Harbinger Review

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Publisher: DreamCatcher Interactive
Developer: Silverback Entertainment

Platform: PC
Reviewed on PC
Windows System Requirements: Pentium III 500 MHz, 128 MB RAM, 3D video card, 650 MB HD space, 4x CD ROM

The Harbinger is a massive slave ship that wanders the galaxy in search of worlds to exploit. A labrynthine agglomeration of metal and technology, linked by teleportation devices called umbilicals, the Harbinger is home to entire species and ecosystems within the confines of its hull. Humans may be the Harbinger's oldest residents, dating back to the ships humble origin as a census vessel, but the Vantir are the dominant force on the ship thanks to the Overlord and his vicious Silverbacks – powerful gorilla-like machines of war. The Vantir are complex, self-organizing colonies of simple organisms, that bind themselves into bipedal power armor to dominate the Harbinger.

The Vantir control the Harbinger militarily, and constructed a monetary system, an entity called the Ontis Corporation, to dominate Harbinger's makeshift economy. They even bind sentient beings into war machines called Gladiators for their own entertainment. This horrid oppression has led some of the residents of Harbinger to form raider communities that steal what they need, camping out in junctions lost to the Vantir. For all their cruelty and technological acumen, The Vantir lack direction or a culture of their own. Through this weakness, the Overlord exploits the Vantir to do his own will. Now, Harbinger has arrived at Aegis 9, another planet to be harvested. The Overlord has unleashed the insectoid Cimicidae to soften up the world while the Vantir gather resources to expand the Harbinger further. All this while, the Overlord is unaware of the disaffection in Torvus Junction, a small raider community that signals the approach of Harbinger's own doom.

Kyle Ackerman

Harbinger is a straightforward action game, with a few role-playing game elements, that cries out to be compared to the Diablo series. The comparison is so obvious, that the very back of the box describes Harbinger as "It's Diablo... in space!" On a basic level, the similarities, particularly to the first Diablo game, are obvious. Mostly, you kill things. You kill things by clicking a lot. You gather items to improve your armor and armaments while leveling and increasing your abilities. The inventory interface is a science-fiction themed dead ringer for its swords & sorcery counterpart. All of that is meant in the best possible sense. Simple, entertaining, click-happy play is much of what made Diablo so successful.

There is no randomization to the areas of Harbinger, and while there are multiple characters, they don't have the depth of character development Diablo fans might expect. That said, the best choice DreamCatcher made on this title was to offer it for $30. At that price, there is more than enough entertainment value to recommend Harbinger.

Whichever character you choose – Human, Gladiator or Culibine – you start off doing minor errands for the residents of Torvus Junction, and ultimately bring havoc to the ship and face off with the ultimate baddie on board – the Overlord himself. Gladiators are cybernetic fighting machines run by the transplanted minds of sentient beings. The Culibine is the last of three notionally female constructs with the ability to manipulate raw energy, and Humans are just considered good luck to befriend. The game isn't entirely linear. You do progress through most areas in a fixed order, but you have the occasional choice between two missions. Also, each of the characters has side missions unique to that character, such that the play experience does differ depending on your choice of avatar.

The scenery and setting are decent. While evocative of a massive, decaying and largely featureless space hulk, much of the art is plain, and clearly comprised of an oft-repeated tileset. There are occasional levels on the planet or in the Cimicidae hive, but mostly there is featureless metal. The journeyman-like nature of the art is only disappointing when compared to some of the areas that received individual attention. Those areas, such as Smiley's chamber, the dissected purple creature you can see in the screenshots, or Wik's den (where he sits in sloth, languidly changing channels) are impressively detailed. The rest is very generic. The foes, on the other hand, are varied and detailed. They range from slender Scintilla with enormous shoulder cannons to the vicious cybernetic gorilla Silverbacks to tiny Biters with enormous teeth.

