IntroductionThe Challenge is a first person stealth and adventure game that will be releasing into the Steam Early Access program on October, 7th 2016. The Challenge is an ambitious indie game being developed by a one-man team over at Atum Software. You play as Maxim Gromov, an agent that works for an organization named simply "The Bureau", and you will be fixing the various mistakes of aliens and time travelers alike. If you're interested in the project and wish to be an active part in testing playable content and supporting the developer, you can pick it up on Steam in less than a week.
Throughout this preview, you will also find direct answers from the developers themselves to specific criticisms of mine. Thanks again to Atum Software!
StoryYou are overworked and underpaid, what else is new? It was your day off and you were ready for a day of relaxation, a little Maxim time to yourself. That's not how the world works, though, your coworkers either call in or get stuck in a temporal anomaly, so the boss man calls you up. Before you know it you're way back in the Stone Age sneaking around the ever watchful gaze of the roving bands of cavemen. Being an early access title, there's not much beyond that in terms of story. You can pick up small details in your home office about the universe that the game is set in, but the story seems to be the last bit the developer seemed to focus on. The premise of the game by itself is an interesting one and I'm excited to see how the story evolves from what it is now.
The, uh, models are a work in progress.
GameplayWhat I'm about to say is unfair, but the goal of this preview is to evaluate the current content. The gameplay is a very uninspiring. You'll spend the majority of your time avoiding cavemen (you don't want to scare them with your scary spaceman suit) by staying out of their line of sight (which is displayed by a rather large and obnoxious blue and red cone). Your primary goal is to locate and procure key items that will be specified at the beginning of your mission. You will find yourself roaming across a map, moving from various landmark to landmark in search of special containers. A feature that spiced up the monotony of grabbing five of the same item, was a secluded maze comprised of spike traps, buzz saws, and rotating piked clubs. Now that all sounds very exciting, but the maze is easily solved and the traps are blatant and will never catch you by surprise.
Developer's response when asked what their plans regarding enhancing the mazes and traps as development continues:
No special plans for mazes in nearest updates, but Egypt mazes will be underground and you could meet some moving enemies there, so it’s much harder to beat. -Evgeniy KolpakovAs the game progresses in development, it is important to try and reinvent the core mechanics. For a game based on stealth and distraction, I found myself sprinting around the line of sight beacons, it was just easier. My first hour with the game I gave the stealth mechanics a solid try but found it to be too wonky and unsatisfying. As a means of distraction, Maxim can throw out sound grenades. After pitching one at the nearest caveman, the caveman would snap to it for a second or two and then go right back to pursuing me. Holding sprint and just avoiding enemies worked. It worked too well.
Developer's response when asked how they plan to improve the existing stealth mechanics:
On top of all of that, there's hardly any tutorial to get you acquainted with the various mechanics. You get a bare-bones rundown of the basic controls (which is in surprisingly broken English) such as sprinting and crouching, but the game leaves out many of the other vital key settings. Just starting the game and progressing to the first level, you feel lost.
Sure, of course. One of the most important things - we want to refuse from using of «vision cones» and display approaching enemies in any other way. Also, we’ll add QTE to save from «Game Over» in last moment (victory in the QTE will erase an enemy memory like in «Men in Black» - that what we got in plans now). -Evgeniy Kolpakov
The largest sin that the game commits is that it just isn't fun in its current state. Stealth games are built on the suspense of getting caught, but if you somehow slip up and manage to get yourself noticed, the game simply ends and you load your previous save. It sounds much more punishing than it really is, if you save often you can reload (if you get the right save state, which we'll discuss below) and change your route. The time I spent in the game was 90% running from location to location, 5% reloading, and the last 5% was taking screenshots at how pretty the game can be.
Developer's response when asked how they plan to make the gameplay more engaging going forward:
Right now we want to get some feedback about current version and see what players like about it and what hate :) Then we’ll decide which direction to choose. -Evgeniy KolpakovThe locations are very well put together.
Graphics and SoundIt is easy to see, The Challenge is a beautiful game but in its own way. The game is built on Unreal Engine 4, so the lighting effects are brilliant. Walking through the densely vegetated Stone Age was beautiful and it only got better once the sun began to go down and the moon lit up the night sky. The choice of colors being used in the color palette creates a very visually stimulating environment. The title still comes with some faults in terms of looks, though. Colors become over saturated very often and in low-lit areas the game can become muddled, which is a shame! The models of enemies and friendlies alike also need some work. They resemble human beings, but their proportions are off. It can be off-putting, to say the least.
The levels that are available in the current build are gorgeous. The starting lab area was interesting to explore and the lighting made it feel very 90's sci-fi, which I appreciated. The Stone Age level was a joy to explore. The zone is comprised of a few landmarks that are a sight to see. The designer did a fantastic job of assembling the foliage and surrounding mountain ranges, it feels very deliberate and handcrafted.
The sound design leaves much to be desired, unfortunately. The soundtrack suits the environment well and really enhances the sense of exploration. However, the enemy AI simply makes a static sound when in close proximity, the rain sound effect is far too low quality and really takes you out of your immersion. I would imagine all of these will improve as the product gets closer to completion.
PerformanceOften with early access titles performance is an issue. Poor performance has plagued games that are in on-going development since the Early Access program was launched. I am happy to announce that the game plays beautifully. Poor optimization can cripple even the mightiest of machines, but due to the pedigree of the engine behind The Challenge, it has suffered no problems. Smooth as a whistle!
I'm even happier to report that the game didn't crash once during the hours I was playing it, which even full release AAA titles struggle to pull off. All in all, I am very happy with how the game runs and performs. There is an occasional hiccup, but nothing to worry about.
There are a number of issues that need to be addressed. Loading into your game from your last save seems to work only half the time, your video and audio settings are constantly reset, and there are dozens of clipping issues when it comes to plant-life.
ConclusionThe game has a lot of promise. It is beautifully assembled, it has a cool premise, and runs great! In its current state, though, I can't recommend backing the project. There's not a whole lot of gameplay to be had here, and what is there isn't engaging. Quickly whatever you accomplish in the first hour, you'll continue to do so in the next foreseeable future. I'm looking forward to what The Challenge can become. Deep beneath the surface, there is a unique game that excites me. Only time will tell how well the developer can execute on their goals.
| + Great Visuals|| - Uninspiring Gameplay|
| + Interesting Story Premise|| - Lack of in-depth tutorial|
| - Various loading issues|