Premature Evaluation: Nosgoth

It’s curious how far back the idea of drinking blood to replenish youth goes, given that we are only just now beginning to understand the benefits of transfusion. Recent research on mice has shown that a transfusion of young blood into an old body can indeed stimulate stem cells and invigorate ailing neurons. But experiments with transferring blood date back centuries, based on the most dubious understandings of science and mostly with disastrous and macabre results.

Each week Marsh Davies sinks his teeth into the hot, pumping artery of Early Access and drains its sweet lifegiving essence, leaving only a ragged skein of flesh when he’s done. This week he’s played (or free-to-played) Nosgoth, a team-based multiplayer game in which heavily-armed non-consenting blood-donors clash with the fanged forces of unlife.

The general mood has been less than charitable towards this project. It’s a multiplayer spin-off of Legacy of Kain, traditionally an action RPG series, a demo of which I think I brushed past on a PC Format coverdisk once, back in the days before games had invented a way to render the male nipple. But, I’m told, it had really good storytelling for the time, and how dare anyone decide to use this important and sophisticated fiction for something so trivial as a thirdperson asymmetric multiplayer game? Yet dare they have. And it seems they’ve made quite a well-considered one, in which deft movement and exact coordination trump headshots and button mashing, and the two teams of which, vampires and humans, offer very different play but surprising parity.

It makes sense really. Given the amount of murderin' that went on throughout human history, it must have been quickly apparent that losing a lot of blood was fatal. So, surely, consuming it must have the opposite, life-giving effect? Pope Innocent VIII is said to have quaffed the blood of young boys back in the 15th century, and though this account is suspect, it suggests a prevailing belief about the potential power of blood to rejuvenate. By the time Dracula gets written, the mythic properties of blood are well established. One precursor to Dracula is the famed 16th century Hungarian countess and history’s most prolific female serial killer, Elizabeth Báthory - said to have bathed in the blood of virgins to retain her youth.

Unfortunately for the game’s PR team, Square Enix have doubled down on the invitation to eyeroll by making Nosgoth free-to-play – which means I am now compelled by the laws of God and Man to spend a slightly tedious paragraph trying to explain its economy while ignoring the stabbing head-pain that kicks in whenever humanities graduates try to think about money:

Nosgoth has two separate in-game currencies, one earnt by play, the other bought with real-world cash, and both can be spent to unlock classes, new skills and weapon “side-grades”, while the latter alone can be used to purchase cosmetics. Levelling up unlocks chests, and there’s a chance to win items by playing on consecutive days. You can even rent items instead of buying them. It is, frankly, deeply confusing. How fair is any of this likely to feel to you? I just don’t know. The value of games was hard enough to judge when they came in boxes alongside a manual you could use to smash ganglions. Now that value is refracted through dozens of separately purchasable gameplay shards, wizard hats and deluxe pistol grips. It’s a strange new world, but one that Nosgoth makes slightly easier to parse by letting you purchase the non-cosmetic bulk of the game outright for 9200 runestones (£24), with a promise of every future content update, too. I think that sounds okay, but I’ve started bleeding from the nose and eyes so I’d really just like to move on.

Though this is quite possibly a spurious 18th century addition to her list of actual crimes (which include the abduction, torture and murder of somewhere between 80 and 650 girls) - its appearance in popular culture follows an increased obsession with blood in scientific circles during the 17th century. Dr. Jean-Baptiste Denys, physician to the king of France, had made several attempts to transfer animal blood into human bodies, with increasingly fatal results. The Royal Society had its first crack in 1668. Believing that blood was the medium via which we express our moods and mental health, an attempt was made to cure a man who was “the subject of a harmless form of insanity” by filling his veins with lamb’s blood. Remarkably, he survived, though probably not with great benefit his mental state.

