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March 13, 2007
GDC - Gods and Heroes - Some Hands-on Time!

By Linda "Brasse" Carlson

During the Game Developer's Conference, several members of the press were invited to visit Perpetual Entertainment's studios, a short distance from the GDC site. Occupying the 4th and 5th floors of a vintage office building, the studios are small and comfortable looking, with the warmth of sandblasted brick walls adding to the ambience.

At last we were ushered in to the nifty demo room in a corner. Awaiting us were Chris McKibbin, President (and co-founder) of Perpetual Entertainment, Richard Zinzer (Vice President of Online Services) and Stieg Hedlund (Design Director for Gods and Heroes).

I was excited to be there, and to finally have a chance at some hands-on time with Gods and Heroes, the title I'd been watching since it first impressed me at E3 last spring. The game impressed a lot of people at that time, and garnered several awards from enthusiastic reviewers.

This reaction is not surprising, given the heritage of the company. Perpetual arose from a collaboration of great minds, sharp people with pedigrees from some of the world's premier game companies: EA, Blizzard North, and LucasArts. These teams were responsible for developing games such as Diablo/Diablo II, Ultima Online, Need for Speed and literally dozens of other exemplary titles.

Clearly, they know how to create solid games with a lot of appeal, but in this day and age, each and every new game is a gamble. I was anxious to see how Gods and Heroes was evolving.

It is always refreshing to see a change from the standard in the industry. With so many strong titles already exerting a firm grip on the sword-and-sorcery fantasy line of games, I was immediately interested in hearing more about Gods and Heroes, a world where the characters had a basis in the mythos of classical Rome.

There is certainly a feel for magic and myth, given the setting, but it is once-removed from the D&D style of action and has a very different feel. Keep reading, and you'll see what I mean.

Character creation was as up to expectations, with a reasonable degree of control over the form your avatar will take in game. I will admit here that I do not need a hundred sliders to make a character that I am happy with. At a distance of five feet in any game, we all tend to look the same, aside from hair style, color and armor, but I know that this is a very important part of gameplay for many. The interface was easy to use and offered several appealing and interesting options for customization without making the experience the drudgery that it has become in so many games.

I created a short, stoutish Brasse with a very satisfactory red hairstyle. She is not my traditional Dwarf by any means, but she looked sturdy and ready to take on the world. I caught myself smiling at my robust and determined looking Roman. Don't worry - you can also make a very pretty, doe-eyed, curvy blonde, if that is what you prefer.

I soon found myself logging in as a pre-made gladiator character, flexing my virtual muscles in the light of a new world, and ready to explore. In the opening quest line, you are given several tasks to complete, which serve both to familiarize you with the control system, and to introduce you to your divine heritage. In our case, Jupiter appeared in the fire of a brazier, revealed my divine parentage and hinted at the greatness to come, should I serve him well. It felt oddly empowering.

Chris explained that divine favor was granted through quest completion, sacrifice, tithing and tribute. The ability to command your divine parent's powers is granted to both innate spell casters and melee characters alike - no more particle-effect envy for the guy with the sword and shield!

Once free to roam the starter island, we were able to engage our first minion. Mmmmm, minions. The power of the Gods aside, minions are what make this game. Somewhat reminiscent of the Mastermind, my favorite archetype in City of Heroes/Villians, the minions in Gods and Heroes are far more robust and behave more intelligently, at least in the build we played in.

Recruiting and choosing your followers appears to be one of the core mechanics of the game. Minions may be hired on in the marketplace, but the most powerful ones are recruited only via completion of quests.

There are three types of minions available: Infantry (melee/tank), Skirmishers (ranged/hybrid) and Spell casters (healers/nukers). At low level, you choose one to start, so it is to your advantage to select a class that complements your own. A spell caster, for instance, would be well served by the protection of infantry. My gladiator chose a healer, naturally. I like my Band-Aids. He trotted along obediently and did his job on the sidelines while I fought in battles. Each minion has their own feats, which they use intelligently; there is no need to constantly micromanage, although you certainly can give direct orders if you wish.

The units move well in a variety of pre-determined squad formations, and with a surprising degree of cleverness over mixed terrain. I tried to get them stuck and lost in a heavily forested area. They readjusted quickly and reassembled with alacrity. I was impressed, and I'd love to take them through some complex dungeons as well.

