As you may have heard, Demigod was released almost a week before the official date by Gamestop. As a result, the folks at Stardock ended up rushing the game out so that everyone who bought it could play it, and so for the first couple of days, since there wasn't ample time to get the servers ready, the multiplayer was basically unplayable.
I held off on the review until I could actually get a few multiplayer games under my belt -- while there are still some server issues, particularly with the Pantheon, custom made skirmishes work fine, and overall the multiplayer is now in a form where the game can adequately be reviewed.
So, how is it? Is it worth plunking down $39.95 for, or are you better off just playing Defense of the Ancients?
Hit the jump to find out.
Developed by Gas Powered Games
Published by Stardock
Released ('officially') on April 14th, 2009
If you read the preview I did for Demigod, you can probably skip this part. For those of you who don't know what the game is about, let me go ahead and explain.
Demigod is a fairly similar game to the old Warcraft 3 mod Defense of the Ancients. As a genre, the best way to probably describe the game would be 'action RTS'. You control one of eight demigods, each with their own unique abilities and playstyles. The eight demigods are split into two groups of four each. The Assassins are direct damage dealers and are the more 'action' part of 'action-RTS'. Assassins have no minions to worry about or units to command, they pretty much solely focus on dealing out as much damage as possible to the opposing side. The Generals encompass more of the 'RTS' focus of the game, as each General can summon a number of minions to aid them in combat. While just as powerful as the Assassins, the Generals rely less on brute force and more on careful tactics and minion management to crush their enemies.
Single player has two modes – skirmish and tournament. Skirmish is just a regular, one time battle against CPU units, similar to most other RTS games. Tournament is fairly similar, except you select one specific demigod over a series of battles. All eight demigods are represented (the others are CPU controlled), and you fight a bunch of 4 v. 4 battles – how well you do gives you a certain number of points, and at the end of the tournament the demigod with the most points wins. Multiplayer also has two modes, one similar to the single player skirmish, and also the Pantheon. Pantheon is interesting – when you register your account, you have to choose either the light or dark side, and this can’t be changed until the tournament cycle ends. Each side has access to only four of the demigods. When you play on Pantheon, you’re teamed up with other people on your chosen side, and you play against the opposing side. Win records and points are calculated across all the servers for each team, and at the end of a period of time one side is declared the winner.
There’s not really much of a story to Demigod, but in the grand scheme of things I think it’s ok. It would be nice to get more of the overarching plot elements and learn more about the world Demigod is set in, but really the focus of the game is on the combat and the gameplay. The individual demigods do have really well written backgrounds, but that information is never expounded upon in the actual game. Really, NOTHING is expounded on in the game. There’s a four paragraph story in the manual that lays out the entire game – the ‘Ancients’ (ie. gods) found out that one of their own, the ‘Progenitor’, broke some god-rules. So they killed him. Now they need someone to take his place. Luckily, the Progenitor was kind of a god-slut, so he knocked up a bunch of mortals who eventually gave birth to these demigods. Some of the gods thought mortals were gross, so they proposed an elaborate game for the demigods to prove themselves worthy. There’s your story.
On the surface, the gameplay seems very simple. You’re split into two teams, light and dark, and you go at each other until someone wins. At the outset, you’re given an objective – kill a certain number of opposing demigods, destroy the other teams citadel (home base structure), capture the enemy’s flag and bring it back to your base, destroy a bunch of smaller key structures scattered throughout the other team’s base, or earn the most points by capturing the most flags. Pretty basic, and relatively easy to understand.
The way it actually plays out is a bit more complicated, although still relatively basic. All of the maps are symmetrical, so everything is as fair as can be. You start in your home base, which consists of your citadel, where you can buy an assortment of upgrades to help you out, a healing crystal, some gold mines, and an item shop. As you go further out into the map, you’ll notice that both you and your enemies have defensive structures scattered around the map that deal some pretty serious damage. They’re put in place to prevent rushing on the outset, so as you move forward you’ll have to take out all the towers you come across so that the rest of your team can safely assault the enemy’s base.
Along the way, you’ll see a whole bunch of “flags” (really, they’re control points) you can capture. While not required to win (in most game types), you’ll want to control as many of these as possible, because they all give you an extra advantage in battle: extra damage done by your units, extra damage taken by the enemy, more gold mines, an artifact shop with a wide variety of powerful (and expensive!) trinkets – typically there are more control points on the map than players on each team, so you have to make strategic choices about which flags to go for, which flags to defend, and which flags to just let go.
