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Wot I Think: Precursors

This seems like an appropriate way to start the year. Deep Shadows' FPS/RPG space-adventure Precursors was released to Russian-language markets just over a year ago, and recently it's been playable in English by modding the Russian version. Now, however, that modded version seems to have been released via GamersGate, making an English version commercially available. If you've played Deep Shadows' previous open-world offering, Boiling Point, then you probably have an inkling of what to expect from this. That said, it's bigger and bolder than I could ever have speculated, and should probably be the first game that you consider buying this year.

Look, we've been talking about games for a while now, so you probably know what to expect from me: I'll put up with a lot of nonsense if there's something interesting to be gleaned from a game's fundamentals. I just want an interesting experience. I don't mind it being messy or peculiar, so long as there's something chewy in the centre. That's pretty much what's going on here: Precursors is an absurdly ambitious project undertaken by a team that didn't really have a hope of pulling it off. Except they kind of did. It's clunky and quirky and unpolished, and that doesn't really matter. Precursors actually does work, despite having being impossibly amateurish in places, and having a constant, base-level wonkiness to it that makes you expect it to grind to halt at any moment. As I write this I've not yet finished the game off, so a broken quest could stop me – and it already almost did, but I bodged my way through – and that is the philosophy here: bodge onwards and sample the unlikely variety of experiences that Precursors contains, including a number of serious problems.

Precursors is a science-fiction space opera of predictable content. Guns, aliens, intergalactic terror, that sort of business. It's a first-person shooter with a level structure that opens up perks – bonuses of various kinds – and an inventory for the putting of stuff in. It's a linear story – the central quest arc puts one mission after the next until the game is done – but it's an open world. Once you get past the garish tutorial level you find yourself in a bustling and rather beautiful city that is basically Mos Eisley with a hint of City 17. Okay. Pretty neat. However, the smile arrives on your face when you realise that the city isn't the entirety of the level, and there are miles of desert outside, full of oases, bandits, robots, crashed spaceships, weird flora, random villages, and queer happenings. The smile gets bigger when you discover there are six planets, each with similar maps of various sizes. They're not all has well-furnished as that starting desert-place, but they are there.

Sadly, you can't really pull too far away from the quest-spine of the game – as with Stalker, there's always a direction to be heading in – but the possibilities for messing about in the margins expands as the game goes on. Additionally, there are faction ratings for every faction you encounter. These seem to be superfluous, but I suspect there is potential for creating a rather different (and difficult) experience if you alienate one of the main factions through your actions. That doesn't seem possible if you just stick to the path, which is largely what I have done. However, what impresses me about Precursors is that it has a faction rating system at all. The entire game seems like too much. You can see all the areas where Deep Shadows could have said: “No, the surface of that extra planet isn't strictly necessary,” and yet they did it anyway. It is Mass Effect without constraints. It's a weird cousin of the Bioware opus whose vision is much bolder, and whose optimism isn't constrained by all that silly QA stuff...

(We're probably rapidly shedding readers here. Another half-formed horror from an Eastern European developer is going to taste bad to many, but that's fine. Everyone else should continue.)

Precursors feels like two or three games that were born together, their vital organs inextricably linked. It relies heavily on shooting, but there are a bunch of other possibilities in there, with bombs and living weapons, and even talking. You can't talk to the monsters, but you can negotiate with bandits, aliens, and drug dealers, and a bunch of people who might otherwise get shot. There's simply loads of dialogue, and as such it's not always combat that decides things. Precursors tries to be versatile. There's an invisibility perk to allow you to do some brief stealth and sneaking. There's trade and the shops you'd expect, because the world is teeming with items ranging from space debris to vodka, from starship weapons to delicious cola drinks. There are ground vehicles, including buggy-jeep things and stompy robots. These are both bound up in scripted events and random toys that you get to play with. There's even an entire spaceflight section that links all the planetary adventures. It's almost a game in its own right, allowing you to perform missions in space, trade with space stations, get jumped by space pirates, upgrade your ship in an Elite-lite sort of fashion, save space tourists from destruction or kill them up yourself, and so on.

You use the ship to travel from planet to planet and space station to space station. All those stations have an interior to explore, of course, and so does your own craft. The planets that you can land on each have a large, wide-open map on their surface, which throws up side missions and random content like a volcano throws up ash and hot rocks: dangerously and seemingly at random. I boggled at some of this stuff, particularly the spacecraft interior. Your ride isn't exactly Mass Effect 2's densely-populated and stylish fun-club, but it's still an amazing amount of content to find sprawling out in front of you from this remote backwater of a game. And you get to fly your own ship in combat, too.

The visual design of the game is all over the place. It's never ugly, as such, but the sci-fi theme often meanders off into the hideously garish and kitsch, particularly in space, where it's all glowing lasers, swooshing comets, and spinning warp portals. There are times, however, when the game looks spectacular – the starting city is lovely, and the desert beyond is as full of life and detail as any large game environment you might care to mention. The level of incidental and ambient detail is often quite extraordinary: cleaning robots pootle about in hallways, harmless bugs scurry about in the dusty streets, people go about their business. As sci-fi worlds go, it might not feel mature, but it almost always feels alive. (Except perhaps in the jungle, where it really was a bit stiff and cardboardy, but oh well.) It's never particularly sexy or accomplished – all the art in the game feels like you've seen it before. It's a sci-fi vision that seems to have been cobbled together from the scrap-heap remained of a dozen other gaming worlds.

