By Michael Eckenfels, 19 September
On #TBT, we bring you the occasional classic article – an older review or analysis piece we wanted to rescue
The American Heritage Dictionary defines the word “harbinger” as “one that indicates or foreshadows what is to come; a forerunner.” If a game developer could tell the future, they could take everything that will go wrong with a title before it happens and create games with such ardor and primacy that awards would become commonplace – every developer would have such an award. This is, of course, as probable as making a good giant starship-simulator game in the year 3000 A.D., but nobody’s perfect.
Without precognition, unfortunately, Harbinger offers a role-playing experience that barely comes within reach of excellence. Fairly obvious things, such as an immersive pre-game storyline, are ignored, but the environment is detailed and interesting. Many minor issues that I have with the game aren’t deal-breakers on their own (except the one), but in sum, end up detracting a little from what could be a stellar product.
While the setting is different, Harbinger is essentially a dungeon-crawler. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it may not sit well with especially experienced and detail-oriented RPG fans.
A “STELLAR” BACKGROUND…BUT WHAT’S THE STORY?
The setting: a gigantic starship called Harbinger. The story: sorry, that’s classified. So classified, in fact, it’s only given to the player in dribs and drams throughout the manual, leaving absolutely everything to the imagination. Information tends to conflict, and the three paragraphs or so in the book fail to coalesce into an impressive or immersive jump-off point for a role-playing game. My gaming teeth were cut on role-playing games, and very detailed backgrounds are as important to an RPG as electricity is for a light bulb. Without one, the other just doesn’t work. Inevitably, because of the lackluster detail, Harbinger is the paper-and-dice equivalent of a four-page handout.
This complaint aside, Harbinger’s environment is interesting, although repetitive at times; the enemies differ in appearance and can be tough, but little is known about them beyond their names; and, the character controlled by the player is a life-long resident of the ship, but reveals next to nothing (not even a name!) about themselves. The only thing the player knows in the beginning is that there are three character classes to select from and anything in the one full paragraph dedicated to each class’ background.
DEATH STAR LITE
The game’s environment sports dark hallways with lots of baddies hiding in wait for the player. There are a lot of drop-offs into oblivion (one can’t help but imagine the Death Star, but fortunately the player can’t fall off the edges to their doom), futuristic architecture haphazardly thrown together (indicative of the game’s meager explanation that the ship is very old and has several races living on it), and characters about as colorful as any found in a Mos Eisley cantina. Players can interact with some of these creatures for bargaining/trade purposes or gathering information, but usually the player deals with most of them from the business end of a plasma gun or melee weapon.
The world of Harbinger tries to bring itself across as dark and sinister, similar to the techno-punk genre but with fewer options. The lacking background succeeds in diminishing the game and preventing it from achieving the heights it set out to attain.
PURE UNLIMITED LIVING SPACE…ITTY-BITTY POWER
Harbinger is the name of an ancient vessel, a war machine that had inauspicious beginnings. But that’s all we know, other than the player’s character is “coming of age,” so to speak, and is in search of adventure and glory.
The player can select one of three character types, but beyond that, has no control over the distribution of points or selection of skills. The latter point would be moot, if there were skills in the first place. The only things the player can manipulate are the four Skills with only three Attribute points gained every level. Four Skills aren’t so difficult to manage; some are common to each race (Ranged Combat and Life, for instance), with others are race-specific. For example, Humans have the Rigging Skill, which lets them deploy gadgets like mines. Gladiators, which are robotic battle-machines that have a human mind encased within each one, have an Override attribute that allows them to deploy things like cameras (how that’s used in the game, players have to figure out themselves). Finally, the Culibine, a strange-looking feminine race, have a Radial attribute that governs a 360-degree attack. As with any RPG, the higher the number, the better the character is at that particular attribute.
The game begins in different ways, depending on the race the player selects, and even then the only difference is in the self-narration that barely ekes out plausibility. The voice actor(s) manage to sound bored to tears with a deadpan delivery style that tries to sound tough, but isn’t. Maybe I’ve seen too many tough-guy type movies to the point where I’m cynical of such dialogue, so it could just be me.
The game progresses then as a series of missions assigned to the player by a lovely fellow by the name of Solomon Torvus, who has a vested interest in the character by some means (depending on the race selected), and Ona, a trader. These two personalities are the only ones that populate Torvus Junction, the player’s base of operations.
