Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Consortium (PC)

Developer:Interdimensional Games|Release Date:2014|Systems:Windows

This week on Super Adventures I'm celebrating Star Trek's 50th anniversary by playing games with some connection to the series. Today I'm sharing screenshots from the first few hours of CONSORTIUM, a game that likes to SHOUT its name all over its Steam page. What does this have to do with 'Star Trek'? Well... I've read a few people say it's a bit like 'Star Trek: The Next Generation', except on a plane. And that's pretty much the only link.

Consortium's one of those Kickstarter success stories, though they didn't quite bring in millions. Or even hundreds of thousands. But what they got was apparently enough to finish an ambitious first person, guns and chats, RPG type of game, which is cool because that's one of my favourite genres.

This is a heavily story based game so I'm inevitably going to be spoiling a lot of things you might not want spoiled here. Though its description claims that "the story unfolds based largely on your actions," so if that's true I'm only spoiling one possible outcome! I won't give away the answer to the game's big mystery though, assuming I even manage to solve it.

(You can make screenshots moderately more visible by clicking on them.)


The game begins with a cutscene that flicks through a series of headlines to set up an impossibly idyllic future in which newspapers are still around in 2041. Also we solved resource problems, ended war, got rid of WMDs, and set up colonies on the Moon and Mars. And the game is going to send me to this future...

...right after I've read this advert for the sequel.

It says "please consider subscribing to our mailing list", and the only way to get rid of it is to press 'AGREE'! Though it seems that I'm only agreeing that I want it to go away.

Next I had to decide my difficulty, which is usually an easy choice for me as I always pick the default, average, normal level of challenge. This time though it's telling me I should only pick that if I'm highly skilled or have played the game before, so I guess I'm going with easy mode this time.

Consortium user agreement
A user agreement huh?

Seems that Interdimensional Games has made an arrangement with the Consortium King AI in the future to allow players from the present to travel across time and space to an alternate Earth! Well, not quite travel, more like hijack someone else's body, Nomad Soul-style, and "affect countless lives with limitless consequence". Damn man, I hope this doesn't have a morality system or else I'm going straight down to 'utter bastard' just for starting a new game.

But I won't be physically quantum leaping into them, or even getting streaming video back from their eyes. Instead to save on quantum bandwidth the game will be rendering a recreation of what they're experiencing in the "low fidelity" Source engine. So it's just like playing a multiplayer game... except I'm playing with countless people's lives.

Well this is creepy. Instead of just getting control of my avatar I have to walk over to him in flickery weirdspace. You know, that floating equation/starfield dimension that time travellers sometimes find themselves in.

But as I got close he suddenly scuttled right at me! Hey, I'm the one doing the possessing here mate.

I woke up inside the bluest of all planes, with a mysterious woman in the bluest of all uniforms at my door.

As I'm mindjacking a real person in a parallel future I can say anything I want here... as long as it's one of the three options in that nasty lime green dialogue box up there. You can tell it's a proper PC game as it's got me pressing the F keys. Or I can just press nothing for a while and she'll continue the conversation like I stood in silence for 30 seconds. I can't hear my own voice when I talk but she sounds... Irish maybe.

I'm trying to avoid the 'who am I, what is this place' options as I don't want to appear like a lunatic, so I asked her about the ancient jet fighters hanging around our plane and she explained that they're mercenaries escorting us through their airspace. Though when I asked for more info she snapped at me and told me to check the information console! It's like she doesn't even know she's an NPC.

Oh man, it's too early for this many words. Yeah I realise the irony, but at least my words come with pretty pictures attached.

Seems that I can access a ton of news stories by typing in search terms or clicking keywords, but it's not a codex that gives me straight information about specific topics. I was hoping to learn a bit about the Consortium (the guys I work for) and Zenlil (the plane I'm on) so that I didn't come across to others as such an obvious time traveller, but I can't be arsed reading all this right now.

I grabbed my B.U.S. super suit from the storage unit and headed out to 'get my CMC from the K', whatever the hell that means.

Hey, I've found a kitchen!

