Loki PC Preview - 18/07/2007

Described as a pure Hack 'n Slash RPG by developer Cyanide, clearly it has to have something pretty special to get people joyously screaming: 'another Hack 'n Slash RPG!' rather than disappointingly murmuring it.

Impressions from Germany suggest this sort of thing does still appeal to the PC audience, with the game riding high at number 1 in the charts when it launched over there in June, but the main thing cited by the developers and indeed that is present in the preview build we received is the aim to perfect the genre. Similar to how World War II shooters are overused, so too are hack 'n slash RPGs on the PC, but that doesn't mean anyone would turn down another Call of Duty set in the era. The fact that developers and publishers still produce these games show how popular they are, but unless the absolute top-bar is hit, the games will just fall under the radar.

Similar to last year's RPG Titan Quest, Loki is based around ancient mythologies, but rather than simply aiming at one, such as Rome or Egypt, it circulates around four. It does this by allowing a quadruplet of different characters, of the usual RPG classes (a Norse warrior, a fierce Greek fighter, a powerful Egyptian sorcerer and a skilled Aztec shaman), across four 'worlds', with the far north, Aztec, Greek and Egyptian civilisations focused on in particular.

Each world contains completely different backdrops, people and enemies, related to the mythology of the area, and to suit the home character. The actual story involves Seth, the Egyptian god of chaos and evil (whoever invented a god for that I don't know), who, after being imprisoned by Osiris and his fellow kind and decent Egyptian gods, escaped from his tomb to wreak havoc and disaster across the world. He's doing this through the discovery of the paths which link the famous mythologies together, collecting the most notorious evil-doers across the mythological plains, and uniting them against the rest of the world.

This means that throughout the game you end up fighting some pretty formidable bosses, like Medusa and the Minotaur, and can collect items such as Thor's hammer and Achilles' armour to help you in your quest against them.

The actual gameplay is pretty similar to what you'd expect from a hack and slash RPG. You can hack, slash, and level up. It does of course go into far more detail than that however, and while the combat remains intrinsically simple, there are various key features that make it stand out from the crowd. At the moment, you control your chosen character using the mouse, clicking where on the terrain you want him to go (the camera is in a basic view, but can be zoomed out to a short distance or moved right up close), and you find yourself holding down the mouse button and just moving the mouse in a rather retro, but comfortable way of controlling your hero more like in an action title.

When enemies come into range, you can click them, the same way as you move, to order an attack in real time. You have to click for each sword swipe, fireball hurl or axe chop, leading to a really intense mouse-clicking to defeat tougher enemies. This ties in with the pretty mindless nature of the combat in this genre, but in fairness, a good deal of accuracy is required to ensure you hit your target and don't just send your hero walking off past them, and so it's not quite the same as the auto-aimed button mashing of more joypad orientated games � you could argue that it feels a bit clumsy at times, but personally, I think it works to the game's advantage requiring a bit more precision.

Rather than being singularly about killing as many wild animals as possible in order to level up, the overriding quest to locate Seth and destroy his allies runs throughout. Various side-quests can also be located however, helping villagers or even occasional gods, and the usual exploration allows you to kill your fair share of enemies to level-up and gain unique items. It has to be said that the game doesn't worry about all the bells and whistles of a lot of RPGs trying to break through, such as the ability to converse with all NPCs or pick up all items in the scenery, but it means the developers have been able to focus on the rest of the game, appearing to provide a better experience overall.

Graphically, even though this is not the final version, the game looks great. Lower settings allow it to run on mediocre PCs without any trouble, but there's plenty of nice touches, such as atmospheric weather varying in each location (and coming on impressively at random intervals) and some beautiful reflective surfaces and flickering firelight. The random level design of open areas and dungeons can be sporadic at times, but generally it feels pretty tight, and often natural, even as good as hand-designed levels in other such games. Of course the benefits of having random maps designed whenever a completely new game is launched gives great replay value that few RPGs truly achieve.

The variety of enemies and detail on each is equally impressive. There are over 100 different monsters in the game, with walks into the woods involving bears, wolves and birds of prey, but descents into Egyptian tombs feeling completely different, with the enemies there sporting unique attacks, attributes and weaknesses. While for a lot of the game (at least in the dungeon areas) you'll be attacking many enemies at once, with most coming to attack you before you can challenge them yourself, often you'll encounter bosses and much stronger enemies than the more familiar fodder.

These bosses will be well-known to anyone remotely interested in mythology, and it's really intriguing to be able to come up against such famous figures and monsters in the game. Far removed from the fairly mindless mouse clicking of the dungeons, bosses require special tactics to be employed; in particular you won't be able to wade in there slashing your sword and expect to survive. The bosses have weak points, and form part of the game that feels more like a third person action title than a RPG.

A few more notable features come in the missions you are given. Rather than meagre level-clearing tasks, you'll be required to investigate suspicious events, sniffing out the trail of Seth, as well as defending areas, collecting items and helping out the gods; it's a varied selection.

There's also a lot or diversity in the weapons and items on offer. As well as the unique items (over 500) that you can gain from defeating certain heroes or bosses mentioned earlier, you can retrieve items from chests and enemy bodies. You won't amass hundreds of pointless items that you'll never have a need for, and the navigation and menus for your inventory are delightfully simple. There's the ability to store the currently unnecessary items you pick up in a separate area so as not to clutter up your main inventory in the heat of battle, as well as two weapon sets, so you can have a close combat selection mapped to one, and a ranged weapon on the other for example, allowing quick tactical decisions to be made.

Blacksmiths and forges are on offer in the game's villages to adapt and customise your weapons, which are broken down into handle and 'cutting edge'. You can apply magic runes to these, as well as mixing materials (there are 17 different types in the game) found on your travels to create pretty limitless diversity in your weapons.

That's all nice of course, but the real standout feature is the multiplayer. Featuring LAN and online support, they first and foremost allow you to play through the main game co-operatively with up to five friends. There's also duelling, with one-on-one combat, and 'battle' where two teams of four players fight each other in a dedicated arena. You then have the 'challenge' mode, whereby there are twenty different challenges against some of the game's monsters, which again allows up to six players, but avoids the depth of the story and creates a bit of a different experience once the main game is done.

With each character playing entirely differently and starting in their own area of the world that they are especially suited to, the game's progression is well balanced. As you move through each area with your chosen hero, their appearance and attributes will change, but you'll also have to change your style of play and level-up intelligently. Areas in which you can do this include strength, intelligence, endurance, all the usual things, but also throughout the game there are altars where you can make donations to the gods, and in turn build up points in that god's area of expertise, so Thor is combat and fighting for example.

From what we've played the game seems good fun and not in anyway dully repetitive, which is often a large downside with this genre. The only real issue is that there can be a little confusion in quests, such as when minor ones are completed and sometimes the tasks involved to complete them, and a lack of polish does appear to be present at the moment � but this may well be fixed for launch, and should be little problem for regular RPGers. With the great multiplayer options on offer and replayability with the four characters and random level generation (helped by the fun combat), this should do well when it releases in August, providing the advertising is well done and the launch isn't too low-key. Get it? Loki, low-key? What an ending.

- Mike Hazleton