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Harbinger review

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Harbinger review

Review - posted by Saint_Proverbius on Sat 1 March 2003, 00:48:40

Tags: Harbinger; Silverback Entertainment

Plasma, robots, and space ships

One of the first things people will probably notice about Harbinger is that it's not your typical fantasy setting game. Instead, Silverback opted for a heavily science fiction setting for their game. Instead of orcs, imps, and goblins, you'll be dealing with robots and aliens, all on board a giant starship.

Instead of casting spells and battling with swords, you'll often find yourself sending volley after volley of plasma and other energy weapons at your enemies. Likewise, they'll also be sending volley after volley of energy weapon discharges at you. For spice, there's the odd melee robot, bug, or critter.

This type of introduction may sound somewhat mundane, perhaps it is, but it is a nice break from the line of thinking that prevails in the RPG market of Let's make an RPG. What type of swords do we want?

That said, Harbinger does offer outlets for players who prefer melee, but.. Well, more on that later.

In the belly of the beast

As stated above, the game takes place on a large starship. A very, very large starship. In fact, if the game didn't tell you it was on a starship, you probably wouldn't be able to tell if this was a starship, a space station, or on some planet somewhere. The majority of the time, you won't really even care that you're on a starship. It's mostly a moot point. It's just background story.

Over the years, though, this starship has collected gobs and gobs of samples of species. That was the original point of it, after all. It's a census ship. That's how everything you encounter got there. They were collected. Unfortunately, they collected some bad things, like the Vantir, which established themselves as an evil force to be reckoned with.

The Vantir are called corruptors in numerous places in the background of the game's setting. Once on the starship, they founded a corporation after learning of the concept from the humans. this corporation makes weapons and other instruments of war, including robotic soldiers whom they sell to the people who are fighting their enemies. That way, they not only make money, but they also get rid of those they don't like with minimal effort beyond their production of those items. Good for them.

There is also a wonderful race of insects, called Cimicidae, which also infest the ship. They have a backstory, but basically, it boils down to them being creepy bugs which you kill, so there's really not that much of a point explaining them in any great detail. Bugs. Kill. That's enough.

Really, that's mostly what you'll notice about Harbinger. There's several species of critters, but for the most part, they all just fall under the whole, Things to Kill list, and that's the end all, be all involvement of their existence on the starship Harbinger. The manual gives background information, but who really cares since they're just fodder anyway?

For the player, there's three species available. There's the Human, the Gladiator, and the Culibine.

The three choices

The Human is basically what you'd expect. He's a grunt. He carries around a rifle with a huge blade for both ranged and melee attacks and he wears armor which consists of a chest piece and a head piece, though you start without the helmet. The Human can also use mines and various other types of traps to aid him in his quests through the starship. The Human can also make use of several booster agents which can up his abilities for a short amount of time.

The Gladiator plays very similar to the Human. Unlike the Human, the Gladiator lacks a helmet. However, the Gladiator does have torso armor which is basically chest armor for this class. Also unlike the Human, the Gladiator has a melee weapon and a ranged weapon, one for each arm. The Gladiator can use cameras and other sentry constructs to do it's bidding in the place of the mines the Human has. The Gladiator is also a good deal tougher than the Human, making him a much better choice for a starting character since the classes really don't feel balanced at all.

The final class is the Culibine. This is a female of a species that is all but extinct, with this character being the last of her race supposedly. The Culibine doesn't have armor like the above two classes, and doesn't have melee either. Instead, the Culibine has a ranged plasma attack and a close ranged radial attack which sends a pulse of energy out from her, damaging anything near. The items the Culibine uses are gauntlets, which determine her attack power. She also uses amps, which can boost her attacks and defenses for a short amount of time. The Culibine can also regenerate her health if you wait for it.

The character system in Harbinger leaves a lot to be desired considering they want to call it an action CRPG. You basically have no character creation at all beyond picking which type of character class you want and what that character's name is. That's all there is to creation. When you start, every Human is identical to every Human you've played before.

There's also only four skills/attributes in the game. You can sum this up with each class having Ranged skill, Up-close fighting skill, Life attribute, and Class skill. That's all there is to the system, so if you're looking for any sort of depth of the system, you're going to be greatly disappointed because there's no depth at all found in it. After all, it boils down to a system where there's only one physical attribute and three skills. The punchline is that the Melee skill for both the Gladiator and Human are basically useless as well.

