It’s a dark, dark war…
ROTT is back! I don’t know how to feel about this. Last time on DisCONNECT I did a bit of a retrospective on Rise of the Triad, noting that it was a bit of an odd game from the 90s which I’m quite fond of for some strange reason. Now we’ve got the 2013 remake. What’s it like? How does it compare? I’ve played a bit of it, and here are my thoughts. I’ve been holding off on this article, patiently waiting for fixes, but it’s taking too long so I’m just going to have to go with what we’ve got.
Firstly, right from the outset it’s worth noting that this is effectively an update of the classic ROTT game. Curiously this is one of the more direct links to the “Golden Age of First Person Shooters” which everyone keeps telling me is the 90s. It’s remarkably straightforward, with lots of guns, no reloading (except as a joke, or maybe a bug), and lots of things to kill. Level design is slightly more modernised in that there’s no backtracking, but there are plenty of secrets to discover. Sidenote – backtracking is not non-linear level design. Doom did not have non-linear level design. Neither did Quake. They’re all linear – it’s just that you have to backtrack to progress due to keys or switches. ROTT 2013 is largely the same in that department. A lot of it strikes me as “classic” in design – the developers studied up on the original, that much is obvious. And yet this might also bring along some interesting problems. The closest we’ve come to this in recent years has been Serious Sam 3, but it’s more of a battle-arena game rather than a Doom-style game. There was also Painkiller which was in a similar sort of fashion. Waves of enemies does not make Doom – that wasn’t what the original was about. In some ways, ROTT comes closer to that lost age than SS3. But how good was that time period? Was it really the best time ever? It’s a hard question to answer.
The storyline is just a direct copy of the original – the High Risk United Nations Taskforce (HUNT) lands on San Nicholas Island to infiltrate the Triad, which are basically Nazis except not Nazis. You kill everyone. The end. It sticks very close to the original by keeping the same characters and even the same statistics. Doug Wendt is the slow beefcake, Lorelai is the fast one, and Ian Paul Freely is just a goddamn joke (literally, look at the name). They cater to different play styles to a certain degree. A number of elements of the menu and general game’s feel harken back to ROTT – the difficulty levels all have names that appeared in the original, the funny exit messages (like summoning a firing squad) are present, and a large number of sounds (either in original or updated form) are used too. Also all the music is back – in both classic and updated form. Big points for nostalgia, but the ROTT soundtrack was freakin’ awesome back in the 90s, and it’s still awesome now.
ROTT runs on the Unreal 3 Engine… and by “runs” I mean “plays like a slideshow.” I don’t know what the hell the problem is, but it runs like a dog. It doesn’t even seem to matter what settings I change to, it just never seems to reach a smooth, consistent FPS. The first level was borderline unplayable for me, but it did get slightly better afterwards. The Steam forums are filled with complaints about poor performance, particularly on ATI cards. I ended up sort of getting it to run acceptably on Medium at 1080p on my i5 2500K, 660Ti, 6GB RAM rig running Windows 8. Admittedly this isn’t an ultra powerful setup, but generally the Unreal 3 engine performs very well and scales extremely well. ROTT most definitely doesn’t, and fiddling with video settings occasionally produces unpredictable results. It seems like a massive bug… but it’s also worth noting that the stutter seen in the pre-release gameplay trailer sequences is pretty much exactly what you get.
Now in some games (mostly console games) you can technically target 30FPS and get away with it. ROTT however moves at breakneck speed, so anything under 60FPS is an absolute handicap. It’s simply not tight enough. Croteam, who developed SS3, understood this point and tuned their engine to perfection. Interceptor Entertainment apparently didn’t get the memo. The game needs serious optimisation for it to become properly playable. As it is now, it really hampers the enjoyment of the game. Also, and maybe this is just my setup, I think that the audio is a little bit off. Positioning seems to be remarkably difficult to determine. Granted, I play with headphones, but generally I can separate between things that are to my left and right, and usually behind or in front of me. In ROTT everything seems to mix together in a blur – sometimes I’m getting shot at and I have no idea where it’s coming from. It all sounds a bit like a mess, not because the sounds themselves are bad, but because the mixing seems to be kind of shoddy.
They have made some progress towards fixing it – Patch 1.0.2 included a number of important INI fixes and other little tweaks, but as I understand it the biggest issue is that some sections have a large number of draw calls due to the way the maps were made. Having developed a few games in Unity I can sympathise with this, particularly since the team did their best to make everything modular for easy map editing. But there comes a point when the costs end up outweighing the benefits, and in a fast-paced game like this, that point came a long time ago. To the developers’ credit, they are fixing it and will have a (monster) new patch “soon” to solve these issues.
