Uh, “Bioshock” Vitachamber anyone? I know, respawning tech might go as far back as videogames themselves, and it was not created by the developers of “Devastation.” But so then why does discussion around something like Bioshock’s Vitachamber get so much press as if it is revolutionary and never-before-seen? Not so.

7. The quicksave is a misnomer–it takes forever.

8. Running through a ruined San Francisco, it makes me think if Bethesda made “Fallout 3” about 7 years ago with half the team and a quarter of the budget, we’d likely get something of this magnitude–climbing in and out of wrecked department stores and schoolhouses, while leaping over rusty cars buried in debris, but each area is relatively hemmed in, lacking any serious draw distance (though it tries at times). That’s par for a game from this time period.

Having said all that, “Devastation” was a chore to finish. It is especially a difficult game to play using a gamepad hooked up to a PC—with no aim assist and enemy AI dodging techniques that look more like epileptic seizures, frustration levels run high. You’d think I had learned my lesson regarding this already—in addition to turning the difficulty down to “easy” midway through, I had to “godmode” myself a few times just to get through some tough patches due to my gamepad handicap. While the missions were WAY samey and feel disconnected from one another although they were narratively conjoined (and the apocalypse isn’t actually apocalypsey enough–blame that on Fallout 3), one neat idea is how you begin the game as a ragtag group of 3 resistance fighters (the player and 2 AI characters to control), but with each chapter 1 or 2 new folks find and join the team. By the end, there were 14 or so distinct team members with you. This at least adds some narrative impetus.

Postscript: In addition to noted authors Phillip K. Dick and William Gibson, game developer Cliff Blezinski is acknowledged in the end credits for his assistance. (This is WAY pre-Gears of War era, making this just another interesting piece of gaming history).