Gods and Heroes: Rome Rising (a.k.a. Who's yer Daddy!?!) @GDC'07

Brasse -- 2007-03-13 13:30:50

Welcome to the first in my long-winded GDC coverage posts! To make things easier on your eyes, I am going to split this particular write-up into two segments. I know that most Elfinks have a pretty short attention span.

So here we have Gods and Heroes: Rome Rising. Not a standard fantasy MMO, no spaceships, lasers or lightsabers. You can’t play a bipedal dog or cat. Wasn’t history BORING in school? So what is the draw here?

I was invited to Perpetual Entertainment to get some quality time with their flagship product, which has been in closed beta for some time. I had not been following the game with any special interest. I had seen it at E3 and watched as a lot of the media present gushed and fell all over themselves to hand it awards.

One should expect a solid product from Perpetual of course. The combined experience of the team working there is impressive. Drawing skills and talent from big name companies such as EA, Blizzard North, and Lucas Arts, the staff has a lot of experience bringing a great many top tier titles to production. Chris McKibbin, the co-founder of Perpetual, was responsible for games such as Need for Speed and The Sims Online, while Stieg Hedlund, Design Director for Gods and Heroes, was heavily involved in the Diablo franchise. Richard Zinzer, the Vice president of Online Services, has history working in the same role for the venerable Ultima Online title, among others.
I always find it interesting to see how the continual meshing and re-forming of talent can result in a rush of new ideas and improvements over existing ones.

Still, my own experience with over a decade of jaded gaming has ensured that I do not get too excited in advance, and I sure as heck don’t hand out any kudos to titles I’ve not played.

I made the short walk from GDC to Perpetual’s studio with a few other eager journalists, and we were all promptly stopped in our tracks by the sincere but less than savvy security guy downstairs. I watched the clock ticking with my usual Dwarven annoyance as he half-heartedly leafed through defunct contact lists, trying to find out whom to call upstairs about our access. I am not sure how you can’t know who occupies the entire 4th and 5th floors of a modest-sized building, but eventually we got lucky. Someone from Perpetual ended up calling down to see if there were any stranded people waiting.

Finally we were heading up. The first thing that hit me when the doors opened was the abundance of Star Trek imagery spread all over. It was very clear that the company was ramping up for this new title, but that is a tale for another time.

Meeting us was Debysue Wolfcale, who is, like most of SoE’s PR people, extremely well educated in the product. It is a refreshing change from many in the industry, who cannot remember details about the goods they represent (and therefore instantly lose credibility points with my Dwarfness). We were waiting on the previous group to clear out of the demo room, but Debysue gave us an introduction to the overall aims of the game. It is designed such that the ubers will find plenty to challenge them, but that a casual (which often means solo) player can not only survive but thrive, by virtue of the Minion system. She shared some of her own experiences with playing the game, and it was obvious that the AI for these helpers must be pretty reasonable. I was now even more interested in trying it out for myself.

Michael Shelling, another SoE PR rep, also joined us for a time, although I am sure he is getting tired of seeing me hanging about – I cannot help it if he managed to provide me with enough fuel for two comics in the ten minutes he sat with us! I am so not going to be invited to events after I post them, hehe.

OK, enough of the preamble. In we go to meet Chris, Stieg and Richard. I try to pretend that I am not awed by the eminent figures in the room, as Chris talks about the game concepts. Fortunately, as an avid student of classical history and mythology, I soon had a lot to engage my attention.

Gods and Heroes: Rome Rising, is set in a vague period of classical Roman history. No year was given during the demo, but by the architecture and weaponry that I saw, it looks to me to be in the range of 500-200 BC, prior to the advent of the Caesars and Christianity, and in a setting where the ancient religion was healthy and the gods interacted with man (or so they say)… I’ll have to get a closer look of course, and I will be interested to see what period pieces are introduced. Minor details, really – the Rome of antiquity has a lot of elbow-room for invention.

The game brings in two key elements that differentiate it from all others:
- Minions with squad-type action
- Direct interaction between yourself and the Gods

Much as I’d like to talk about minions, they really deserve an article of their own. Yes, they are THAT good. I’ll aim for Thursday's edition.

Character creation was straightforward and reasonably flexible. I am honestly glad that the Devs did not go insane with the sliders. One day I will write my rant about char creation that is overdone, but that will not be today!

I made a very fierce looking Brasse, with niftily styled flaming red hair, a stout build and musculature to ensure that people would think twice before messing with her. Not quite a proper Dwarf, but she was really tough looking. YARRRRGH! That's right, scatter, you pansies!

I liked her a lot, but also messed around enough to see that it was possible to make the kind of sexah thing that gets offered presents and assistance by other players (you know exactly what I’m talking about). The range of male characters was equally broad, going from frail old man to GQ cover model, to the guy who screams “I am Spartacus,” to an overindulgent esthete. I can therefore assure you that you will be able to find an avatar that you will be happy with, even if they never make another pass at the models. I really wish that I could have taken screenshots myself!

In Gods and Heroes, there are three main archetypes (this applies to both character classes and minions): infantry, skirmisher and spellcaster.

