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Cynic's Grim Dawn Alpha Impressions
Review - posted by Crooked Bee on Mon 8 July 2013, 21:43:05Tags: Crate Entertainment; Grim Dawn
Grim Dawn is an upcoming action RPG from Titan Quest developers that got successfully kickstarted back in May 2012. Esteemed community member Cynic has played through the alpha seven times already, and decided to share his impressions with the rest of us.
[Written by Cynic]
For those who don't know, Grim Dawn is a traditional action RPG in the vein of the Diablo series made by independent game studio Crate. It is the spiritual successor to the Greek mythology inspired Titan's Quest and uses a modified version of the same engine which Crate managed to secure the rights to prior to Iron Lore folding. The game began development in 2009 and has just released an Alpha build to early supporters via Steam after a successful Kickstarter campaign.
I originally found out about Grim Dawn by chance, stumbling upon the very early Old Grove environment video on YouTube a while back. Needless to say, I was pretty captivated by it. Since then I've followed every bit of info I could, backed the Kickstarter campaign and was happy to see it funded.
A year has now passed and I've been playing the first release of Grim Dawn for the past couple of weeks. It's cool to have been watching an indie game for this long and finally get to play it. In the world of independent studios and games that continually get canned because of lack of money, feature creep, general life reasons, or managed to get released as buggy twitching messes, I think GD is already a truly a remarkable success story of what a small studio, albeit with a very stable engine to build upon, can achieve.
I'll get into my impressions with a disclaimer; I'm generally a party based RPG, fighting and action game fan; in short I play what I think are good games, and I have very particular taste. I am not a hardcore aRPG gamer. I never played Diablo 1 or 2. I never played Titan's Quest, and I have not had a chance to play Path of Exile or either of the Torchlight games, so if you are looking for comparisons to any of these games, you won’t find them in this review. The most recent aRPGs I have played are Dungeon Siege 3, Diablo 3 and Dark Souls and of these three Dark Souls was by far the best game. If you think that disqualifies me from writing a good review of a traditional aRPG, then that’s your right, but I tend to think it gives me a view point that isn't forced into expecting a certain kind of model. Let me also say that I am reviewing Build 11 (version 0.1.7.2) of an Alpha, so a lot of things may change between now, subsequent builds and of course the final release.
So with that out of the way, how does Grim Dawn sit in line with my ideas of what a good game is so far? The answer is simply - quite well. While I think there's a lot of tweaks remaining in terms of polish, the most important part of any game - how it plays - is very nearly spot on. While taking into consideration that a major part of the final product ie., multiplayer, wasn't ready for the Alpha, Grim Dawn is already showing the tell-tale hallmarks of a well crafted gaming experience with graphics, sound, art direction and mechanics that are both unique and fun.
The first thing you will most likely notice about the game is its deep, intoxicating atmosphere. This is not some high fantasy world with treasure goblins, goatmen and power ranger style villains. It’s dark, it’s desperate, it’s well...really freaking grim. The visuals are moody and crisp, with textures feeling so sharp you can feel the grit crunching under your boots as you explore the environments. Some have complained that the sharpness of the graphics makes finding destructible objects hard and that's definitely true, but whether this bothers you or not may come down to personal preference. While the plot still needs quite a bit of work and is hidden beneath the surface in the Alpha, the basic premise of the world is quite original with an aesthetic that could probably be described as somewhere between post apocalyptic and steam punk.
Set in the world of Cairn, humans have been reduced to living in makeshift encampments hiding from two alien races whose battle for supremacy over one another resulted in the “Grim Dawn”, an event that left the planet in a state of near complete ruin. One group of aliens seeks to use what's left of humankind as a resource, the other seeks to destroy humans before this can happen. I can’t say I’ve ever played a game with a plot setup like this and it’s really a welcome addition to see some originality get breathed into a genre that sorely needs it. I’d actually really like to see a cRPG spin off set in this world, and I’d say that the IP in itself has a lot of potential.
Accompanying the game’s atmosphere is a brilliant soundtrack which makes a huge difference in your connection to the world and the characters inside of it. I can’t begin to say how much the music adds to the experience, or how grateful I am to not have some rehashed faux epic orchestral score shoved into my ears once again. Instead, melancholic keys, subtle distorted guitars and tribal rhythms form the pulse of Cairn, and these are not only suitable, but a worthy piece of content in their own right.
