Saturday, October 14, 2023

Shape Up Or Ship Out!

To continue the opening theme of these reviews, Ship of Heroes looks there or thereabouts the same in screenshots as it does when you're playing the game. That's to say, sometimes it looks rather impressive sometimes it looks terrible.

Even at its worst, the way SoH looks is well ahead of how it performs; performance is pretty awful all the time or at least it was for the two hours I played. The keys were often unresponsive, targetting was hit or miss at best and movement was janky throughout. It felt like an alpha build, which it may well be, although it seems to have been in development forever.

The first thing I had to do when I finally got in - loading times were extremely slow - was to fiddle with the mouse speed to stop myself from getting motion-sick from all the lurching and yawing. That settled everything down but it meant that every time I wanted to swing the camera round to get a screenshot of my character from the front it felt like dragging a mule. 

Say Hello to Fireclaw. I asked Bard for some names for a superhero with fire and feline powers. That was on the list. It wasn't taken. Can't be many people playing.

For once, the issues certainly weren't down to my system. With my new graphics card I was getting well over 100fps the whole time.There was a little internet latency now and then but mostly it just felt like the game was very poorly optimized.

This is pretty much what I wear to work.
Minus the mask and gloves...

Ironically, the whole thing feels like something from the era it seeks to replicate, only not in the way the developers or the players would like. City of Heroes came out in 2004. I was in the beta and I remember it fairly well. It played a lot more smoothly than this. More importantly, so does the emulator version of CoH you can play right now. 

I guess the main incentive be to play this instead would be to satisfy a perceived sense of legitimacy some feel emulators lack. Or just for the novelty, of course.

One thing that definitely doesn't feel like twenty years ago are the seemingly AI-voiced NPCs. At least I hope that's an AI speaking, given the line readings. It might actually work quite well if the NPCs in question were robots but sadly they're not. 

Add to all of that the generic missions and general flat-footedness of the combat and you might wonder just why I played for as long as I did. Two hours is a long time to spend in a bad game.

The thing is, Ship of Heroes doesn't really feel like a bad game. It feels like a pretty decent game struggling with a lot of technical issues that could probably be fixed quite quickly with a little more money. 

Everything has the feel of having been done on the cheap with the very notable exception of what I'm going to call the detailing. Character creation, for example, always a prime concern of super-hero games, seems to have received a great deal of care and attention. 

True, the costume options aren't that visually impressive or sophisticated but there are plenty to choose from. I didn't have much trouble finding several I liked. As for the faces, the options there are really pretty good. Above average, I'd say.  

I'm sure I had the hair less pink in Character Creation.  Also, isn't that the Teen Titans?

I was able to make a character I was very happy with and I barely even touched half the sliders. Everything seemed very well-integrated and intuitive, which isn't always the case with these things. Having a character I feel a real connection with goes a long way to making me overlook other flaws in a game and that contributed strongly to my spending as much time with the demo as I did.

There were two more contributory factors that kept me playing longer than I expected. One was the curious setting; the other was the even more curious obsession with quotidian detail.

Taking the second first, you'd expect a high level of care and effort to go into character creation in a superhero game but you certainly wouldn't expect the bizarre attention to detail the art department appear to have lavished on the basic environment. When I say "basic" I really mean it, too - the offices, canteens, interview suites, waiting rooms and warehouses, all those corridors and rooms you pass through to get to wherever the action is. The liminal spaces of the virtual world.

Yeah, that's about as much use as the in-game map...

Because I couldn't find any mission markers half the time and because the map is barely functional, I spent a good deal of my two hours wandering around corridors and large, open-plan offices, trying to find specific NPCs or locations. As I was doing it, I found myself looking more and more closely at the fixtures and furnishings. 

There are all kinds of maps and pictures on the walls, many of them worth more than a moment's study. There are vid-screens and vending machines and security devices and all kinds of kipple. The real jaw-droppers, though, are the desks. There are dozens of them, every one dressed as though for a stage performance; marker pens lined up neatly on blotters, framed photographs of children, plants, drinks, reports, books; all the detritus of office life is there. 

I checked half a dozen up close. Every one was completely different. Other than the programs open on the various laptops, some of which duplicated, I never saw the same set-up twice. Every desk genuinely looked like it reflected the personality of an individual.

I'm just gonna leave Marty a Post-It about the 3.30 meeting...

The realism recurred in every room I visited. The whole place looked ridiculously functional and lived-in. What the justification for this replication of 21st century reality might be in a superhero MMORPG set on a spaceship in the far future is beyond me. It just felt like someone had a really, realy good time dressing the sets.

It was only when I stopped to wonder why a generation starship would have dozens and dozens of battered, worn, 20th century wooden office desks that I began to doubt not just the commitment but the sanity of whoever designed this thing. And that brings me to my second reason for thinking this is a game I might want to play some day; the lore.

I know nothing about the backstory behind the titular Ship but I'm very sure it has one. The whole game reeks of Lore with a capital L. Structural heirarchy and societal pressures are clearly to the fore of the writers' minds, even in the tutorial stages. Life on the Ship of Heroes is evidently both complex and fraught with contradictions.

There are "Heroes" in administrative positions aboard the spaceship; there's some kind of insurrection or war going on between factions; there are even freakin' mages in the mix, somehow, and they have a school, or at least a classroom. What is this? Harry Potter in Space?

None of this makes any sense!

As a player, you start on the Hero team but even the first couple of introductory missions sow seeds of doubt as to the righteousness of that cause and the veracity of the Heroes sending you out to murder and steal from the other factions. Anyone who knows anything about generation starships knows that they almost always end with everyone going insane and trying to kill each other. I'm guessing that's already begun.

Or maybe I'm just reading too much into some not very well thought-out quest dialog. I hope not. Also, if we're talking "generation starship" here, how come there's planetary trading going on? There definitely is because it comes up in a loading screen tip. I mean, if they've reached habitable planet they can visit and trade with, shouldn't the mission be over?

I imagine I could go to the website and read up on the answers and explanations for all of this but it's much more fun to speculate. Certainly much more fun than grinding through missions that require you to kill seventeen of one kind of generic enemy, fifteen of another, half a dozen each of several more, then find and eliminate three sub-bosses and destroy several different kinds of equipment and supplies.

So it's okay to just kill them, then. I get it! I mean, they'd do it to us, right?

I'm making up the numbers but they're near enough. I was on my third or fourth mission like that when Beryl bounced in and demanded I go play "tiger" with her. Throwing a battered, stuffed toy across the hall was more appealing than carrying on so I stopped. I figured I'd pick up later where I'd left off but when I logged back in it transpired that missions reset even if you camp out inside them. 

There was no way I was going to start over - I'd nearly finished the damn thing - so that was the end of my time with the demo for Ship of Heroes. For all its many flaws, I quite enjoyed it. If and when it reaches some kind of always-up, no-more-wipes state - open beta or Early Access, let's say - I might be willing to give it an extended run - if they fix the most egregious of the technical issues, that is.

At the current pace of development, though, it could be years before that happens. If it ever does.


  1. I only lasted an hour, myself. Whoof.

    1. For the time it's been in development it is kinda rough...


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