Silverfall: Hands-on Preview
The Attack of the (Diablo) Clones
Genres, sub-genres, classifications ... we all are quick to decry labels because of their limiting nature. Once you tag something with a label, all of the attributes of that label begin to define that thing. This applies across all forms of entertainment - whether it's calling something a 'chick flick', 'smooth jazz', or a 'casual game'; once the term is associated with a product it has an uphill battle to establish an identity beyond the label.
The same happens all the time with games that are similar to an established standard: a 'clone'. This characterization has been around since the earliest arcade games, but since the release of Diablo in late 1996 every action-RPG has had to content with being labeled a 'Diablo clone'. What does it mean to be a 'Diablo clone'? Typically it means being a PC game in a high fantasy setting with a very limited story in which any and all events can only be solved through combat.
So IS Silverfall a Diablo clone? Yes ... and no. It certainly is an action-RPG with fantasy elements and a whole lot of combat. But it tries to take a different path than many 'by the numbers' Diablo clones, hoping that the more open world and skill system combined with the mixture of nature and technology will satisfy gamers looking for something different mixed in with loads of action.
So how do I look?
The game certainly looks different - it presents you with a mix of 3D graphics and a style that looks similar to cel-shading that gives it a very distinct look and sets it apart from other games in the genre. It is somewhat reminiscent of the shooter XIII, but with more detailed and realistic environments mixed in with the stylised characters. The music is suitably epic and environmental, but did not stand out in the same way as the novel visual style.
Silverfall tells the story of the aftermath of the destruction of a city. Silverfall was overrun by hordes of undead, and you are one of the survivors in a newly founded camp. You start as a blank slate, choosing gender, race, name and some appearance characteristics and then starting on your way. Of course, you will not be allowed to huddle around a campfire hoping not to get chewed up by a zombie - you are expected to jump straight into action!
There are a bunch of small quests available to pursue alongside the main quest as you talk to other survivors and refugees around the camp. These are assigned by people with exclamation marks over their heads as is typical for this type of game - and the range of quest types doesn't stray too far from normal action-RPG fare. You will take on so-called fetch quests, clear the area quests, rescue quests and escort quests. These are almost always 'single stage' quests - you complete the task and then return to get the reward. You will occasionally get a secondary quest, but there is not much in terms of hidden complexity. This isn't a bad thing because of one twist on the standard action-RPG genre - the game is pretty open in terms of areas of exploration. Where most games of this type - such as last year's fun Titan Quest - are fairly linear affairs, Silverfall lets you roam anywhere you want and kill everything in your path. Doing things this way won't get many quests completed but will gain you many levels and let you exercise your combat skills. When you have several active quests later on, it is nice to know that you can actually make some choices as to how to approach them and what order to carry them out - sometimes it is nice to have even a small feeling of freedom in a genre that often feels so tightly constrained.
That is one classy system!
You don't choose a class or other characteristics while creating your character - instead you shape your character by assigning skill points and attribute points as you gain levels. This system is similar to the ones used in games such as Sacred, where you allocate skill points in various parts of a tree structure - but this game doesn't ever force you to pick a path. This is a great feature - even though most players are likely to chose a single archetype such as make or fighter or archer to pursue. The depth of the skill system is another attraction - there are sub-paths within magic and fighting and 'other' skills that allow you to specialize and become a master of Air Magic, for example. Each rank assigned to a skill produces a real and measurable effect that you can carry immediately into battle.
Another twist on the standard action-RPG is that you will choose whether to support nature or technology - and there are skills and equipment that will only be available to you if you favor one path or the other. Quests open up for you depending on what path you take as well. Again, these are small details that give you a better sense of belonging to a living world in which your choices have consequences.
I knew I should have brought my bigger suitcase
The inventory system uses a standard 'paper doll' system, and clicking on an item in your backpack will show you the properties of that item as well as how it compares to your currently equipped item. This works smoothly and very quickly you depend on it to determine what to keep in your inventory. This is partly due to the thing I liked least - with a couple of items and skills it becomes very easy to gather uploads of valuable items quickly. This is great in terms of having great equipment at your disposal, but if you like to extract every gold piece and experience point from a game the way I do you will get frustrated with the need to keep going back and forth and selling off your excess items. I constantly wished I had a bigger inventory - but there are very few games in this genre where the inventory space is adequate.
My other concern was the controls. The majority of things are standard action-RPG: you left click to move or use your primary attack, right click for secondary attack. The problem is with the camera controls - they are mapped to the arrow keys and are not customizable, meaning that a right-handed player has their body shifted entirely to the right of the center of the screen. Since I played on a laptop this effect was exacerbated, but I hope that key configuration makes it to the final release. Something as simple as moving the camera to WASD would be a great addition.
Are you ready to take the (silver)fall?
Even in this preview version the game felt solid - I never had a crash, things like graphical errors and texture mismatch were rare, and overall performance was quite good. The map didn't quite line up, but again that is a minor complaint that will likely be sorted out before release - and pales in comparison to some of the whopper bugs in recently released games. The stuff that matters - combat, exploration, and the general look and feel of the world - are all solid and pleasing. I played for quite a few hours and the variety of the experience and quality of the gameplay shone through for the entire time. The publishers claim that the main quest will take about 25 hours, plus extra time for completists like me who need to find every chest and and kill every ghoul.
The question remains - is it all enough to help Silverfall make a name for itself beyond "this year's Diablo clone"? It has an uphill battle - the Titan Quest expansion is due out shortly before and there is a danger that it might eclipse this release. Hopefully the final version of the game clears up the issues mentioned and allows fans of the genre the rare opportunity to choose between two solid and very different games. Either way, Silverfall is shaping up to to be a stylish and fun experience and is one of the games I am most anticipating this spring.
Developer: Monte Cristo
SP/MP: Single + MP
Genre: Hack & Slash
Regions & platforms
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2006-11-21
· Publisher: Monte Cristo
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2007-03-21
· Publisher: Deep Silver
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2007-03-21
· Publisher: Atari