Indie | Curse – Episode I: Hell Awaits
By Lewis Denby
Since I was young, I’ve always held a deep fascination with Ancient Egypt.
It began while in my final year of primary school, having been assigned the seemingly insurmountable task of producing a ten page report on the era. It progressed long into my teenage years, during which I finally had the opportunity to visit Cairo, its phenomenal museum and Giza’s pyramids.
Playing the first episode of Curse, a Half-Life 2 mod that’s been out for a couple of months now, is oddly evocative. A virtual world is never going to be an adequate replacement for visiting a real place – not for a long while yet, at least – but as far as game environments go, Curse’s is pretty striking. From the splendid decor, to the gorgeously composed soundtrack, to the dynamically shifting architecture that rises and falls in front of the sun’s glare, this supernatural representation of the period hits all the right buttons for me.
Which is probably a good thing, since Curse features a lot of buttons.
//In with the old
Fraser was going to write about this a while ago, but decided against it, having not been too impressed. While I can completely understand why he wasn’t, I really am. It’s stirred up some archaeologically adventurous side in me that I wasn’t even fully aware of. I’ve played through twice already this week, and you can be sure I’ll be delving into this remarkable world again, just as soon as time permits.
It really is an archaeological thing. Not only is it set in an alternately realised Ancient Egypt, it also feels just about that old to play at times. The most obvious visual reference point is Heretic, with your ethereal, magic hand floating at the bottom of the screen – though, in stretching the Source engine to its absolute limits, it looks at least as stunning as today’s top, next-gen releases. Beyond that, its secretive, exploratory tendencies evoke memories of iD Software’s early work, with hidden areas enclosing new delights, and button-pressing, key-hunting mechanics elevated to the forefront of the game. Enemies largely attack in Doom-esque waves. Even the audio, aside from the thoroughly beautiful and authentic score, sounds archaic.
At the same time, certain elements feel experimental and fresh. Combat is the most immediately different aspect. Your character has two modes. In the standard setting, youroutstretched arm can shoot a bolt of energy at nearby objects, sending them flying around the room, or smashing the more brittle items to pieces. When enemies approach, madly flinging stuff around the place is rarely enough – so it’s fortunate that right-clicking snaps you into combat mode, locking you on to the nearest foe a la Metroid Prime or Zeno Clash, and allowing you to swing with your mouse (a la Penumbra) to dispatch your undead opponents. With a magical, glowing mace that appears out of nowhere.
When the system works, it works beautifully. Early on in this first episode, when only a couple of mummified beasts attack at once, it’s fantastically satisfying to wait patiently before swinging up, down and boshing both of them on the head (any hit is, incidentally, an instant kill). But it loses its elegance when in amongst larger groups, which you invariably will be. The powerfulness of your mace, coupled with the AI’s tendency to block your path and engulf you, means it’s often easier to swing your mouse around in circles and hope it eventually does the trick. And really, it always does. Playing on medium difficulty, I died three times. Twice I fell into a chasm, and another time a giant hand punched me in the face for not unlocking a door quickly enough. Not once did I even come close to perishing during combat, which suggests something’s a little wrong with the balancing.
There’s also never any real sense of brutal feedback for your mace-swingery. Compared to Zeno Clash, Curse’s combat feels remarkably disconnected. And while it may seem unfair to compare an amateur mod to a commercially released and applauded game, it’s worth pointing out that this is one of the very few areas in which Curse is not as entirely polished as its fee-charging competitors.
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