They serve as a means to explore new parts of the massive ship and generally make the player their errand boy. Missions such as “grab artifact A from the poor misguided aliens” or “grab as many distal rotative notch manipulation rotary tools as possible and return them” are standard fare early on, with missions growing in difficulty as the game progresses. However, the find-n-fetch method is pretty much the formula of the day with this title. I prefer games with more non-linear options to it, with the player able to explore a setting on their own and interact with a number of individuals among the thousands of denizens (hopefully, anyway), thereby creating their own story. Even with massive holes in the storyline, creating one eventually can easily be done in this type of setting. Harbinger, however, barely progresses, leaving the character with little to do or learn. It encourages nothing more complex than the use of a blaster to collect as much loot as possible from boxes and roll-top desks that are left throughout the ship.
Maybe unlocking the secrets of the Harbinger ship goes hand-in-hand with the character, but the lack of interactivity with other creatures, besides blasting them into mounds of jell-o, makes for a dull story that otherwise has significant potential. Some players may enjoy just going through and cutting down hordes of bad guys – but let’s be honest, there’s other genres that do the exact same thing and do it much better.
INSTALLATION AND TECHNICAL ISSUES
Harbinger installed without a problem and ran smoothly. It’s system requirements are on the light side (500 MHz, 128MB RAM), so it should run well on older machines.
I’ve already espoused the dearth of background earlier, but one more thing bears mentioning: the manual is very clean, well organized, and easy to read. It’s so unfortunate to think that whoever designed the manual didn’t swell it with more materials related to the mood of the game.
The introduction is a mere three paragraphs, informing the player that the main character is part of a “small raider community” that has lived on theHarbinger all their life. The ship was built by an “overlord” to be a “war machine,” which cast its “shadow across countless worlds.” Interesting stuff, really, but it’s just not expanded on. The book describes some of the races on the ship and hints vaguely at historical facts (such as how the Harbinger was a “census vessel” before being transformed into a war machine). It’s frustratingly short and to the point, though.
Everything needed to play is found quickly and easily within its pages, with screenshots that may not be large but are easy to see and understand. As manuals go, it’s better written than most product out there. The ability to put a sentence or two together without butchering the language is a rare skill indeed, so hats off to Brian Gladman, the guy that wrote it.
GRAPHICS & SOUND
Harbinger ’s graphics are good but not ground breaking. They convey the story well enough, but at times, display oddities that dull the mind. For example, enemies die in exactly the same way–collapsing in precisely the same puddle of goo and/or alien carbon based material. That’s a minor gripe, really, but when I think about it, I don’t want to see the same thing again, and again, and again, ad nauseum . It would have made more of an impression to see ‘bots blow up in different ways depending on how they’re destroyed, or to see the alien creatures fall differently depending on the angle of fire or weapon used. I’m not a gore fan or anything, but little things like this make for a great game (such as in Blitzkrieg, where units destruct in different ways). It’s an eye candy thing, pure and simple.
The sound is good, too, but again nothing to “ooh” and “aaah” over. The voice talent leaves a little to be desired, with a deadpanned line delivery that is most likely meant to come across as tough but instead sounds bored and distant. Explosions and gunfire, on the other hand, sound like they mean it, adding to the experience. Most of it is merely there for effect, though, and doesn’t significantly add to the immersion. The music is good; it’s a brooding melody that fits well into the game’s scheme.
Simple and easy are the best two words to describe it. There’s no complex pattern of clickable buttons or anything confusing. I wish I could say the same thing about interacting in battle, but I’ll get to that momentarily. All menus are easily accessible and easy to read.
Now, the more difficult part. Combat takes a lot of getting used to, since the camera view is locked on the character who remains in the middle of the screen at all times. To fire on a bad guy, the player must click on them and hold the mouse button down. This will fire the currently selected weapon as rapidly as possible but may diminish its energy to the point that it has to recharge (which it does by itself given a few seconds). The hard part is clicking on a moving bad guy without clicking the floor next to them and thereby moving right to that spot. It’s supremely frustrating, although if the player presses and holds the SHIFT key while firing, the character remains in place. Still, some kind of auto-targeting feature would be nice; missing a shot because the character lacks proficiency in the Ranged attribute is more acceptable to me than constantly clicking on the wrong pixel. It takes some getting used to, but once there, combat should be simple.