I tried to make breakfast here but I accidentally ‘recycled’ half the stuff on the wall instead so I've decided to stop using things. Seems that my suit's like the tank in Hostile Waters that can de-construct items in the world and turn them into energy. This whole game's giving me a bit of a Hostile Waters vibe really, with its intriguing utopian future and its archaic visuals.

The lack of textures does give it a really bold look but I don't think it's a good match for the harsh black ambient occlusion effect giving everything scruffy outlines.

The graphics may not be so awesome, but I do like this plane. It kind of reminds me of the one from Splinter Cell: Blacklist, or the Normandy from Mass Effect. It's only three floors tall (with a vent running along the top) but it's big enough for me to stretch my legs and it's got a decent sized crew wandering around.

Ah, when that woman said 'get the CMC from the K' she meant 'get the mind communication device from Knight 15'! Everyone's known by numbers in this, which would be really straightforward and convenient for me if I were a computer, but I'm not. That's why I keep calling that character from earlier 'the woman', because I can't remember her number.

Okay I checked and the Irish woman is Rook 25. This is Knight 15, she runs the plane, that's Pawn 12 in the background to her left, Pawn 19 is typing on the panel by the holographic Earth, and Pawn 1 is off screen to the right. Rook 9 is the pilot and captain of Zenlil, and I'm Bishop 6. I guess the Consortium King is a chess fan.

I had a conversation with Knight 15 about those mercs escorting us across Bulgaria and then I was given a choice between getting to know the crew or doing basic training in the simulator. So I'm going to go chat with whoever will talk to me.

"You mUst n0t lEarn spec1f1c2 oF VessSel'2 paSt"? Wow, I only wanted to know why Pawn 1 hates me so much! Everything he tells me turns to static though, it's all very mysterious.

Pawn 12 on the other hand worships me and is really keen to get me coffee. I let him live out his dreams but the Knight put a stop to that before he made it halfway across the room and sent him back to his console to do his job. Well it's not like I can make my own coffee, I'll just disintegrate the cups again!

Oops, I forgot to turn subtitles on earlier. The subtitle box is like the chat window in an MMO, filling up with everything being said nearby even if it's just [background chatter], it's weird.

Annoyingly I have to wait for characters to finish their scripted conversations before I can talk to them myself. It's like being trapped in a plane full of Half-Life 2 cutscenes, except the characters in this are less mobile and more keen on pressing buttons. Doesn't matter if they've got a console in front of them or not, they'll press imaginary buttons in thin air if they have to (presumably because they're interacting with a virtual interface).

Also in this I can just walk straight through people! The camera even goes a bit staticy when I do it to show that it's not a bug, it's a feature.

I think I've exhausted all my dialogue options right now and no one on the plane will acknowledge my existence any more, so I'm doing VR training in the most gloriously clich├ęd Metal Gear Solid-looking simulator imaginable. Then again I'm in an abstract virtual representation of an abstract virtual reality, so who knows what it looked like before being recreated in a present day game engine.

Here I'm learning about turning objects into energy and then using that energy to heal myself and repair my suit after holographic robots appear and shoot at me. So I haven't got regenerating health, but I can transform junk into medkits.

The next bit of training is about learning how to pick up guns and shoot robots, or at least it would've been if I hadn't spawned inside a friendly robot somehow. I can walk through pawns in the real world but in VR I'm stuck! I'm trapped here listening to them say their lines over and over in their cheerful robotic voices.
Bishop 6 is number one!
I love the Consortium!
You are so stroooooooooooooong!
Hooray for Zenlil and her amazing crew!
The King is the greatest creation ever!
I'll make sure the King commends you for this!
Fortunately the game saves all the time and I've got quicksaves so it's not an issue.

Alright, so first I shoot the enemies with a charged blast from my stun gun to knock them down. Then I press use on their unconscious bodies and wait for the progress bar to fill up to take them out for good. Got it.

Or I can just fill them with bullets, and skip the waiting around and getting shot at, but that's not exactly non-lethal.

