Hyping It: Precursors
February 14, 2013 5 Comments
High concept, low tech.
Hyping It takes a look at the bright, but flawed, gems of the gaming industry.
Developer: Deep Shadows
Pricepoint: 20 USD/15 Euro
Genre(s): FPS/RPG/Freeform/SpaceSim/Open World/Sci-Fi
Date of First Release: 2009 (Russia)
Precursors (or, The Precursors, the game can’t really make up its mind) is a game developed by Deep Shadows, a small Ukrainian studio based in Kiev.
Technically, Precursors is a complete mess, it suffers from EYE Divine Cybermancy disease.
You are lucky if the game even runs out of the box without choking, flickering and severe bugs. The western published version available on GamersGate has its ambient audio removed and feels empty and hollow, the in-game cutscenes are dubbed over by one person, even the female roles. The whole release is farcical and one has to wonder what GamersGate was thinking when they accepted this game to be published in their library in the state it’s in.
And yet, on the other hand, there isn’t any other game like it out there.
Precursors for me was an impulse purchase. I saw it on sale for 10$, it looked serviceable from the screenshots, and I had cash to burn.
Luckily, through perseverance and a bit of digging I found the game’s small but dedicated community that had fixes for almost every technical problem. The ambient sounds can be patched back in, a community patch fixed almost all glaring problems with bugs and glitches, there is even a complete English re-dub of the ingame cutscenes available on mod-db.
The game was obviously shoved out the door unfinished, not just because of its bugs, but also because it seems half of the game is missing.
What Is It?
Precursors is a cross-genre title with elements of FPS, RPG and SpaceSim.
The story is barely worth mentioning as it’s incomplete and severely hampered by the google-translate approach to localization. While not as bad as EYE Divine Cybermancy, listening to the people in the game is cringeworthy and the dialogue is absolutely comical.
But, what other indie game lets you roam freely on six planets with around 4km² of landmass each?
Which game allows you (almost) seamless transitions from space to FPS play?
Open, freeform space and ground exploration?
It’s as if Freelancer, Deus Ex and Farcry (STALKER?) had a really good threesome. Precursors actually manages to combine all of these elements with great competence when it comes to gameplay. You have a weight-based inventory system, localized damage to limbs, skill-upgrades, weapon-mods, ship-customization, drugs, a variety of guns and vehicles.
The only game similar to Precursors that comes to mind is another eastern release called Parkan II (2005). But that game is so obscure it doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia page. (It will definitely feature on Hyping It at some point)
In my opinion the best thing that can happen with a video game is when it positively surprises you, and Precursors has more than enough surprises to turn your anger into love.
After fighting with the game for 3 hours, trying to get it to run without any bullshit, I was expecting this to be a complete turd. But Precursors surprised me with being one of the most ambitious games I had the pleasure of playing.
First, for a game released in 2009, running a proprietary engine (Vital Engine 3) and developed by a studio of maybe 10 people, it is absolutely visually stunning. Its graphical fidelity settles somewhere between the original Far Cry and Crysis, being closer to Crysis in texture-detail and environment physics but lacking the bit of extra polish in 3d models and animations. Nevertheless, the game is visually pleasing and contrary to Far Cry or Crysis offers a wide visual variety of environments to play in.
From alien desert landscapes, through lush jungle planets and post-apocalyptic urban sprawls, to the devastated, toxic surface of a war-torn moon, Precursors creates visually distinct places with dynamic weather and day-night cycles that you will remember.
A selection of environments you are bound to visit during your journey
Precursors is loaded with little details that are unique and positively refreshing for a game like this.
After all, you could just copy-paste game mechanics from other games and call it a day, but Precursors adds to the concepts rather than just mimicking them.
For example all vehicles have their own inventory space, need fuel and can be equipped with weapons. The developers didn’t go with the “arcade-y” mechanic of infinite turret-ammo like in other games of this type either, every vehicle needs to be maintained and cared for in a specific way.
While mechanical vehicles like buggies or flyers use universal fuel, the creatures you can ride on the jungle planet Clatz need food, and if you run out, they die. This is a really immersive detail that isn’t present even in the prime AAA open-world franchises like The Elder Scrolls.
Another example of immersive design is locational damage on vehicles. You can shoot the tires of buggies to make them spin out of control or make them generally less maneuverable. The game even gives every vehicle a spare-tire in its inventory in case this happens to you, and the AI behavior is designed to exploit this weakness. Humanoid enemies on foot will try to shoot your tires and disable your vehicle, while larger bestial enemies will try to ram you to flip it.
