Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog


The Precursors (PC, 2010, Ukraine): Overachievers Anonymous
September 23, 2011, 2:00 pm
Filed under: The Precursors (PC, 2010, Ukraine)

I don’t even know where to begin discussing Deep Shadows’ “The Precursors.” (Deep Shadows is well known—and loved—for their “White Gold” games, which I’ve never played.) There are not too many critical reviews of “The Precursors” on the web (though there are a few that will probably be more coherent than this). I presume this lack of coverage is because, even though the game was eventually released in the west as a downloadable title, most professional reviewers couldn’t be bothered playing it. Or more likely, they didn’t get more than a few hours into this behemoth before washing their hands of it. (The game was originally being developed for consoles, like the 360, only to be abandoned by the devs prior to the PC release.) It is a massive game that spans several genres—first-person shooter, space simulator, role-playing, adventure—and I, too, washed my hands of it several times…only to be drawn in again after a month off here and there. Yes, my time with “The Precursors” has been buggy—almost as buggy as the game itself.

The reviews that are around on the net seem to have a recurring theme, though, and that theme goes thusly: It is an ambitious game that tries to do too much and, for the faint of heart, it ends up collapsing under its own weight. For those who persevere, however, there is a mindboggling variety of depth and length to enjoy. I have to chime in on the sentiment. The game is crazily complex, overambitious doesn’t begin to describe it, and I have to say I’ve never come across a title that attempts to cover so many genres all at once. There is some serious, serious grandiosity here. For example:

AS A SPACE SIM, the game provides you with a spaceship (that you inherited from your deceased father). The ship is its own interactive interior environment (about ten separate areas), complete with a scantily clad, smart-talking AI-helper lady (other than her, you are a crew of one). As its own in-game environment, the ship at one point gets invaded by enemies! Anyway, you fly said ship through space in first-person perspective. In space, you are either dodging asteroids or the missiles of pirate ships and factions who are pitted against you. Hyperjump helps you to cover large distances more quickly.

AS A ROLE-PLAYING GAME, the campaign story stretches out over 6 or 7 planets (I forgot how many), and twice as many space stations, all of which you land on and conduct your missions. There are main mission objectives and side-missions. You can upgrade yourself, your ship, and your weapons in a variety of ways. Side missions are called “resource missions” (to make cash). Traveling to these planets, you pass through handfuls of galaxies.

AS A FIRST-PERSON SHOOTER, when you reach a planet , you land (or liftoff) in an animation which shows that actual planet below you. Each planet is striking and unique in its own way. Upon arrival, you teleport out of your ship, and you land feet first on the surface of your destination. In first-person perspective, you run across the alien environments, shooting enemies and monsters, talking to friendlies, buying crap you need and selling crap you don’t want to vendors, and generally sightseeing across the universe. Then when you get tired of walking the vast landscapes, you can find yourself a buggy, or a four-legged whatever, and drive/ride your way (in third-person perspective) across your planet of choice. Cars have guns too. Wee!

AS A STRATEGY GAME, there’s a solid amount of resource management required. Your inventory space and carrying load is limited, so you can’t simply pick everything up that your heart desires. (And when you kill folks, they drops lots of shit, trust me.) Buggies require fueling, and enemies can shoot your tires out, which need replacing. (If you are riding some four-legged whatever, it can be killed by enemy fire.) You don’t have to eat or sleep in the game, but eating does replace lost health. And there’s always the grinding needed to get more cash for everything you need. Additionally, various factions of groups (5 or 6?) exist on all planets, and by your actions and choices, you end up aligning yourself with one group over another group, members of which will eventually become hostile to you (on land or in space!).

AS A PUZZLE GAME, you have to solve a variety of…okay, I’m joking here. The one element the game seems to avoid is puzzle-solving. Although hacking opportunities abound throughout the universe, this is not a puzzle-based affair and just requires the proper level-up and a hackstick.

So, get the picture? Good, because I don’t. What I mean is that playing “The Precursors” is like having a mouthful of something you are not entirely certain you are capable of swallowing. It might go down okay, you might end up spitting it out, or you might end up choking to death. I think I experienced all three while haltingly making my way through the campaign.