Once they're down I can search their bodies and relocate anything worth having into my own pockets... except I can't right now as my pockets are full of energy. Weirdly I'll need to vent a percentage of my suit's power to make space to store tangible items. I have to sacrifice some of one thing for more of the other.

This is a pretty functional inventory screen and I'm really glad it's not bright green like my Interdimensional Games overlay, but my favourite thing about it is that bringing it up only slows time down, it doesn't pause... so I've basically got a button to make people talk in comically slow motion. I'd show you my skills screen as well, but I don't have one. The game might look a bit like Deus Ex, but there's no RPGness going on whatsoever.

The cockpit door had opened up by this point, so I was able to chat to Rook 9 and continue the plot. He eventually told me to check on some weirdness in my predecessors' room as it seems like someone might be messing with his old B.U.S. suit. It could just be a glitch though as the plane's been suffering from a few gremlins today.

So... not a glitch then. The Knight thinks that Pawn 7 here might have been killed by some kind of accident, but unless he accidentally slipped on a puddle of his own blood I'm thinking it's more likely to be murder.

Either way she wants me out so she can seal the room and forget about it until we reach Ireland, and I'm not even allowed to tell anyone what's happened. There was one clue though: a book he was found lying on, so maybe I can ask people about that.

Not right this minute though, as the mercenaries outside have switched from escorting our plane to shooting the crap out of it, and they're doing a good job of punching through our supposedly impervious armour.

Now that they've crippled our defences the mercs are trying to bore my crew into a coma with another long cutscene!

It turns out that they're being led by a 90s cartoon villain and this isn't the first time he and the Knight have had one of these chats over the holocommunicator. Though up to this point she's always been the one with the upper hand. They've done a clever thing here where the Knight is acting flustered while simultaneously using her CMC device to mentally talk me through how we should be steering the conversation.

What's weird is that Angelov here seems to know about everything that's going on, including the murder and the computer glitches... though he could've gotten that by hacking into my CMC. The weirdest part is this whole attack is just so he can board the plane and capture me personally! Well probably Bishop 6, but you never know.

Anyway the plan is for me to grab some weapons from the locker and pretend I'm not carrying them when I meet with Angelov and his squad in our cargo bay. Then I kill every one of them single-handedly.

Uh, do any of you guys know where the weapons locker is? I guess I must have passed it along the way.

Okay, new plan, I'll have to talk my way out of this situation instead! Step 1: Resist the urge to piss off the goons before they bring me to Angelov. Step 2: Uh... talk Angelov into not capturing me and maybe just going home? Or perhaps I can bore him into a coma with a long and tedious dialogue scene!

Wow, I did not expect this to actually work out.

I tricked Angelov into going somewhere private so I could tell him the secret of who I really am, then my crewmates pumped in knock out gas. Angelov passed out on the floor and the mercs who came by to investigate were knocked out right next to him. The rest of them ran off back to their boarding craft because they didn't know what to do any more.

And now I get to take their guns.

It's not over yet though as we're still surrounded by enemy fighters and they're firing at us! I have to shoot missiles at the planes and lasers at their missiles before they blow us up. So it's basically about spinning the camera around and clicking targets.

I managed to do it without taking a single hit in the end, but then I am playing on 'first time' difficulty. I admit I may have accidentally lasered a few planes to pieces instead of bringing them down with non-lethal missiles, but in my defence I thought they were incoming missiles! You can see the size of them on screen, everything's tiny!

What's creepy about this is that I'm two steps removed from reality while using this device, so I'm having to trust that I really am firing missiles at bad guys. I don't even know for sure that I'm really in a plane, as all the windows are actually computer monitors.

Anyway, Angelov went and told everyone in my crew about the murder, so now that the cat's out of the bag I get to walk around the plane and ask them all a few questions.

Figures these people would have a chessboard. Though 'this interaction is not currently supported', so I can't play a game myself. I've seen that message so many times now, as it seems that no interactions are currently supported in this game. Well okay that's not entirely true; I did turn a tap on once.