Here's the problem though, the classes really don't play all that different from one another. As stated above, most of the time you're just going to be attacking with ranged fire, which all classes have. Only the Culibine has a useful up close attack, and that's primarily because it's both damaging and can do that damage to multiple things. The Gladiator and the Human play nearly identically, run and shoot.

On top of that, levelling up doesn't feel important at all. You get three points to use on your four attributes/skills, and that often doesn't seem to do much in terms of extending your power. In many cases, especially with Human and Gladiator classes, you'll just be deciding on which of the two useful skills you want to place those three points in, since you really can do without the class specific skills in those as well. What's worse is that even at low levels, you can find items which augment you better than a level gain! If you find an item that gives a +4 to a skill, you've already boosted yourself beyond the capacity of that level bonus. This starts popping up around Level 5, no less.

Okay, how's the action?

As touched on above, you're going to spend most of your time shooting things. That's pretty much all there is to this game. After a while, running and shooting gets tiring and stale. You inch up to a room, activate a few idling monsters, shoot them, run away a bit, shoot them some more, and repeat until you've won. Of course, with the Culibine, you can shoot them until they get closer, then use the Radial attack.

If you let enemies get close to you with the Gladiator and Human, though, you're in for a quick death because you really can't soak much damage with the Human at all, and the Gladiator is rather slow on the get away. Also, there's a problem with the pathfinding it seems. You can get hung on enemies that are too close, making it nearly impossible to escape. You're stuck there, burning health items, and hoping you can actually kill what you're stuck on before you die.

Not only can you get stuck on the enemies, but I've been caught on walls and other tiles at times as well. This isn't normally a problem except when you're in combat with enemies. Additionally, if you accidentally click on a wall or a raised tile where you can't move, the game doesn't move you near where you click. Your character just sits there, taking that often too fatal damage. It's problems like these which cripple the action part of the game, since it relies so heavily on pop shots and them moving to dodge or get some distance between you and the enemy.

Another odd problem is that sometimes I got to set up an attack, and it just fizzles out. I'm not sure if this is a gameplay feature or a bug, but it's really quite annoying. When you're playing a Culibine, and you let the enemies get close, you click on the Radial attack, and the animation does it's thing, but no attack follows. So, basically, you're surrounded and screwed. This isn't because you don't have the energy for the attack either, you can have a full bar and this will occur. It also occurs with Ranged attacks as well, which is highly frustrating when you're a Human or Gladiator and that's basically all you can do.

Ranged combat also isn't that great because you'll often click on the enemy only to end up repeatedly shooting slightly off center of where he actually is. This is even the case when the enemy is highlighted, making it so your first volley is more of a targeting one if you're unlucky. If you hold down the shift key to make it so your character doesn't move and definitely fires his ranged attack, you'll notice this missing happening more often. However, if you don't hold down that shift, you'll often click on that monster and charge at him instead of just firing, which makes ranged combat a chore to deal with. Oh, and the best part is that you can left click and hold the mouse on an enemy, but ranged firing doesn't always seem to track the enemy. If it does track, there's a delay in it. Also, enemies typically move fairly quickly, meaning that often by the time you fire, the enemy is somewhere else, causing you to miss.

So, the good news is that ranged is better than melee, which is useless, if you're Human or Gladiator. The bad news is, the interface and real time combat absolutely sucks for ranged.

About the only truly neat part about ranged combat is that weapons often have various modes of damage types. For example, you can have a rifle that has a plasma mode, an EMP mode for robots, and a disruption mode. Any of these are available for toggle by a simple click of the mouse on the corresponding button on the interface. Unfortunately, there doesn't appear to be a hotkey for toggling these, which means you can't do this on the fly due to the real time nature of combat in this game.

One of the first things you'll notice about the game is that it's not easy at all. In fact, it's annoyingly hard, especially as a Human. The Human can only take a few swats from things before he dies, which means you'll want to stock up on health and hover your hand over that space bar for that quick healing action. So, unlike most action RPGs, you're not eased in to the system. You're thrust in to it in a sink or swim manner, really. The Gladiator can take more punishment, and the Culibine has that nice Radial attack, so I'd recommend those over the Human. The Human just seems to be geared for masochistic players who like to reload. In fact, the only saving grace of this game is that health drops are frequent.