We play games for the gameplay, so how is it? Fairly mixed, to be truthful. I’m not really sure what to say about it… mostly because it’s significantly hampered by the major performance issues that most people seem to be having. On the one hand, it does have classic gameplay. On the other hand… it has classic gameplay, and ‘classic’ can mean ‘dated’. Pretty much everything I said in my ROTT retrospective still applies here. A lot of the gameplay elements are directly copied, right down to the shrooms ‘power up’. Pretty much all of the weapons make a return, along with God and Dog modes. It retains the fast-paced gameplay, but it’s a little too fast because the maps are somewhat more claustrophobic than they were in the original. It’s great to be bouncing all over the map and mowing down enemies with the MP40, but there usually isn’t much room to move around. It’s sort of like playing Unreal Tournament in some respects, but it feels even faster. You know those Quake videos where the player bounces all over the goddamn place like a rubber ball? Yeah… it’s like that, except there’s no room to move. The original wasn’t that fast.
There are also some issues with the AI. Namely that they’re remarkably stupid for the most part. Many of the classic tricks have been retained – enemies can beg for their life only to feign death and come back, and they can also steal your weapons to use them against you. But they’re all remarkably slow and bad at navigating the levels. Granted, in the original the AI wasn’t particularly brilliant either, but that was the 90s where all they had to do was shuffle around a little, shoot at you, and soak up bullets. Interceptor Entertainment seem to think that’s good enough today. Most of the difficulty with the AI comes from them being bullet sponges and occasionally having remarkably good accuracy with bullet weapons or rockets, along with some of the aforementioned issues with positional audio. Sometimes they’re not even a challenge, they just sort of stand there or wander towards you without any sense of self-preservation. They’re only ever dangerous in groups (which they frequently appear in). Given that ROTT is largely a fast-paced shooting gallery, this isn’t such an issue as it is in something more sedate and tactical like… oh, I don’t know, the one million Call of Duty knock-offs we’re subjected to lately. But sometimes it’s jarring to see an enemy just standing there, doing nothing, because they can’t navigate around a small obstacle.
Also the jumping puzzles are bullshit. There were a few “platformer” points in the original, but this one takes things to extremes at times. Because the controls are a little slippery, these sections can be incredibly frustrating. Infuriatingly, many of them also have frame-rate issues. There’s one particular sequence with a spinning cylinder made out of lots of little floating pads which is way too difficult – artificially difficult in fact, because it causes a significant framerate drop, the physics are a little wonky so it’s hard to stand on the platform, and the slippery controls make it way too unforgiving if you accidentally move slightly too far forward. Really guys? Give me a break, please.
Despite all of this, I have fun playing it. When it works, it’s brilliant. It’s fast-paced and reminds me of the 90s. The level design in some places is fantastic and inspired, and some maps are basically direct updates of old maps (though in some cases you’ll need to look hard to recognise them with the new environmental detail). It’s stupid, over the top, and just about everything explodes. There’s no bullshit to get in your way, save for a handful of cutscenes. Sometimes it’s frustrating, sometimes it breaks, but for the most part it’s fun. And really, that’s all we ever wanted out of it. It’s a direct port of Rise of the Triad from my childhood. Interceptor clearly subscribe to the “If it isn’t broke, don’t try to fix it” school of thought, and for the most part it pays off. If you’re not used to these kinds of games it’ll probably be jarring, but for the classic 90s FPS gamers like myself, it’s like coming home after a very long time. I also like the little jokes that the developers have put in, having a dig at modern FPS games, or references to the 90s FPS games. The loading screen “hints” are actually little scraps of information about development and ROTT’s history, which is great.
Rise of the Triad 2013 has problems, but most of them are confined to the engine. It should be noted that Interceptor are basically indie developers working out of their bedrooms – they’re not a massive studio working in a large air-conditioned office. For that reason we can forgive them for some of their sins, although I really don’t know why they thought such a low FPS was suitable for such a fast-paced game. ROTT was clearly made as a labour of love in some ways. It’s the resurrection of a classic, the ultimate HD update in a way. It is to the original what Black Mesa is to Half Life. It’s fast-paced, fun, and occasionally pisses you off. The question really remains whether it’ll find acceptance in a new breed of gamer who are used to slower games like Call of Duty. The Quake era has well and truly died. It’s worth remembering that those games were fast-paced to make up for a deficit in other areas, like a lack of dynamic AI abilities. It’ll be interesting to see if ROTT captures the new audience as well as those who remember the original. In any event, Interceptor still has a while to go before they patch out the most significant ROTT bugs with Path 1.1, but they’re listening to the community and are out to make things better. Once patched, I think ROTT will end up being pretty damn good.