Saturday, 7 August 2021

IMHO: Hammerting

Back in March, when I was last a little active on this perpetually fallow little blog, I got six posts into a twelve post series about my thoughts on the February Humble bundle. Though I played a couple more games in that bundle (and have one mostly-written post to join my extensive collection of drafts that will never see the light of day), rather than head back in time I thought I might give the concept another whirl with the most recent bundle instead. But here's a couple of problems that I foresee with this approach:

  • Starting again means that I'm further from the finish line, which as a chronic project-starter seems like a pretty poor plan. But I always was a sucker for punishment, and besides, more games means more posts in a month where I'm trying to put out a lot of words, right? 

  • Having not planned to do Blaugust before I got on my flight, I haven't had a chance to pre-download any of the games back when I had lightning fast British internet. Given the general slow speed and regular drop-outs of the internet connection here in quarantine, I don't have high hopes of being able to get my hands on all too many of the games over the next week or so. We'll see how we go on that front.

  • I am just not particularly interested in this month's games. Back in February there were a couple of titles that I knew that I'd enjoy and a couple that I was at least intrigued about. A scan through this month's options doesn't exactly fill me with confidence on that front. This is not an unfamiliar story with the Humble Choice for me, which is a clear indication that I need to reduce my subscription.

However, there was one game on the list that had been sitting on my watchlist for a little while. Hammerting sees you manage a small colony of dwarves, exploring a procedurally generated mountain and generally trying to make your fortune. As someone who has tried and failed to get into Dwarf Fortress on multiple occasions, I'd been morbidly interested it this one as a potential way into a DF vibe without the learning curve of difficulty spikes that have made that game utterly incomprehensible to me. There's just something compelling about dwarves, I guess. Sadly, after playing it for almost 18 hours over the last couple of days (there's really nothing else to do but sleep or watch the Olympics, and don't worry, I've been doing plenty of both of those, too), I can confidently say that Hammerting might be lots of things, but it is definitely not anything like the mind-melter that I've found Dwarf Fortress.

The game was released in Steam Early Access back in October 2020, and here in early August 2021, while there's been eight substantial updates, it is still very, very clearly a game that is in early access. After what I very much hope is a placeholder tutorial of the "here is the menu button, press it to get the menu" variety that does very little to prepare you for what's coming, your three dwarves are sent into a mountain and you're left to your own devices (apart from little queue of quests that generate as you go to give you a few targets along the way) in a side-on view of a mostly dark mountain. This isn't completely a bad thing, the learning curve is gentle and the game is simple enough that you're not going to drown in mechanics before you work out what's going on out there, but it's not a good first impression.

Sadly, it turns out mostly what's going out there is a whole lot of empty space (although admittedly it's a very easy on the eyes variety of empty space), which you must explore in order to gain points that can be traded for improved technology. Some of that empty space has different colours, but though the default sized mountain is very large indeed, so far it seems like there's really only a couple of types of challenges that need to be dealt with: There are big holes, that you'll have to dig around, water, that doesn't seem to do anything to phase dwarves at all, and enemy camps, that can easily be blown up by attacking them. Do these obstacles get harder as you go down the mountain? Maybe a little, but not noticeably so. After digging for a couple of days, it's clear that there's more to discover down there, but also that it's probably not going to be meaningfully different to what's come before. Sure, I could keep digging, but there's been no real indication that there's anything in it for me, and it's certainly not going to be worth wrestling with a user interface and lack of control that is constantly frustrating. 

The other part of the game is trading the goodies that you've found or manufactured with other settlements accessed via the world map for money and for trading points, the other currency required to improve your tech. This section has apparently recently had a revamp, but like the delving, once you've gotten the hang of the basics, there doesn't seem to be anything interesting going on, and this bit doesn't have the possibility of building mighty empire-spanning railcart rollercoasters to redeem it. It feels like it's set up to have different nations battling each other, allowing you to influence the fight somehow, but after 18 hours in my game, this aspect seems completely absent, and even if it did affect you as a player, the overworld seems so divorced from the real world underground that it's hard to imagine how anything happening here it could make any substantial effect on your game.