Infantry are of course the melee types, consisting of Gladiator and Soldier, each employing a different style of close combat.

Skirmishers are the hybrid ranged/melee classes, offering Scout and Rogue specialties.

Spellcasters encompass the offensive Mystics and more defensive (but not defenseless) Priests.

Choosing your deity is a vital decision, which, as we shall see, also defines your parentage. Yes indeed, you are the love child of a great god. I knew they really got around, but i had no idea of the scope of their philandering! I simply had to comment on the dilemma many of them must be facing now in this comic. Maybe they can settle out of court.

Each class may serve one of a pair of gods or goddesses in the panoply that have similar, but not identical attributes. Scouts will choose between Apollo and Diana, while a melee class may select Minerva or Mars. I have not seen the direct effects of the choices in game, but if you go read up on the Greco-Roman deities, they will provide you with clues. There is clearly a world of difference between a Priest who follows Pluto, the dark god of the netherworld, and one who is anointed by Juno, the moral and virtuous queen of gods.

The gods of ancient times were immensely powerful, but fallible, and subject to very human emotions and motivations. The fact that they will soon have a few thousand illegitimate offspring testifies to this, hehe. Given the quality of quest writing that I saw in the demo, I would expect a lot of the character of each god to be demonstrated in the course of the quests they assign to you.

Yes, my little demigod, you will be required to earn your exalted parent’s favor. One of the very first quests finds you imprisoned on the isle of Telchinos. Following the advice of a few NPC allies you meet, you will soon find yourself not only familiar with the interface and game commands, but basking in the presence of your lord and progenitor. It is a suitably awe-inspiring moment, or as Chris described it, “the Highlander moment”, when you are first imbued with the powers that are your inheritance.

With the powers of your celestial parent, even a melee character can call down divine retribution on your enemies. As McKibbin noted, it will go a long way toward alleviating ‘particle envy’ among the loyal infantry.

After learning of your true heritage, you must serve your deity well, through quest completion, sacrifice, tithing and tribute, in order to unlock your full potential. The gods do not like ungrateful brats. Of the numerous minions that you will eventually be able to choose from, the very best are those which are granted through divine favor – believe me, you want to be a good and dutiful child.

I am very curious as to whether or not the gameplay accommodates the inevitable jealousies that spring up between the deities; for instance, if you avert a battle through your actions, will Mars be annoyed with you? If you take on a quest to hunt rare animals, will Diana be squinting at you sideways? Factions with capricious and powerful entities would be very amusing (albeit dangerous). However, I am delving into wishful speculation now, let’s get back to known facts!

In exploring the early (newbie) lands on our pre-made characters, I found the world to be rich with color. Not photo-realistic, and not overly stylized. The best analogy I can come up with is that of an opulent oil or acrylic painting. I was quite pleased with the look and feel of it.

The Perpetual team has given a lot of thought to the ongoing issues of zone population. Overcrowding and competition makes unhappy players, while empty zones are often boring. They have taken the very practical route which incorporates open, limited-population and instanced zones, depending on application. A strong case for an instanced zone is found in the first quest line; it is far more immersive to be the ONLY person speaking to the god at the end of the series, as opposed to a line of adventurers waiting for their “Highlander moment” in turn.

The control scheme is typical MMO, which is a good thing. I am not a fan of games that implement an all new style of commands just for the sake of it. Just because you can, does not mean you should. It was very easy to get up and running and fighting and questing in Gods and Heroes, which I truly appreciate. W-A-S-D. Simple, and thankfully, fully customizable, for those geeks (like Alluvian) who insist on preserving the “Integrity of the Home Row” by using E-S-D-F. Go ask him about it.

Combat also felt familiar, although it took me some time to pick up on the chained combat techniques where attacks build upon one another. It is just a matter of time to pick those up, as they were conveniently hotkeyed. it should be noted that there are a limited number of hotkeys available for feats, so one must prepare in advance and select the best attacks for a battle or campaign, or waste valuable time switching out in the midst of a struggle. Battles flowed smoothly, aside from the fact that the NPCs have their very own special feats. Darn them!
I laughed out loud when a stumpy little troglodyte fellow threw me down and hopped up and down on my helpless form. Funny yes, but it made me take them a lot more seriously in subsequent fights.

Animations were strongly styled and appropriately heroic in nature. Chris noted that the team had even held long discussions on just how the "jump" animation should appear. No detail too small... and yah, we do love to jump in game, don't we?

The UI overall was serviceable as is, but, Chris advised us, slated to be completely replaced. Perpetual plans to redesign and streamline the placeholder UI windows that we were using, paying particular attention to the Minion interfaces. Even better, he revealed that as they were XML-based, they’ll be fully user-customizable as well!

So, the game looks good, handles well, and employs a well developed Roman view of the world, complete with very active Gods and Goddesses, one of whom happens to be your parent. The stage is set for you to venture forth and meet (or make) your destiny; next time, I’ll talk about those who choose to follow you.

Feel free to add your comments to the appropriate thread!