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Review by Rich Pizor
Reality Bytes has had an interesting struggle for identity over the course of their game designing career. Their first title, Sensory Overload, came when Doom was the #1 selling game in the history ofwell, of anything, really, and the Mac was starved for first-person 3D shooters. (Yes, there was a time, and it wasn't that long ago.) Sensory Overload was the first 3D shooter on the Mac to try for a reality-based scenario; the enemies were digitized photos of human actors, the levels were set in office corridors and subway terminals, and the music was modern and upbeat.
The game's reception was less than overwhelming, but this isn't terribly surprising. Rather than try to create a new game, Reality Bytes had pulled elements from several other titles (the real-time aspect of Ultima Underworld, the theme of Doom, and so on) and blended them together with a few unique touches, such as the item finder that aided players in the discovery of (much-needed) powerups.
Their second effort, Havoc, revealed how creative they could truly be when working on an original title. Havoc, a game of vehicular combat, raised the bar for multiplayer gaming. It was the first Mac title to take advantage of QuickDraw 3D acceleration, and it was one of the first multiplay title available on the Mac or anywhere else to support 2 players right out of the box. The lesson was clear: Reality Bytes does best when innovating, rather than when conglomerating.
Unfortunately, while still compelling in its own right, Dark Vengeance offers little to no evidence that this lesson has been learned. What tries to be an innovative new entry into the realm of 3D gaming feels like a cross between Tomb Raider, The Untouchable, and Hexan wrapped up with a new custom interface.
The back story is fairly standard stuff for fantasy themed games; an evil empire long taken for dead has arisen and it's up to you to single-handedly save The World As We Know It. However, to somewhat differentiate DV from every other fantasy game since the dawn of silicon, the three characters in DV are each given personal motivations for wreaking havoc on the Kingdom of the Dark Elves; this battle is not fought out of any sense of heroism or altruism, but because there is a score to settle. The motivations differ as radically as the combat styles for each character, and the 18 levels are divided so that each character runs the game at a different pace, with a few levels being specific to each character. The archtypical Warrior and Warlock join us, as does a new character, the Trickster, a jack of all trades and master of none.
The game's approach to combat is the only really unique point, and while a little rough around the edges it shows promise. Rather than simply running, jumping, and shooting like some relic-hunting heroines we won't mention, the characters in DV have a wide variety of moves. These are executed through a surprisingly small number of keys by judicious use of chording (combining 2 or more keys to achieve one function) and while it keeps the number of keys to keep track of surprisingly low, it does make executing a series of moves more difficult. This combines with a lack of InputSprocket support (and in this day and age, there is little to no excuse for that) to make setting up joysticks nearly impossible.
DV's combat focus is on hand-to-hand fighting. Swinging a weapon draws a swath of color on the screen that indicates the arc of your weapon; a yellow swath indicates a miss, the red a hit. This emphasis, however, creates an unfair bias in character selection; because the Warrior not only takes the most punishment before toppling but deals the most in combat he becomes the obvious choice, and is highly recommended for new players. The Warlock is next because he is the only character to begin the game with a missile weapon; the best way to avoid taking damage is to stay out of your opponents' strike range, and this more than compensates for the fact that he has the lowest life total of the three. But the Trickster not only has the smallest initial weapon (and, by extension, the smallest area of attack), she also feels the hits of the Dark Elves the hardest, making combat with her a drawn out dance that requires copious use of the game's dodge controls and very, very careful timing of commands - stack up too many attacks and dodging becomes impossible. Unfortunate, given that of the three, the Trickster has the most compelling personality.
The game's appearance and presentation highlight at the same time some of it's greatest strengths and weaknesses. The graphics are very well done; the game has a very dark ambiance that is unlike anything else in the current crop of titles, with menacing music (albeit MIDI, rather than CD audio) that underscores it quite well. The fire and smoke effects are also some of the best in any title to date, rivaling even the ultra-realism of Unreal. Alas, if only as much attention had been paid to the levels' geometry. Periodically characters will walk right through closed doors (don't let them close on you, though - that will earn you an instant and unforgiving death sentence) or fall through invisible cracks in the floor and plunge into a bottomless pit of inky darkness from which there is no escape but to abort the game.
Like all 3D games of late, DV features a multiplayer mode. While we didn't get a chance to test this, the specs look impressive; the game supports up to 32 players in one deathmatch or flag capture game, with up to another 32 simply serving as spectators. Network play is only supported over the Internet, but you can elect to simply search for available servers if you don't know a specific IP address. Sadly, Reality Bytes forgot the lessons leared with Havoc; you can only do net play if each player has a full registered version of the game, flying in the face of such examples as Marathon, WarCraft, Myth, and Reality Bytes' own Havoc, which feature installations to allow two or three people to play netgames with only one license.
Overall, Dark Vengeance simply feels like it was released a little too early. A little bit of time and testing would have cleared up the problems with "holes" in the levels; the addition of a CD audio score would have improved the music quality a thousand fold; the inclusion of a network client would have increased the overall value enormously. As it stands Dark Vengeance is still an interesting title, but the rough spots prevent it from being the truly world-class title Reality Bytes was hoping for -and the level designers are just as stingy with powerups and health as they were with Sensory Overload all those years ago. Certainly worthy of consideration, but be sure to give this one a test drive.