As you might have gathered, the game is much deeper than it may initially let on. Demigod is one of those games where it’s very easy to just pick up, jump in, play and have a good time. However, to truly master the game, you have to go much, much deeper. Each Demigod has a fairly large skill tree, with 4 abilities each and a number of passive abilities to learn as well. Since the max level in a match is 20, you’ll never be able to learn everything. Unlike a lot of strategy games though, there doesn’t seem to be an “ultimate build” for any of the characters. The skills you pick will largely be dependent on what demigods are already on your team, what demigods are on the opposing team, and what game type you’re playing. Add in a variety of weapons, armor, and artifacts that all give varying bonuses coupled with the fact that gold is relatively limited and you’re forced to make choices between buying personal items for yourself or buying upgrades at the citadel for the good of your whole team, and you have a surprisingly deep experience. So far, most people playing online are still learning what exactly to do, but I imagine a month or two down the road it’s going to be much harder to be successful if you’re not carefully planning and communicating with your team.
Unfortunately, communicating with your team isn’t easy. Not to go off on a rant here, but so many companies now are trying to introduce their own versions of Steam so they can make a little extra money. Now, Steam isn’t perfect, but do you know why they’re the most successful? Because it does exactly what you need it to do. Demigod runs on Stardock’s Impulse service, which, sadly, does not have voice chat. While Demigod does have its own chat program built into the game (which is actually pretty cool, and the game developers hang out in the main channel and talk to people fairly often), for a team based game like this voice chat is absolutely crucial. Finding friends on Impulse is difficult as well, because as far as I could find there’s not any user search function or way to add people from recent games you’ve played. If you don’t know someone’s Impulse username (which can be different than their Demigod user name), then you can’t even add them as a friend. Seriously guys, I’m getting sick of running 4 different programs to play games because each company wants their own Steam – if you’re going to try to compete with them, you need to make your product do as LEAST as much as Steam does, if not more.
The game itself looks gorgeous. The levels and backgrounds have a nice level of detail, and are kind of awe-inspiring. While the battlefield itself is relatively plain (which is a good thing, since you’re not distracted by all sorts of crazy extra stuff going on), the art and detail surrounding it is what’s nice to look at. The units are well animated, and with the ability to zoom from a bird’s-eye-view to focusing on one or two individual units you can really get up close and see all the little details they’ve put in. The music is less exciting, although not bad, but it just kind of fades into the background. The announcer, however, is totally epic, and reminds me of the announcer from Unreal Tournament.
There are a couple of issues I have with the game, however. While I understand that Demigod is primarily a multiplayer game, the single player aspect seemed really rushed and thrown together. I suppose it’s not terrible for a mostly multiplayer game, but back in beta the developers had been claiming that they were going to do something incredible and unique for the single player mode, beyond basic CPU battles, and it’s sad to see this never materialized. I do like the idea of Pantheon, but more often than not I get people dropping out of the game and replaced with crappy CPU players, or people who lag the game to the point that it’s unplayable.
While a lot of the server issues have been fixed, there are still some fairly serious problems. (Ed Note: Wedge correctly pointed out that my original explanation of how the servers worked was incorrect. I've changed it slightly, and I'll admit I don't fully understand Stardock's netcode or connection process.) Demigod's peer-to-peer connection system means that you have to connect to every single other player in your game, and also means that one person with bad ping destroys the game for everyone else. It's very common to get into a game and have one person slow the game to the point of unplayability because of their lag or porn torrenting. Word on the forums is that they’re looking into this, but I’m concerned that as long as they stay with this peer to peer connection system, there will still be issues. Hopefully, I’m proven wrong.
Additionally, as I mentioned earlier, the lack of voice chat is a fairly serious deficit, especially for a game that’s almost entirely team-based. While you can set up Skype or Steam with your friends, you can’t do it with any randoms you play with (and in Pantheon you can’t go in with a premade team). Voice chat needs to get into the game quickly and soon, because a game that requires this much planning and strategy absolutely needs a fast form of communication. Chat doesn’t cut it.
Finally, I’m slightly concerned about the longevity of the game. I’m having a blast playing it now, but with a limited number of maps and only eight demigods, I’m wondering how long it will stay fresh. I know the strategy is really rather deep and it will likely take people a while to master, but knowing how fickle gamers are I feel that for some people, it may not be enough. I know the developers have announced that at least 2 more demigods will be coming in a couple months via DLC – hopefully maps come as well. Even then, for people who want lots of options and cut their teeth with DotA’s ridiculous number of playable characters, it may not be enough.
That said, I’ve been having a fantastic time with Demigod, even when the multiplayer wasn’t working well. While there are some noticeable flaws, the game is fun enough that it doesn’t overly affect the experience. The game is surprisingly deep, accommodates a wide number of playstyles, and requires quick thinking, solid planning, and an ability to adapt on the fly to whatever your opponents are doing. Strategy fans will have a field day, and action fans will be happy with the lack of micromanaging and the fast pace of the game. Not quite an RTS and not quite an action game, Demigod is an extremely successful blend of both. Whether it will still have a massive legion of followers two years down the line is debatable, but right now I’m hard pressed to think of any other recent PC games that would be worth buying over Demigod.
8 -- Great (8s are impressive efforts with a few noticeable problems holding them back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth your time and cash.)