Savage 2: A Tortured Soul Preview

If you've never heard of Savage, you're not alone. S2 Games' first title didn't exactly receive a flood of attention when it sauntered onto shelves in 2003. For a game about beating in skulls, it was fairly intimidating. It also had one of those generic, colonic titles that isn't immediately descriptive. Savage 2: A Tortured Soul isn't much better, sounding more like a MySpace post than a game about fantastical combat.

It's a shame a lot of people will never give this PC series a shot, because it has one innovative concept going for it. That concept may not be the most original in the world--combining an FPS with an RTS is an obvious hybrid--but the innovation comes in actually pulling it off. The Savage series ordains one teammate in the role of RTS commander, placing the responsibility of erecting key buildings and assisting teammates with spells squarely on a single man--or beast's--shoulders. Unlike the supporting role of commanders in games like Battlefield 2, Savage gives that solitary general a huge amount of power over his team of first person units, in both their direction and capability. It's a scary, idealistic mechanic--sometimes flawed, but inherently interesting.

The Savage part of the title comes with the prehistoric vibe that the game's caveman-esque characters exude, although the setting is actually explained as a post-apocalyptic future. Man is rebuilding, but now animals are smart, have two legs, and apparently remember things like seal clubbing, elephant poaching, and doggie dresses. It's a wide-scale war of retribution, all played out on a Warcraftian battlefield.

On the ground, the units play from the perspective of a third or first person shooter, with spells and melee combat being the order of battle. Though each person's role at first seems insignificant in the larger scheme of things--teams can number up to 32 players a side--combat is built to be skill-based, allowing one talented player to make quite a difference. You'll need to block, charge, and attack at the right times in order to best your opponents--or merely have good aim with a far-flung arrow or fireball. As an incentive toward victory, melee-savvy savages will level up their characters faster, allowing them to spend points toward certain attributes such as health or damage. Players also earn experience by achieving supporting goals, such as defending structures, or healing wounded teammates.

Monetary compensation is handed out for good work on the battlefield. Following defeat, players are kicked back to a spawn screen, and can choose from available unit classes, some of which carry a fee for each spawn. For instance, if you want to lumber around as the axe-wielding legionnaire unit, you'll need to justify it by holding your own in combat, thus earning enough cash to spend on another spawn. Potions and other bonus items can be bought to outfit your character with, lending a few more RPG elements to the mix.

Still, everyone wants to be the boss, right? The commander plays only from a typical top-down RTS view, ordering his troops from above, and gathering resources by placing mines on capture points. Commanders are mainly tasked with building structures, upgrading technologies to unlock new units and abilities, and using magical, god-like abilities to bolster their team. One of your key teammates just get himself killed? Instantly bring him back to life. See a particularly effective enemy player? Give him a disease.

With only one person per team acting as the commander--chosen by vote before the match begins--you might think the role would be fought over. Instead, rather than always being miffed at exclusion, it can also comes as a relief to avoid being elected. As any failed president knows, being the Commander-in-Chief can be a tough job--especially when your constituency revolts. I learned this fact the hard way in Savage 2. My third or fourth round, I figured I'd try being the boss for a change. I was particularly proud of my micromanagement abilities in the original game, and felt my Battlefield 2 artillery strikes were second-to-none. Surely these beasts would be impressed with even the most lax of leadership.

Wrong. Jumping into the game, I was quickly reminded that Savage 2 was still in beta, encountering a bug that restricted me from zooming out to more than a microscopic view. Let me be clear: I don't blame the game for this bug, as it is clearly a work in progress. I only mention it to explain the reason behind what followed.

One minute into the match, utterly confounded by my strategic view of dirt, I was being berated by an unruly mob. "is this your first time playing? omg were fucked," typed one particularly disturbed peon. After spending a few precious moments hastily scrambling for the "smite teammate" button, I finally gave into their demands, managing to oversee the construction of a few supporting buildings. This lead to an even more raucous debate over my choice of build order. Apparently, I was a huge noob. Five minutes in, one teammate was so furious in his inane babblings that I simply resigned my post, leaving with nary a protest or V sign.

My turn as a regular combatant met with more success. In the next game, I actually managed to track down the rude bastard who had harassed me to no end. Completely ignoring my commander's orders--he was probably a noob anyway--I hunted him to the ends of the map, taking him down over and over, feeding my rampage with the earned experience from his many deaths. If there is one flaw to this system it is thus: the rich get richer. Talented players will always have faster access to the better abilities. Still, this isn't such a bad thing. The basic no-cost unit classes are always useful, and there is no skilled player that can't be overcome with the power of an organized mob.

The combat itself wasn't always the most fun as a lone wolf. Battles consist of a standard mix of melee and special abilities. While an actual sword fight can be enjoyable, the speed at which other players move can make it frustratingly difficult to pin down an opponent at times. It feels a little too loose to exhibit the visceral, brutal quality that I expect from the game's title. It's close, but it needs to be punched up a bit. Things become more entertaining once you unlock a unit like the massive, troll-like Behemoth class. Crushing skulls is much easier with a tree trunk in hand.

There are a few general points of criticism that can be made after previewing this beta build. Firstly, the game itself is indeed deep, but a little fuzzy in its presentation. It is not immediately apparent which unit or ability is superior to the next, or what they should be used for specifically--although all of this information can eventually be gleaned through experimentation or documentation. And in terms of graphical showiness, Savage 2 is utterly devoid of detail or interesting design. It's a very bland looking game in this state, and not at all compelling from a visual standpoint. But it's also not the kind of game you play to pull off flashy explosions or gaze into an HDR-lit sunset, either. You're too busy running to the next capture point, or yelling at your inept leader.

And so I hesitantly recommend Savage 2. It is far from an immediately accessible game, but a lot of fun games aren't immediately accessible. S2 has a devout following of hardcore fans, and it's easy to see why. Their game fosters a kind of Tribesian mentality--easy to jump into, hard to be any good at, and very dependent on a coherent team strategy. The company is selling the game through online distribution for the sane price of $30, so you won't need to break the bank to give it a try. Pre-ordering users will receive access to the ongoing beta, and S2 is actually allowing users to play the LAN portion for free.

One request: If Savage's unique blend of sword-waving and large-scale strategy clicks with you, turning you into the next strategy-obsessed zealot, please give your poor, confused commander a break.