There Arent Many games slated for release in 2009 that are as ambitious as Gas Powered Games' Demigod, and certainly not many with as much to prove. The company's last game, Space Siege, was beloved by some, loathed by others. GPG has quite a bit of work to do in order to recover some of its lost fans.
For what it's worth, Demigod is based on Defense of the Ancients - an old mod for Blizzard's Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne - and will attempt to fuse elements of the action, RPG and RTS genres together into one gargantuan lump of a game. Using heroes to either overpower the enemy with their own mighty abilities or raise a force of smaller units and command them in battle will be key to victory.
One of the most striking things about the game is the visual style. Consider the character called 'The Rook', who is basically a walking castle (it's like chess, innit). Each hero (the titular demigods) has a range of different powers with which to wage war on his enemies. The combat itself is set to be visually spectacular, with a 'strategic zoom' feature that can take you right into the heart of the action.
Perhaps the most important element of the game will be how well the persistent online world performs. Signs are promising - players will pick one of the demigod characters and their battles go some way to helping the overall cause of that faction. You won't just be fighting for yourself, but for every other player who happens to have chosen the same character as yourself.
As is the fashion in these materialistic times, an achievement system will also be built into the game, so you can see just how well you've been doing. As you play, your character will be able to earn and pick up new items, while developing new abilities. It all sounds weighty and intriguing, especially those persistent online conflicts. We're just hoping the game does the concept justice when it finally emerges early next year.
As Time Rolls on, we see a large number of old concepts rehashed into piss-poor new games. This makes Demigod an anomaly. Rather than being based on a previous hit, the wealth of its ideas come straight from the WarCraft III mod, Defense of the Ancients. In both, you control a main unit (in this case a demigod) that has special powers, gains levels, and controls a smaller group of minions that do its bidding, much like an RTS. Your demigod is where things differ from your average dicky war-maker. As the games progress - they last anywhere between 15 and 60 minutes -your pseudo-diety gains experience and adds skills to a tree of different abilities and upgrades. You can equip him (or her) with armour, weapons and trinkets that add different effects, like life-stealing or electrocution, to your weapons.
Easy To Be A God
Now, if this all seems rather confusing, that's because it is - Demigod is an utterly bizarre and bewildering experience at first. You have to learn to play the game half like an RTS - ordering units, capturing defensive structures, and attacking buildings - and half like an RPG. You'll be buying items, healing allies, leveling up and tapping hotkeys to slam through hordes of smaller enemies and other demigods.
At first you'll find yourself-frustratingly creamed against the cobblestones by more experienced players as you try to learn the ropes. Online gameplay is brutal - especially given how many players have developed their skills in Defense of the Ancients.
God-like tacticians will flank your demigod, levelling faster than you can imagine and killing you before you can blink. The good news is that Demigod has its own single-player campaign, and allows you to play RTS-esque Al-only skirmishes to learn the ropes. That, and death isn't terribly penalised in most games, losing you a bit of experience and 25 seconds of your life.
Once you have the guts to battle against real people, you can venture online and enter the Pantheon (see 'The Pantheon'), which was still somewhat work-i-progress during our hands-on, but for the most part succeeded in creating good match-ups. Sadly, Demigod suffers in the same way other team-oriented online games do a shit group makes for frustrating play. That, and the current Pantheon only matches you at random, making it hard to build a reliable team.
The upshot is that a good match of Demigod is astoundingly addictive and tense. Conquest (destroy their citadel), Dominate (Dawn of War-sty le mapconquering), Dominate (demigod deathmatch) and Fortress (destroy their towers, walls and forts) games rely on remarkably different tactics, and a true battle of wits can be painfully enjoyable. As much as a dumb-arse can ruin your experience, teaming up with better players makes Demigod addictive. A well-timed bait-and-switch operation that lets you take the flag by the enemy's artifact shop is up there with a perfect headshot.
The demigods themselves are varied enough to cater for most play styles without overwhelming you with choice. That, and you're able to play as a gigantic walking castle that can install archers and lasers on its shoulders. The beauty of Demigod is how each demigod handles and levels up. The game has the well-tuned customisation of an RPG without the persistence, and the tight tuning and epic action of the first Dawn of War. Centring the experience on at most four units makes for a deep experience, while choosing the different parts of the skill tree before each match feels like Counter-Strike.
Demigod has all the makings of an online masterpiece. Getting the hang of things takes a fair few games, but once you're comfortable with one particular demigod, the experience becomes more about the tactical choice of skills, items and controlling the map. The game relies on and rewards you for using many different gaming skills, and graphically produces some epic and satisfying moments - beating Defense of the Ancients dated look.
The question now is whether people are willing to deal with Stardock's somewhat awkward Impulse service, and whether the Pantheon mode will become any more robust.
Tuning To Go
This hands-on was on the game's beta servers, and the Pantheon tournaments were in need of tweaking - both in balance and matchmaking. Necessary additions like friends lists and grouping are currently somewhat wonky, and without them working in top form, the final product could feel incomplete.
Ultimately, the core of Demigod is fantastic with a very, very promising multiplayer side. Whether or not Gas Powered Games learn some of the valuable lessons taught by online gaming on both consoles and PCs remains to be seen.
One big, unhappy family
Demigods Pantheon is a gigantic online tournament, theoretically played by thousands, with each side vying to score points through kills (both minions and demigods), captures and wins.
Clans form and battle other top-ranked bozos on either side, and the war is pushed in favour of the forces of Light or Darkness. You choose a side, which stays with your account, and every battle adds a persistent total to your personal history and for the war effort. Each side pushes towards a point goal that, when reached, crowns them the winner of the tournament.
This is a devious way of convincing people to constantly play, if only to know that they've pushed their side to victory again and again over their enemies. The only issue could be the balance of the side, with more players (as it was in the beta) playing for the fancy-dancing Light side as opposed to the moody, bearded and dark-armoured Darkness.
Gas Powered Games and Impulse have pledged to work out the intricacies of the system's balance, so we'll wait and see what happens when Demigod goes live.
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features:Single game mode