Thanks to Spore, any game that promises multi-genre gameplay has begun to look a little suspicious to me. The idea of creating your own species and ushering them through the evolutionary process via all my favourite type of genres appealed to me greatly, until I played it and found it to be shallow and boring.
Enter Incognito, an indie episodic game that promised me all the gameplay that Spore didn’t have. The question is, however, whether they succeeded in this.
Incognito begins with you committing suicide, which is an interesting place for a game to start. Your character, a burnt out businessman, jumps to his death from the top of a tall building after an unusual narrator clues you in on your life up to that point. Then you wake up on a spaceship.
You bump into the ship’s computer, HEIDI, and she clues you in on why you’re there and what you need to do, then gives you a brief run down of how the ship works. Apparently, your suicide was the most interesting thing happening on earth at the exact moment HEIDI scanned the planet for her saviour, which should give you a confidence boost. An entire planet full of billions of people, and your suicide was the only thing of interest at that exact moment, excellent.
So, after your quick introduction to the workings of the ship, HEIDI tells you to go and fix her heat shields, and the game begins proper. This is also where the problems kick in.
The game contains a number of different genres: space travel, trading, shooting, exploring, vehicles, RTS and many more. Unfortunately, none of them really feel finished.
Space travel is your hub, your ship skates around the cosmos, orbiting planets and docking at space stations to trade, probe and generally exploit the universe. On paper it sounds quite fun, but when you consider how painfully dull the space travel can be, you will be hard-pressed to enjoy it.
The thing about space in Incognito is that every planet tends to look the same, which can make navigation a bit difficult. You do get a handy navigation tool to point you at each specific planets or space station, but it can get difficult to remember where you’ve been when all everything looks the same. On the positive side, however, Incognito does have slightly more realistic space physics than most space games. You have inertia to take into account when moving, which will allow you to travel in one direction while facing in another, unlike a fair few space games wherein you are essentially flying a plane in space.
Despite its problems, I can still forgive Incognito’s space travel its flaws. Yes, it is slightly arduous but it’s mostly quick, you’re never sat for hours trying to jump between each planet and, depending on the load times, you can scout an entire system relatively quickly. It even links quite well into the RTS aspect of the game, sending probes down to planets to build mines for the elements you need to upgrade your ship.
The RTS gameplay announces itself immediately. If you couldn’t tell from the classic RTS UI, you get an extra hint by all the building names being prefixed by RTS- (RTSMine for example). It’s an odd choice, and it makes me think that it probably wasn’t intentional. It break immersion a little, but you can always play it off as being HEIDI’s input on your UI, if you really want to. It is hard to work out where the “strategy” part of the RTS mode is, however. On the occasions where I was given tanks to fight with (and I was given them, they just sprang up out of nowhere) it was usually in sufficient numbers to crush the opponents then and there, a case of merely selecting all my units and pointing them at the enemy.
The RTS quibbles still do not classify asgame breakers, however. They help to break up the action and give you a bit of colour instead of the constant blackness of space. The real issues come the moment you set virtual foot on simulated terra firma.
You can’t land on planets until you have fixed your heat shields, something HEIDI informs you as soon as she lets you out of her holographic training suite. Once you work out exactly how to do that, you’re sent to a specific planet to nab some memory crystals for the wonky computer’s brain. First thing that happens when you land on the planet: you steal a tank. That’s a plus point right there.
The tank controls are actually very good. Simple WASD controls for the most part, except for the turret which is mouse controlled. You even get a secondary crosshair to show you where the gun is actually pointing in relation to where you want it to be. This makes shooting the Dust Bunnies (weird floating spiky balls that act a little like magnetic mines) quite fun and relatively easy. I honestly thought that the game had begun to pick up speed, especially when you see the Dust Bunnies explode when you shoot them. Even the slightly underplayed sound effects for the tanks couldn’t interfere with the enjoyment of that.
Then the enemy tanks showed up.
My suspicions were aroused as soon as I spotted the enemy in the distance, driving into the wall of their own powerplant and shooting it continuously, the splash damage slowly eating through their armour. The tanks were trying to shoot me, but didn’t realise that there was a bloody great obstacle in the way.
The AI in this game has the full house of cardinal sins: omniscience and perfect aim. They always know where you are and will always hit you providing nothing gets in the way. Shells from enemy tanks can curve in the air to hit you, and because of this you need to get the first shot off every time. The saving grace is that your tank seems to be able to withstand a great deal more damage than the enemy, and can fire a tiny bit faster, aspects that disappear in the FPS section.
Yes indeed, there are FPS sections too, sir, and they share similar problems to the tank sections. The enemies still know where you are at all times, but now their guns fire ridiculously fast and never need to be reloaded, a constant stream of death. This can leave you in a situation where the only way to advance is to walk right out into enemy fire, which will track you with the sort of skill only a computer can conjure. With each bullet taking off a large slice of your life, every sojourn out into enemy fire will leave you almost dead and most certainly frustrated. And then you get the hacking minigames.
System Shock has a lot to answer for. Every game with a computer in has a hacking minigame now, and most don’t do it very well. Incognito’s is just confusing, primarily because you have no idea what to do. You are given a number of letters and then told how many words you can make out of those letters. Sounds simple enough until you notice it says “Number of Words: 87”. What? 87 words? What am I supposed to do, find them all? It is the most obvious failing in the tutorial system, in that there isn’t one, and it really breaks the flow.
I know that this all sounds very critical of the game, and really it is, but that’s only because I held out such high hopes when going into it. I liked the menu, modelled to look like your office, and I liked the voiceovers, seemingly done by semi-realistic voice synthesising programmes to give the computer a little bit of extra character. I especially liked the music, the calm guitar chords you get when flying around space really help to underline just how tranquil space can be, and the rockier beats you get when probing a hostile planet. It’s unconventional music, and it’s perfect.
Incognito: Episode 1 feels more like a proof-of-concept than an actual game. It’s buggy, confusing and more than a little frustrating, but there’s potential there. With some tweaking and a liberal dose of polish there could be something good in here, but right now I can’t really say that it is worth the $9.99 being charged for it.
That said, if they can fix the AI issues, tweak the UI a little and attach a more robust tutorial system then there could be some fun to be had in Episode 2. With a few improvements I reckon they might have an idea I could get behind, but until then: