Update 16/1/2012: this game has been lowered from 240 MSP to 80 MSP.
It’s rare that an XBL indie title deviates from the dreary norm of shameless trash and apathetic twin-stick blast-a-thons.So when I play one that does dare to be a bit different, I want to give it credit for that, if nothing else. Fortunately, KGB: Episode One happens to also be quite good at what it does.
KGB is a first-person shooter – a painfully over-represented genre in full retail games, but almost entirely absent from the indie side of things, at least on the Xbox marketplace. I know too little about Microsoft’s development kit and programming in general to comment on how challenging it is to develop an FPS on a budget of whatever change you have in your pocket, but judging by not only the dearth of these games but also the horrific quality of the few there are (which I will revist another time), it must be quite tricky.
It’s only fair to give KGB credit for its ambition. It isn’t a nigh-unplayable, pale shadow of Wolfenstein 3D (I’ve played one of those), a sob-inducingly dire sci-fi wreck (played one of those too) or a horde-survival game (a few of those) – and that was the thing that really impressed me when I first dabbled in the trial version. KGB genuinely sets out to be a straight-faced, honest to goodness real first-person shooter. You can choose your loadout at the beginning of the game, which is pretty much a miracle. The scope of this choice is limited but perfectly valid, and leagues ahead of most of the competition. You carry one gun, and your choice of loadout determines which one you start with, from a choice of a scoped assault rifle, an unscoped version, a light machine gun, and an RPG launcher. Personally I favour the scoped AR, but if I change my mind later I can easily switch; in true modern FPS fashion, you can swap your weapon for any of the ones dropped by your enemies. Indeed, this is quite necessary at some points, as an RPG launcher is the only way to eliminate a mounted machine gun nest. More on that in a moment.
It should be evident by now that KGB really makes an effort. This extends into the other areas of the game too. The visuals are among the best I’ve seen in an XBL indie title. It’s not going to floor anyone whose opinion of a game’s quality is determined solely by how shiny the visuals are, but it’s impressive stuff for a no-budget release that was probably created by one person in their bedroom. Although it lacks the detail, variation and general professional quality to fully support the comparison, I’m going to go ahead and say that the game that KGB‘s visuals remind me of most is Battlefield 1943. It has perfectly adequate grass and trees, and a more than servicable water effect in its occasional small pools.
The enemies are limited to a range of maybe four character models, but that sets KGB way ahead of its rivals. More importantly, these enemies spot you from a decent (but not excessive) distance, shift between standing and crouching while engaged in combat, and lob the odd grenade. Hell, in true Call of Duty/Halo style, some of them chuck far more grenades than any fashion-conscious mercenary should really have room for in their sleek 21st century combat pantaloons.
The rest of the presentation isn’t as impressive, but still well above average for the indie junk heap. The music is a tolerable lone-guitar chug while wandering around, then squeals and shifts up a gear with a suitable sense of urgency when an enemy spots you. The exploration music changes in some areas too; there’s a misty minefield region where the aforementioned chug is replaced by a far more accomplished atmospheric acoustic number that I could happily have listened to for the rest of the game.
But this is all icing, of course. However nice the decoration, it’s the crumbly cake of the gameplay that matters. I’m happy to report that KGB evades the (sometimes seemingly inevitable) fate of being a dry, bitter, wasabi-and-walnut monstrosity, and instead reveals itself to be a pleasant Sunday afternoon Victoria sponge. Engagements with enemy forces are understandably less fluid than in full retail games, but perfectly adequate. You can aim down your sights – and when you do, the gun actually raises to your eye rather than just flicking to a scope view. Some full retail games from long-established development houses can’t manage that feat (Perfect Dark Zero, go and stand in the corner).
The aim of the game is quite simple: you are Mike, and you’re dropped off in a troubled wilderness region to soften up the entrenched enemy forces before the main assault. This isn’t revealed through text, incidentally; the (admittedly basic) premise is imparted to you via voiceover during your helicopter drop-off. That’s one more area in which this game surprises by aiming squarely at the genre of ‘genuine modern military FPS’.
Mike’s mission boils down to killing anyone he sees, searching camps (scattered little huts) and setting fire to certain locations (amusingly represented by patches of darker grass). Although this doesn’t give you a lot to go on with, it does the same job as the plot of almost any modern FPS: it justifies you running from place to place while shooting people.
It’s not all gleeful thumbs up and high fives for KGB though. I’m going to disregard the unfair criticisms like ‘it’s not as pretty as Battlefield 3’ and ‘it doesn’t have proper loadouts’. It’s an indie game; there’s no point making straight comparisons to full retail games. It does, however, have its own problems that could have been avoided.
Firstly, sometimes enemies see and shoot you through solid rock. Not the edge of a boulder, either; bullets come flying straight through a great outcrop. It’s not a major problem and mostly doesn’t occur, but it is noticable.
Secondly, machine gun nests are more awkward than they really need to be, in several ways. Even though you can see (and seemingly shoot) the soldier manning them, they can only be destroyed by hitting them with an RPG. The game does flash up a message informing you of this, but only after you’ve already had to deal with two of them. For my first couple of hours with the game, I just kept running past these nests because they seemed to be manned by oblivious immortals. Even once I guessed the solution, I thought I was wrong because it’s easy to miss while appearing to score a direct hit. This is solved by quickly strafing so you can see the arc of your rocket, but it’s still an inconvenience. The nests also aren’t animated at all; the soldiers manning them stand stock-still, and the only clue that you’re being shot at is the damage indicator, since the mounted guns produce neither bullets nor any sort of sound.
Finally, and most irritatingly, there seem to be no checkpoints. The need to start over from scratch every time explains why I’ve played for maybe three hours total and not got all that far. Still, this is fine. Being an indie game it’s probably quite short, so playing from the beginning each time makes sense. My grievance isn’t with that; it’s with the no-checkpoint respawn system. Mike the unspecified agent has an unlimited supply of lives but each time he dies he has to walk all the way from the beginning of the game again. Enemies don’t reappear (mercifully) but it’s a hassle nonetheless. The only reason I can see to force this upon the player is to artificially lengthen the game, and it irks me. The play area is quite large and consists of a series of reasonably open spaces, so when you walk all that way only to accidentally step on a well-concealed land mine and have to do it all again, it does cause the teeth to gnash somewhat.
All in all, though, KGB: Episode One comes highly recommended. It attempts something I’ve rarely seen in XBL indie games: it makes full use of whatever miniscule, one-man budget it has to get as close as it can to a full, up-to-date FPS experience. Between the exceptional visuals for an indie game, the largely competently executed gameplay, and the attempt to provide some form of cinematic scene-setting through voiceovers and a dramatic opening scene, KGB Episode One manages to excel and distinguish itself enough to shrug off most of its noticable niggles. The frustration of repeatedly re-treading the same ground does cost the game playability that it can’t afford to lose, but its overall quality sustains it and makes it recommendable for those curious about dabbling in an indie FPS, particularly at the next-to-nothing price of 80 MSP.