Movement is , as mentioned, by clicking on the section of floor the player wants the character to move to. Interaction with objects (such as boxes and doors) is accomplished by clicking on them. Helpfully, if an object can be manipulated, putting the mouse cursor over it will make it brighten and display its name on the screen – a very nice touch.
Dialogue in the game is menu-driven. Usually, there’s not much to talk about with anyone besides Solomon Torvus or Ona, who both give the player missions to go on. Their dialogue can get a bit vapid, but extraneous information in an RPG is almost something to be expected. A straight dialogue tree with only game-related talk doesn’t help the “immersion-” rating of a game, so the conversation paths included help add a little to the experience.
The perspective is an interior 3D angle similar to that of RPG’s such as Fallout . The character can move around and behind objects, and interact with a few of them. However, changing the camera angle is always nice, something which I couldn’t do in the game. Not that I wanted a zoom feature, really, as found in Dungeon Siege, but something besides the same view all the time would add a great deal to game play.
Most of the player’s time is going to be spent sneaking through corridors, opening boxes, and running like mad when a horde of bad guys appear. Ambushes can be frequent, so I found myself clicking in “baby steps” across the floor. Charging pell-mell into the darkness was a sure ticket to instant death.
A Log button at lower center of the screen helps the player remember what it is they’re doing, and it keeps track of conversations and other important activities. It flashes when it’s updated, and checking in with it is easy, but it does not pause the game at all. This is what we call a “Learning the Hard Way” experience.
Harbinger is alive with a network of transport tunnels that are accessible by what is called an “Umbilical.” These are basically transporters that instantly move the character from point A to point B. These points can only be accessed when Solomon or Ona gives the player the access codes to do it – don’t worry, the player doesn’t have to write anything down or keep track of them, they’re automatically stored and used. Access to previously visited places isn’t possible, however, since the codes change with every transport.
The player’s movements are marked on a map, and for convenience, this map is transparent so the player may view it while moving around. It comes in handy as a reference tool when one can’t remember where doors are or other locations.
Game mechanics are pretty much mentioned to this point, although it bears mentioning that this game is played in real time, not by turns. Quick reflexes and well thought-out moves are necessary to survive to see the end of a mission.
The player can find numerous things laying around the ship, including Uan (the currency used aboard), health packs (annoyingly, sometimes only for the other races), weapons, armor, and chips that can be used to enhance things such as ranged combat, melee combat, and the like. Mines and cameras round out the list, but there are other things as well that can be equipped and used.
The game’s AI is not particularly impressive. Their combat tactics involve copious amounts of the skill “Move into range and stand still while firing” and “Don’t pursue.” Some chase fleeing players but not always. I don’t know if this is related more to the unit types or to the AI, but I’m willing to think it’s the former rather than the latter. Some units can be aggressive at times – especially the robots – but all-in–all, it’s not difficult to get through them. The only limiting factor is finding enough health to restore depleted reserves and knowing when to use them (the player must click on the appropriate icon in the lower left corner to restore health – not easy to do when they’re being fired on by six enemies).
EDITORS, EXPANSION, AND REPLAY VALUE
There’s a demo on the official website’s Files page, but besides a trailer, that’s about it. However, Harbinger promises a sturdy 60-75 hours of playing time (20-25 hours per character type, promising a unique storyline for each); this kind of longevity is a definite plus, being especially unique for an RPG-type game.
There is no multi-player component at this time, nor are their plans to include one. A shame, really, as a player-driven storyline could add immense replay value to an already large game.
Harbinger isn’t the best RPG fare out there, but it’s certainly a different RPG fare. However, take away the giant spaceship motif (a dungeon), the armor and weapons of some of the bad guys (Orcs, Goblins, and the like), and the game is essentially a dungeon-crawlcomplete with quests for valuable objects, barter for new weapons and armor, and acquiring crumbling tomes of old to learn more about the player’s destiny in the game.
I didn’t completely enjoy Harbinger, but strangely, I didn’t completely detest it either. Players who enjoy very detailed RPG’s might not find much challenge in Harbinger, but it certainly could be a good introductory adventure game for those seeking to expand their horizons. And, of course, any fan of science fiction RPG’s might be drawn to this title as well.