Ever feel pessimistic about a game before you really get a chance to start playing it? Such was the case for me when I received Harbinger, an action role-playing game from Silverback Entertainment and DreamCatcher Interactive. First of all, it looked like it was going to be a Diablo clone, which didn’t get my heart racing. Then when I opened up the jewel case, I found a note inside (presumably from DreamCatcher) letting me know that the installation program doesn’t quite work right, and that it wouldn’t create a shortcut for the game. So I created one myself, but when I started the game I discovered there were green boxes around everything, and so the game looked really bad and it was difficult to figure out what was going on.
Fortunately, after that inauspicious start, Harbinger got better. Not great, mind you, but better. It turns out there’s a simple solution to the green boxes problem, and while Harbinger owes a lot to Diablo, it’s not a complete clone. For starters, instead of taking place in a standard fantasy world, Harbinger takes place on a space ship. The space ship is large, is the home to a variety of different races, and apparently goes from world to world harvesting them of their resources. You play a stowaway of sorts on the ship, and while you initially just scavenge around looking for materials, eventually it becomes clear that something is going on inside the ship, and you’ll have to step in to take care of it.
As stories go, Harbinger’s works pretty well. There isn’t much of a background story, so there isn’t any explanation about why you’re on the ship or how the ship is supposed to work, but Silverback Entertainment did an excellent job of developing the secondary characters, and the conversations you have with them are fun. Sadly, the same can’t be said for your character. Harbinger is heavy on action and light on role-playing, and thus your character only has four attribute values: a melee skill level, a ranged skill level, a hit point bonus, and a race-specific skill level. If you were hoping for old favorites like strength and wisdom, or for a variety of spells to cast, or for a variety of fighting maneuvers to employ, then Harbinger is the wrong game for you. Characters can only attack with a hand-to-hand weapon, a ranged weapon, or their class-specific weapon, and that’s it.
However, while character development is light -- not only are there only four attributes, you can probably max out three of them while playing the game -- at least the three available races are distinct. Humans are the most basic race. They can wear body armor and helmets, and they get to use mines. Gladiators are battle mechs, and they can control helper robots. And Culibine can keep “amps” orbiting around their bodies and use the amps to attack enemies. There’s actually a Starcraft feel to the races, where the humans play the marines, gladiators play gladiators (gee, what a coincidence), and Culibine play Protoss. But the important thing about the races is that they play differently. Playing one race isn’t just a cosmetic change over playing another race. They each have their strengths and weaknesses, and even if you just stick with, say, ranged combat for each race, your strategies will have to change. The single player campaign is also different for each race, which is nice.
Where Harbinger has its problems is in the gameplay. Like with Diablo, your primary concerns in the game are to kill things and find equipment, but, unlike Diablo, the equipment is pretty boring and the killing gets repetitive quickly (or perhaps just more quickly). The real shame here is the equipment. Although the manual lists there being 750 pieces of equipment (not to mention “rare and unique items” in an obvious nod to Diablo), there are few bonuses items can have, and so it’s pretty much just a matter of finding a gun, and then finding a slightly better gun, and then finding a slightly better gun than that. Plus, characters can only wear a few pieces of equipment, and their items are unique to their race, and so there isn’t a whole lot of equipment you need to find, and two-thirds of what you do find you can’t use.
That leaves combat where Harbinger should provide its entertainment value, but it just doesn’t happen. Enemies are pretty strong in the game, and so you have to use hit-and-run tactics in almost every fight, and even though there are a couple dozen different enemies, fights go about the same. Shoot a couple times, run away, and then shoot again. Supposedly you can use melee for most of the fighting, but I just found that to be a good way to get killed. And so you just ding the enemies to death, and they’re dumb enough to let you do it. Eventually that gets boring.
The graphics don’t help a lot, either. Harbinger uses 2D graphics and an isomorphic view (hey, just like Diablo), and while the graphics engine itself is nice, there is limited variety. Almost all the fighting takes place on the ship (a couple missions also take place on the world it is currently mining), but clearly Silverback Entertainment used some sort of editor to put the levels together, with the result that they all look about alike. And it doesn’t help that the game is so dark that you can’t see much beyond where your character is standing. If your computer is in a room that gets any glare at all, then you probably don’t want to play Harbinger in the daytime, or else you won’t be able to tell what’s going on.
Lastly, once you play through the single player campaign for a character, that’s it. You can’t play again at a higher difficulty setting (there aren’t any difficulty settings), and you can’t export the character to multiplayer (there isn’t any multiplayer). The campaigns are nice enough, and they take around 20 hours each to complete, but not giving players more options seems like a curious oversight.
And so Harbinger is a decent but unspectacular game. It has its good points and bad points, and if you like action role-playing games, you might like it more than I did (I’d put it at a couple notches below Diablo II and Dungeon Siege). Plus, it’s reasonably priced, and it ran perfectly on my poor, aging computer (despite it barely meeting the minimum requirements), so you might want to check it out.