The union of first-person shooters and real-time strategy games aren't new to avid gamers of the present, being as it were that the likes of Battlezone and Uprising took to the mainstream scene way before the turn of the millennium. But it was roughly half a decade ago that such a breed of game began to roll out in significant numbers yet again. S2 Games' Savage: Battle for Newerth, a first in its series, was one of them.
Of course, the RTS-FPS hybrid genre was a confusing flavor back then and kept such games from truly being appreciated. RTS fans weren't used to having human players frolic around their battlefields, ignoring orders. FPS players, on the other hand, weren't used to losing to the opposing team due to an incompetent commander.
But it was these titles that soon heralded a flurry of similar games throughout the years until the present day, many of which the mainstream decided to profit from. DICE's Battlefield 2 and Bestway's Soldiers: Heroes of World War II were just a few mentionables that applied - however partially.
A year after Savage: Battle for Newerth was published and released over the Internet, S2 Games decided to give the game away for free and with no hidden catches. Such a move was often eyed as a precursor to the release of the next game in the series, but it was only four years after going free that Savage was succeeded by technically superior Savage 2.
Well guess what? We've braved the return to Newerth, and hacked, slashed, and clawed through thick and thin. And here's our comprehensive review of S2 Games' Savage 2: A Tortured Soul.
Oh and a word to those with low attention spans: this review is rather lengthy. Read by section, and rest when the words start to drown you. They'll still be here when you get back to them anyway.
And you thought it stopped when the world ended
Savage 2: A Tortured Soul simply picks up the series where Savage: Battle for Newerth left off. The first title took players to a "possible world," where the final world war destroys much of Earth and human technologies.
It also allowed the evolution of the natural (that being, animal and fauna) kingdom to match wits and strengths with the once-advanced homosapien. With sentience came the will to exist and a struggle to survive a post-apocalyptic world. And soon enough, disagreements ensued between both Man and Beast. Disagreements led to hatred, and hatred led to bloody conflict.
Savage 2, however, isn't any much a continuation in plot or story since the first clashes of the war. The hybrid online multiplayer game still pits both the Legion of Man and the Horde of Beasts (or Beast Horde) in a dukefest for the extermination of the opposing alliance, and very little of that history has changed to warrant comparison.
Back's Silver no more
Now while the story didn't offer anything new, the technology used to portray the Newerth wars did improve. At first glance, you can tell that the game sported finer textures and improved lighting. But for fans, Savage 2 also gave the old player characters and buildings a much-appreciated visual facelift.
Amazingly, the game's advanced eye candy isn't limited to just those. The plush landscapes, dusty, shattered columns and crypts, variable weather, and "bloom"-ey finish has often caught the eye of my fellow QJ.NET staffers while I scooted past ruins and the occasional underbrush.
While Nicolo S. was stirred by the graphical polish, Ryan C. in particular noted how the game looked "next-gen" despite the fact that it wasn't using the next-generation staple Unreal Engine 3.
And perhaps it's just as well, as Savage 2's predecessor was also praised for its graphics complexity and overall finish even while it was an online multiplayer game. All of that was attributed to one engine: Silverback.
S2 Games' Silverback engine was no longer a factor to the glitz and glamor that Savage 2 now offers to fans of the series this time around. In fact, the developers relied on a new in-house developed game engine called K2 Engine, which obviously allowed them to step up the game's technical competence by comparable degree.
But this all comes at a steep price: the game's minimum requirements have more than doubled since the first. And even if your machine clocks in at 2.2 GHz (single core), 1 GB system RAM, and housing a decent DX9 card with 128 MB memory - the bare minimum - it won't be up to the challenge of a decently populated and very grueling match.
S2's technical FAQ claims that you have to have something closer to their recommended requirements to fully enjoy the game without the "significantly poorer performance" - an unshakable factor that will decide your victory or defeat in more professional matches.
You could brave one such session if you dared, but in the end you'd be sacrificing all that visual candy just so that you can dash up close and clobber the enemy to death.