Without a penny or runestone spent, however, Nosgoth currently lets you play as two classes per faction in team deathmatch and unlocks a territory domination mode when you hit level five. A couple of hours play and I’d earned enough gold to snap up a “side-grade” for a crossbow, but I’d reckon on several dozen hours to unlock the classes through grind alone. The starting classes should give you a sense of how the two teams pan out, however: vampires are monstrous melee units, capable of scampering up sheer walls and leaping tens of feet through the air to pin a victim. Humans, meanwhile, might not be able to climb the level geometry, but they aren’t the puny bloodbags you might expect. When isolated, they can still go toe-to-toe with a lone vampire – dodge-rolling attacks and keeping a steady aim – and a well-positioned, well-coordinated group can shred incoming attackers with a deluge of arrows, grenades and pistol shot. An added asymmetry is the way each team heals: humans need to find shrines dotted around the map; vampires need only find a fresh corpse.

What impresses me about the execution of both teams is that even the basics of movement, attacking and evasion all require a degree of mastery. Your common-or-garden vampire claw-swing, for example, has enough wind-up and forward momentum to make it easy to lurch past your prey – and the humans, for their part, need to be adept at rolling beneath those flailing talons. One of the later unlockable classes, The Sentinel, is a flying vampire capable of sweeping down and plucking unwary foes from the ground, before letting gravity deliver them back to it. But nabbing a single person from a fray is no easy feat, especially if your flightpath is likely to be full of arrows.

Interestingly, we are now discovering that if you want to change someone’s mood or mental state, you’d be better off leaving their blood alone and instead transfusing their shit. Pioneering work by the likes of Cork University neuroscientist John Cryan has shown that the microbiome of your gut has a more profound effect on our mental well-being than ever previously imagined, affecting everything from the serotonin system to the brain’s overall plasticity. Animals born in “germ free” environments show a marked reduction in sociability and social cognition, and react with far greater exaggeration to stress factors. Faecal transplants have been used in the past to treat gastrointestinal diseases like Irritable Bowel Syndrome, but they now seem to have important implications for clinical psychology too, since, it turns out, having a “gut feeling” may actually be neurobiologically accurate.

Of the two vampire classes you start with, Reavers are your shock troops, working much like Left 4 Dead’s Hunter, crouching to pounce from a great distance, before proceeding to slash wildly at their prostrate foe. Coordination is key: a lone Reaver hurling himself into a mass of humans won’t survive the hail of crossbow bolts he’s likely to then invite. But merry chaos can be created when your Reaver onslaught is timed with the entrance of a Tyrant, the other instantly playable vampire class – a hulking brute who can shrug off damage and barge through enemies like ferns. Indeed, victory for the vampires is delivered by breaking the humans’ formation, pulling hapless individuals out of position and eliminating them while the body of their force is distracted by a rampaging Tyrant, or poisoned gas, or summoned AI horrors.

As well as a standard attack, like the Reaver’s pounce or Tyrant’s barge, each class has two extra abilities on cooldown. The Reaver’s defaults are a smoke grenade and a brief invulnerability spell that allows him to scarper to safety at superspeed when under fire. The Tyrant has a temporary damage reduction and a ground pound. These can be swapped out for new skills you later unlock or purchase, but there isn’t an overwhelming amount of mechanical breadth within any given class. The vampiric Summoner can swap out one area-of-effect blast for another area-of-effect blast, or switch her conjured ghostly minions for some other sort of toothsome nether-pet, but while the stats may be slightly different, these options play out in largely the same way.

But back to blood. That blood contained your mood was just one of several wild and lethal misapprehensions about the substance. Inflammation was also misunderstood. When injured or infected, the body surges blood towards the affected area, hoping to clot up any wounds and mob bacteria with white blood cells. Such swelling was thought to be the blood getting overheated and expanding and the prescription was bloodletting - and entirely counterproductive, sometimes fatally. This was such a common practice that barbers offered it. In fact, barbers had offered surgical and dental services along with a quick trim since the medieval period; the barber’s red and white pole in fact represents blood and bandages.