The problem with this title does not lie with its creativity. Far from it. “The Precursors” is almost too creative for its own good. As you story your way through the universe, you will see oddities—intelligent bird people called the Clatz (a very demanding species who are kind of disgusted by humans), groups of denizens out in the desert staring at a large floating Rubik’s Cube (what the hell are they doing?), guns that shoot spiders (how cool is that?), robots who think they are better than you and will not give you the time of day (just like my microwave blinking 12 o’clock), big-headed floating frog people who can sell you ammo for your tons of guns. It seems at every turn, the developers are reminding you that this is not familiar territory—and the really fascinating notion is that due to the gargantuan size of the game, it is entirely possible for you to play it and never encounter some of these scenes or have these interactions. In that sense, it’s a beautiful thing. And the look of the game, considering its eastern European origins (as always) is really quite striking. Within the variety of locales presented, there is also a consistency in quality and feel. A real accomplishment. Oh, and the color palette includes everything from all-dry-and-dusty-brown to so-much-neon-I-am-having-a-seizure.

But I think there is such a thing as TOO MUCH VARIETY (there I said it) in gameplay. Trying to span so many genres, this game, at key points, seriously starts to feel like WORK instead of PLAY. For example, when all you might want to do is some first-person shooting, the game’s campaign requires you to fly through space (which, for me, was beyond tedious, and very dislocating). Or you might just be in the mood to walk across the planet and take some snapshots, but in order to cover the massive, planet-sized maps, the game requires you to drive a clunky vehicle with flat tires that runs out of gas. Then there are always the problems of getting lost within such a vast array of terrestrial and extraterrestrial spaces. I think the first four days I played this, I was wandering around just trying to figure out where to go. I suspect many folks who picked this up may have done only that, and then popped it on the shelf shrugging their shoulders.

If true, this ultimately would be a shame because the game does actually have a main running narrative, with pretty simplistic missions. The story concerns a young pilot of the humanoid Amarn race, Treece Creighton (I think I spelled that right), who is also alternately referred to in-game as Tris. As a newly minted academy grad, you are sent to the planet Goldin to serve your people as a soldier and peacekeeper (or such). Goldin is the first full planet you experience in the game, and it is a large place, mostly desert like, with a bustling city center (a mixture of high-tech and farmer’s market) and many smaller outposts strewn throughout the sand dunes. When I first saw it, I said, “Wow. I think this is going to be…something special.” (Then quickly, that impression fades, but more on that in a moment.) After you fiddle with the game for four days trying to figure everything out, you eventually meet up with Captain Ridiger, who was a friend of your late father. After some missions in town and in the desert earning money, you are given an old spaceship left to you in mothballs by your dead pop. After a bit more grinding for loot with side missions, you earn enough to get the ship back into running order.  And off you go into the wild blue yonder. Eventually, you are charged with a serious mission—to find out why and how a planet called Casilla has literally exploded. This requires you to fly to the forest planet of Gli, where the aforementioned alien birds called the Clatz are fighting among themselves, and then to the rocky moon Reandore, where the Empire and the Free Traders are in the midst of a small war. All of these various planets (and the natural and man-made structures on those planets) are about as fully realized as you’d want them to be, honestly—it is all quite impressive. Completing this and that fetch quest, you gather information about the destruction of Casilla and the scientists responsible. Underlying this narrative are these massive, pyramidal, ancient artifacts left on many different planets throughout the universe that no one knows the purpose or true origins of—most people have just grown up knowing all about the artifacts and don’t really care a whole lot about them any longer (Ah! The Precursors!). But it may be coming to light that if these artifacts can somehow be activated, this may have been the force that destroyed Casilla. The ultimate goal is to locate the responsible scientists, confront them, and find out what the hell they’ve been doing with these artifacts and why planets are exploding. Got it? Good. Now can you explain it to me, please?

In a game this fantastically large, there is of course an equally large list of problems and shortcomings. It’s an odd feeling to first face the vastness of the game, and its generally acceptable look—at first, it feels quite inspired, maybe even a little awesome. The treetops of the bird-planet of Gli have wooden walkways strung among them that you traverse (at your own peril if you fall); the alien-looking planet Reandore has several massive moons always hovering on the horizon (looking like they’re about to fall on your head), and hulks of various long-crashed spaceships litter the landscape. The planet Goldin is, well, golden in color with all its sand dunes, and the city center/spaceport on Goldin consists of large concrete buildings with neon signs and a bright blue sky overhead. There are night and day and weather cycles on all the planets, of course. Lots of careful touches like these help to make these worlds feel almost fully realized.