Interestingly, the minions are recruited not just from your fellow countrymen, but the broader tapestry of nations that were under Roman influence at various times, including Samnite, Faliscan, Volscian, Etruscan and Gaul. You may also recruit minions who have served as bandits or pirates in the past. This serves to illustrate the breadth of research conducted by the Perpetual team. As an avid student of history, I am impressed by this sort of attention to detail, and look forward to seeing more.

As you advance in level, you will gain the use of up to four minions at a time. You become a group of five, in effect, but when you get together with your friends, each with their own minions, you are an ARMY. I can hardly wait to see the large group dynamic in action. It will be a challenge to manage from a game/sight/control point of view, and is something that has not been attempted on this scale in an MMO before.

We soon switched from our newbie characters to some level 12's. This time, I was a spell caster, sinister-looking and loaded with skills. He was also soft as undercooked eggs so it's a good thing that I now had two minions, and that they were battle-hardened infantry, only too happy to charge in on my behalf and keep the enemy engaged while I worked up lightning bolts and other magical attacks, endeavoring to employ some of the chained attacks.

At one stage, paying more attention to the distracting banter from the other folks in the room than to my own battle, I lost one of my minions. Egads! Fortunately, I was able to perform the ultimate miracle of resurrection to recover him from the Stygian darkness, but it did cost me favor with my god. I strongly applaud the fact that you have a vested interest in keeping your servants alive - these are not throw-away pets. It feels right in this environment, and another refreshing change from the standard.

Minions level and learn alongside of you, picking up new feats along the way, as well as increasing the power of their existing abilities. There are, according to Stieg, 132 distinct minions available "so far", including those that can be obtained only by completing specific tasks for your divine parent. I suspect that minion collection will be a hidden joy for many players, along the lines of a Pokemon deck. Laugh if you will, but it is a huge draw, and a proven success model.

In summary, the minions are the pick-up group that you always wished for. Gods and Heroes seems tailored to span the gap between casual gamers (who are often soloists) and those who prefer grouping. Still to be seen is how effective and manageable large groups (or raids) are in realm-vs.-realm or raid-style play, but the building blocks are solid.

I touched briefly on the topic of minion selection. When you go out on a series of missions, you will want to pick and choose your supporters depending on the task at hand. I find this aspect of Gods and Heroes to be really interesting. If at first you fail, swap out your helpers! In a larger group, additional strategies can come into play with the addition of their minions.

The game world does not allow you to keep your entire horde in your pocket; instead, the array of followers that you acquire will reside in your own camp, building on your ownership in the world. The player camp is a personal, instanced zone in which you reside, and where your minions are quartered when not in use.

Each camp has NPCs to serve your needs:

The Optio, or Quartermaster, who will handle your vault of belongings, as well as arranging for your mail delivery.

The Custosarmorum, the chap who enables you to upgrade the equipment of your minions.

The Larwieles (go ahead, check my spelling) is your advisor for interactions with your god.

There will probably be a provisioner-style NPC to handle sales and purchases of minor goods.

Graphically, the game is very pleasing to the eye, and was running fine on what I would call "average" systems, with 1gb of RAM and standard 128MB video card. What a relief in a world where I am always fearful of having to buy a new system every year just to play the games I write about. The models are reasonably detailed and very well animated, while the world is bright without stepping over the edge into a dreamland state.

The zones we traversed in our demo were populated with NPCs that were equally well-animated. The troll-like critters we fought in the lower levels were not standing dumbly and whacking at my valiant gladiator - they had some very cool tricks up their grubby sleeves. I found myself laughing in delight and some fear as one of these little monsters whipped my feet out from under me and then proceeded to jump up and down on my prone form. You could see the glee in his squinty little eyes reflected in the Devs who were there with us.

The struggle of balancing a game world in terms of population, competition and fun is something that Perptual has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about. I was pleased to learn that they are going with a combination of "open", instanced and limited population zones.

The future for this franchise is as far reaching and mysterious as the lands surrounding the Rome of antiquity, with the promise of expansions that explore the mythos of surrounding civilizations. While many are rich with promise, my personal hope is for Egypt, a darkly mystical realm of great magic and power; that discussion is best left for the future though. I could fill another three articles with talk of Gods and Heroes: Rome Rising, without pausing for breath.

I know that as a journalist, I should not get overly excited about a game, but this oneā€¦ is irresistible. Having had the invaluable hands-on play time at Perpetual, I am very hopeful that Gods and Heroes will fulfill its potential.


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