Developer: Monte Cristo
Release Date: March 27, 2007
Ahh, Steampunk. I do love it so. The allure of a rusted-out boilerplate is heady indeed; I so easily become intoxicated by the poetry of a decaying machine screaming as it works to complete its mindless task. At the same time, I am equally enamored of cyberpunk — that glossy digital version of the future made real by such authors as William Gibson and Neil Stephenson. Blend these two fictional genres, fuse them with high fantasy, and gild the concept with elegant graphics, and what do you get? Silverfall.
Silverfall falls into the category of Diablo-style games, but it shares more in common with Dungeon Siege than it does with Blizzard's (former) pride and joy. It is a fully 3-D action-adventure, role-playing game with a heavy focus on combat. There is no new paradigm so far as play mechanics are concerned. Create a character, run around slaying monsters, pick up the loot they drop, use the good stuff, sell the bad stuff, amass a fortune, build up the biggest, baddest hero you can, and quest for glory. In this case, your prime motivation will be finding out why an army of demons and undead attacked and sacked the city of Silverfall. You begin in a camp of refugees and move outwards from there. Along the way, you'll assemble a party of adventurers, each with a tale of their own.
When you create a character, you can choose a male or female human, elf, troll, or goblin. The avatars are all basically patterned after standard archetypes: Elves are graceful and tall; Humans are, well, human; and Goblins are short, green, and devious-looking; The only real exception is the trolls, who look somewhat like bipedal sharks on excessive growth hormones. After race, you can select some other cosmetic changes like facial expression, hair color, skin color, and hair style. These options are essentially vestigial, as there is such a heavy focus on "paper doll" visual effects from the equipment you collect in-game that you won't even see your choices after about the 10th level.
This brings me to the graphics. Usually I leave this criterion point until last, but I feel compelled to talk about it now. Silverfall has a beautiful graphical style, and first and foremost is the art direction, which is superb. Let's face it; very few games have as seamlessly a realized world as Silverfall does. In my experience, the only other recent titles that had a design sense this strong are World of Warcraft and Titan Quest. The colors are oversaturated in a cartoon-like fashion, many of the textures have a watercolor appearance, and the models have a bold black outline to them that provides a quasi cel-shaded "comic book" look. An almost identical effect has been recently used in Crackdown on the Xbox360, though the Renderware engine is nowhere near as capable as Monte Cristo's offering, and so the visual quality in Silverfall is far superior. The Achilles' heel to all this is that you need a very powerful graphics card to bring out the best in this game. The options for tweaking performance are limited at best, and if you're running a graphics card even two generations old, the odds are you won't be able to elicit the true beauty Silverfall can display.
Silverfall is extremely skill-driven. As you kill monsters and complete quests, you generate experience and level up. Each new level gives you points to distribute amongst your attributes and skills. This is a class-less title, so everything you'll be able to do lies in the skill tree. There are three main branches: Combat, Magic, and Other. This last path covers your faction (nature or technology) and your racial skills. Using these paths, you can custom-design pretty much any type of hero you want. Scimitar-wielding fire priest? Put points into Melee, Element, and Light. Venom-spewing necromantic assassin? Allot some love into Technique and Shadow, tweaking for balance as you progress. How about that "Other" tab, though? Well that's a whole different, and much, much cooler beast.
Arguably the single most inventive and unique feature of Silverfall is the faction system that allows you to choose between the "old ways" of nature and the "industrial revolution" of technology. The entire game is peppered with quests that push your allegiance in one direction or another, instantly creating a massive amount of room for replay value (and that's not counting the full LAN and Internet multiplayer out of the box, either). Moreover, there are entire categories of weapons, armor, and other equipment that are locked to either nature or technology. For example, I decided to work my troll toward tech, and after installing a massive grunting gas-extractor in a swamp, I got enough technology allegiance that I could start using steam-hammers, chainsaw-swords, and "Mad Max"-chic headgear. From there, I've developed the ability to spray blasts of steam at my enemies, build up little clockwork fighters to battle at my side, and I can overdrive my neural system for a huge boost in attack power and speed.
So as you can see, I'm quite happy with this game. Not perfectly happy though, as there are wrenches in the ointment and flies in the clockwork. For starters, the interface is terrible and is the single worst aspect of Silverfall. If I had to guess, I'd say the menus and windows are programmer art, placeholders that never got the same love from the art department as the models and textures. The fonts are crude and grainy, as are the icons and the window trim. Considering the beauty of the graphics, it's like having a 24-carat diamond sitting atop a tarnished tin ring from a supermarket vending machine. Past this, there is the unfortunate oversight of no auto-save. If you happen to suffer a crash to desktop, which does happen from time to time (at least on Vista machines like mine), you will lose unsaved data. I know this seems like a no-brainer, but we gamers have gotten spoiled by auto-save titles. Heed my warning and make sure you save often, so that you don't lose levels and levels of effort.
Physics play a large part in Silverfall, to the point where you absolutely must install Ageia PhysX software along with the game, even if you don't have an Ageia card. What is most amusing about this is that there it doesn't make an appreciable difference. Unlike Titan Quest, which uses over-the-top ragdoll and gravity effects, Monte Cristo decided to be subtle in their approach, which begs the question: Why the forced third-party software?
The overall gameplay seems imbalanced up until you get your first companion. There are almost no single-creature encounters, so when you're fighting one-on-four, you can quickly become overwhelmed. However, as soon as you adopt a healer, the challenge evens out. I quite like the additional depth offered by the NPC story arcs; I'm especially curious as to the full back-story of Morka, the guilt-wracked female troll with whom I'm running.
One feature that needs to be mentioned is the enemy level system. Like Morrowind and Oblivion, Silverfall monsters level on-the-fly with your avatar. No matter where you go, creatures will always be one to three levels higher than you. I personally find this somewhat frustrating, until I remind myself, "There is a reason I level up so quickly." Then my annoyance melts away.
I should also mention Atari's strange setup for digital download. Keep in mind, this does not in any way effect the score of this game and I mention it only so that you have an idea of what to expect if you decide to purchase online. When you buy directly from Atari, they give you 28 .RAR files and an executable for extraction. In total, this is 6.91GB in size. The idea is that you can burn these to a DVD for future installs. After this, the executable extracts the files to a temporary folder, which is another 6.91GB in size. From there, the temp folder installs to the final game directory, which is 9.02GB. Here's the catch: the temp folder doesn't delete itself. Thus, if you don't burn the .RAR files straight away and manually delete the temp folder, you'll have roughly 23GB of hard drive space taken up by Silverfall. It's easy enough to remedy, but at least now you know before going in that you need plenty of room before you can casually purchase this from Atari.
So is Silverfall "worth playing?" Absolutely. It's gorgeous (if you have a high-end system), it's fun, and it has some truly unique features that set it apart from the pack. With time, there might even be some patches that clear up the remaining oversights, like the interface and the auto-save. However, even with these issues in place, I recommend Silverfall. When you think about it, this is the first steampunk title since Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, and for that reason alone, it deserves all the love it can get!
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