Reviewed: June 29, 2005
Released: May 27, 2005
There is something about envisioning our future that naturally fascinates mankind, and if itís a dark and destructive future, weíre all the more intrigued. Whether this fascination has to do with a disguised desire to live in an anarchic world with a personal purpose rather than a comfortable world of complacency, or whether itís just the general Ďwhat ifí syndrome is up for debate, but games that take place in a dark futuristic world that could very well be our own seem to pop up often either way.
Enter Restricted Area, a dark post-apocalyptic world in which shady corporations rule a world of uncertainty, a world ravaged by pollution, human greed, and our own eventual downfall. This has lead people to lives of mutant bounty hunting, and a loss of self-philosophy and morals that lead to a dangerous game of survival. Come on, you know youíve daydreamed about it. Now letís see how well Master Creating has realized this vision.
Restricted Area is an action/RPG that takes place in roughly the year 2083, where the world as a whole has finally faced its inevitable downfall through a deadly combination of pollution, human greed, and war, which has placed a handful mega-corporations in power at odds with the many people at a serious crossroads in their own lives. When mutated beings are roaming the wastelands and ex-soldiers have abandoned their personal moral beliefs in favor of bounty hunting, you know things have gotten interesting.
Drawing equally off of the bleak outlook of post-apocalyptic games like the classic Fallout, and the slick cyberpunk style of movies such as The Matrix, Restricted Area creates a world that is, oddly enough, both unique and generic. Itís certainly an interesting setting, but donít expect any ideas to be presented that you havenít seen before.
The same holds true for Restricted Areaís core gameplay. Remember Diablo? Good, then I donít have to write any more about the basics of how this game is played. Itís an isometric 3D action-RPG with dungeons full of slavering monsters (or mutants, in this case) all ready to face off with your character and her weapons. In fact, Restricted Area never claims to be revolutionary, which certainly helps its case. The big selling point of the game is its emphasis on action, and I have to say it delivers nicely. Itís fast paced, fun, and invigorating, which is, after all, what action is supposed to be.
For starters, almost all of the attacks in the game are ranged. This means that run speed and the ability to spot a strategic vantage point are of major importance even during early levels. Thankfully, Master Creating (the gameís developers) have helpfully sprinkled barrels of explosive waste all over most areas, making for a simple and very useful gameplay mechanic: if youíre overwhelmed with enemies, draw them back into a cluster of barrels, aim your gun at one, and kaboom! The exploding barrels cause major damage that will kill most early enemies easily, and hey, itís always fun to just blow the hell out of something. It looks stylish, too.
Thatís not to say that Restricted Area always offers such a convenience to its players. Itís not an easy game, and it definitely takes some getting used to. There are still plenty of stats to watch, and to that end the game has a very complex equipment system. In a cool twist on the chain mail and helmets of fantasy games, Restricted Area lets players equip their characters with artificial implants and cyborganic limbs in order to raise their abilities. A cyber-ware leg might add a good armor bonus, for example, while an artificial eye increases the percentage of enemies who drop items.
As usual for the genre, unneeded items can be returned to the standard hub town and sold for credits (though it isnít a particularly good way to make fast money, your inventory will fill up very, very fast otherwise). A Tolerance stat, tied to the characterís constitution (stamina) rating, determines what can or cannot be equipped, with the occasional level cap thrown in for good measure. And some situations are resolved through simple common sense: players canít, for example, equip three hearts or four arms.
I found the abundance of statistics (the game even keeps a percentage score on how well you can see in the dark!) to be at odds with this gameís emphasis on action, though. A more streamlined set of stats would have helped to keep the focus on blasting mutants, rather than carefully debating over the best use of your Tolerance points.
Equipment can also adversely or positively affect each of the four charactersí innate abilities: certain items weaken Victoriaís Psi powers, while Johnson, the tank, is always in need of accuracy bonuses. Each of the characters in Restricted Area are not only thoughtfully designed, but have their own unique play styles as well, adding a great amount of variety to the game. In the mood for some good old fashioned close combat? Kenji, a Japanese swordsman, is the only character who can used non-ranged attacks. Interested in an immersive cyber-punk experience? Play Jessica, who is the only character able to jack into cyberspace, a cool looking ďalternate worldĒ in which she can earn points needed for her other abilities.
Each character is also rated on how difficult they are to play as. Johnson, as the beefy tank, is the easiest. Jessica, with her low stats and slow run speed, is the toughest. Although Victoria and Kenji are rated at three and two, respectively, I actually found all of them except Jessica to be relatively easy to use. This is good since it allows players the chance to experience a range of different play styles without feeling too constricted by difficulty ratings. And since difficulty levels for the game itself can be altered (thereís even a Ďrealisticí difficulty level wherein, if your character dies, she is gone for good.) more seasoned action RPG gamers wonít have trouble finding a challenge.
Still, Restricted Area seems to have trouble making up its mind regarding the difficulty curve of dungeons. There were some dungeons that felt way too easy, while others (a little too early on, in my opinion) had swarms and swarms of enemies that filled the screen with in a matter of seconds. And while there is a story of sorts, itís vague and tends to wander off and get lost in the abundance of available side missions that comprise the bulk of gameplay. This non-linear style is fine by me, but some gamers might be put off by it.
Side missions, by the way, are meted out cleverly through a Reputation rating. Rather than just make missions available when your character reaches a certain level, the game keeps track of how well you handle missions given to you and gives you a reputation score that goes up for each mission successfully completed. The higher your characterís reputation, the more likely theyíll receive a quest from an NPC.
