I’ve always known this, but it is even more firmly embedded in my mind as a truth after I compared a late beta of Demigod to the Western Front in WWI. Though I liked the game, there was no denying that the back and forth got a little tedious when dragged out for an hour. Defenses seemed too tough, everything moved slowly…it was a good game that needed a little jolt of adrenaline to be really enjoyable.
I can happily say that the beta testers and developers knew what needed to be done in that last month, because the final product is a tense, thrilling, quick moving, action-strategy-rpg that has given me some of my favorite multiplayer moments of recent years.
I won’t bore you with too many of the basics. You control one giant hero unit, and it is supported by swarms of mindless cannon fodder. Match goals range from base destruction to map control to counting kills. The two different demigod classes (Assassins and Generals) require different strategies and each of the 8 demigods is distinct. Any complaints about variety or longevity can only be credited to a cursory glance; even the choice of a starting artifact can make a game flow in a new way. More health if you want to tank, more speed if you want to run and gun…
But back to the pacing.
In a lot of real time strategy games, you will lose a game in the first ten minutes without knowing you’ve lost it. So much of what your opponent is doing is only apparent once there are a dozen heavy catapults pulling up to your door. And even then, you can’t quite track the strategy that put him in that position. Replicating his feat is, therefore, something that can only happen with a lot of practice or luck; true understanding may not be there at all.
Once you’ve studied a demigod’s tech tree (not an easy task since this is only available in game), you will immediately recognize what your enemy is doing. There are only a few paths of increasing power available to each hero, after all. And because they are distinct, you will be able to counter them when you recognize them. This is a game about move and counter move.
What does this have to do with pacing? It means that, unless you get outmatched very quickly very early, you will be deeply involved in the game until the very end. There is never a sense that a loss was undeserved or that a win was cheap. There is a solid back and forth and every minute and moment counts.
For example, most of the heroes will need to retreat to their base to heal quickly. All along the way home, your demigod could be in danger, and death means a time out for your guy/gal. So you have to balance the need for teleport scrolls or saving up for healing priests or just making a run for it. The clock doesn’t stop, so you are constantly thinking a few seconds ahead. Thinking any further ahead is usually impossible.
The speed of Demigod might make it seem more like an action game than a strategy game, but this is clearly a game where tactical decisions matter. There are strategic retreats, delaying actions, minefields, siege tactics, unbalanced wings in team play…you could probably compare this to a fighting game, except you can see the punch coming a little bit ahead.
It bears repeating that this is a multiplayer game. The single player component – a tournament where you choose a demigod and try to take it to the top of a scoreboard in 8 matches – is great for learning but not very satisfying. That’s OK. A story based campaign would have been tacked on, since Demigod is about giant things whacking other giant things. (The backstory isn’t much different from that of Dominions. Dead god, need a new one. Only instead of fighting a war, they turn to gladiatorial combat.) Like last month’s Battleforge, the game only exists so you can interact with other people.
There have been a lot of stories about the difficulties people have had setting up multiplayer games of Demigod. Stardock was clearly unprepared for the hordes of users – legal and illegal. There are also other minor annoyances. Alt-Tab doesn’t play well with MP. There is no general lobby to chat in, either, so you have to make do with the Impulse chat or Skype or take your chances bouncing out to AIM to make sure everyone is ready.
But once you get a game going…boy. There’s really nothing quite like it. Well, that’s not quite true. Defense of the Ancients is like it. But this is grander. It has none of the Warcraft imagery, of course, but it does have walking towers and foul, malodorous beasts and a woman riding a panther. And a vampire, of course. You see these things in single player, but until you’ve played against someone who has really thought about how the Queen of Thorns can compete with a horde of undead, you haven’t seen how terrible she can be.
But the grandeur is more than mere spectacle. It is rooted in a deep understanding of how games are played and what gamers are thinking while they play. What was that? Do I have time for one more spell? Can I weaken that guy? I can slow him down? Though Demigod is underdocumented, I don’t really mind because the exploration is so enjoyable.
And the game is funny. And the maps are beautiful. And the Rook doesn’t kill everything now. And you can wear five hats. The number of things to like far outweighs temporary technical issues or single player boredom.
Demigod could have gone wrong in a myriad of ways, including being too slow. Instead, Gas Powered Games has made one of the freshest gaming experiences of recent years. It’s not “epic” in size or scale or theme. It’s a tightly contained slugfest that asks you to think a little bit and pay attention to why you are losing.