Memo-Review: A.I.M.2 – Clan Wars
Imagine a world where there are no humans. A world where the only sentience is encountered in semi-robotic hovercraft form, ranging wild across a planet split into environmental zones. A world where tribal mechanic society forms, where trade paths are established, where enemies are lost and gained. A world with its past veiled in secrecy. A world which exists not for the player, but for itself.
Imagine, a world of Artificial Intelligence Machines. It’s probably worse than you just imagined, but it is still my near-favourite game You Have Never Heard Of ™.
The reason why most of you are probably struggling to recall ever even hearing about this game is fairly simple – it was a russian-developed game from 2006, published by 1C (a Russian regional publisher) and only distributed as far as eastern Europe. And, frankly, it is a crying shame that it never breached the western market, as it really genuinely had quite a lot of potential.
The game’s developers – SkyRiver studios – describe their own game as “Freelancer style action/RPG ”, and if that is not enough to raise your interest, then I am so very sorry for your lack of SPAAAAAACEEE senses. In any case, the description is remarkably apt, as the game embraces many of Freelancer’s aspects – players piloting their ships across a world (universe) split in zones (sectors, solar systems) that are interconnected by special jumpgates, with each zone having multiple bases, conducting trade runs, random battles, fulfilling missions along the good old trade-fight-think guidelines, juggling their relations with npc factions, and advancing a plotline that has world-changing implications. And, really, all of those things – except for the plotline bit – are handled very well in A.I.M.2.
Unlike Freelancer, however, all action is conducted on ground – with spaceships being replaced by very spaceship-looking mechanical ‘gliders’ (or hovercrafts, if you like). This is a really good design decision, since it allows the environment to play a much larger role in movement and combat situations – inclination matters, surface matters, emergent cover matters. The developers have kept the locations interesting and varied enough by splitting the zones across a diverse array of terrestrial environments (tundras, highlands, underground zones, deserts, swamps, mild areas and so forth).
Control scheme is representative of both its genre and times: wasd controls the craft’s sliding, mouse turns & aims & shoots, extra buttons for missiles, jumping, boosting.. Perhaps even energy transfer between shields and weaponry and reactor (aka movement juice). If you’ve ever flown the Hammerhead hovercraft in Mass Effect 2, you know exactly how it feels like. There’s also a mission log, main menu, a map, a personal logbook, inventory & ship status/equipment screens.. Standard stuff, really. It did seem to work well and it felt really good in terms of inertia, control, fluidity and precision.
Player progression was limited by a decent mix of increasingly strong craft and equipment selection, new zones opening after either a certain accumulated money amount or after passing the ‘local’ main-quest missions. As far as I can recall, it never felt too slow or fast, but it was slightly one-directional; the upgrades were mostly linear (though, of course, retaining both individual model benefits, series benefits – such as heavy, light, medium stuff for strength/agility/compromise – and the ability to completely downgrade at will) AND location-tied, meaning that the player gradually surpasses all npcs within a zone. In some ways this was a shame, as it kept the effective playing area limited to 2-3 zones at any given time. In other ways it was not such a big deal, as the zones were fairly large and varied, and more importantly, there was always the carrot-on-stick presence of further upgrading.
One rather interesting aspect was the control sphere & cluster mechanic. All npcs – the gliders – contain a personality core of sorts – you might think of that as the individual brain. As a glider is destroyed, the personality sphere is dropped, and the player (as well as any other npc) can scoop it up into the ship’s cargohold. There, in exchange for a token amount of energy cells (a type of resource) one could change the captured core’s allegiance, effectively bringing it over to the players ‘clan’. Then, you could either buy a new glider hull for that personality, and let it trade/patrol and earn money for you, or you could add it into a ‘cluster’ of any base. Within the cluster a number of spheres reside, and the majority number determines to what clan the base itself belongs and makes profit for. Naturally, you can bribe these personality spheres that are already in clusters, but that takes far, far, far more resources (obviously). So, yeah, in a roundabout way I am saying that you could overtake and control, eventually, whole zones. The “clan wars” subtitle was not just for plot reasons, it accurately reflects the possibilities within the game. How many modern first-person games let you take over – and lose control of – almost everything and everyone you encounter? Obviously, the player was no different. If your glider got taken out, you dropped in your sphere, and had to wait for an automated retrieval platform (which also went for any other spheres, of course) to scoop you up and deliver to nearest ship-selling base. Luckily, you were immune to other npcs indoctrinating you, but otherwise, you were just as vulnerable as they were.
So far, so great – but unfortunately there is a reason.. well, several.. why this game is not more popular. The localization issues (no English translation… Or at the very least, no finished grammatically correct translation) aside, it was only a moderately good-looking game for it’s time (note that it only asks for DirectX 8.1, in 2006!), and it had a ginormous amount of bugs. Not just minor bugs, but true game-stopping plot-line-breaking bugs. And thanks to whatever brain-consuming virus was loose in 1C’s offices around that time, the patching procedures were more complicated than it would seem reasonable. Finding the actual patches themselves was a pain, distinguishing their order was another, telling which game version you had (which localization, which outlet chain, was it a special edition, what patches you already have, and so on) was further trouble… As far as I know, the game even now has a wide number of unfixed bugs.
And, of course, even if you do manage to find a resale copy of this game somewhere on them electrical bays and rainforest stores, I have to urge caution. This game – like so many other Russian-developed games of its time – use Starforce as it’s DRM mechanic. The Starforce of the 2000s. The Starforce that would crash your DVD drive and ruin your week.
I did also mention that the storyline was not this game’s strong suite. For one, it was a painfully cliched affair, including such tropes as you being a long lost amnesia-afflicted super-advanced elite individual cast down from total power at the end of the last game, working your way back into the world in order to take over a supercontrol computer that would send you past the local planet and reveal the true reason behind the zones’ existence. The delivery was crippled by the framework provided by the game itself (this is an aspect you can very, very clearly see in games like X3: Terran Conflict as well) – all missions were text-based, with no voice-overs and no different mechanics than the random missions you kept getting – still the same deliver, destroy, detect stuff you had done countless times.
In the end though, despite its flaws, Artificial Intelligence Machines 2 is dear to my heart. It was a true open-world sandbox sci-fi game with quirky design, wide range of upgrading, improving, changing and a good variety of objectives to occupy your time. It was very much a product of its place and time, and although I suspect it wouldn’t have aged well at all, it really should have deserved a proper chance at the western gaming market scenes.
Oh, yes, final scores. Because that’s what game reviews do, right? Well, golly, okay. I hereby give this game the rating of THREE LACTATING GOATS, FIVE WHEELS OF SLIGTLY DAMP CHEESE AND A HALF OF A ROTTEN TURNIP WITH A SIDE OF BASIL.
~X2-Eliah wants to turn back time and re-discover the Black Hunter glider for the first time again.