The special features of the classes can be interesting to use. The Amps for the Culibine can often help out in battle situations by giving temporary augmentation to her damage giving and soaking ability. However, you'll need a good bit of Focus skill in order to make these useful, and find some good amps as well. This is nearly a requirement considering how weak this class is defensively.

Human characters will most likely want to make use of the bosoter items, especially the Health Recharge item, which gives the Human regenerative powers. Poison Resist and Heat Resist can come in handy in certain areas where you're forced to deal with those problems. Adrenaline just boosts melee abilities, so you may as well just sell this one since melee with humans pretty much equates to suicide. I wouldn't waste your time with mines either, since those are situational and problematic in terms of actually getting everything to work out well.

The Gladiator's sentries and cameras seem to only be useful as fodder. You can deploy one, send it out, and enemies will attack them. They take damage, naturally, but not nearly as much as the Gladiator seems to take. I've actually used a few to lure the enemies out of hiding, then switched to the Gladiator and picked off the enemies while they shot up the camera. As long as the camera is closer to them than you are, they'll attack the camera rather than you. This can be a good thing since it's often possible to get stuck on your camera because of the pathfinding and movement issues which I've mentioned a few times already.

And the game play?

The game basically consists of missions. You get a mission, and travel through the umbilical to the area where it takes place, and you do it. While it's been said that Harbinger offers three different stories for each class, this basically all boils down to getting sent to an area to get an item and bring it back. Along the way to the item, kill everything in your path or else it'll kill you. Some of these missions are given to multiple classes, with the same level lay out for each. However, despite some missions being different per class, the missions are all the same in terms of how they play and the goals involve. Go. Kill. Fetch. Return.

Some of the lay outs of some of these missions also hinder the run and gun requirement for successful killing. occasionally, you'll find yourself in a cramped area, which makes it difficult to do any dodging or running around an enemy to keep him from swatting you. Combine this with the pathfinding and movement issues mentioned above, and you have often frustrating gameplay on lay outs like those. When playing the Human, these levels are the most annoying because you have to rely on the agile nature of them to stand a chance.

Another problem with these missions is that the majority of them are highly linear in nature. You're given an entrance code to an area, so you travel there via the umbilical. Once there, you plod on a set and obvious path from that entrance to objective, and then slip out the exit umbilical back to home. Of course, the obvious question is that if there's an umbilical nearer to the object, why send the player to the umbilical that's the furthest away from it, but it's an action game. Try not to think about things like that, just walk that path, kill everything, check every container, and pretend everything makes sense.

You also can't return to an area you've already completed. This means that you can't go back to areas done for additional experience like you can in Diablo 2 if you feel that you're just not strong enough to go further in the game. So basically, if you get to an area you simply can't beat, no matter what you do, you're screwed. You have to simply start a new game. It also means that you'll always be the same level whenever you get to the same situation the next time around, making you wonder what the point of even playing that class ever again is. Oh, and the last thing it means is that you can't stash items on a level and return later to fetch them. You have to move all your spoils of battle out when you finally leave an area.

One last point of contention in the game is the cutscenes. There are several locations where the game zips to a cutscene where enemies are popping up from the surroundings. In many cases, these cutscenes actually hinder you because you lose control during them while the enemies advance through those cutscenes. When control is finally returned to you, the enemy is often firing at you by the time control is fully returned.

Inventory and bartering and dialogue

The inventory system is straight out of Diablo 2, only you have less room for items than you did in Diablo 2 because things like the Gladiator's torso and the Human rifles take up so much room in it. Often times in levels, you'll find yourself backtracking to the entrance umbilical just to sell things, then going all that way back to pick up what you didn't have room for in the first place. Of course, some levels have EZ Stashes on them which you can put items in and them pick them up at the home area, but more often than not, this isn't the case early on in the game.

Also like Diablo 2, items can have sockets which allow you to insert mod chips and other neat things in them, so they become more powerful. Unlike Diablo 2, these modifications can be pulled out and swapped when you go to upgrade weapons and armor. This is a fairly nice feature, except this addition only adds to the problem where the game feels like you're a walking set of items rather than an actual character, since items are often much better than actually levelling up, even early in the game. Diablo 2 also had this problem, but it didn't feel nearly as problematic until much later on.