I'm trying to play detective here, but it's kinda hard with the choices I've been given. My dialogue options are lines like "Did you do it?" and "Who do you think did it?" and I'm utterly failing to learn anything about Pawn 7 or why anyone would want to kill him.

To make it worse I can only speak to everyone once, and the game doesn't keep a conversations log, so I'm stuck making notes on paper. Plus there's a dozen pawns on this plane and they've all got numbers so I can't keep track of who anyone is or who they're talking about.

A 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' reference? Like anyone will remember that past its 50th anniversary.

This is another one of those fun scenes where I have to wait for them to finish their routine before I can chat to them, and I have to chat to them because I'm trying to solve a murder here. I'm fairly sure Pawn 1 isn't the killer at least, because I just saved his life and they're not going to make it possible for the murderer to die before the investigation begins. Probably.

Hang on, I've got the Knight in my head asking me to join her in a chat with the Consortium Queen. There's no quest arrows or anything like that in this to lead me to her, but the plane's too small to ever get lost.

Turns out that the Queen is as weird as anyone in this game. She actually said I should call her 'mum' and she's not getting it mixed up with 'ma'am'.

The dialogue choices in this are less about being a paragon or a renegade, and more about changing what people think about you. So if I choose option 3 here and blurt out that I'm a time traveller it probably won't endear me to either the Queen or Knight 15. I've no idea what the other choices are about though, maybe something to do with the news reports I flicked past when I was looking through computer earlier? I think it'll be best if I just keep my mouth shut this time.

The Queen was soon joined in the holochat by another knight on a second hologram panel. Hey, I wonder if I show up on my own holopad on her side. And if I do, does the camera track me when I hop up and down bored?

I... uh... what?

Well it was nice talking to you lunatics, but I just remembered I have a mystery to solve! I need to figure out who murdered Pawn 7 before I run out of time.


LATER.


I ran out of time. There's 12 pawns, 3 rooks, and a knight on board this plane and now I have to announce which of them I think is the traitor. Man that's a lot of people wearing numbers and identical wetsuits. Hah, even that henchman I talked to is showing up in the friends list I just pulled down.

To be honest I still haven't got the faintest clue, so I'm going to pass on making a decision this time and go do the second VR training mission. Hopefully the plot will have thickened by the time I'm out and I'll have more clues to work with.

This time my task is to save a room full of civilian-bots against waves of evil robots. Every round or so the map becomes more elaborate, with more teleporters and walkways added, meaning more places for them to come in and snipe all my friendly robots before I even know where they're shooting from. I hope I never have to protect civilians outside of the simulator because they die in a second and a half when they're being targeted, it's frustrating.

Fortunately the enemies are equally easy to kill, especially considering my gun is perfectly accurate at long range even without an aim down sights mode and it never needs reloading. I mean it still needs bullets, so I have to run around scooping more ammo from dead robots, but there's no reload animation to slow me down.

I have to admit that it took a few quickloads to get past the later rounds, because the bad robots kept killing my good robots, but I eventually managed to make it all the way to round 10 with zero civilian deaths!

Wait, this goes up to round 20? Well fuck that then, I'm done with it.

Oh shit, the traitor was waiting for me outside the VR room, and they're wearing Bishop 8's suit!

Now I know what the enemy robots felt like when they were fighting me, as the traitor is a real tough bastard, protected by multiple layers of recharging shields on top of their regular armour. I've already wasted all my stun grenades trying to solve this non-violently with zero effect.

But I chased them around the plane and eventually managed to take them down through a combination of bullets and more bullets. We got the suit open to discover that the murderer is... somewhere else. The suit's empty, so it was either piloted by remote control, someone with a tiny teleporter, or a ghost. Well okay no one said it was a ghost, but it might have been!

Hey, now I've got the Consortium King himself talking into my head and he's wasting no time showing he can effortlessly out-strange anyone. He just literally said that "This game you call 'Consortium' was a mistake"!

Granted he's mostly saying that because he's shocked that I didn't play the ARG first and I'm coming into this with no idea who he is or what's going on. I didn't even know there was an ARG! I naively assumed this game was the start of the story, not the latest chapter.