The engine supports some very nice lighting and weather effects including a day/night cycle and fully rotatable camera
The alpha comes with all the normal graphical options you’d expect from a full release including some nice additions like being able to toggle how long dead bodies remain on the environment for, and turning the camera rotation off. However the developers have noted that the game has not been optimized yet, so performance issues are to be expected. My experience on my Core i7 2.8 ghz quad core with a Radeon HD5850 graphics card and 8GB of RAM has been quite smooth on max settings though, with frame rate drops only really happening when large amounts of mobs and/or physics calculations are happening on screen at once. There has however been an ongoing issue with memory lag and short freezes which I and many others have continually experienced. Crate has since mentioned that this is being caused by a pathing issue and is being carefully looked at for the next update (Build 12 at the time of writing). It's quite a frustrating problem and there's no way they could release the full game like this so it's good to see it is getting looked at. Aside from these issues however there's simply no denying the game's visuals are fantastic.
So it has great music and graphics, but let's talk about gameplay. In this release, 3 out of 5 classes (called Masteries in-game) have been included - Soldier, Demolitionist and Occultist. The Soldier is your basic Melee class, the Demolitionist is a ranged/trap based class and the Occultist is a summoner/mage type class. You are in complete control of how you want your character to progress, and at level 10, you can dual class. Immediately you feel a sense of personal ownership and attachment to your character as you experiment with unique builds and you remember what makes RPG systems fun other than finding phat lewt - customization. I can already predict that there will be thousands of viable, unique builds in this game. You will definitely feel as though your character is yours, and yours alone. You can respec, but this comes at a cost per skill point. While that cost is a measly 100 iron (the currency of Cairn), I suspect that this may change in the full release of the game, encouraging you to carefully think about what skill you choose to obtain or level up. The confirmed classes that are missing from the Alpha are the Nightblade - a dual wielding assassin type class, and the Arcanist - a pure wizard type class. Both sound very interesting and are sure to add a lot of variety to the mix.
Difficulty wise, Grim Dawn follows the aRPG tradition of offering 3 difficulty levels each unlockable via full playthroughs. However the Alpha only offers the starting normal difficulty. Don't be fooled though, the game is far from a walk in the park. I’ve only died a handful of times, but the fights are always exciting and exhilarating, forcing me to think about space, the environment, choke points and how much time I have left before my skills recharge. There’s tension, and that’s a good thing. Loot acquisition seems to be nicely paced as well, as I’ve consistently been finding better/more interesting gear which has made me think about what kind of character I want to build.
The mechanics of healing in the game are a bit different to others in the genre - potions heal you to full health but have a very long cool down, making spamming impossible. However, stay out of combat for a while and your health will regenerate fairly fast. While this might sound heavily abusable, I’ve found that the encounters are designed with this mechanic fully in mind. Mobs will surround you, attack you from every angle, shoot projectiles at you and give chase. Getting away to heal up is not always simple and the mechanic is interrupted if you happen to take any damage while fleeing. Weapon swapping is encouraged, and it’s almost necessary to have both a tanking and ranged option as a Soldier, which diversifies the fights and gives you lots of choices as to how to handle tricky situations. The mechanic does influence the boss fights greatly however, and I found that when it’s a one on one situation with a boss who is very strong and has stunning abilities, the best option was always to kite, dash in for some quick strikes, then kite once more. There is also a tendency for mobs to inflict spikey damage which can cause death fairly quickly. This can get a bit frustrating when paired with stuns and the healing mechanic, especially in tight spaces as its easy to get surrounded with not many options left. Many would respond to this with the answer of "get better gear" but I'm of the belief that certain gear types or stat boosts shouldn't be required to play the game, and if they are then this may be considered a design flaw.
There’s also a crafting system that will be more fleshed out in the final version of the game. At the moment monsters sometimes drop combinable elements that can be fused on to either your weapons, armor or accessories giving a wide variety of bonuses. These elements can also be combined with others of the same type increasing the bonus they imbue. Stack six of the same kind of element together and you’ll get the maximum bonus allowed as well as a set bonus. Once you find the Inventor NPC, you can remove the elements from the items, however this will either cost you all of the elements or the item itself, so you will have to choose wisely. The game makes mention of blueprints and has special crafting drops such as scrap and aetherial stones which are apparently used for higher level crafting later on in the game, but these are not present in the Alpha.