In fact, the Summoner, while gratifyingly useful, is perhaps one of the less interesting classes to play: you tend to stay out of the melee, and use a vantage point to cast your choice of two nightmarish things on the enemy – but as a result spend a lot of time looking at cooldown timers. The Deceiver is essentially the Team Fortress 2’s Spy, with bigger teeth and bloodslick, flayed flesh, and is great for causing disarray, encouraging the humans to fire wildly at their duplicate selves, rather than watch the borders for assault.

The Devil has the best tunes, they say, but Nosgoth’s humans seem pretty good at humming along. The starting classes are Hunters, crossbowmen with a side order of vampire-disabling bolas, and Alchemists, an all-female covenant of explosives experts, who pack a grenade launcher and ignite defensive walls of flame. The Vanguard has a shield block and a throwing axe, but I’ve yet to really figure out his purpose, while the revolver-wielding, horribly-scarred Prophet has more obvious utility with her life drain ability, health buffs and area-denial tentacle attacks. (And props to the developers for giving this and the other female classes more than dental floss to dress with.) Perhaps the most exciting is the Scout, who can draw his bow string back to take out vamps in a single hit, before cloaking and scuttling to some other vantage point. He also has a grappling hook, but the places where it’s possible to use this are strangely few and far between.

Blood is often used to mean family, but the origins and reasons for this use, though clearly ancient, appear hard to trace. Meanwhile, the phrase “blood is thicker than water” originally meant the very opposite of its modern usage. Today we use it to suggest the familial bond is stronger than all else, but the blood in question is actually the blood spilled on the battlefield by fellow soldiers. The water is the water of the womb, and other versions of the phrase use milk instead: suggesting that the bond between those who’ve shared a womb or suckled at the same breast isn’t as great as those who have fought alongside one another.

Despite this diversity among the roles, battles tend to play out relatively similarly. I’m not sure the maps do enough to encourage movement through them, as the overriding human tactic is just to hold up in a corner of the map and wait to be assaulted. The vampires may be able climb over nearly every bit of scenery, but they’re usually obliged to just make a beeline for the humans and then wait until everyone’s assembled to attack. The Scout has a chance to upset this rhythm, using his grappling hook to get to places to create crossfire, but that tool seems to be fairly well hobbled in the current build. The later territorial domination gametype does a lot more to create map flow, and introduces an element of tactical risk: the humans must decide whether or not to split their force, or make feints to capture one objective while the bulk swoop on another.

Hopefully, future modes will do more to foster that dynamism, but the current core of the game is promising, supporting both individual prowess through its skill-based action and vital interplay between classes. Maybe it’s not true to the mechanics or lore established by previous games of this otherwise languishing franchise, but a robust thirdperson asymmetric multiplayer game doesn’t seem to me to be such a bad legacy for Kain to have.

Nosgoth is available from Steam for anywhere between £0 and £24. I played version 1050330.105173 on 03/04/2015.

34 Comments

  1. rexx.sabotage says:

    oh, full article on the front page? alright, seems legit.

    • Kemipso says:

      Although you’ll have to admit it’s quite fun, the next article being titled “The RPG Scrollbars: How Long Is Too Long?”.
      I’m going to live in my own little alternate universe in which the typo doesn’t exist and the title correctly states RPS not RPG ^.^

      • Marsh Davies says:

        lolwoops

      • Premium User Badge

        SuddenSight says:

        I am waiting for the day when Davies gets the alt-text and article text backwards, but no one notices.

      • Hmm-Hmm. says:

        Well, there’s complaints articles are cut up by having them on different pages and there’s complaints when they aren’t. We can’t have it both ways unless they choose to do both for every single long article. And I doubt that’ll work well.

  2. Jimbo says:

    Well done Marsh, well done!

