From Russia With Bugs: The Precursors

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There are some games that achieve such cult status that people still play them years, even decades after they were released. Often, this devotion is reserved for the catalogs of specific developers known for creating a certain type of experience. Looking Glass is one example: their System Shock and Thief series are so beloved that fans took it upon themselves to modify these games so they can still be played on modern operating systems with modern graphical resolutions. In fact, these fan-made fixes are incorporated into the recent releases of System Shock 2 and the first two Thief games on GOG and Steam. Troika are another example, known for creating deep, reactive, highly ambitious but bug-ridden games. Their steampunk-meets-fantasy role-playing game Arcanum inspired a fan known as Drog Black Tooth to work on an unofficial bugfixing patch for years, one that is regarded as essential for any new player. Their adaption of the World of Darkness pen-and-paper role-playing game, Vampire: The Masquerade — Bloodlines, is so revered that a fan known as Wesp5 is still actively working on an unofficial patch, ten years after the game’s original release.

But that’s not the only game that Wesp5 is working on fixing. Wesp5 also has an unofficial patch for The Precursors, from Ukrainian developer Deep Shadows (yes, they’re Ukranian, not Russian, but their game is in Russian and I couldn’t resist that headline). I’d heard that Deep Shadows are also known for incredibly ambitious but buggy games, and I’d heard good things about The Precursors specifically, but it was Wesp5’s attention that really sparked my interest. I played for a surprisingly long time before The Precursors played its trump card and I discovered why Wesp5 was so inspired. It’s a genuine attempt at a dream game: a first-person shooter coupled to a free-roaming space flight game, letting players fly wherever they want, scraping together a little cash, and then land on planets to explore, chat, and shoot some people. It’s a Han Solo simulator.

I should take a moment to explain. Although my History Lessons series does not yet cover any, the space sim was a very popular genre in the ’90s. Most of the ones I played, like TIE Fighter and the Freespace series, cast the player as a military space pilot, flying a series of scripted missions that told a story. But others set players free, offering a galaxy to roam, factions to join or defy, commodities to trade and smuggle. This type of game dates back to the original Elite (which is now getting a highly anticipated crowd-funded sequel with a ridiculous name that I made fun of), and other games like Freelancer and the X series carried the torch. People who played such games in the ’90s, when the first-person shooter was coming up as the new hot genre, all had the same thought. What if there was a free-roaming space game where you could land on planets and space stations, get out of your ship, and run around in first-person mode? You wouldn’t just be a faceless pilot flying around, trading and smuggling — you could actually talk to people and make deals, just like Han Solo! A technological and design nightmare, this dream game was clearly something that would never be possible.

Well, Deep Shadows went ahead and tried anyway. It’s fitting that The Precursors, as an answer to this mythological dream game, is so mysterious and arcane to a Western player. It was originally released in Russian in 2009, but an English translation appeared on Gamersgate a year later. This translation, however, was really wonky and low-budget, with a huge amount of Russian voicework simply removed instead of re-recorded in English, resulting in a strange-sounding game that didn’t make much sense. Fans soon discovered how to revert to the original Russian audio while keeping English text, which meant that the majority of dialogues were subtitled. Cutscenes, however, were now in Russian, without any way to provide an English translation. This is when Wesp5 got involved, creating a patch that restores Russian audio except for the cutscenes, which were re-recorded in English by fans. I’m not sure why this was done, but I presume it is because the original translation was deemed inaccurate. Sadly, as bad as the English voice acting is in the stanard English release, the new fan voices are even worse. They’re just really, really bad. Fortuantely these cutscenes are relatively rare events, and everywhere else the original Russian voices are used.

Apparently the full installation instructions have changed since I installed the game. I purchased the game from Gamersgate, then downloaded the original Russian audio files from Beamdog, but it seems that Beamdog no longer offers them, instead providing a fan patch that adds some Russian audio back in but otherwise keeps the English audio. To fully restore Russian audio, you’ll have to check this thread and figure it out. Then download and install Wesp5’s patch. After this I had very little trouble with the game, except for some occasional slowdowns during combat. Others had this too, but I couldn’t find any fix except to quit and restart the game, since the problem only happened sometimes. It didn’t occur often enough to deter me.

Once it’s running, The Precursors is still mysterious, because there is absolutely no documentation. No manual, not even a readme file. The options menu provides some hints in the form of the list of remappable controls, but other than that I had to just dive in and figure it out. There’s a tutorial section at the beginning, of course, but it only covered the basics. I ran around a weird alien planet, shot at some aggressive plants, and learned that my character took locational damage. If his arms were hurt his accuracy would go down, if his legs were hurt he would limp around more slowly. I learned that I had an inventory full of items, and had to manually apply medical syringes to my limbs to heal my wounds. I saw that there were different types of ammunition for my weapons, and I had to switch to armor-piercing rounds against the enemies near the end of the tutorial section. But there was much more that I didn’t discover until later, when I found myself free to wander about a different planet, chatting to people in town and accepting jobs. I pressed the “F” key when it got dark in an attempt to turn on my flashlight, and was greeted with a menu with three options. The first was to turn on the flashlight, but what were the other two? The second turned out to be a rest option, letting me wait until a certain time of day. The third put my character into stealth mode, and prompted a bunch of instructional messages about how to sneak around and silently eliminate enemies.