So yes, we're getting to those problems. The worst of these is that the combat simply isn't very good. It's not broken, but it is perfunctory and often dogged by frame-rate horrors. Most enemies take too many hits to go down, which is an endless issue in these kinds of games. There's no lean. The general jerkiness of performance made some fights a special kind of grind, and I had to put on my mirror-shades of journalistic determination to get through them. But the nature of the world means that even these issues start to erode when you see what is possible within the tools that you are provided with. In one fight, for example, I was ambushed by bandits. These buggers were a scripted event, but on the second time we fought they managed to accidentally aggro some kind of desert-gorilla lizards that I'd been in a fight with previously. Being outgunned by both sides, I jumped in a jeep, let the gorillas kill the bandits, and then ran over the gorillas in the jeep. Then I got down to looting. (Everyone and everything in Precursors can be looted.) I'm not saying these kinds of situations arise all the time in Precursors, just that it's a wide open enough game in places that they can happen.

Also bad: the audio. It's fucking terrible. The environmental audio clips in and out randomly, playing bad loops of inappropriate noise as you move through different areas. Often the sound cuts out all together, and a firefight delivers only about 50% of the noises that are clearly being generated by guns, explosions, and dying men. Worse, perhaps, all of the spoken dialogue beyond the introduction (which is English) has been cut. There's an expositionary scene a few hours in where you watch a bunch of people silently waving their arms about for several minutes. You have to wait to get back into the game and read the mission text to see what's going on. Something blew up, and you're off to another planet. That's what happened. Subtitles – even to silence – would have been okay at this point.

Ah, text. The translation is workable, but often garbled. There are problems like a star system being called one thing in the mission dialogue and another on your map, or a character having one name in the HUD and another when you actually talk to her. This is compounded by what doesn't seem like particularly great writing in the first place. The missions are very much “Kill X, Get Y, Transport Z” and could have been generated by a mouse brain in a jam jar. The same seems to be true of the overall plot, which sees you as a Chosen One type hero, dragged into galactic happenings, and doing whatever you are told because, well, you need the credits to continue playing.

There are a bunch of other, smaller, problems too. The spaceflight stuff is basically tedious, despite being a splendid dimension to add to the game. It's too easy, and just not interesting to play. The encounters are often meaninglessly chaotic, and don't seem to actual resolve because of your input. Unrelated, but also annoying: there are too few human models in the game, so that you are faced with absurdities such as being sent from one man with a beard in an office on the planet, to meet another identical man with beard sat in an office on the orbiting space station. There's no difference between them aside from their name. It's not fatal, but this kind of failure of content does routinely impair the game, and it seems weird when there is so much incidental content going spare.

All this adds up to a rich, incoherent game that needs lashings of work before it even comes close to the production values of most games released by big publishers today. That hardly matters, because the scope and energy of the game diminish most of what those publishers are trying to do with those games and the experiences they provide. As I Alt-tabbed in and out of Precursors to chat to people online, I found myself checking in with a friend who had just completed Call Of Duty 4 for the first time. His weary sadness at the rigid scripting and predictable militarist point 'n' shoot of the game was made to seem ludicrous as I reported alien worlds, weapons that need to be fed, and just the general layers of weird shit that I had uncovered. At one point I said this: “I just found a bunch of people worshipping what seems to be a floating Rubik's Cube in the middle of the desert!” What was that about? I still haven't gone back to find out. But I could. There's no going back to have a poke around for the CoD4 player, because the game just doesn't work like that. And there are no floating Rubik's Cubes in that desert, anyway. Precursors' space imperials might be no more imaginative than Call Of Duty soldiermen, but they live in a far more surprising neighbourhood.

Ultimately I expect a large number of you to buy this game simply because your curiosity should, now, be overwhelming. You might be disappointed, which would be a shame, because I have provided ample warning. It's less buggy than Boiling Point, and really lacking in the brighter sparks of imagination that would have made it into a weird masterpiece. But perhaps there's something else a purchase could be saying. It would be this: “Yes, I do want games to be more ambitious, to over-reach spectacularly, to be more open and vibrant and mad. Additionally, the people who make games like this deserve to keep making them, because they're what makes gaming worth exploring.” If the gaming world worked in the way that the late '90s seemed to promise, then there would be a game like this every six months. It's disappointing, I suppose, that I am getting excited about exploring this naïve and jittery half-world and recommending it to you today.

Yeah. Exploring is what it's about. Not always being pushed along the conveyor-belt of events that so many games have carefully laid out for us like passing firework displays: pretty, remote, pointless. Precursors suffers from its linearity in many places – the quest structure is what seems to be a pure straight line from start to finish, and you can't “unlock” Planet 2 until you have to go there, even if you can fly there in your spaceship – but when I realised that the desert was out there, waiting for me to explore it, and when I realised I could just wander off the path into the jungle... Well, that's when it made sense. Precursors had to exist, and I'm glad it does. It's an astonishing sequel to the bizarre chaos of Boiling Point.

Also, as a footnote, this might be ripe for modding. Someone really should take a look at that.

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