  3. RegisteredUser says:

    Played this some months back. Its actually fairly fun with a semi-decent team, as most team based PVP are.
    Watching each others’ backs as the hunters or organizing a fatal strike-and-run on the hunters can be highly intense and incredibly fun, especially given that the phases alternate between the stalking hide-and seek phse, with lurking growls, roaming hunters and the odd hurled obfuscation ball, which then quickly flips into an often bloody mess of assault and, potentially, reprieve.
    There are also classic and stunning moments of “OH DAMMIT YOU WENT TOO SOON”, where one wrong solo maneuver gets the whole team slaughtered (Leeeeeroyyyyy Jennnnkiiiins! ..doesn’t work too as a winning strategy here, either) as they rush to help, alternating between moments of ragefests and the odd triumphant outcome, where something like that actually manages to everyone to barely scrape by and maybe even turn the tide.

    Overall the deathmatch situation is a good amount of hours of fun for a week or two, but eventually if you try it more than on occassion, you will realize that the game needs to come up with more awesome and intriguing game modes. Which there could be plenty of, lending themselves to the whole disparate group ability shebang, but I have not yet checked back to see on which promises of “Siege mode” and others they actually managed to deliver on.

    All in all, for free you can do pretty okay with unlocks and occassional promotional booster days/weekends, and even without much stuff unlocked you can enjoy the plunge into the carnivorous fray on either side.
    Sneaking up on an unsuspecting ranger that has ventured too far from the flock to then pounce on him, tear him apart and drain his lifeblood has its moments.
    Like blood, however, the game still tastest best while served fresh.

  4. Morph says:

    Blood is thicker than water fact = mind blown. Good stuff as always.

    • LTK says:

      Heard about that recently as well, and it makes total sense. The original phrase is “the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb”, meaning you’re closer to the friends you choose than the family that was chosen for you.

  5. RegisteredUser says:

    Also I wanted to add that I approve of the microbiome mention. I was about to actually add that bit to the alt-infos via a comment, then it turns out halfway through you brought it up yourself @Davies. Well done.
    I actually find that kind of research, especially with things like highly destructive allergies and clinical depression treatment as areas, highly interesting, despite the quite touchy “subject matter” involved.

  6. fdisk says:

    I find the game to be loads of fun; especially considering I paid $5 for the Beta, haven’t spent one cent since and I have spent a good 20-30 hours of solid multiplayer with it. It’s a mix between L4D, TF2, and a little bit of MOBA (The latter, a genre I despise but works here)

    Through sheer fun play I have unlocked all but 1 class for each team (By that, I mean, I’ve never set out to grind, I just play with my favorite class over and over since the game is fun, and the unlocks kind of…just happen) as well as several weapons for my favorite classes.

    So far the starting Tyrant is my vampire of choice and on the humans side I’m all about the Scout or the Vanguard.

    All in all it’s a really, really fun game and I highly recommend everyone to try; it’s only current drawback is that finding a match can sometimes take a little while but generally nothing crazy. I like that when queued for a match you can alt+tab and its icon will flash on your bar if the match is starting, giving you plenty of time to jump back in before it begins.

    The only other drawback is that sometimes pre-mades will steamroll you; if you can however find 6-8 friends to play with then it’s pure fun!

    • Marsh Davies says:

      What are your tips for playing Vanguard then? I find him frustratingly difficult to use effectively.

      • Nevercroft says:

        The Vanguard is a tetchy sort of class. It kinda makes you take the whole “Dodge, run, get distance” gameplan the other human classes tend to favor and ditch it for the “Close in, disrupt, distract” shtick. Playing it like that, a good vanguard can make everything besides a team of tyrants or summoners have a really bad time. Also, the bleeder axes are really good for punishing skirmishy, hit and run type vamps – and good in general, mainly because no one expects the bleed.

        And insofar as playing the summoner? I encourage you to get stuck in with the class more. Make an effort to be in the fight – either in the melee or in range to unload a faceful of purple death-ticles on someone. Granted, there are times when you want to stick away – and I’ve gotten a few 25+ kdr games with that strategy – but it isn’t that much fun unless you have a coordinated team.