If this were a regular game, it would immediately have been uninstalled and dragged into my 'Timewasters' Steam category, reserved for games that are a perfectly reasonable way to spend a few hours but that I have no particular need to experience again unless a peculiar itch overcomes me. Since it's in active development, I think it'll go off into the 'Rainy Day' category, to be revisited at some point in the future just to see if it's gotten any more interesting. As with the Wild Eight, another Early Access title we visited in this series last time, there's definite potential here, but the difference between what exists and what seems to be envisioned is a vast gulf that will probably never be bridged. It comes with a Team 17 logo, something I've associated with quality work in the past, so I hope I'm wrong, but if I am then it's certain that the finished product is a long way away.

And because I'm feeling a little pent up frustration, in no particular order, here's a list of things that bugged me that I hope they'll get around to fixing before they call the game complete. Some seem more easily fixable that others:

  • There are different grades of materials that you can build the same equipment from. Using better materials increases the resale value, but doesn't seem to make any other substantive difference, and you also don't seem to have any control as to which quality materials different producers use. I don't know how many golden railway tracks I've made, wasting huge piles of coin and a limited resource for no additional benefit.

  • There are skill trees but they don't make any sense at all. The high-level skills all require overlapping trees. It feels like this whole aspect needs to be ripped out and rebuilt from scratch

  • There are neat little character models and character portraits that give each of your dwarves a distinct character, but they don't match each other. This hurts. General interaction with the character menus is a little haphazard and needs a bit of a revamp sometime, too.

  • Some of the more complicated automation tasks like water pumping and drilling aren't very intuitive and desperately need a detailed tutorial or tooltip.

  • You can control which dwarves do which roles, which works relatively well, although the interface is a little inconsistent. You can't stop any dwarves from fighting, though, which means that your entire colony grinds to a halt whenever any dwarf meets and enemies anywhere in the mountain. It would be nice to be able to set a maximum number of dwarves that will perform a certain task (like fighting or trading) at any given time, as well as just having toggles for each dwarf and some archetype templates.

  • There's not really any danger out there, or any variety in that danger. Every nest of enemies can just be beaten up by clicking on it and waiting. If different enemies required different strategies (these ones need to be drowned, or set on fire, or kept under observation, or you need to use weapons with long reach, these ones can be farmed) and there were a greater range of defensive and military options (the only thing in this category at the moment are doors), that would make the game more tactically interesting.

  • Dwarven priorities are a little strange. You can set certain building and construction tasks to high, medium or low priority, but you can't set the priority of digging, and even if a dwarf is set to only care about digging, sometimes tasks are just ignored for hours at a time, even if there doesn't seem to be any competing priorities. They also love jumping off places and getting themselves stuck in caverns or elevator shafts.

  • The 'overland' trading game doesn't have very much variance at all. There are different types of settlements that provide different goods, but they they all buy more or less the same things, and there's no easy way to compare prices for saleable goods across the world or to set up automated trading. Different capitals all have the same special trading task, right from extremely early, which require you to sell them two resources, on which can't be produced until half-way down the tech tree and one that can only be found extremely rarely somewhere in the mountain. 

  • Some of the other quests are really strange, too. One of them, acquired when you build you cookhouse, extremely early on, requires you to make crab soup. I'm yet to find crab meat, either in the mountain or for trade, so this task is just sitting there unfinished with the endgame goals.

  • Final task is just insane. It requires you to collect 10,000 gold. I have maxed out my population and finished the tech tree and I have 3 gold, the most I've had in the whole game is 12, and tradingl which I've talked about above as an utterly uncompelling part of the game, is the only way to each money. I'm certain that I could give up on exploration and just pump out goods constantly for hundreds of hours in order to tick this off, but I'm equally sure that that wouldn't be remotely interesting for anyone involved.
Verdict? It's still Early Access, let's wait and see. I know I'm sounding a little down about the whole thing, but being able to sink this many hours into a game before I gave up in frustration is a promising start, as long as the team follows through.

Some quick numbers

  • Time played: 17.8 hours
  • Icy caverns explored: 3
  • Rats butchered: Somewhere on the far side of 100
  • Depths plumbed: Moderate
  • Rating: 6 golden railway tracks out of 10

Next up... just as soon as it finishes downloading.. .and play it... and write about it to my satisfaction... Yakuza 3.

No comments: