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★★★✩✩

Ravaged

2 Dawn Games

PC

Beta release

Ah, late summer, when a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of actually playing one of the dozens of games he purchased during the Steam summer sale. The Valve Corporation’s talent for making PC gamers buy more games than they can ever hope to play is a thing of legend, and this year I once again found myself in its thrall.

I can’t explain the phenomenon except to steal a quote from Warren Zevon (who, in turn, likely derived it from a quote of Schopenhauer’s): We buy video games because we imagine we are buying the time to play them.

In the mid-to-late summer, when Steam comes by to peddle its wares, we are at our most vulnerable. The thought of the next semester is distant enough to let us delude ourselves into thinking there will be time, but close enough to give us a sort of subconscious desperation. We are at the height of our denial, that apex where we assert a thing most fervently because we have begun to doubt it ourselves. Shame on you, Valve, for preying upon our nascent fears of mortality.

But enough of that. It’s time to salvage something out of my psychological weakness by writing a game review.

This week, I took a look at one of my summer downloads that, mercifully, didn’t put me one step closer to the poor house. The game in question is Ravaged, an indie, multiplayer first person shooter (FPS) being developed by 2 Dawn Games.

Behind the scenes, there are a lot of reasons to root for Ravaged’s success. 2 Dawn Games is part of a growing group of independent developers breaking the mold of the games industry. In May of this year, they took in $38,768 in Kickstarter donations so that they could bypass game publishers and bring their game directly to the customer through Steam. I played the beta version made possible by donations, in the hopes that the game would prove worthy, and show other developers that skipping the publishers is a viable business path.

In my youth, I played Counter-Strike and Tribes 2, games known respectively for their insanely high skill cap and viciously steep learning curve. I think W.C. Fields said it best: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit — no use being a damn fool about it.” This is to say, as the result of a traumatic childhood, I am a casual gamer when it comes to FPSs. I care little for the competitive potential of a game — I care mostly about whether or not a reasonably intelligent person can, with minimal experience, avoid being completely annihilated.

Ravaged enters into this scene with a lot of competition. It is standing toe to toe with the likes of Halo, Call of Duty, Battlefield, and a host of other series that cater to the fun-seeking weekend-playing shooter crowd.

The selling point that Ravaged makes is a simple one: vehicles. Virtually every casual FPS I’ve played falls into one of two categories. In one, vehicles don’t exist. In the other, every match is started with an unseemly race to grab one of the tiny number of starting vehicles. Those lucky to have spawned closest to the most powerful craft dictate the course of the match — those who follow behind on foot can only frown in dismay as the pilot of their sole aircraft flies it straight from the base into the side of a mountain.

There is, however, a third alternative. What if there were enough vehicles for everybody? What if mounted combat were the rule, not the exception? That is the promise that Ravaged offers: an FPS that puts vehicles front and center in the gameplay.

It doesn’t hurt that along the way, Ravaged ticks the boxes of many other core elements of a good FPS. The ambience and art style are excellent, even if unoriginal. In the spirit of RAGE, Borderlands, and Fallout, Ravaged drinks deeply from the Mad Max cup, placing the player in a familiar post-apocalyptic western setting. 2 Dawn Games adds its own creative twist here and there, but the important thing is that the product is as graphically polished as any major franchise game, and has a visual style that is an asset, not a hindrance to gameplay.

The game is class-based, with each class offering different weapons load-outs, and the system satisfies both on the basis of variety as well as balance. The weapons are satisfying to use, and the class choices add a meaningful strategy element.

The map pool that has been developed is thus far quite good. There is always a Goldilocks trick that has to be pulled off with map design. The perfect map tries to strike the right balance in two areas: the first is the risk-to-reward ratio, and the second is the extent to which secured advantages persist and snowball.

The first area can fall into two extremes: maps on which turtling and passive play can stave off defeat forever, and maps in which games can be won entirely by cheap gambits. A good map encourages active play, without giving it so many rewards that most games are decided by idiotic gambles.

The second area can fall into two extremes as well: one in which the game is decided by whichever side has the first victory, and the second in which the game is decided by whichever side has the last victory. A good map should set a balance in the way it rewards sides that take objectives, such that the final outcome of a match feels like the sum of all the little victories along the way rather than the result of just one or two plays. The balance feels a little different across game modes and maps, but in most of them Ravaged has gotten things right.

Where Ravaged goes wrong, in my view, is that it doesn’t do enough to deliver on the original selling point of a vehicle-based FPS. The vehicles are indeed plentiful, and they set a pace to the gameplay that is unique among FPSs, but the variety is sorely lacking. Aside from the helicopter and the Stryker, most vehicles can be lumped into the category of “car with gun attached.” Without a diversity of vehicles, it’s rare to see asymmetric matchups — one vehicle is simply the same as another, but better, and the opportunities to play to the advantages of your own vehicle and exploit the disadvantages of another simply don’t exist. Games that lack asymmetry tend to have short half-lives, and while Ravaged’s class system goes some way to remedy this, it is a shame it doesn’t use its core value proposition to do more on this front.

As with all games in beta, the details are subject to change. This preview shouldn’t be considered a final verdict. As it stands, though, 2 Dawn Games has some work to do if they want to make Ravaged a game worth buying. It’s not that the game is bad — I think at its core, it offers just as fine an experience as any of the big franchise casual shooters. But surely Ravaged has higher ambitions than simply joining the crowd of multiplayer shooters, just as its would-be customers hope to buy something more than just FPS #8 in their gaming arsenal. Ravaged has hold of an idea that is worth pursuing, that can differentiate it from the pack and put it ahead of the mainstream.

If you’re looking for a multiplayer PC shooter that is different from the rest, keep an eye out for Ravaged. It’s not there yet, but the odds are fairly good it will be by the time it is released.