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SummaryWhy don't they make more games like this?
The GoodWhen I look at modern role-playing games, I notice a tendency that I personally consider quite alarming: they shrink. By all logical means, games should become bigger and richer; in reality, the opposite is true. The recent installments in leading RPG series have shown that modern designers seem to be more preoccupied with planning virtual sexual intercourses than creating vast game worlds with free-form, gimmick-less gameplay.
Only Fallout: New Vegas tried to revive the long-lost perfection. Its predecessor made an important step towards merging two popular genres: RPG and first-person shooters. It is clear that the future of RPGs lies in action-based combat; and what action is more satisfying than the everlasting excitement of FPS? On the other hand, today sandbox action and driving games seem to have taken the leadership in terms of open-world design; I don't think it would be a mistake to consider them the most popular genre in the last decade.
Now imagine a game that puts all of this together - FPS, RPG, open-world driving, and even light space combat simulation elements on top. This game is Precursors. I don't know about you, but this is the game I've been waiting for. It is a conglomerate of my favorite genres, the ultimate hybrid, and the most ambitious, grandiose project I have witnessed in a very long time.
I passionately love everything Deep Shadow has produced so far. I consider both Boiling Point and Xenus II: White Gold daring and thoroughly absorbing, enjoyable games; no amount of bugs, graphical glitches, or underdeveloped features could ruin the sheer scope, generosity and immersive qualities of these two games. Precursors is much of the same (it is very similar to Xenus II in basic gameplay concept), only it is set in a cool sci-fi world and adds space exploration and combat.
I can only respectfully bow to the designers for actually completing such a gargantuan task. No matter its flaws, Precursors amazes in its ambition. Perhaps it is even more amazing (and sad) that Deep Shadows seem to be the only designers in the world that have such ambitions and are not afraid of realizing them. Honestly, for me personally Precursors could have gotten away with even more serious flaws; it is the mere fact of its existence that makes me sing in joy.
Precursors is just one massive, tasty chunk of fun gameplay. It is a challenging, entertaining good old FPS: no magic-psychic-telekinetic gimmicks, no silly regenerating health, no sitting ducks in cover, no masked linearity: just explore a planet and start merry shootouts against whomever you want to. It has limited, but satisfying RPG elements: quests and sub-quests, heavy item management, weapon modifications, weight limit, drug addiction system, simple experience-gathering and leveling up, and interesting skill choices that will make you think long before you spend your precious points. It has fun buggy-driving, shooting with mounted weapons, refueling, car damage and repair. It has healthy doses of exploration, micro-management, questing, and action; it has faction reputation, missions for opposing groups, choices, non-linear progression; all mixed together, all generously served to you. Once you fire up the game, it becomes really hard to let it go.
Paradoxically, Precursors manages to be modern by bringing back gameplay conventions from the past that many modern games have forgotten. It doesn't want to be flashy, it doesn't want to rely on gimmicks, it doesn't pretend to have a deep philosophical plot that would compensate for lack of gameplay; above all, it is a game that begs to be played, a game in which just running around and doing random stuff is more satisfying that following whatever tricks the designers have concocted for you. It is a game that simply puts you into its world and says: explore and have fun.
To illustrate that, compare Precursors to Mass Effect. While BioWare's creation unequivocally wins in cinematic presentation, writing, graphics, and overall polish, the Ukrainian game beats its much more famous counterpart fair and square in sheer playability. If Mass Effect held your hand while guiding you from one setpiece to another, Precursors asks you to create such setpieces. Nobody will ever convince me that linear third-person cover-based shooting can be more satisfying than free-roaming FPS action; and while in Mass Effect you were presented with a space you couldn't travel, Precursors allows you to physically navigate a space ship, upgrade it, and fight whoever you encounter in primitive, yet entertaining combat.
That is not to say that Precursors is all about sandbox playing. Examples such as this have taught me that it is not enough to create a sandbox world with driving and shooting in it; the game world must be charismatic and appealing, through visual design, storytelling, or both. Precursors has a beautiful world. Even the disappointingly empty-looking interior locations could not spoil the fun from roaming the vast planet surfaces, each of them appealing in a unique way. Going from the busy Goldin desert to the strange, "indigenous" settlements of the sapient birds on Gli or the desolate ruined city on Yarent provided ever-refreshing, satisfying exploration.
While Precursors is anything but a storytelling masterpiece, it has plenty of small things that bring its world and characters to life. The original Russian dialogue is well-written, with plenty of silly, nonchalant humor; the game doesn't take itself too seriously and is aware of its own limitations. It is interesting to gradually get to know representatives of different factions, learn their ways, beliefs, traditions, etc. It is true that most of the material here is sketchy and feels incomplete; but whatever is absent from the game can be added by the player's imagination. The foundation for an engrossing, interesting "light sci-fi" world is definitely there.
The BadThe flaws of Precursors are, sadly, a result of mundane problems that we have seen so many times before: early deadlines, rushed development and lack of budget. The game's negative sides are therefore instantly noticeable. Deep Shadows evidently couldn't handle two very ambitious and demanding projects at the same time. When push came to shove, they chose Xenus II - a clearly more polished, better-looking, and more complete game of the two, even though Precursors was supposed to become the "ultimate hit". It is a great pity that we were left with a game that could have been much more; and it is also amazing that whatever we were left with is still so good.
It all can be summed up with a generic phrase: the game tries more than it could handle. It is obvious that a lot of content was cut out from the final release. The game's main story is very short, consisting mostly of traditional missions tied together into an annoying "perform small quests for people until you can finally advance the story" structure; a space opera could have benefited from a more developed, involving plot with characters that take an active part in it. The role-playing system was hastily copy-pasted from Xenus II and is too shallow for a game of such scope. Nothing was done to improve enemy AI. Most of the quests lack moral ambiguity and are as straightforward as they go. In short, every aspect of the game could have been given more attention, and each of them ultimately lacks depth. Precursors can only be enjoyed if you accept it for what it is and don't try to think about what it could have been.
It would be perhaps unfair to blame a small Ukrainian company for something that even the far more wealthy and powerful BioWare failed to achieve in its popular space saga; but the truth is that the world of Precursors is still much smaller than it was most probably supposed to be. Purely as a shooter or even as an RPG, it delivers vast, satisfying environments; but as a space simulator, it offers only a small fraction of the initially contained possibilities. There are dozens of planets, but you can explore only seven of them; once you gain your spaceship, only four are instantly accessible. The game world also disappointingly lacks urban areas; there are only a few settlements, and none big enough to be considered a real city.
To this you'll have to add many minor annoyances that unfortunately keep popping up no matter where you are or what you do. Among those are occasional weird bugs, incessant repetitive enemy cries, disappointingly empty and small indoor areas, and of course the embarrassing character graphics. I love games developed in ex-Soviet countries, but I'm yet to encounter one where 3D character models didn't evoke in me unpleasant feelings. Precursors beats all records here: key plot figures and random vegetable sellers are twin brothers; a supposedly twelve-year-old boy looks (and talks) like a post-graduate psychopath; and you can forget about flirting with female characters, because there appear to be only three or four of them, albeit conveniently cloned and distributed evenly throughout known space.