Monday, August 31, 2009

The Greater Evil, Overlord

In a long standing tradition of me playing Third Person Strategy Action RPGs, it's time to turn a very Evil Eye towards the Overlord Series. With the buzz the sequel was getting. I picked up the first game out of a "why the hell did I never get to play this?" reason. Afterwards, I bought Overlord 2 without thinking twice about it. Written by Rihanna Pratchett, the game has sterling pedigree at first glance. Even though she's obviously a different writer from her world famous father: Terry Pratchett and working in a different medium, my expectations were quite high.

The synopsis to Overlord 1 could be: the story about a young and ambitious Sauron in Albion, commanding an army of mischievous demonic imps. Fixing the world's chaotic evils with his own lawful evil. The game has a good and evil route. The former picturing you as an iron-fisted monarch, the latter portraying you as a ruthless tyrant with a appreciation for black lace and pale flesh. Overlord 2 casts the player as Hades, God of the Underworld. Here to exact revenge on "the Empire" which has usurped your father (Sauron) from his rightful dark throne. You set out to reunite the minion army and claim your rightful place in the evil hierarchy and while you're at it claim Artemis, Aphrodite and Persephone as your mistresses.

The Overlord games are structured a bit like a Zelda game. You explore maps and dungeons sprinkled with enemies and puzzles. In almost all cases your minions with their unique abilities are key in overcoming these obstacles. The level design is quite well done, especially in the first game, where every area literally comes full circle. Design reminiscent of games like Pikmin, Metroid and Zelda, but more directed and not at all dependant on backtracking. Overlord did come as somewhat of a surprise. Coming close to being quite like a Nintendo game, you'd half expect it to become an instant classic. But maybe, like many other games, only a classic in few minds.

There's one flaw that's not very hard to overcome, but it's still there. Harrowing to think what this game might have been, had it been made as a PC game first and foremost. Unfortunately that's not where the market is. Overlord is a console game and it shows. A blessing because it has filled the coffers of Triumph studios and codemasters, opening the door for more Overlord games. A curse because control becomes the game's biggest flaw. The standard PC control scheme in both Overlord 1 and 2 drove me to use my PC gamepad (a Saitek P880) in favor of the mouse and keyboard. Because it simply worked a whole lot better. In fact, the controls work fine. They're functional most of the time. However, it is still baffling to see the game twist and squirm to fit onto a console controller. Evidence of this is that there are functions in which you have to press and hold a button, and then press another button. And that's just to select one type of minion. Which generally leads to the "select all, attack all" reflex, abandoning all strategy. Mostly out of necessity because the chaotic nature of combat generally calls for quick action. In order to fit those controls onto a mouse and keyboard, the scheme twists and squirms some more. It is now twice removed from the ideal mouse and keyboard controls.

Allow me to elaborate even further. From a design standpoint. Overlord must have had the looks of a hardcore PC title reminiscent of Sacrifice. That is to say, if your reflex for troop management is "point the mouse and click". Which in short works like this: select your unit group, like your brown minions. Use a mouse pointer on a target, like an enemy. The mouse cursor changes to an attack pointer. Click the mouse to engage, or hold the mouse button to assign more minions to the target in Overlords case. Clicking the scenery would move the minions about. Instead the game controls a bit more like you would when playing a Necromancer Minion Master in Guild Wars, send direct orders to your minions to attack a specific target. Do note that the Wii title Overlord: Dark Legend, does exactly that. And is claimed to have the superior control scheme.

Quote from Scott Sharkey, 1UP:
"The Wii Remote is just plain perfect for directing your horde of minions around the screen. The mouse or analog stick did the job well enough in other versions, but after experiencing the ease of simply pointing where you want the evil little buggers to go break things, it's actually going to be hard to go back to less precise methods. Hell, my never-played-a-videogame-in-her-life girlfriend had no trouble picking the thing up and just going with it, which is something that just couldn't have happened with any other installment of the series. It really is remarkably intuitive, given how complicated keeping track of both your Overlord and a swarm of gremlins can become." We'll have to forgive Overlord 1 for being a pure console game. Because that's where it had to prove itself. Indeed the game is very easily forgiven since puzzles and pace of the general gameplay feels simpler and more manageable. I can't remember being frustrated with it.

But Overlord 2 was developed simultaneously with Overlord Dark Legend. So the point and click (P&C) controls were no secret. Yet, a similar control scheme was left out of the PC version of Overlord 2. The main reason P&C controls were a no-go, next to higher development costs, was that it would break the difficulty of a few control based puzzles. Puzzles that are so frustrating because of the controls that I outright quit the game a couple of times. Loudly cursing with incomprehension why Triumph would abandon the simple (consoles, remember?) elegance of the first game. I'm pretty sure the "green minion spider elevator maze" will go down in history as one of the biggest game design faux-pas. The concept of the puzzle is that the player must navigate a maze on the wall using the sweep command on the green minions. Controlling the group as one entity with the right analog stick. This whole time, the camera is behind the Overlord and pointing towards the group of minions. Within this field of view the group is controlled. If one minion, or several, is stuck behind an obstacle, it will stop moving. With it the camera, as it can't move ahead with the group. This would be alright if it weren't for the fact that this is a timed puzzle. Get stuck for a second and you loose a great portion of your experience rich green minions. They simply fall of the wall and die, or get squashed between the elevator and die. Start over. What makes the puzzle so unnerving is not the fact that it's pretty obnoxious to begin with, it's in the controls by which you have to solve it. The sweep command is pretty wooly as it is. In theory it's a "charge there" command. Like moving by suggestion, it's pretty imprecise. Now imagine just pointing and clicking your way through the maze. It'd be like setting way points in an RTS game: pixel perfect. It would have made this "after boss" mechanic-tutorial (the hard part was supposed to be done with!) a breeze in stead of a wrist cutting. Another dubious decision was the ship chase. Cool in concept, but rather poorly executed. Another still was a rather lengthy stealth level using possessed Green Minions. Some trail and error sections could have been a little less frustrating. This fallback to "twitch gameplay" in stead of sticking to "logic puzzles" may be a sign of Triumph running out of inspiration and then willingly overstepping the line between challenging and frustrating in these few instances. Overlord 2 is a more complex game than its predecessor, with more gameplay elements, a more "advanced" camera and more elaborate control over the Overlord. Unfortunately, and though slightly, to its detriment.

However, that's about all the bad there is to say about the Overlord games so far. So it's mostly all good. Managing your armour, weapons, spells, minions and dark tower are fun RPG additions I would like to see in a Zelda game someday. It's also great to hear all the different lines of banter and dialog in the game as well. Audio in Overlord is well done all-round. The score from the first game was quite good but becomes fantastic in the sequel. Paired with an improved game engine and more detailled art assets, the second game is an impressive showpiece. So far it one of the best games, or should i say franchise, the Netherlands has ever produced. Not that there's a lot of games coming from there anyway, but it's another glimmer of hope that these regions can produce games that actually matter. Now I'd love to see a hardcore Overlord PC game. Preferably with a strong multiplayer component, and an open endgame scenario. With P&C controls. It'd fill the void Sacrifice left behind and BrĂ¼tal legend will probably fail to fill, currently not even coming to PC. But one may hope.


vdeogmer said...

So that's what it was, they put too much console in my PC game. I picked up the original Overlord for PC not too long after it came out, and neither got through it, or thought much of it because the mouse and keyboard controls(my only options at the time) just didn't strike me as fun. Now when I hear people reminiscing fondly about Overlord, I'll understand what I'm missing.

On a related note, I loved Sacrifice. What a fantastic, Shiny game that was.

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