Each of the enemies is typically vulnerable to a specific type of energy or melee attack. The need to manage your inventory to make sure you have the right type of energy (such as electricity or EMP) or melee attack (such as corrosion or nerve toxin) to deal with a particular foe lends some urgency to the usual hunt for fancier equipment. Plasma bolts work adequately on most anything, but almost any creature can be slain in just a few shots with the right ammunition, and will be nearly impossible to kill with the wrong weapon. Each character uses different equipment, but all of it can be modified by adding chips, allowing the weapons to be customized and improved. It's particularly nice that the Culibine's gauntlet weapons are modified using chips that look like finger rings.

Most of the variety in the game comes from the three playable characters. All three have a simple ranged attack and a life statistic that governs their ability to take damage. The Human and Gladiator have a basic melee attack while the Culibine has a radial attack that explodes in a circle around her with the same sort of energy as her ordinary attacks. The big difference is in the fourth skill for each character. The human uses mines of various sorts, while the Gladiator can use cameras that may explode, or have mortars and blasters attached. The Culibine can use up to six Amplifiers, objects that use her energy to attack or defend foes independently.

The character classes shouldn't be thought of as carefully balanced alternatives with multiple specializations in the Diablo sense. There is no multiplayer, so there is no reason to expect the characters to be balanced – some are more powerful than others. Also, while you put points into each skill as your character levels, you can easily max two of the four skills with plenty of points left over for the other two, so there is no reason to dwell overmuch on how you spend the points. The Humans' mines are difficult to use, and it's not entirely clear which types of enemies should set off different types of mines. That weakness is more than offset by the augmenting drugs the Human can use. While all characters have healing items, the human has a regenerating drug that regenerates so fast you may never need to use another health item.

The Gladiator is similar to the human but his cameras are a lot of fun to use. He's still vulnerable while operating cameras, but cameras such as the mortar camera offer different attacks that are almost like having another character. For both Human and Gladiator, ranged attacks seem very powerful, making much of the game a shoot and dodge proposition. Melee is only effective as you acquire robust armor and a high melee skill. The Culibine is the hardest of all to play. The delay before her first shot makes her ranged skill difficult to use against multiple opponents, and her radial skill requires her to be near the danger she should be fleeing. Her amplifiers are her most entertaining skill, as they fly about with their own will, attacking her enemies seemingly of their own volition. Weapon choice can be thought of as a difficulty selection. Melee is hard, ranged is easy, and the special skills are for extra entertainment. For all Harbinger's similarities to Diablo, the developers seemed to have learned some lessons while ignoring others. There is an infinitely large storage space at the home base. The Gladiator has a much larger inventory, but also uses much larger items, giving other characters less incentive to keep Gladiator items. At the same time, the inventory desperately needs an auto-arrange button. The map is functional and often necessary, but appears over the entire play area as a dark green overlay. Given that the game is usually dark, using the map often makes it difficult to see anything at all. It would be nice if there could be a smaller version of the map off to one side so it wouldn't interfere with play. Money is plentiful, but purchased items are rarely better than what you can find, so there's not much incentive to carefully cull your inventory in the field.

There are also a few unfortunate bugs. The game tries to reinstall every time you insert the disc, and the Human character will lock up the game if he tries to lay mines while holding down the left mouse button to run. It's also noticeable in the dialog. Sometimes you'll return with a quest item, and after turning it over you'll get the dialog intended for when you failed to find the item you just handed over. The voice acting isn't perfect either, with consecutive lines often sounding as if they were recorded independently.

Even given its problems, there is a lot to enjoy in Harbinger. With the exception of a few bugs, the imperfections in Harbinger are a lot like the opening cinematic – slightly misplaced. It's strange to begin a game so action-packed with a sequence of a morbidly obese alien, stoned out of his mind on narcotics, eating slugs. Harbinger's choices aren't wrong, it's just that there may have been better choices. Regardless of what the game might have accomplished, there's plenty of action/RPG fun to be had, and more than enough gameplay to justify the $30 price tag.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on March 30, 2003 10:18 PM.

Black & Bruised Review was the previous entry.

Shadowbane Review is the next entry.

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