Echo – Developer Ultra Ultra’s first game – is now available on PS4, Xbox 1 and PC. Does this game live up to the hype, or will it utterly fail?
Echo: Definitely Unique, But is it All it Was Made Out to Be?
A few days ago, I was lucky enough to get my hands on a review copy of Echo: developer Ultra Ultra’s first offering. Echo sees you play as a female protagonist “En” who goes off in search of the Palace. After being woken from her 100-year cryo-sleep, her journey begins. You make your way through an environment that is constantly changing and updating. Your only enemy is yourself in the form of a group of “Echoes” that are updated constantly to mimic your behavior.
I won’t go too in-depth with the storyline, it’s pretty one-dimensional. Your only companion throughout this journey is the AI of the ship that brought you here to right a wrong. Named “London”, the ship’s AI begins the game quite clearly loathing you – not pulling any punches. As you progress through the Palace, London’s attitude gradually shifts to view you in a more positive light.
At the time of writing, I haven’t completed Echo. I have played through to the fifth chapter of the first verse. I have only just scratched the surface of Echo (it goes on for 5 verses), but there are already things that are niggling at me. Minor annoyances and situations that make it hard for me to sit down and play this game in anything longer than stretches of about 20-30mins.
After a century in stasis, the girl En arrives at her destination: A Palace out of legend, a marvel of the old civilization eons gone, still awaiting its first human occupants. Out here, using forgotten technologies, she hopes to bring back a life that shouldn’t have been lost.
What has Ultra Ultra Done Right, and What’s Wrong?
Ultra Ultra has pushed boundaries with making an “Adventure Action” game that is something truly unique in this day and age. The aim isn’t to shoot stuff unless you want it to be that. The aim is to navigate the Palace and get to the end, in effect beating yourself along the way. There are some things that have been done bloody well, whilst other things are just a nuisance.
The principle that a game will learn and react to what you are doing isn’t a new one. Way back when Crytek launched their first FPS, adaptive enemies became something that is commonplace today. What makes this game unique is that the enemies specifically watch what and how you do things. Over a period, you will see glassy mannequins appear which mark a movement or behavior that the Palace has noted. After enough of these mannequins appear, the Palace will “reboot,” causing a blackout, which is essentially a tiny window in which the Palace is not watching what you’re doing. After the blackout is over, the enemies will be using the information from the period immediately before the blackout. This information doesn’t carry over into subsequent blackouts unless you do things the same way again.
My issue isn’t with what the blackouts do, there is a need to provide the player with a cue that things are changing. I’m taking umbrage with the frequency of the blackouts. Literally, I am moving 200m and there’s another blackout. I know this is supposed to be a good thing as I can do what I want with no repercussions, but it’s just irritating. It’s not like the blackouts last long enough for me to do anything meaningful anyway. Why not just have the lights flicker or something? It would make the game flow a lot better.
Hardware and Performance
This game runs beautifully well. I’m clocking about 200fps constantly, which is great! I would be worried if my PC was kicking out anything less than that in a game that’s clean and crisp. I’m also led to believe that this game works almost as well on lower-end computers and consoles alike. This means that Echo has been built well. With the scenery not needing any long-distance rendering, you save a huge amount of CPU load.
The framerate also seems to support my belief that there isn’t a lot of “wasted” textures, you know, things like rocks and shit that are outside of the observable game world but still forced to render. It’s safe to say that the way Echo looks isn’t a problem with me, quite the opposite in fact. The Palace being a highly symmetrical world just makes me happy; being polished and shiny on top make this game feel surreal. Like you walked into an M.C. Escher painting, stairs going every which way and a load of Echoes scattered around to make your life hell.
Movement and Aiming
My third current issue with this game is the movement. You can vault, sprint and drop, but there is no positive vertical movement. You cannot jump and grab a ledge or anything like that. In fact, you can only climb up if something is at your head height. Combine this with the sluggish feeling that En has, and it feels like you’re trying to pull a 200kg drunkard through a narrow doorway.
The mouse movement feels more like it’s swimming because there is forced mouse smoothing. Smoothing the mouse is something that I have always hated with a passion. It means that when you stop your mouse, there is a period of deceleration which makes aiming accurately at anything over close range damn near impossible. “Mouse Smoothing” is something that has been a togglable option in most games since the year 2000; why there is no option for that in this game I have no idea. It makes lining up enemies and taking down a lot of them with one shot nigh on impossible.
Given that with this game you spend most of your time dodging between Echoes and cover, there is NO cover system employed. No way of “sticking” to walls to help make transferring between various pieces of cover easier. Remember that this game mimics your own actions. You are constantly having to switch between “run and gun,” and “splinter-cell” playstyles. You can’t do either effectively.
Moving onwards to my critical analysis of the “Action” part of Echo’s genre (according to Ultra Ultra, Echo is an Action-Adventure game). The combat system in this game is pathetic. Yes, you get a gun, but for the most part you will spend the entire game trying your best NOT to use it. Partly because you only get 2 shots at best for the first 1.5 hours, partly because that “gun” consumes the suit’s energy to fire, meaning you can’t perform some of the more useful movements without it. The first triangle of the suit’s capacity recharges, but that recharge takes forever. That means you have one shot. One shot against an army of Echoes? Not cool.
I don’t understand Ultra Ultra’s reasoning behind the fact that the suit and weapon use the same “charge”, because, yet again, it restricts the player’s combat capability. What they’ve managed to achieve is a game that taunts you with action, but most of the time you will be running around trying to avoid being grabbed. I have managed to play 2hrs and 20mins so far, mostly in broken, 10-minute spurts because there are so many little niggles that simply take the joy out of playing this game.
The Learning Curve
This game doesn’t seem to have one. You start not knowing what the hell to do. and then you have to navigate a room with nearly 40 Echoes in it to gather charges to open a door. Watching the reveal and release trailers this game seems like you need to play through it stealthily. It took me an hour in-game, dealing with blackouts every 3 minutes to realize that it’s not like the Echoes have a catalog of your behaviors that they will just build on. The Echoes only have access to your behaviors from the time before the previous blackout. So, although this game does learn from you, that learning is extremely bracketed.
When I saw this game and wrote the previous article relating to it, I really wanted to play it. I looked at it and thought to myself, “That looks amazing, something fresh and unique”. I could not have been more wrong. What Ultra Ultra have presented as their finished game is an experiment in an interesting theory. The theory that defeating ourselves is one of the hardest things to do. This should have introduced an interesting dynamic environment in which you were constantly having to change tact. Instead, I find this game boring, irritating, repetitive and just pointless.
I want to like Echo, I really I do. I just can’t get past the plethora of niggles and nags that this game has. Clunky movement is just unacceptable in this era. Adaptive AI isn’t something new, but Ultra Ultra have utilized it in a way that I haven’t come across before. The constantly changing gameplay was an aspect that would have, no SHOULD have brought a high level of replayability to this game. Unfortunately, it has done the exact opposite. The blackouts, the spongy mouse-movement, the restrictive character movement, the lack of a cover system… and the list goes on.
There is no build-up in the story. No cut-scenes to show what happened before, or indeed to show the reason we’re in this Palace trying to beat a computer’s interpretation of ourselves. No clarity around anything, other than the fact that Echo is (for me at least) a pointless venture. I can’t help but feel this game is going to go the route of No Man’s Sky: A year spent updating and tweaking the game before it’s worth playing.