With so many huge multiplayer focused titles flowing from the major videogame publishers, you might think there would be no room left for the little guy; the truly independent game developer. Sure there have been some good successes in the casual games market and with the likes of the Xbox Live Arcade platform but not much that really rivals the experience of a big budget multiplayer shooter.
There may well be other candidates but when thinking about independently developed shooters that could stand alongside the likes of the Quakes, Half-Lifes and Call of Duties, the only game that immediately springs to this reviewer's mind is S2 Games' Savage: The Battle for Newerth.
Savage: The Battle for Newerth was released back in 2003 via online digital distribution, with only a limited North American store shelf retail. This was during a time when Steam was still cutting its teeth, and MMOs were still sold primarily as a physical box. The game was critically acclaimed and the playable demo was quite the hit when it landed. The unique mix of a first-person shooter with one player assuming a real-time-strategy style commander mode and some RPG elements thrown in for good measure was a breath of fresh air.
While plenty of Aussies played the demo, filling local servers nightly, that player base never really transitioned to the full game; and it wasn't until a few years later when S2 Games released Savage for free and community modders had tweaked the game up that an Australian community really blossomed.
Fortunately for us, Savage must have made S2 enough coal to keep the fires burning, because they're back again with Savage 2: A Tortured Soul. Still published independently but this time around, the official website is the only place you'll find the game for sale.
The gameplay of Savage 2 stays relatively true to the original - the RTS/FPS/RPG hybrid element still being the focus but it's far from just a graphical upgrade. Savage 2 handles a lot of things differently than its predecessor for both the commander and soldier roles. The storyline sees the beast horde doing battle with the legion of man once more; two teams following the will of their dueling gods, Jeraziah and Ophelia. Don't get too caught up in that though because Savage 2 is a multiplayer only title and a slick intro movie is where the storytelling starts and promptly finishes.
Rather than just blurt out everything that makes up the gameplay, let me give you a run through of a typical game experience. A new round kicks off with players all in the lobby screen, you select your team and have the option to nominate yourself as a team commander candidate. The players in each team vote for their commander then the winner chooses their offices. As a regular player, you then choose which officer's squad to join, the class you want to play as and away you go.
The technology you have available, like Savage, progresses throughout gameplay. In the beginning you have access to the three base classes and a limited selection of their special abilities. As your team earns more gold though (awarded for kills as well as many of the various other tasks) the commander can then build the structures that unlock the extra classes and abilities.
Players of the original Savage will recall some games that dragged on for hours, stalemates where both teams had skilled commanders and near-impenetrable bases. This has been addressed in Savage 2 with the introduction of the Hellbourne units. Special units that can be accessed by either team by building a structure on a special spot on the map, the so-called “scar”.
Once built, these units aren't free however; you'll need to fork over your hard earned souls (awarded one for each kill). Since the top hellbourne unit, the Malphas requires 20 souls to purchase, it's not until later in the game that they can be utilised to devastating effect. On top of helping break stalemates this adds another level of strategy to the game where securing a scar and preventing the opposition from building on theirs can be vital to victory.
This differs somewhat from the original as there's no extra researching for individual weapons and technology, once the structure is built, it's tech-tree is unlocked for the team to use. Due to these simplifications, commanders are now freed up to focus on the battle rather than the base which is just as well because they've been given many more buffs and debuffs with which to directly influence individual skirmishes. This array of spells consists of things like healing, temporary speed increases or armour boosts for their own units as well as life-drain and slowness to cast periodically on enemy players.
Combat in the game is part third-person ranged weaponry and part melee combat. Ranged weaponry lets you take down foes from a safer distance but ammunition and mana supply are very limited. Melee is where the real damage is done though and Savage 2 has quite possibly the best executed hand to hand combat system in a shooter to-date. You have three melee moves: attack, block and interrupt – It's paper, scissors, rock in that a block stops and stuns an attack but an interrupt breaks and stuns a block - anticipating and countering your opponent is key.