The main problem with Restricted Area is that thereís nothing new here. Itís almost completely a Diablo clone, with a radically different setting and some interesting gimmicks thrown in for good measure. The camera angle, the level-up system, the inventory screen - all of this will be instantly familiar to any fan of isometric action-RPG's. The story is obviously someoneís labor of love (check out the over 17 pages of back story in the instruction manual!), but it fails to captivate during play because of the relatively small amount of attention paid to developing it in the game itself.
And while all that emphasis on ranged weapons helps to deliver some fun action, itís still a complex, stat-based RPG at its core, with branching ability trees, different armor classes and more. Thereís nothing really bad about that, mind you. Restricted Area just isnít all that innovative or original.
Restricted Area starts out with a CG film unique to each of its different characters storylines. They are all nicely done, smooth and realistic, they add a lot of personality to each character. Itís nice to see, especially since CG movies are so sparse in comparison to the somewhat rough gameplay graphics. Given the sweeping and distanced birdís eye view camera angle, everything looks pretty nice. However, zoom in, and the graininess of the graphics compared to AAA-list titles becomes undeniable.
Still, there are some really nice effects in Restricted Area, such as realistic rain and smooth, detailed explosions - even the shadows of clouds slowly moving across the sky can be seen. In the gameís defense, the isometric style doesnít lend itself to gorgeous visuals. The quick, smooth rendering of many special effects at once is a testament to the power of IRIS, the gameís custom graphics engine, which was designed specifically for Restricted Area.
For all the nice effect detail however, there was some sloppiness that simply couldnít go unnoticed. For instance, some rocks on the ground appear to float in midair when your character approaches, and in some cases, when my character ran against a cliff, he suddenly appeared to be standing at the top of the cliff, creating a weird semi-2-D effect that should only happen with the occasional glitch, not be present all the time due to sloppy object placement.
Also, insects such as spiders in the wastelands more or less glide across the screen as opposed to a more natural animation that attempts to make it appear as though it is skittering. In the end, it has a tendency to look kind of, well, cheesy. Enemies in general are well done, but most of their designs are kind of dull at the same time. Itís the generic thing again. Whatís so great about a big ugly bald guy in a suspiciously brown diaper?
Still, I like the overall presentation in Restricted Area. When taken as a whole, it looks pretty good. Character designs are fun too. Johnson is a large and imposing beefcake of a guy who wears a black trench coat and sunglasses no matter what time of the day it is. Jessica has cotton candy pink hair and an eyebrow ring, while Victoria looks like an S&M fanís wildest dream. Kenji parades around shirtless, showing off his tattoos and wielding his sword like a samurai. No matter who you go with as your character, they are all fun to watch in the very stylish, though at times sloppy, world of Restricted Area.
When I first played Restricted Area, it was a preview wherein the story was lost on me, because the entire opening movie was done in German without subtitles. Now thatís been changed (obviously) and characters have English-speaking voice actors. Even when playing Restricted Area in German though, I could tell that the voice acting was well done, simply based on the voice actorís intonation. (That, and a feeble grasp of the language from high school classes.)
In my opinion, capturing realistic and meaningful intonation is probably the biggest obstacle for voice actors, especially when translating from a foreign language. Not only do meanings of words and sentence structure have to be looked at, but also how things are said. I have to say that Iím happy to report that Restricted Area has lost nothing in the translation, including quality. When characters give their back-story, they sound like real people talking, complete with personality and proper emotion. Even minor charactersí voices, especially the shady business men hanging out on the street corner, are very well done and believable, making the world of Restricted Area nicely immersive. The only complaint is the odd accents many characters have. Was it meant to be that way? Or is this a case of German voice actors doing impressive English voice-overs? Either way, itís not a big deal.
As for music, the soundtrack is pretty much mostly moody and ambient, with a few kick ass action scene tunes (think The Matrix). It tends to meld with the game, rather than fade into the background like an afterthought. Likewise, sound effects blend into the music, which has kind of a cool effect, such as the sound of a rattlesnake against the backdrop of the barren wastelands, or the sound of rain drops falling in the ghetto of the main city.
Itís not that Restricted Area is the best sounding game in the world - there isnít a terrible lot of variety with the soundtrack, and I still think (as I did during the preview) that mutants make ridiculous and highly repetitive sounds when they attack or get hit. Still, there is a lot of obvious attention to detail in this area, and I appreciate that.
While Restricted Area is good at being an action/RPG, as Iíve said before, it isnít exactly new, so it had better have enough to offer in the way of value to stand up to its competitors. With four different characters and their own storylines, abilities, and very noticeable difficulty variances, I can say that Restricted Area stands up pretty nicely on its own here. And since each characterís stats, abilities, and weaponry are greatly customizable; players should have fun mixing things up and trying out all the different aspects of this game.
There are just plenty of things to do in Restricted Area: plenty of missions, plenty of weapons, bio-ware, cyber-ware and combat drugs to try out, and plenty of variety just between the four main characters. There is also a cooperative multiplayer mode for two players over LAN or Internet. And itís fun too, which is, of course, the most important thing in the end.
Itís difficult to be completely unique and original in our world, especially in any business, and video games are, truth be told, a business. When developers see a successful game, they tend to try to recreate that gameís formula for success, and hopefully decide to throw in a few of their own ingredients. That could easily be a bad thing, but thereís nothing wrong with taking a good thing and running with it - that is, if you know exactly where to run.
Restricted Area isnít going to set any new gold standard or change the world of action-RPG games. It still knows how to show a gamer a good time, though, and it still knows how to be a solid game by any standard. If youíre not looking to be wowed and are just up for some good action and a cool world to play around in, then give Restricted Area a go. You wonít be disappointed.