Monster variety is also quite well implemented. I rarely found myself getting bored with the types of monsters I was encountering from one area to the next, and within a certain monster type, Crate has created enough variants to keep things interesting. Plain old zombies have around 5 different variants right from the start, and these range from cannon fodder to incredibly powerful (Cold Ones, I’m looking at you). There are also varying classifications of monsters with the highest ones (like Elites or Champions) dropping floating loot piñatas which you can then burst open in a climax of warm gooey loot.
This brings me onto one of the more controversial aspects of Grim Dawn - level scaling. Yes, the monsters level scale. But before you hurl your monocle to the floor in disgust, let me point out the caveat of the implementation - the scaling is capped within a range. So, monsters in a certain area will start at a certain level and scale up to a point, then they will stop. Personally, I feel this system works quite well and for the most part I hardly noticed it was happening. My biggest problem with level scaling in principle is that at any time in a game that uses flat scaling, all encounters can feel similar because the monsters are always on par with the player. It can totally ruin the sense of tension when exploring uncharted areas as no matter where you go, the monsters will always the same level as you. This doesn't happen in Grim Dawn though as you often enter areas that have monsters starting at a range far above your current level. You can make a choice if you want to try and take them on for greater XP and loot with an added risk, or flee to other areas more suitable for your level; the choice is entirely up to you. This does have a side effect of making you feel like you are progressing slower while your level is within the range of an area, but I found that each time you level up, you get something that the mobs don’t - extra skills or more powerful versions of what you already have. If you choose wisely, you should be able to keep an edge over your foes. I found this had the added effect of forcing me to look at my stats and carefully consider what worked best with my skills each time I leveled up. That being said it can't be ignored that the scaling has the potential to dampen a sense of player empowerment.
Having been touted by the developers as an “open world” aRPG, there’s been much talk about how this would be accomplished and whether this was a truthful statement or a kind of marketing pitch. I’d say that it could honestly be a bit of both, but in the lead designers own words - “It isn't feasible for us to try to something on the scale of Skyrim and I think some of the openness and quest design that works in Skyrim would conflict with the type of progression people want to see in an ARPG. So, we never set out to make Skyrim the ARPG but we do hope to do a lot more with factions, quest choices and the ability for multi-directional progression in the world.” (http://www.grimdawn.com/forums/showpost.php?p=102827&postcount=18). This is fine for me, and the potential for choices and consequences affecting the game world depending on which faction you go with is very promising. These features were not implemented in the Alpha at all, so we will have to wait and see how they pan out. I will say however, that exploration is already a lot of fun. Maps have a large number of random possibilities in terms of areas that get locked off/revealed in your current session, and hidden passageways as well as destructible walls can be found in a lot of the underground areas. Sometimes these are viewable on the map, and other times they are completely secret. There’s even a hidden dungeon filled with high level monsters (and of course loot) reachable only through finding a piece of lore and subsequently speaking to the right NPC in town to get a key for access. What's even better about this quest is that you are given a choice to kill the quest giver or question them for more information and depending on the choice you make, the entire dungeon is either revealed or remains hidden to you. The implications these kinds of design choices have for replay value, which is so crucial for a game designed to be played through 3 times, are huge.
Now for some more critical observations. Firstly, I feel that melee characters do not get interesting until you get some proper AoE abilities. Up until I got Blade Arc (close range AoE) and Blitz (distance closer as well as AoE), I was a melee character with a gun, kiting and killing in the hard encounters. I took Demolitionist as a second Mastery at level 10 and put some points into Stun Jacks (stunning projectiles) which helped me out a lot. The developers may want to look into making Melee characters a bit more interesting at the start, perhaps give Blade Arc as a starter ability instead of Forcewave which I found to be very weak and ineffective in the beginning. It also cannot be ignored that the healing mechanic encourages kiting. I think Diablo 3’s health orb system worked well for encouraging aggressive behaviour and risk taking, and I’m not sure how Grim Dawn's method is going to work out in a multiplayer game and it may have the potential to result in too much of a "tag team" like feeling. I personally feel that the developers may have some work to do here, because as it is now, melee characters are forced into a choice of kite or die far too often, especially in boss battles. It's fine sometimes, but if it ends up that it's a choice between this and "gear up" then I'm not sure if the design could be considered successful.