Each class has an array of special abilities that are made available as technology progresses. For the most part these are just buffs and debuffs like critical strikes, heals and auras but they go a long way to promoting strong teamwork. The builders, for instance, are largely a support class and can supply ammunition and assist in building construction and repairing, the more you have working on a building, the faster it goes up.
Legionnaires and Predators are the most powerful fighters and cost a little more bank than the standard units. These guys will generally fill out the core of your attack parties, supported by healers and builders. Siege units are the big guns, usually the last technology to get researched and designed to take down enemy buildings.
Unfortunately all these changes and extras add more and more complexity to the game which leads me to Savage 2's biggest downfall - a hugely steep learning curve. Even as a veteran of the original Savage and online shooters in general, I have to admit it took quite a while to learn the ropes in Savage 2. Weeks on I was still learning little tricks and techniques to get a better edge in combat.
As a new player, the game can be quite overwhelming and the free five hour trial (that the client offers to all players before purchase) may not offer enough time to really get into things. A brief in-game tutorial is provided but really only scratches the surfaces of gameplay. The comprehensive web resources and online manual documentation probably provide the best tuition for newcomers. Still it's a lot to take in for someone that's just curious about trying a new game and perhaps a bit of an overload for someone new to online gaming.
Unlike other multiplayer shooters, and unlike the original Savage, S2 are currently not permitting third parties to run ranked Savage 2 servers. You can of course run local network servers and private online ones, but they will not show up in the in-game browser. This may well change in the future but at the moment it means that local ISP's and game server providers haven't given the support they usually would for such a title.
One of the huge features unique to Savage 2 is the universal game recording. Since all servers are presently operated and maintained by S2 themselves, all games contribute to global persistent statistics and every single game you play, even the lousy ones are automatically logged and recorded with the ability to replay any time you like.
It's not all bad news, however, as they haven't forgotten us here down under, with a bunch of servers hosted locally on Australian soil from day one – something other successful games still haven't offered us (hi World of WarCraft). Another upside of this is that every server you play on is directly monitored by S2 and every game you play contributes to the global persistent stats. A great advantage of this is that like an MMO or Xbox Live play, cheats and other pests can be easily dealt with.
One more extra this system allows are persistent items. The game rewards those that refer other players to sign-up with a scratch-card, essentially a ticket to a randomly selected special item that you can carry into battle. These award small buffs such as 5% health regeneration etc. An interesting addition to be sure but one that doesn't really sit well with me. Like the perks in Call of Duty or the unlocks in Battlefield, it tips the playing field and potentially makes fights unfair for those of us that don't have the time to invest in collecting the best gear.
Visually Savage 2 is up to the task. It's not challenging the likes of CryEngine for graphical fidelity, but it still looks like a game released in 2008. The engine transitions flawlessly between the first and third person shooter mode to the birds-eye commander view and animations, particularly the buildings being constructed are great. The system requirements are also pretty accessible – dial the features down a notch and you'll be able to stay competitive on a pretty dated rig. Most of my gameplay has been with a trusty old GeForce 7600.
After observing the evolution of the game during the beta testing period, I decided to reserve judgment until the game had a chance to iron out some of the creases. Looking back I'm glad I did. S2 Games have already deployed some major balancing changes and tweaks post-release that have improved gameplay and general enjoyment immensely. Looking forward, that level of support doesnt look to be dropping any time soon.
One thing I mentioned while reviewing Enemy Territory: Quake Wars late last year was how great it was that the developers were so active amongst the community. I'm happy to say that level of interaction is definitely matched here by S2 Games in Savage 2. Like a tight-knit mod team the developers are players of the game and many of the changes made are the direct result of community feedback.
All said, Savage 2 is a worthy purchase for anyone looking for something extra or different in an online shooter. The steep learning curve is a bit of a hindrance but rewarding once you get everything down. The game has features you'd expect from a big budget title, with the community spirit and developer support usually only found in the modding scene. Most importantly it proves that there's still room for truly independent game development in the online multiplayer space. Head over to savage2.s2games.com
and check out the trial today.