Your spaceship is no different, it is fully upgradeable with slots for engines, weapons, missiles, cargo and shields. It also requires fuel to go into hyperspace and travel distances between planets or star systems.
The game even gives you the ability to board other vessels, or be boarded, while in space. Your ship has a full interior and when boarded you are required to leave your pilot seat and duke it out in first person with the attackers, lest they start disabling your systems one by one and then come for you on the bridge.
These are design ideas rarely ever seen or implemented even in AAA titles, the variety and complexity of situations immediately skyrockets and creates an immersive and fun environment to play in.
You can escort the liner or rob it, your choice and your consequences.
Scenario: You are running cargo from one system to the next, then suddenly a space-anomaly forces you out of hyper-space, and makes your ship spin out of control. Pirates attack, you are taking them out one by one, suddenly your ship is being boarded so you have to leave the piloting to the AI and shoot some dudes in the face repelling the attack. Suddenly what would be a dull fetch-quest or grind becomes a varied and interesting encounter that can go either way just by sheer circumstance. Chances are that even if you make it out alive you will have to spend your profits on ship repairs, or medkits, maybe some of the cargo was even stolen.
Similar attention to detail has been afforded to the mechanics governing your character, your body takes locational damage and will react accordingly. If you get shot in the leg you will start to limp, getting shot in the arm will make you sway while aiming, etc. Healing can be performed in many different ways with different results. Food for example is inefficient and will not properly restore your body, medkits are better but very expensive and stimulants are cheapest with the best immediate effect, except they will make you addicted. Using stims over and over will reduce their effect on you and require higher dosages for the same amount of restoration, they also can have side-effects like overdosing and vomiting.
Armor is an item reminiscent of quake and doom games that instead of providing continuous damage-mitigation with no wear will break but absorb part of the damage. Different armor-types exist providing different coverage of the body from flak-vests that only protect the torso to full-body power armor that encloses all your limbs. There is also stealth-armor that camouflages the user for better stealth or sniper play. Unfortunately while you equip these armors the model of your character doesn’t change so there is no visual representation beyond the UI icon and your inventory screen.
The environment features a great deal of interaction as well. Strewn about are loot-chests, food, drink and other items you can pick up and trade, or keep for yourself. Enemies have their own equipment that can be looted or stolen, factions also feature their own bases with vehicles that can be acquired by legal or illegal means. The game gives you a broad range of choice who you want to work for and doesn’t prevent you from becoming a bandit or working against the Empire faction.
Events, Missions and Quests are strewn about on ever planet, some accessible only later when you revisit the old locations. Some of them are quite good if you discount the ridiculous dialogue. One event makes you look for abducted miners, only to find out that they never were abducted and actually had a deal going with the Bandits. Those little stories are immersive and interesting, if you try to imagine the dialogue not being written and delivered by a 10 year old, that is.
The desert of Goldin, the first planet you visit after the introduction.
What The Fuck Happened?!
The main storyline ends abruptly in a non-answer, this is very frustrating as one can clearly see that there are multiple star-systems, that can be visited, with nothing to interact with in them. They were obviously intended to serve as the second and third act of the game. Your ship similarly features areas that aren’t utilized and were probably intended to house more NPC companions (you only get two in the release version).
I speculate that Deep Shadows simply ran out of money while creating the game and released what they had as a way to recoup at least some losses.
Their previous game was Xenus: White Gold and utilized the same engine, it was a straight Far Cry clone in setting, “story” and handling. It was by no means a horrible game, just relatively generic without real heart, but at least it felt complete.
Precursors is an undeniable improvement in scope on their first effort and I’d wager it was supposed to be their break-out title, what happened in between is only known to the developers themselves.
If you look on the Deep Shadows official website at what the company is doing today, it seems that Precursors was definitely their high-point. The games released after Precursors are either point-and-click adventures or hidden object puzzle games for both PC and Mobile.
A statement from Deep Shadows last year stated that there are no future plans to create another Precursors or Xenus game.
It is an unfortunate turn of events as the studio definitely has the talent and the ambition to create truly interesting and different games in the established genres. All they really needed was more funds and time to finish up a project that could have challenged the AAA titles of its time. 2009 only saw Borderlands in the Sci-Fi FPS/RPG niche and with Far Cry 2 already released a year earlier, there wasn’t really any solid competition.
If Deep Shadows had the ability to cook the game for another year, we would have gotten a title that could have rivaled Mass Effect 2.
- Great visuals and atmosphere
- Unique and interesting mechanics
- Freedom of movement and gameplay
- Attention to detail in gameplay and visuals
- Unique genre-blend
- Buggy out of the box
- A hassle to fix
- Horrible dialogue and localization including cut audio content
- Missing half of the content