Of Magick and Steamworks Savage-ah
And you'd do well to tweak as much performance as you could, because close quarters combat in Savage 2 is almost absolutely necessary and rarely forgiving. You'd have to battle both indigenous inhabitants and the opposing faction for experience points, which then becomes a way to increase your character's battle potential.
In Savage 2, the Legions of Man return.
And as you continue to rack up gold and experience for attribute points to spend on strength, agility, intelligence, and stamina, you'd find yourself fighting everything from frontline engagements to light skirmishes. And you'd do all that using the forces of nature or the mystical and elemental arts; or by combining steel, gunpowder and steam to stomp out the competition.
The game allows the player to select any of 14 different classes, though that number is split down the middle to go both ways. That keeps the technologically apt Humans and the magically gifted Beasts even at seven types each. Three of those seven classes are readily available at the start for either side, and each class is designed to partake a unique role for their faction.
But while that fact holds in many occasions, Savage 2 permits any type of character in any side as a viable combat alternative, especially in the hands of a skilled player. Every enemy you see engaging your allies is a significant threat to the forces keeping them at bay, and you'd either have to enter the fray weapons brandished or support your teammates with a myriad of spells, creatures, structures or blessings.
The Beast Horde gets a makeover.
Either way, you'd have to do something real impressive for the team and ensure that its aligned with your faction's current objectives, or you could undo everything your side has worked hard for. In short, your cooperation is needed for your commander's plans to unfold effectively. But only if it were that simple.
Even though every match for the Conquer mode (currently the only mode of play available) in Savage 2 is a team effort, not everyone is willing to be a team player. You can follow the commander's wishes with all your might, but without your pals to back you up, you'll just be meat for the dogs. And being the enemy's favorite bait spells doom. You'll be feeding them with the experience they'll need to whoop your poor buns over and over again.
We've also found that the online community isn't as friendly to completely new Savage players as it is to new arrivals previously experienced or well-known on the first title. We know that not all veterans are indifferent to newcomers, but many are. We've also noted that there's a relatively small community revolved around the game, but that could also be because Savage 2 is just around two months old.
Skilled and experienced players are the primary factor to winning most matches. And after a few online sessions, newbies will soon learn another painful lesson in the world of Savage. Most winners love to win; thus, they will stick together at the expense of your player record and your enjoyment.
This banding together of powerful players against weak opposition is termed "stacking" in most online games. And the odds will keep stacking against you if it's your first time out. This is because newbies aren't an attractive prospect as ideal teammates, and newcomers will have to settle for the losing side for the first excruciating weeks of online play.
Why won't anyone listen to me?
If you pick up the responsibility as commander, you'll be seeing the battlefield in a different perspective - that is, top-down. It would strike you as being very similar to Warcraft. The commander will be responsible for managing the team's resources, building up their faction's base for fortifications, and developing their forces' much-needed upgrades.
As an added bonus with Savage 2, however, commanders are granted several blessing and curse spells to augment their team's advantages against the enemy. They're tagged with limitations to area of effect and cooldowns, but they can boost an outmanned defense force up to 30% (and strictly capped at 30%) more threatening than before.
Also unique to Savage 2, commanders are granted the ability to build shrines on top of Hellbourne Scars. It's game's new way of introducing super units that could turn the tide of war to the owner's favor.
Shrines permit the harvesting of souls, and after killing level five AI creatures or any enemy player to collect at least five of them, a player could enter that shrine and turn into a powerful sorcerer of the Underworld or a Hellish demon with near-unstoppable power.
Commanders aren't limited to sitting idly at the strategic overview map either. They're allowed to step down and enter the map as a regular player. From there they can partake in combat, support, building, or guard duties.
But for their namesake, commanders cannot control their teammates. They can only direct teammates on what they should be doing and hope that someone in that team listens.
In essence, the RTS stops at the thinking and building role. Direct action is best played out on the FPS role. And like many other RTS-FPS hybrids, those who don't act the part in the FPS role make the RTS role completely useless.
