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Thoughts on E.Y.E.: Divine Cybermancy

Several Madnesses

UPDATE: The game is now out on Steam.

Over the past couple of days I've been playing indie cyberpunk RPG/FPS hybrid E.Y.E, whose team we interviewed yesterday. It's an unusual thing, to say the least. Streum are a team of just ten but have set out with the ambition to make something enormously complex, with a story, a level and stats structure, multiplayer, huge levels, multifarious gunplay, insanity, stealth, and melee combat. I feel like I'm just grazing the surface so far, and these are just initial impressions. I suspect we'll get around to something more in-depth in the coming weeks.

E.Y.E. is a game based on the Source engine. This means it is capable of some decent atmospherics, and some of the environments are very pretty, but it nevertheless feels like old tech. The game has a slightly floaty feel to it that I've detected in Source total conversions from time to time, and this game feels like a Source mod gone insane. There's no lack of talent here, Streum have done some amazing stuff, but there does feel like a lack of cash and, perhaps, a lack of focus.

Just give you an overview of that's contained in here, let's try to quickly run through its features. It's a shooter, but it's linked together by missions, which are obtained by talking to characters in classic RPG fashion. There's a stat system underlying your character, with a whole bunch of attributes to be levelled up. Which of course means a level system: you level up as you play and spend your points accordingly. Of course there's also character creation preceding all of this, where you combine a number of different "genes" to come up with your character's starting traits. Whatever you choose you'll be able to engage in a bunch of different things that the characters can do, from flat out ranged combat (pistols, SMGs, shotguns, sniper rifles, heavy weapons) through using various types of armour, engaging in stealth, hacking, and a bunch of augmentations you can play with for further specialisation. There are even "several madnesses" and you must take care of your character's mental health as things get more difficult.

The game world is a sort of amalgam of Warhammer 40k's mythic pseudo-magical theology and more familiar Deus Ex-like cyberpunk. You are a super-assassin working for some kind of monster-slaying brotherhood who are struggling for control of various locations against other cyberpunkian factions of men in dark glasses and long coats. All this is backed up with a library of written back matter, which I couldn't really be bothered to read. It's nonetheless impressive that the team have put so much work into their world, even if they couldn't quite afford to flesh it out. More immediately, there's some kind of immediate sub-plot where your mentor might be a baddy and people are suggesting you betray him, but I've not really uncovered how deeply the RPG elements run just yet. I simply haven't played enough. No matter how these conversation trees impact on your experience, I suspect it's going to be tricky for anyone to invest too deeply in this baroque world of largely-silent blank-faced nightmare soldiers.

The scope, then, is impressive, but you have to remember that we are dealing with indie production values. The levels are enormous, and often swathed in atmospherics, but the game does feel a little wobbly in places. Menus don't feel intuitive, and while there's a huge bank of tutorial videos provided to explain the game to you, principles of how to play aren't really expanded upon beyond a basic tutorial corridor. While the NPCs do have a few animations and a few speak weird-language nonsense vocals, most of what we get is text boxes, with the NPCs remaining static. The game world is huge and detailed, but it doesn't quite manage to feel authentic in the way that higher budget games do. I think this is down to the way the team have had to limit their ambitions. While there are bits and pieces of incidental detail, such as little beasts crawling about on the floor, there isn't much in the way of scripted events or little details that might otherwise bring a game to life. Some areas are seriously impressive, while others are simply fogged and gloomy boxes.

Of course we can forgive all that when the game is so ambitious, and when it tries to deliver so much of what we ask for in terms of depth and complexity in games. It's just the kind of game project that large studios would no longer risk, and so it's down to brave, dedicated souls like the Streum team to try and make it happen.

The whole thing is four-player co-op, so you can play through it multiplayer as you see fit. I suspect this is the optimal way to get through it, because the combat does feel more like you are playing basic multiplayer bots than well scripted enemies. I say this partly because I haven't really figured stealth out, and therefore have fought my way through most of the levels, but ultimately baddies aggro you from far away, and then run to get into line of sight. Snipers pick you up almost immediately, which can be a little annoying. Ultimately enemy activity is a bit simplistic and doesn't compare well with other, similar FPS behaviours, or the diverse range of options that the rest of E.Y.E. wants you take advantage of. Also modern games have really pushed the audio-visual feedback of being shot at, and here it feels very lightweight, which makes dying (and then being peculiarly instantly resurrected) all seem a little weightless. As a consequence I'm not finding the combat particularly satisfying, but I also haven't quite figured out how to adapt my character to stealth. It might involve starting over.

All that said, the combat has some positive aspects: It's fast-paced, especially in how quickly enemies go down. No bullet sponges here. In fact it all speaks of hardcore multiplayer influences. Once again there's that tinge of Source mod to it. You get the feeling that mods like NeoTokyo might have had some influence here. Streum clearly want their combat to be respected, and ignore the slow, challenge-free cover-systems that contemporary gaming tells us we want. The result of this is a game that feels old fashioned and at the same time bold and independent.

I'm looking forward to trying the game with another player, and also exploring a bit more of the world. The maps are huge, but I've been in the same one for a while now. Having seen some serious mapping talent displayed so far, I wonder what else this oddity contains. I'm amused by the starting area for the game being a dream that your character is having. I still feel a little groggy from my explorations in this world. I wonder at what point things come back to reality with a bump. I remain intrigued, but not entirely convinced.

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