The reaction animations when taking damage are also kind of nonexistent. The only way to really know that a mob has hit you is via the sound, or watching the energy bar go down. It all feels a little bit hollow. When you get to critical life you will hear a deep breathing sound and your screen will get superimposed with a blood red overlay but somehow this doesn't feel like enough. It would be good to see some improvement here.
Targeting also takes some getting used to as the controls for attacking are slightly different than what you may have come to expect in an aRPG. You do not have to keep clicking, simply hover your cursor over a monster and hold the attack button. You can move from foe to foe without ever letting go of the left mouse button, or you can cancel any attack to punctuate your assault with a skill. It works really well when you have enough room to maneuver giving the fighting a very smooth commanding feel. However it works less well when trying to escape, or trying to aim at close range when surrounded. This is especially problematic for ranged glass cannon type builds that need to get away fast but accidentally target something in the distance to shoot at it and then get killed. I think an addition of a keybinding to simply run without attacking, not unlike click to stand still, would be an easy solution to this.
The mastery system probably needs some explaining as well. As I hadn’t played Titan’s Quest, which I’ve been told the system is modelled from, I wasn’t completely sure how it all worked at first. I figured it out quickly enough, but a little bit more explanation wouldn’t hurt for newcomers. As mentioned before, the game is also far from easy. You will need to pay attention to your stats, your skills and your gear or things will get challenging, fast. I personally love games that aren’t afraid to challenge the player and make them think, but it can’t be ignored that many people, particularly a large segment of the aRPG fanbase, do not appreciate these things. Some people just want to go in, wreak havoc and get loot without thinking. If that’s the case then I don’t think Grim Dawn will be for them.
Soundwise; while I’m not really one to advocate voice acting as I am a firm believer in the money being better spent elsewhere, I would really love to hear SOME major characters get a bit of VA. The problem is that if they do choose to do it, they should spend the money on getting quality actors. The final boss of the Alpha is voiced - but I thought it sounded far too cheesey and quite out of place with the game’s gritty atmosphere. I’d also love to see some kind of cinematics used in the game, these could be simple hand drawn style animatics used to punctuate various plot points, but the inclusion of polish like this would be very welcome. Again, this is not a necessity, and should not be bothered with if the budget is too tight to allow it but it would be nice. Truth be told I am really hoping they have put careful consideration into the plot. This is one aspect of the game where it could really distinguish itself from others in the genre, and it has the means to do it with a nicely done world/aesthetic to work with. If they don't give it the attention it deserves, it will be a real disappointment. Furthermore while the music is excellent, some of the sound effects need work. In particular, guns just don't have the kind of impact they should, and they should definitely sound different depending on which type you are using.
I encountered only a few bugs while playing, which is really quite impressive for an Alpha. With major studios like Bethesda releasing so called AAA games that don’t even work properly and have endless supplies of game breaking bugs, it’s something Crate should be proud of. Besides the performance problems I noticed only a few consistent issues. Mobs will sometimes lose agro permanently or spawn stuck in the environment, and I’ve had my loot fly off to unreachable areas of the map never to be seen again. All in all however, most bugs being reported seem quite minor and well within the capability of the programmers to solve.
As mentioned before, multiplayer was not ready for the Alpha, but it could quite possibly be what the Beta phase is reserved for. For me, all I care about is that the game will have LAN play as an option and this has been confirmed by Crate, as they have stated that they most likely will not have the funds to support dedicated servers. This will undoubtedly lead to a swarm of bots and hacked items finding their way into the game. The solution? Find a group of buddies you like playing with and stick to them. It’s always more fun that way anyway.
I think Grim Dawn has the potential to be a very worthy addition to the aRPG genre. While it definitely needs some tweaking and would benefit greatly from a bit of polish, the foundations are here for something quite special. It’s got that old school vibe to it, but it’s been mixed together with modern mechanics, some pretty impressive visuals and a great soundtrack. If you’re looking for something revolutionary, you most certainly won’t find it here, but if you’re in need of a deep action role playing experience without online requirements, pay to win/free to play models, or childish WoW style graphics this should most definitely be on your watch list. Hats off to the Crate team for what they’ve achieved already and as a final note, let me pass on some timeless words of wisdom by simply saying...DON’T FUCK IT UP NOW!