        • IZED says:

          I can just agree on that, as I’m playing summoner in the ESL.
          As a summoner it’s very important that you know when you have to get in and when you have to use your shield to back up and also help your mates to get out of the fight / take bodies.
          It’s kinda sad though that they nerfed the Hell Strike too much in the last patch, making it rather useless now. Before I was a damage dealing mastersummoner, now I’m more a supportive type of summoner, as I have to play Abyssal Bolt now resulting in our team having to change a few tactics and classes to fit the new summoner.
          Actually this single nerf had a large impact on our whole vampire-play, but we’re in a state right now, where we’ve been able to compensate that.

      • Erfeo says:

        The Vanguard was seriously OP when he was first released and personally I think he was overnerfed. His limited range is a problem and he doesn’t get a lot in return. He can be a bit of counterpick to Tyrants though, but in return he’s really bad against Summoners and Sentinels.

        I want to say I agree with the other guy, that this game doesn’t feel grindy at all. I only spend money on the cheapest founders pack and I felt like I was unlocking things about as fast as I could learn to play with them. Spending money on the definitive pack or other things you can get for coins seems a waste. Although, it’s probably good to read a guide, some of the items are really bad, and buying some total duds could really set you back.

        I think this game is okay in terms of pay-to-winness but I worry for the future in regards to the coming “crafting” upgrade. There really needs to be an overhaul of the rare weapon stats.

  7. Premium User Badge

    teije says:

    “trying to explain its economy while ignoring the stabbing head-pain that kicks in whenever humanities graduates try to think about money:”

    I feel your pain. As a graduate in comparative religion and philosophy, I now manage the budget for a software dev department of 30 people, among other more funner stuff. Don’t recall signing up for that when I was studying the philosophy of Fellini’s films in university.

  8. Mitthrawn says:

    Where can I find more information on fecal transplants? Is a sentence no one said, ever.

    • Marsh Davies says:

      Should you want to know more about your gut’s microbiome, however, John Cryan’s TED talk is a pretty succinct summary and contains a lot of jokes that dissipate awkwardly into a silent room. Here.

  9. Scott says:

    It’s a decent game that taps into the same sort of feeling I got while playing Versus on Left 4 Dead.

    A few of us on the RPS forum dip into Nosgoth together occasionally. If you’re interested, shout in this thread: link to rockpapershotgun.com

  10. Moogie says:

    Whilst the dismissive tone against the original series and cherrypicked screenshots supporting an obviously ignorant (read: uninformed) bias irks me, I nevertheless appreciate a balanced review of Nosgoth on its own merits. A shame you couldn’t apply the same fairness to the rest of LoK. It deserves it.

    • AngoraFish says:

      LOLWOT

      • Xocrates says:

        To be fair here, the article intro references two of the games in the series that are the most unrepresentative of the lot, and calls them “traditionally an action RPG series”, which, at best, I would call the first game that.

        While I’m fully aware that the plot of the series had a tendency to be convoluted at the best of times, it was endlessly compelling, so starting the article with what IS a dismissive tone supporting an outright erroneous view of the series will raise a few eyebrows.

        • Kaeoschassis says:

          I don’t think the article’s being overly unfair – considering it starts by pointing out the author has almost no experience with LoK. That’s fine. Honestly we all need to take ourselves a little less seriously, and as a LoK fanboy myself, it can definitely be pretty funny from the outside.

          Anyway, let’s be honest here, LoK’s plot isn’t actually all that special. The writing is.

          • kud13 says:

            By gaming standards, LoK is pretty up there, plot wise.

            It is a bit of a shame that Marsh used a cinematic shot from a 1997 game (poking fun of its age. And BO1 was a very solid zelda-em-up for someone who never owned a gaming console), and then followed up by BO2 screenshots, despite the fact that BO2 is considered to be the “red-headed stepchild” of LoK. (Never mind that some dialogues in Meridian were ridiculously deep, if random.).

            I don’t begrudge Marsh the jests, but as someone willing to fork over probably hundreds to get a kickstart a proper LoK single-player sequel, I find a reviewer on a site I respect being dismissive of the game to be just another small affirmation that that particular dream will never be….

