Videogames are great in that they offer us a chance to be all kinds of things in the virtual world that we could never possibly achieve in the real one. Through games we get to become powerful warlocks, deadly assassins, and sometimes even Jesus Christ. The boundaries of such facilitated imagination are almost limitless, so it came as no surprise when I heard all the chatter surrounding Red Level Games’ new action-RPG project, Dragon. The small studio has taken it upon itself to put each of us inside the body of a dragon to answer the question; what would you do as an all-powerful, flying lizard?
Well it turns out the first thing I wanted to do as a dragon was burn stuff, which I probably should have seen coming. After wrestling with the flight controls (oh don’t worry, we’ll get to you in a moment), I finally achieved enough lift to hurl my dragon towards the pixelated outline of what could either be a village or a series of haphazardly arranged cardboard boxes. Swooping down with about as much control as a caffeine addict performing heart surgery, I managed to light the roofs of a few buildings ablaze with the fluffy particle effects of my awesome breath. When I came down from the inevitable high of finally fulfilling one of my childhood dreams (being a dragon, not an arsonist), the critic deep inside me reared its ugly head, leading me to the conclusion that this game runs rougher than skintight jogging shorts made of sandpaper and pumice.
Despite having selected both the ‘Fantastic’ and ‘Fastest’ graphical settings on separate plays, it seemed like the game refused to render any part of the map that was more than a hundred feet from me at any given time. I can understand this being an issue in larger sandbox worlds, but the only map available was about the size of my backyard, so I’m not quite sure what the problem was. The copy-paste stone and grass graphics certainly couldn’t be taxing the system too badly, and flying too fast for the game to draw the map out didn’t seem like a viable excuse either. It felt like I was flying around in a brown-tinted haze, waiting for the odd mountain or tree to appear out of thin air and hit me in the face.
Speaking of flying, I want you to look back on your gaming history and think of the hardest, most unruly flying system you’ve ever encountered, whether it’s Battlefield, Superman 64, or something I’m too lazy to think of. Take that, put a blindfold on, and then try to use the controller with your elbows, and you basically have the flying mechanism used in Dragon. While moving forward is easy enough, straight lift is cumbersome, banking is like trying to drift a Panzer IV in a parking garage, and hovering is nonexistent. It also doesn’t help that the camera is twitchier than someone with Lou Gehrig’s disease, either forcing you to stare at the dragon’s stomach or ninety degrees in the opposite direction. Try this, next time you have the chance to operate a small aircraft, and let me know how important good visuals are to proper aviation.
The game flies (or doesn’t, in this case) under the flag of the RPG genre, meaning that at some point my dragon sure as hell better level up somehow. Our first glimpse of this is in the custom dragon-making screen. Apart from being able to change the color and size of your dragon, you’re also regaled with a list of stats and perks. All of this, however, didn’t mean a damn thing. Neither did health or stamina, for that matter. At one point I came across what I think was a troll, and out of curiosity, I landed down beside him and let him bash me a couple times. When I realized that my health bar was going nowhere, I quickly got bored and immolated him in holy fire. The same thing happened with the only population of villagers I found. No one could hurt me, and the people I killed dropped things that I couldn’t pick up, instantly taking the point out of fighting altogether.
Among the laundry list of features the game boasted, which I’ll cover in a bit, one of the major selling points was the open world multiplayer mode. I had to coerce one of the other writers on staff to join me (people have this weird thing where they don’t like me), but I may as well have told him to go take a nap for all the good it did. In about 20 minutes of scouring the map, I thought I saw his choppy outline once, streaking across the sky in short bursts. Coordinating any kind of fly-by to torch the nearest settlement was a laughable endeavor at that point. In fact, the only thing that even remotely worked was the chat box, which was soon filled with obscenities I dare not write out here.
While I could go into greater detail with all the gripes I have from playing, a quick look at the Steam page tells me that Red Level Games’ dance card is a little too full for them to take notice of my complaints. Aside from the seven or eight bold messages reminding players that the game is early access so don’t expect much but buy it anyways because come on, guys, the store page boasts a long list of future features to anticipate, including quests, random world generation, actual sound (so the game isn’t so…Helen Keller), new dragons and magic, and even mod/controller support. Is it just me, or did these guys bite off a bit more than they can chew, or rather, did they just try and swallow the whole dinner plate?
Dragon is one of those Early Access games that probably needed a bit more time in the oven before being pushed out into the cold, hard world of the open market. When the dragon-themed GTA you envisioned turns into a mute lesson on physics and abstract painting, the regular asking price of $17.99 seems a little too steep. While the developers promise a boatload of features that would surely drag me in and never let go, I just don’t see it happening soon, if at all, based on the unfinished product they deemed worthy of public release. The project is something to keep an eye on, surely, but I would advise the lot of you to wait for a build that’s truly worth spending money on, if for nothing else than to remind developers that they still have to work for it.