I keep waiting for him to give me insight I can use to do things differently on a second playthrough and see the story from a new perspective, but really all he's giving me is more mysteries. Though he did also give me a choice: disconnect right now or help them save the world. So I chose to quit and turned the game off.


A DAY OR SO LATER.


But I'd told someone else I was playing the game, someone who'd beaten it before, and when they learned where I quit they made me turn it back on to see what happens next.

So here I am, seeing what happens next, sitting in a long briefing about Osama Bin Laden's son taking hostages in a skyscraper. Wow, Osama Bin Laden's son? Really? I keep spinning around on my in-game chair as something to do, but it's no fun when no one comments on it. They're all wrapped up in the job and their own personal dramas again.

Alright, so they eventually decided that the plan is for me to jump out of the plane, land on the tower, and then pull a John McClane and clear the place out single-handedly. If they're like the VR robots it should be a cakewalk, if they're like that treacherous super armoured super soldier then it'll be a utter pain in the ass, but either way there's a good chance I'll get to run around somewhere that isn't blue for once!

"ERROR - quantum paradox in progress..."? Seriously?

Okay here's the chain of events that just happened:
  • King contacted me by CMC and asked if I was ready to help save the world.
  • I sat in a long briefing that introduced a new character and a new villain, while setting up a counter-terrorism mission that'll make use of all the skills I've learned during VR training.
  • I chose my gear for the mission from a storage locker and jumped out of the plane.
  • Bishop 6 (presumably) died due to a sabotaged Freefall Suit on his way down to the tower.
  • The end.
And that's the only outcome, all roads lead to this. I've just beaten Consortium.


CONCLUSION

DON'T PUT THE END OF YOUR GAME RIGHT AFTER A MISSION BRIEFING. That's the conclusion I'm drawing from this. By all means have a cliffhanger ending, if you really want to risk pissing off players who'll have to wait years to see what happens next, but don't make them sit through a briefing first!

I want to say that this feels like Consortium: Episode One or Consortium: Ground Zeroes, but the way it's all training missions and tutorials makes it more like a full game that just... stops. When I showed off screenshots of the suit energy management and how the stun gun operates I figured I was demonstrating how the gameplay was going to work, but truth is that the systems are so much more complicated than the game itself. You're basically getting a lesson in how to play the sequel, and after seeing what the combat's going to be like I'm not overly hyped.

The core of the game is its mysteries. Who sabotaged the plane? Who killed Pawn... uh... what was his number again? How do you even solve this? Was Pawn 32 the one in the cargo bay or the one playing chess... or both? Why did Angelov know about the murder? Who hired him to capture Bishop 6 and why? Who are the Lords of Light? What the fuck is even happening?

I gave it two playthroughs and completely failed to solve the murder both times. Events did play out differently, second time around I shot Angelov and pissed everyone off by saying I was a time traveller, but I wasn't able to use my future knowledge to peel away a layer of the weirdness and figure out what's really going on. I guess I'd need to play the ARG to really understand it, or read the 154 MB of 'Discoveries' documents that come with the game. Personally though I only get that obsessed with a game after it's won me over.

Funny thing is I usually love 'guns and conversation' games, especially when they're built to be replayed, and to be absolutely brutally honest... I do kind of like this one too. It's very ambitious and although I wasn't fond of any of the characters, I did like how they interact as a weird little community. It'd be nice if I could skip the cutscenes I've seen on a second playthrough though. Sure that'd make the game even shorter, but being short isn't its problem. The problem is that it keeps promising more than it can deliver, like how half the things on the plane encourage you to INTERACT when you look at them, only for it to tell you that they can't be interacted with when you try!

I likely won't be getting the sequel, but I enjoyed this enough to finish it so I guess in the end I have to give it one of my 'Not Crap' badges:
Or maybe not.


Coming up next, the final game in my Star Trek 50th anniversary celebration. See if you can guess what it is!

You can also leave me a comment about Consortium if you want. Keep the feedback coming.

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