On the subject of item drops, most of the drops you can't use because they're for one of the other two classes. There are some set, scripted drops which will aid you in your character building. However, there's nothing more frustrating than being low on health and seeing a few health kits dropped that are for another class. Likewise, it's annoying to be a Culibine and finding Human weapon after Human weapon when you haven't found anything for your Culibine for a long time. Times like those almost make me wish the monsters would just save me the trouble and drop how much those weapons and items are worth rather than the items themselves.

Using the shop is quite easy, and this is also borrowed straight from Diablo 2. You can drag and drop items freely to buy and sell them, or you can right click on the item to buy or sell it. All in all, not much to say about this. It's an extremely common and streamlined system. Furthermore, you can also exchange items with the EZ Stash the same way as you can buy or sell items.

One really nice thing about the inventory is that if you have health packs in it, they'll automatically move to your quick healing part of the interface. For example, Humans can only have 10 health packs in their quick healing slot. However, if they have ten and have some in their main inventory, when they use one of those quick health kits up, the game will automatically pull one from that main inventory so they'll still have ten in the quick slots.

The dialogue in the game is sub par, much like everything else here. A good chunk of the time, you'll only have one dialogue choice. When you do have more than one choice, they're either yes or no situations, and even then they're cosmetic. You'll be given a situation where you're asked to do something, you say you won't, and they'll say that you'll do it anyway, basically. There is very little outlet for establishing yourself as a unique character here, zero role playing potential at all in this dialogue.

What's even worse is that you're often presented with what your character is thinking. So, rather than that being up to the player, the game pretty much tells you what your role is in the starship, because it tells you what you're thinking. The ironic part is that the best writing in the game seems to be these thought bubbles that pop up. They're often smart and witty, and even highly entertaining. It's a shame they weren't used for the NPCs that you talk with instead.

And now, some eye candy stuff

Okay, I normally don't discuss this in games because I rarely don't like reviews that focus on this subject since it can be so subjective. Basically, the main reason I even brought it up is because the graphics engine and artwork are probably the best part of the game. The artwork has a good deal of style to it, and the engine is certainly one of the nicer looking 2D engines to ever crop up on the market. Of course, it uses some Direct3D features to do this, but it's still fairly nice to look at. It's also proof that 2D can still look just as nice as any 3D engine around, for those who foolishly think that 2D is dead.

About the only problem with the graphics is that when you're holding down the left mouse button to run, the sprite facing gets confused. If you tend to move this way, it won't take you any time to notice that your character is running backwards or sideways a good deal of the time. There are also times when items get obscured because they're behind something, and the way the ALT key highlighting works, you'll never be able to see it unless you hover the mouse over it. So, basically, that ALT key thing you've seen in various other games is also poorly implemented in Harbinger.

Wrapping up the package

So, basically, this is what you get. You get an action CRPG with no role playing aspects at all and a character system that is both shallow and pointless at the same time. You're given no real choices in establishing an identity for your character because the dialogue is weak and what you're thinking is spelled out for you via some in game cut scenes. Why this is even billed as an action CRPG in the first place is a complete mystery to me, because there's no role playing at all. Advancement is even shallow and overrated compared to the items you'll get, making you wonder why they even bothered to implement the level up in the first place.

So, you're left with the first word in the phrase, action CRPG. Sure, there's action in the game, but it's so poorly done that it also makes you wonder why anyone even bothered making it. Given the limited amount of skills in the game, you really have to wonder why melee isn't viable for two of the classes and why the ranged combat is so poor for all three because of the interface's failings.

That pretty much sums up this title. It's dubbed an action CRPG, but has no CRPG elements at all, and the action elements are questionable due to the sheer amount of issues with them. I'd like to say that it's a mixed bag here, but it's not. It's a very bad bag - the kind of bag you set on fire, place on someone's porch, ring their bell, and hope they stomp it out in their house slippers.

The sad part is that this game will probably not sell well. Not because it's a sci-fi setting, like many marketing people would like to think, but because it's just an awful game. What's worse is that they probably will gloss over and miss the fact that real time and ranged combat really don't work well together. This game demonstrates the problems with real time and ranged combat better than most.

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