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Review by: Rob Beschizza
Published: April 5, 2003
For some of us, technology is science fiction’s biggest hook. Not the genre’s compulsory pabulum, like lasers, scanners and teleportation devices, but the big stuff – hardware of such immense scale that it constructs its own reality. Such worlds can be abstract, like Cyberspace or the Matrix, or they can be concrete, like the titular spaceship of Silverback Entertainment’s new action-RPG, Harbinger – a mammoth shell of metal floating through space, laden with a cargo of enslaved civilizations. Ruled over by an oppressive and ruthless overlord, this ship lumbers onward, laying waste to planet after planet, gorged with the gains of war even as it crumbles under the weight of its own age.
You play one of three characters recently escaped from slavery, hiding out somewhere amid its countless decks, foundries, scaffolds and galleries. In essence, Silverback has recreated the Crucible, a mythic prison designed by the gods to cultivate war. No matter how vast the Overlord’s empire, its hermetically sealed walls can only bring its inhabitants’ suppressed hatreds to a boil.
Factions aboard the Harbinger include the Vantir, aggressive meddlers who excel at keeping other groups divided. Amorphous viral slime in their state of nature, individual Vantir are now held together by exosuits designed for them in some distant age by the Harbinger’s foolish captain – a gift that became a curse as the Vantir turned their armor into a weapon.
A rival elite, the Scintilla, are mystical creatures rendered quiescent by the Overlord’s promises and a civil war engineered by the Vantir. The Scintilla’s rising awareness of their subservient status could spell the end of the uneasy peace, however, especially given that the Vantir have had their prophetic leader, Ballastre, thrown into the slammer. Most dangerous of all, however, is an unpleasant strain of bugs called Cimicidae, who have taken a shine to Harbinger’s dingy, industrial halls. Repulsive and smart – and perhaps possessing a hive mind – they threaten to tear the whole ship apart with their inexorable growth.
Everyone else, human or alien, are either slaves or escaped slaves. Some are forced to eke out risky lives as mercenaries, joining cabals secreted away in places like Torvus Junction, the smuggler community where the game begins.
The three player classes match classic RPG archetypes, transferred to a sci-fi milieu: Choosing to play as a Human makes for an all-around character focusing on ranged weaponry; like a rogue, he’s able to dodge and weave while exchanging fire with enemies. The Gladiator, a hulking robot implanted with sentience by its creators, can take a lot of pain and employ two weapons at once; those inclined to barbarian types may consequently favor it. The third character is the sylph-like Culibine, last of her race, who makes up for bodily weakness with an array of bizarre powers. There are few major differences between the three classes. Humans can equip armor, helmets, rifles and mines, while Gladiators get a second melee weapon instead of a helmet and drones that can scout ahead instead of mines. The Culibine equips only gauntlets, one for each arm, and various power amplifiers that focus natural energies for a range of defensive and offensive purposes.
Torvus Junction is home to its founder, Solomon Torvus, who fiddles in his toy shop of heavy weaponry all day, every day, keeping just shy of the Overlord’s agents. Other residents include Ona, a greedy alien merchant fond of Uan, the Harbinger’s ubiquitous currency. Between the two of them, the quests come thick and fast. Fetch the gizmo, kill foozle, rescue the prince; the only thing linking the early escapades is the player’s growing realization that things aboard Harbinger have reached a simmering point, with the Cimicidae running loose and the Vantir in no mood to debate the issue. Human players will find themselves under relentless attack as they explore the ship; the Culibine gets to see more grisly results, like piles of human bones that may include the children of a recently vanished community.
As the player battles aliens, gains experience and acquires equipment, a core development unfolds involving the fate of Ballastre, the prophet apparently imprisoned at the Vantir’s behest. Strange friends emerge, including a sphincter-faced alien addicted to a narcotic plant, whose visions of the future are unerringly accurate. The violence gets out of hand soon enough, pitching you headlong into another epic. Play begins with your hero alone in the middle of the screen, throwing a weak corona of light over a dark isometric environment. Also known as a three-quarters view, it should be familiar to anyone who has ever played a 2D action-RPG like Diablo.
Movement is initiated by clicking on any part of the gameplay area. The character will dash into place, scuttling around any objects in the way. Holding the button down keeps them running, always heading in the direction indicated by the pointer. Interacting with objects is as simple as clicking on them. Doors will split, crates will unlock themselves and lockers will swing wide. Not all are obvious, so it can be a good idea to hover the mouse over any suspicious forms amid the twisted metal; tool tips light up to describe what’s under the pointer. As it happens, there are many different goodie boxes, ranging from cryonic tubes to Cimicidae caches, but not all contain useful gear.
A host of recurring landmarks will soon become recognizable. Umbilicals are tube-like tunnels that lead between sections of the ship, while plasma-spewing portals transfer players between specific locations. Consoles, activated with a prod, open doors and send bridges sliding across the Harbinger’s many dark chasms. Charging stations impart health or power-ups, but deactivate themselves once used. Radiation pillars look like they could be bad business, but they’re actually helpful, replenishing the energy banks on weapons and the Culibine’s health bar. It’s the radiation sinks, which sap this energy, that must be avoided. Other environmental effects are even worse: Humans and Culibines are injured by poison, though Gladiators can dash through it unharmed. The tables don’t get turned for high temperatures, either, in which Humans are similarly disadvantaged.
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