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Savage 2: A Tortured Soul (PC) artwork

Savage 2: A Tortured Soul (PC) review

"Savage 2: A Tortured Soul is a game that defies, complicates, and undermines the process of game categorization altogether. It belongs to a hybrid genre that can tentatively be called Competitive Real-Time Strategy Role-Playing Action, a genre with only three games, one of which is its ultimately superior predecessor. "

Savage 2: A Tortured Soul is a game that defies, complicates, and undermines the process of game categorization altogether. It belongs to a hybrid genre that can tentatively be called Competitive Real-Time Strategy Role-Playing Action, a genre with only three games, one of which is its ultimately superior predecessor.

That predecessor was Savage: The Battle for Newerth, a game that attempted to meld real-time strategy with third-person action and first-person shooting. Set in a fantastical post-apocalyptic future eons from now, it pitted the survivors of the human race, known as the Legion of Man, against a race of humanoid beasts, known as the Beast Horde, in a war for survival and world domination. This mythical war was expressed in playable terms as real-time strategy battles, with many of the characteristic features of that genre: building construction, resource harvest, technological advancement, and the ultimate goal of enemy base destruction. It departed from real-time strategy conventions markedly by making each commander's army controlled not by artificial intelligence, but rather by other human players, who fielded units and purchased equipment at cost.

This highly experimental blend proved extremely problematic and created contingencies that most game developers and game players had never encountered before. Races were dramatically unbalanced as a result of trying to offer the diversity of an actual RTS. The Horde's race-exclusive ability to leap gave them superior mobility and early-game map control, a fact that was severely overcompensated for by the Legion's overwhelming firepower, durability and battlefield recall. Since constructable spawn points replaced unit production facilities, advancing became virtually impossible once resources were exhausted, resulting in regular stalemates and votes to declare draws. The desired effectiveness and value of defensive buildings was vague; lone towers could be destroyed by single players, but large clusters bordered on indestructible. Building arrangement could be exploited in unforeseen ways to make bases especially difficult to destroy. Identical units performed at dramatically different levels.

In spite of everything it had going against it, Savage 1 was still ultimately a great game, but not as a truly successful marriage of action and real-time strategy. Instead, it was the engrossing combat, and particularly the fast and deceptively challenging melee system, that won players over and gave the game its staying power.

As the third game of its kind, Savage 2's development was a harder and more confused process than that of any ordinary game, because there are no established standards on how to make a game like this actually work. Instead of mere polish and execution, it demanded conceptual reorganization and rectification of the original's functional complications of genre hybridization. Virtually every aspect of the game has been redesigned, except for the mechanical premise of action-RTS hybrid and the story premise of beast vs. man.

Among the first and most important changes is the switch to a different resource model, one more appropriate for the hybrid genre. The Starcraft model of active worker harvest has been replaced with the Total Annihilation model of passive income via extractive buildings. There is now only one type of resource (gold) instead of two, and there are now mechanisms to permit the reciprocal flow of resources between the commander and field players. The new system is part of a general trend to emphasize field players' roles as combatants by shifting their duties away from menial labor. (A builder class exists for both races, but it is now the only unit capable of assisting with labor, and it can only build but not harvest.)

The new resource model also has other features that benefit the flow of the game. Gold is technically unlimited since it is also acquired from player bounties, which can be donated to the commander, who can continue to build structures when a given map's gold mines are exhausted or when they are inaccessible. Each team must now also meet upkeep - that is, they must be harvesting gold at any given point, or their buildings will be in a state of heightened vulnerability. Finally, when resources have been exhausted entirely, the game will enter sudden death, in which both teams' upkeeps are unmet and building repair has also been disabled. These last two features in particular help to prevent games from lasting inordinately long periods of time with no apparent end in sight.

One of the game's most notable and obvious changes is the addition of the Hellbourne. Instead of being a separate playable team however, this entirely new race is accessible to both the Legion and the Horde by building a sacrificial shrine on top of a scar on the earth. Purchased by sacrificing the souls of slain enemies, these ghastly creatures represent the game's pinnacle of visual design and wreak absolute havoc on the battlefield. The most powerful of them is the Malphas, a thirty-foot tall Balrog that causes the sky to rain black ash when present. Gaining access to Hellbourne units can often be the game-winning play, and combined with the resource feature of upkeep, they provide the game with effective stalemate-breakers that the original never had.

Unfortunately, while Savage 2's redesign went in the right directions in some respects, it was also misguided in others. The original Savage had a system in which players used both melee weapons, such as axes, swords and claws, and ranged weapons. To emphasize melee, ranged weapons were relatively weak and ammunition for them was limited, but they still provided an effective complement that made for an integrated system that forced players to rely on both. In Savage 2, the relative effectiveness of ranged to melee is no different, but the emphasis has changed by making both much less effective in absolute terms. Ranged weaponry has been sent into relative uselessness, to the extent that it no longer even makes much sense to classify Savage 2 as a first-person shooter.

This change in emphasis has several negative effects. The most annoying effect is that it results in people constantly running away from fights when near death or when they simply feel outmatched. In a game that involves both swords and guns, the logical thing to do when someone runs away from a sword fight is to shoot them. In Savage 2 this is not even really a viable option because ranged weapons barely tickle opponents. It also makes for a simpler, less exciting, and less intense overall combat system. Skills that were necessary for Savage 1, particularly precision aiming, have been rendered practically obsolete. Even when someone starts shooting you, there is little need to panic. Ignoring the skill demands, the new system emphasizes one part at the expense of the near complete de-emphasis of the other, whereas in the original the two had been integrated.

This new, near-exclusive emphasis on melee is particularly misguided because Savage 1's melee system was its single best asset, and it has been replaced with an entirely new, horribly inferior system. Previously, the Legion had the race-exclusive ability to block and counter attacks, while the Horde had the race-exclusive ability to leap around the block. Block has been universalized but no longer includes the ability to counter-attack; leap has been replaced with a universal charge that isn't nearly as useful for the purpose of getting around the block. Reportedly, previous versions of Savage 2 actually employed a Rock-Paper-Scissors melee system, in which quick attacks could be blocked, blocks could be broken by heavy attacks, and heavy attacks could be outprioritized by quick attacks. The game has since been revised to only include the Rock and the Scissors, leaving a stupid, unproductive system with no real internal logic. Often the best idea is to simply stay in larger groups and gangbang hopefully smaller enemy forces. Other than that, strategies for winning close-quarters primarily involve activating a particular unit's RPG-like skills to alter battlefield conditions and confer statistical advantages.

The inclusion of RPG elements, often the least significant of the genres represented in this hybrid, has also finally become too invasive. The effects of gaining experience, leveling up, and improving stats are a whole lot more pronounced than in the past, but the worst feature of this nature is the addition of statistic-boosting relics that must be bought with real money. These can be customized in a number of ways, but the most popular combination involves an increase to health, health regeneration, and attack power. Each item boosts each stat by 15%, and two of them can be stacked for a total increase of 32% to all three stats. On principle this is a bad idea for what is supposed to be a competitive, skill-intensive game, and it's a nice scam for the developers to make a little extra money on what was otherwise a non-lucrative game by preying on some people's desires to get whatever edge they can. Players who are not willing to spend the extra ten dollars are forced to play the game at a severe statistical advantage against those who are.

Savage 2 has done a better job than the original game of making this genre actually work. The Real-Time Strategy side of the game works better, and battles are more likely to be seen through to their conclusions in relatively reasonable periods of time. In the process however, it has robbed the original of its vigor and intensity, and this new product is much less worth playing in the first place.

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Community review by radicaldreamer (February 27, 2010)

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