But that first impression dissipates rapidly. One of the biggest issues is the repetition of character models. On one planet you talk to one guy, and then 3 galaxies and 12 planets later, you talk to another guy—who looks exactly the same. This happens a lot; you just have to ignore it. (I guess they say everyone has a twin—but in this case, with dozens of folks all being identical, there’s some serious cloning going on!) However, with the incredible array of landscapes you visit from planet to planet, the repeating character models really do stick out like a sore thumb. Next, while the story above sounds like it is narrating the travails and triumphs of a young lad and his relationship to his universe, there are actually no characters here to care about whatsoever. None of these people matter; the game gives you no reason, or means, to connect to anyone. Of course, how could a game that is attempting to cover this much ground also create believable characters who the player becomes emotionally attached to? The chances of that happening are next to zero…and, alas, all of the characters here are empty shells. Ick.

And speaking of things left undone, the entire game feels unfinished (and I’m not talking about a few par-for-the-course rough edges—I mean major elements left unfinished). Some serious cases in point: You speak back and forth with your girlfriend (a character who is introduced early on and who even flies with you in your ship at one point), and several hours into gameplay, you leave her sitting on a bench in a government office to complete a side-mission out in the sand dunes of Goldin. When you return, she has ostensibly gone off to do her business, whatever that is. And I think she even contacts you via radio and says something akin to “Let’s meet up later.” And do you ever see her again in the game, ever? Nope. She just vanishes, never to be heard of again before the game ends. Wha? The game is full of missions and story threads that were clearly never finished before the title was rushed out the door. The ending itself is completely awol—I mean the game has no ending; it just sort of stops with Treece bickering with a young scientist (one of those responsible for blowing up the planet Casilla) that you just helped to escape from a prison laboratory. After a quick scuffle aboard your ship, the young scientist says you shouldn’t harm him because “I am your only key to figuring out the ancients.” And then the credits roll. I sat there with my controller in my hand, mouth opened, thinking “This cannot possibly be over. I mean, we sort of just got started. And anyway, what happened to my girlfriend? And anyway, who is that dude talking to me?” Bad, really really bad. I presume this was supposed to act as some kind of half-assed cliffhanger, but come on! It almost seems as though the developers assumed no one was ever going to actually play it to the end, so why bother constructing a finale. Wow.

There were some fun moments to be had with this insane mess. Some of the gun battles (against everything from Halo-lite-inspired soldiers to giant spiders spitting green goo to walking robotic turrets) were acceptably nervewracking, but the shooting mechanic was sketchy, sloppy, wobbly at best. In fact, like so many eastern Euro-gems, I always had this strange feeling that at any moment “The Precursors,” already unsteady on its legs, was just going to wink out on me. Although generally there are too many button assignments for the game to comfortably be played on a controller, I did manage to play it with my 360 controller (just ignoring some actions that were not really necessary, like leaning) and my Wireless Receiver for Windows, which is my preferred method of playing PC games if I can manage it (slouched on the sofa, folks, my modus operandi).

To add insult to injury, the game required some serious tweaking just to be playable. If you are an English-only player and have a burning desire to experience this Ukrainian strangeness for yourself, there are plenty of resources available on the net to help you out. One tip: If you purchase the game from a direct-download sight like Gamersgate, the version will have all the Russian voices stripped out of it (all NPCs you speak to in dialogue throughout the game when trading or selling or doing missions are silent) while the main cutscenes (there are only 4 or 5) will be voiced in English. The shame of this is that throughout the game you then have NPC’s mouths moving (not very well animated, mind you) but with nothing coming out—and only English text on screen. Duh. So what some people do is they use both the English-voiced cutscene files from Gamersgate, but reinsert the original Russian voice files for everything else, which at least gives all NPCs back their voices. Next, apparently the English on-screen text localization done for the downloadable version of the game at for-pay sites (again, like Gamersgate) is not as good as the unofficial fan-made localization created by Wesp, so look out for that (widely available on the net) if you plan to play. Also, I found a way to increase the on-screen text in the dialogue trees—the text was way too small when playing it on my big screen TV and sitting across the living room (no high resolution text support here, though the game itself goes up to very high resolutions and looks fairly good). If anyone needs the “increase text size” mod, I’ll see if I can locate it and make it available. As usual, I felt I spent more time fiddling with the game to get it to run properly than actually playing it.

When I come across a game like this—ostensibly a “Fallout 3” first-person-shooter-role-playing-thingey but in space and made by some dudes in Kiev—I have no choice but to jump in with both feet. In this case, I now understand that reality could never, ever match my excitement about the game. Clearly hogtied by budgetary issues, technical limitations, and a serious case of over-reaching ambition, “The Precursors” is really not much more than an idea that didn’t quite make it to the half-realization mark. Ah well.