          • Kaeoschassis says:

            Glad I’m not the only one who enjoyed Blood Omen 2 at points.

            Anyway, if it’s any consolation, I’ll be right there with you if that kickstarter ever does come. But yeah, at this point I think another (good) singleplayer LoK is extremely unlikely.

    • JimmyG says:

      I think the dismissive tone is actually leveled at those vocal LoK purists who decried this unexpected direction for the series’ revival. They end up missing something decent because it looks to them like blasphemy. The linked screenshots just offer some perspective, in the sense that they look so silly to someone who’s never played the games. Basically, “Don’t take yourself so seriously, LoK-hearts, as you are proof positive that one person may treasure what another finds absurd.”

    • Marsh Davies says:

      Daw, I’m sorry. I really only included those snarky screenshots so I could make a joke about nipples. (And it was actually the very first game that I played on a coverdisk way back when. I thought it seemed pretty cool).

      I’m sure LoK is as deserving of acclaim as you say, but my point is that I don’t think Nosgoth really does much to tarnish the series by dint of being in a different genre, and, if only in the manner of female costume design, improves on it. I’ve heard fans of the first game say they are angry Nosgoth even exists, and I think that’s unfair and a bit blinkered – hence the poking fun.

      Edit: what JimmyG said.

      • Hakkesshu says:

        As a big LoK fan I absolutely detest the game you posted images from (Blood Omen 2).

        It’s not that that series is completely free from dumb comic book video game shit, as that was the style at the time of its release, but the point is LoK completely transcended that stereotype by doing things with narrative that practically no other series, sans maybe Thief or Metal Gear, were doing at the time. Just simple things like having voice actors being in the same room together and actually acting off each other, something most games still don’t do.

        I’m not making a qualitative statement about Nosgoth, but it’s just a game I have no interest in ever playing. It doesn’t actually tarnish anything, as the series is long dead, and there isn’t anything to tarnish at this point. It’s the fact that they’re trying to appeal to fans of that series with a product that has no real connection to it, it can come off as really cynical and insulting. As if a familiar name is all it takes. I don’t know, I don’t begrudge anyone working on Nosgoth, but the fact that it’s called that is a turn-off more than anything.

        • Distec says:

          I think you got it. It’s really not too far removed from stuff like:

          “Hey, remember that cult classic game series you loved? Well, we’re bringing it back as a shooter. I know some of you nerds are sad, but you gotta get with the times! No, it doesn’t have much to do with the originals outside of its namesake, but what did you expect? Nobody wants to play some shitty RTS/RPG/Time Unit/WTF hybrid lol”

          It’s cool if you don’t care, especially if you really have no history with the games. But man, lemme grumble about it. >:(

      • Osmodiar says:

        All somewhat reasonable, but in this particular context, it’s not exactly rocket science trying to figure out why many people take a more extreme view than yours – especially if you do go back and actually play Legacy of Kain. It’s a very fondly remembered series, one of the more credible offerings where videogame narratives go, certainly matched by very few of its peers in its own time. It’s more than the sum of its parts (especially the piece of crap Blood Omen 2, which was handled by an incompetent B team).

        People faithfully waited a very long time after the cliffhanger of Defiance, with several promises of a continuation from the publisher. To be messed around for so many years, discover these games being cancelled ostensibly because of money, and yet see the series still being exploited here, with the substance kind of taken away from it, yeah, you’re kind of going to have to expect a proportionate reaction.

        The Square Enix team have, indeed, acknowledged backlash IS completely justified, several times even. Those folks who whined about Metal Gear Rising and DmC on those projects’ inceptions honestly had no basis for complaint in comparison.

  11. Grey Cap says:

    HOORAY another double-value article!

  12. ciaran says:

    I feel the gameplay is unfairly represented here in a few ways, but one very important point is that you are given a free class unlock of your choice every 5 levels, so you’ll never need to use gold/real money to unlock classes.

  13. cpt_freakout says:

    Yes, great read – I mean, reads. :)