At this point I was pretty sure what kind of game The Precursors was: a sci-fi Skyrim. A free-roaming role-playing game where I could talk to townsfolk, get quests, drive a dune buggy, and wander the desert getting into fights and collecting pieces of dead wildlife to sell later. And that is indeed what I did, for quite a while. It wasn’t until I’d finished up nearly every quest on the planet and repaired my ship that I realized how much more there is. There really is a full-on free-roaming space flight section to the game, complete with multiple star systems to visit, commodities to trade, merchants to protect or to rob, and ship upgrades to buy. It’s crazy. No Western publisher would have dared to fund a game like this.

So does it live up to the Han Solo fantasy? Well, no. But it’s a valiant attempt. Part of the problem is that each explorable planet can only be reached as part of the main story, and it’s a pretty terrible story. It also makes the two parts of the game feel oddly separate. The space sections feel like Elite or Freelancer, but the planets feel like Skyrim, except there isn’t much to find on the planets unless a specific quest points to it. And there are fewer side quests and more of a linear quest line the farther one gets. A player who is simply looking to finish the storyline will skip almost all of the space sections and just fly to the next planet to get on with the shooting. There was one section where the story actively sent me into space, which was cool, but the reverse wasn’t true — I was never sent to planets as part of my space-borne shenanigans. It would have been great to fly down to new planets just to check them out, or to do some special missions, but the planets are reserved for the main plotline only and it isn’t possible to land on most. It’s also clear that the space portions are less developed than the planetary portions. There’s plenty to do but it quickly becomes apparent that the merchant convoys and enemy attacks are simply popping in from nowhere, there’s no way to tell which commodities are worth trading and where to haul them to, all the stations look identical on the inside, and there’s little difference between star systems. It’s definitely a mini-Elite, taking a back seat to what’s happening planetside, and what’s happening planetside is a story-driven role-playing game with sidequests, which hardly feels like what Han Solo would be doing.

In fact, in many ways The Precursors isn’t very imaginative. The first major planet is basically just Tatooine, and the second is pretty much Endor (although instead of Ewoks there are sentient bird creatures, which is better). Even the game systems aren’t original. It’s just remarkable how many of them there are. I’ve discussed most of the spacefaring possibilities already, but I didn’t mention the anomalies and resource missions. Planetside, in addition to the locational damage, inventory, and stealth system, there’s also optional weapons upgrades, a whole bunch of ground vehicles to drive, a leveling system that lets the player pick a series of perks, and an addiction system that punishes the player for relying too much on medication (or drugs, or alcohol). The player starts with a cool pair of binoculars that can zoom in and scope out danger from afar. There’s even a faction system, so the player’s reputation with various groups will affect whether they attack or not, and whether the player will be treated as a friend and allowed access to certain places.

This last one is particularly impressive, especially once I realized how deep it goes. The bandits on the desert planet of Goldin attacked me on sight, and nearly every quest I got asked me to kill some of them, so I just assumed they were baddies for me to fight. It wasn’t until I got a quest to clear out their base that I realized I could have made friends with them, and (I think) accessed an entirely different set of quests to get what I wanted. This is even more explicit on later planets, where I was forced to pick one faction or another to assist if I wanted to progress in the game. One planet even pulls a page from The Witcher 2 (which is impressive, since The Witcher 2 came out two years later) and asks the player to decide right from the start which faction to back. The result is that I only saw one side of the conflict on that planet, and I’m tempted to return to The Precursors one day to find out what would happen if I made the other choice.

I’ve sounded fairly negative so far, but that’s not accurate. The Precursors is not quite the dream game, but it’s still really interesting, an example of what might happen when we take a few decades worth of game design ideas and try to put them all together. Most of the time I was taking it all in with a kind of unbelieving awe, marveling that something so audacious was actually made. No individual piece stands out as particularly inspired, but most are solid enough, and the combination of them all is something to behold. I was uncovering new and surprising things throughout. It’s the antithesis of the modern, streamlined game design we see so often today, a throwback to the “more is better” philosophy that was more prevalent in the ’90s, when technology was rapidly advancing and players dared to dream about the crazy, huge games of the future.

The developers’ ambition inevitably outstripped reason, most obviously in the main plot that just stops halfway through, waiting for a sequel that never came. But since I didn’t really care about the story I didn’t mind — that’s not the reason I played The Precursors. I played it to see if this crazy thing could actually work, and I’m pleased to say that it does, and it’s even pretty fun to boot. It’s also (mostly) bug free, courtesy of Wesp5’s patch. Some players will be bothered by the flimsier parts, by the odd tone, by the poor explanations (not just of controls and mechanics, but of the world — that aforementioned choice between two factions was made more or less blind, not really knowing much about either of them), but these are minor things. The Precursors is inspiring. It made me think that the dream game — any dream game, for that matter — might actually be possible.

So what I’m saying is, you should play it. Be inspired.

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