Spark Unlimited’s UE3 powered Turning Point: Fall of Liberty, brought a compelling “what-if” scenario to the FPS world by making the Nazis masters of Europe enabling them to eventually launch their long-awaited strike against the United States in 1953. The high profile concept, as compelling as it was for a WW2 nut like myself, fell disappointingly short of its lofty goals with a plot that failed to capitalize on this promise, no thanks to the flawed, bare basics shooter fare backing it.
Spark’s second foray with UE3, Legendary, follows the same ambitious formula by asking players to forget everything that they might know about Pandora’s Box. According to myth, Pandora’s Box was given as a wedding gift to its namesake by the divine Zeus with only one condition: that it must never be opened. Curiosity got the best of poor Pandora and she peeked inside, unleashing all of the ills of the world that had been kept within. That’s the Cliff’s Notes version of the legend, and none of it is true in Spark’s game. When a relic matching its description is uncovered and brought to New York as a new museum piece, professional thief, Charles Deckard, is hired by a rich client to steal what is inside.
But when he opens it, the only thing that he gets for his trouble is the end of the world and guess who has to make it right? Deckard really doesn’t have a choice. When he opened the box, or rather, activated the ancient superweapon that gave rise to the legend, it also stabbed and tattooed his hand with the Signet; a glowing sigil that ties his destiny to that of the relic.
The explosive start of the game brings out the kind of epic focus that Spark wanted Legendary to be like and the story mixes together some interesting ideas in the form of an Illuminati-like civil war between two very powerful and desperate factions eager to get their hands on Pandora’s Box for their own uses. The story is told through slideshow cuts in between each major chapter of the game and animated asides at certain milestones with solid voice acting, aside from Deckard’s set of grunts, although the soundtrack is a largely forgettable metal mash of twangy guitar and drums that come off as completely out of place amidst the epic-sized elements around it.
For a thief, Deckard’s ability to jump no higher than a basketball will make the player feel like a rat caught in a maze especially when it doesn’t try very hard to hide its use of invisible walls or the lack of any mantling ability. In one area, I thought I’d be able to jump up onto low lying concrete platforms, slipping in between broken railings inviting me up there which I should have known better, forcing me to take the long away around which the game will often make the player do anyway. He can do running leaps, though, over small holes and cracks, but it only looks as if he’s been horizontally launched instead of having jumped. Legendary might as well have left out the whole jumping thing entirely. This is one game where it probably wouldn’t be as missed because of its relative uselessness.
FPS players can shoot their way through the game using all of the usual tricks ranging from pitching grenades to zoomed in shots using the iron sights of certain weapons, but even here, Legendary comes up short. The controls seem to have been made with the Xbox 360 pad in mind likely owing to the fact that it is also available for Microsoft’s console. It works okay with the mouse and keyboard which is what I had used, but there are certain limitations that were annoying to put up with. An in-game PDA tracks your objectives, information that you might pick up, or other pieces of info such as small bios on the characters Deckard meets, but it requires two different keys to actually get in and out of it. One would think that using one key to turn it on and off was the sensible thing to do, but not so in this case. Unsurprisingly, it flows better with the 360 controller.
Mouse movement, especially in aiming through a scope or panning around a scene, is jerky enough to give armchair snipers motion sickness. Despite tooling around with the sensitivity and the resolution settings, the results were the same. Movement tended to be somewhat smoother when using a 360 controller casting little doubt that it was optimized for consoles with little consideration given over for PC performance. I’d suggest using it or another similar controller if you have one, but if you insist on being a WASD warrior or have no other choice, be ready to put up with a few headaches.
Confronting Deckard will be a menagerie of fantastic creatures ranging from hairless werewolves to the iconic griffins that grace the cover of the package, all of them lit up with great effects and scripted animation sequences that add to the seesaw quality of the eye candy in the game as they tear into screaming civilians or turn hapless soldiers into chew toys. The bad news is that not everything looks as good as they do, especially many of the interiors, and the extremely linear level design makes many of these spaces feel roped off into predictable, theme park flavored, pathways.
Most of the game goes downhill after its thrilling start when it becomes a collection of set pieces that pace each encounter with a monotonous, drumbeat efficiency. Deckard gets to use his so-called “skills” pointlessly bypassing electronic locks requiring the player to simply hold down a button, or turn valves in order to open up a large number of sprinklers and water mains. And I hope you like sewers because this is one FPS that loves to use them. Even the weapons aren’t very exciting, offering up your basic stock of assault rifle, pistol, and rocket launcher. There’s a flamethrower, too, that gets some hot love but there’s not much else to really look forward to. He can only hold two types of guns at any one time along with a melee weapon and a throwable, so picking which weapons to carry with you into battle does make it a little challenging, although the title is obvious as to which one you should consider when it starts throwing plenty of specific ammo crates and drops your way.
Deckard does have one unique ability that sets him apart form your typical FPS shooter courtesy of the Box and that’s the ability to absorb animus which is a kind of energy at the heart of each of the mythic monsters that want to snack on his bones. When you take one out, it leaves behind a glowing ball of energy that Deckard can absorb. Any extra energy will also act to heal him, or you can use the stored energy to heal Deckard at any time since no one bothers to give him any body armor. You can also use animus to destroy sinister crates that are in the way or stun monsters to give for a quick advantage. Later, the game gets creative with this by throwing phantom monsters into the mix forcing you to use his new power to materialize them so they can be killed, although it can get silly later on when Deckard starts using this mystic energy to charge up devices like a living battery, slaughtering monsters for juice. It’s a neat little mechanic, but it doesn’t do much to keep the rest of the gameplay from feeling repetitive.
The one-sided AI sends most everything in the game at you with most enemies appearing more impressive than they are individually lethal. Legendary loves to pile encounters. Your human opponents in the game, however, are incredibly dense even when they start running around to take cover. They’ll often take up position at the exact same spot you might have sniped their buddy at, making it occasionally simple to kill an entire team without having to go anywhere. Your allied AI isn’t that much better, either. It is fun, though, to let the monsters do most of the work since they’ll kill anything that moves and pick up the pieces later.
Legendary also comes with a few issues such as bodies clipping through walls and floors and a mandatory checkpoint system with poorly placed saves that will often require you to fight through several minutes’ worth of cannon fodder just to get back to where you had died, while at other times you might run into the next one only a minute or two later. The adventure can also be finished in a day by FPS veterans although it offers up some replayability with additional difficulty levels and stock multiplayer on the Gamespy network requiring a sign-in. And although PC players may not care too much about Microsoft’s Live service, those that do will find that it makes no use of the initiative in terms of achievements despite its label as a Games for Windows product and its relation to its console cousin. An internet connection is also needed for online activation which was relatively painless allowing me to play it without the disc.
Although a sequel is promised at the end of the game with a few interesting implications for the main character, this chapter hasn’t exactly gotten off to a great start. Legendary is a hard title to recommend in lieu of its classic peers that deliver experiences packed with creatively innovative twists on the FPS formula allowing them to stand out from the crowd. It sounded fantastic on paper with an amazing opening premise showing off the spectacular material that its artists and writers have wrapped it in, but would-be rogues turned world saviors may find that the actual experience is far less able to shoulder the burden of living up to its own legend.