The future chugs - no, really
Though much of S2 Games' efforts to educate newbies have resulted to the publishing numerous tutorials in-game and elsewhere, none of them could really prepare new players for the dread that several others reported to have experienced since Savage 2: A Tortured Soul's release back in January 18, 2008: latency and server availability.
Latency was a serious issue with Savage: Battle for Newerth, and even subsequent upgrades to it's engine couldn't fully eliminate the rather alarming lag experienced most of the time. Savage 2 carries that issue the same way, only now it requires that you have a powerful computer.
But even with a beast of a PC, you're bound to slip out unintelligible words at the constant movement hiccups and stuttering. It's a Net game after all, and even with broadband, the significant number of hops to reach some servers spike ping times like 999's a good number.
And your problems don't stop there. Warping around the battlefield could get you locked up on the map's mountain side due to collision hitches.
While not many complaints come from the North American side of the equation, some players close to the vicinity of official Savage 2 servers - some in Europe and a few in Australia - have also noted to experience high ping times in certain sessions.
But more often than not, customers from the Eastern hemisphere can't help but feel a little left out. Latencies in their side could reach upwards of 300 milliseconds, and even the most skilled players will find difficulty in holding back the enemy - much less assaulting a well-fortified objective.
Face bashing, home wrecking fun for...free?
The best things in life come free, some say, and that seemed to bode well for Savage: Battle for Newerth. It seemed like a pretty effective publicity stunt in favor of the series, since the fact that the game went free opened up server opportunities outside of the official server lists. It's exposure broadened, and many players began to experience the uniqueness of the hybrid genre.
But we never thought that S2 Games was willing to pull the same trick with Savage 2: A Tortured Soul. Late last year, the independent game developer announced that the sequel would be free to download and play to an extent. And the only time you'll need to pay the game's reasonable US$ 29.99 price tag is when you'd rather opt for online play.
By purchasing a permanent online account, you'll gain access to dedicated online servers, persistent statistics tracking, the use of Savage 2's newest persistent item inventory feature, and keep record of their character's progress in-game. Of course, that's after you have used up your free five-hour allowance for online play - and that only begins after you've joined a server using a freely registered account.
Take note that S2 Games didn't conceal or lock out any features for offline and local play for the free download. In fact, all of the game's integrated features are usable from the very start, and LAN play will be identical to online play - if only not as rewarding as having your achievements stored in a persistent database and having every match recorded in an online website.
If you're not happy with the current server availability and your ping times - or you'd rather play with people who wouldn't hesitate to play with you and have fun, and not win at the expense of others' dissatisfaction - you'd do well to stay within the confines of local play.
Other definite pluses for LAN play are that latency with high-speed networks are absolutely non-existent. Even setting up LAN dedicated servers are a piece of cake if you've patched your game to the latest - thanks to a predefined batch startup file courtesy of S2 Games.
Ultimately, the choice of whether to pay or not is yours to make. It's just a one time deal, anyway; there are no subscription or hidden fees attached. And if even if you're not an independent gaming crusader like some people are, if Savage 2 tickles you in a funny, special way, why not support S2 Games' unconventional, independent project with 30 smackeroos?
Like father, like son
In every way that Savage 2: A Tortured Soul lives up to be a worthy successor to Savage: Battle for Newerth, it also portrays similar faults of the first title. To be fair, however, many of the faults have one foot set upon factors way out of S2 Games' control.
We acknowledge the developer's attempts to alleviate these issues, including the steep learning curves and unbalanced games. It just so happens that it should have been a cooperation of two sides, and some players just don't want to practice sportsmanship or be the charitable type, and play along.
But those issues aside, Savage 2 is still the gem that Savage was before. Sure, it's not the perfect kind of cut, but it's fun, it's addicting, and damn near worth getting into the offices early for. It's also got our minds churning out battle theories and plans of conquest. Now if only we could get someone to carry out our dastardly plans - it's hard to achieve anything when everyone wants to play commander.
But perhaps the best part is it's got Xbox head Nicolo S. wanting to try, and it has Ryan C. ogling the next-generation goodies. Now I really can't argue with that, can I?