Human Head Studiosí RUNE Review

by Gwynhala

 

Developer:

Human Head Studios

Publisher:

Gathering of Developers

Price:

$39.95 (U.S market)

Availability:

In stores now.

 

Iíve been looking forward to RUNE since Human Head Studioís January, 1999 press release announcing the game. That first press release described RUNE this way:

 

ďRUNE transports gamers into the Dark Ages, when the Vikings were the conquerors of a cold, dismal world, and paganism ruled all of the northern lands. Taking on the role of Ragnar, a rugged young Viking warrior, players are challenged to fight off Nordic creatures and uncover an evil perpetrator who is annihilating the Viking population. RUNE combines melee combat and exploration, with a colossal story line and an active environment, to recreate a period in history characterized by savagery and the sword.Ē

 

Before RUNE, Ravenís Heretic and Heretic II were my favorite video games. So many people from the Heretic development team were now working on RUNE at Human Head Studios, it made me pretty sure that RUNE would be ďthe next gameĒ for me.

 

RUNE has been in stores for a week now, and here at Mindless Games Network weíve had access to a golden master copy of RUNE for a few weeks, via our RuneNews.com RUNE fan site. Weíve played through the single-player game completely, and tested multiplayer on both LAN and dial-up connections, on several machines.

 

Iím happy to say that RUNE meets or exceeds about 75% of my expectations. Itís fun to play and beautiful to look at and to hear. Congratulations to the team at Human Head Studios, for a great job on their first title!

I Hate Video Games

 

Itís true. I hate most video games. What I hate most are the childish plots, cheap exploitation of sex and violence, endless platform jumping, boring puzzles, and shallow opponents that most video games offer.

 

Some people love that stuff, and more power to them. Iím confident that if thatís what you like, youíll find 20 reviews of RUNE to read all about its excellent platform jumping, cool bosses and dead sexy Viking studs. For a video game to capture and hold my attention, it has to offer much more. Hereís what I care about:

 

1)  Immersiveness

a.  Physics

b.  Player Maneuverability

c.  Combat and Abilities System

d.  Performance

e.  Environments

f.  Animation

g.  Graphics

h.  Sound

i.  Camera

2)  Intelligence

a.  Story Line

b.  Puzzles

c.  Opponents

d.  Humor

3)  Inspiration

a.  The Fantastic

b.  The Primal

c.  The Sublime

d.  The Provocative

4)  Multiplayer

a.  Modes

b.  Maps

c.  Player Models and Skins

d.  Network Performance

e.  Server Discovery

f.  Community

5)  The Facts

a.  Price

b.  Availability

c.  System Requirements

d.  Why Buy It?

 

RUNE stacks up pretty well, as youíll see below.

 

Immersiveness

 

The physics of RUNE are a souped-up version of those found in Epic Gamesí Unreal. I didnít like Unreal, but I like RUNE. In RUNE, if I throw an axe at a stone floor, it bounces and clanks in a way that seems real; if I throw the same axe at a wooden post, it sticks in the post realistically. Bump into a tree, it rustles and deforms and springs back into position like, well, like a tree. Step onto a floating piece of wood, and it moves away from me in the direction of my step. I like that.

 

The physics arenít perfect in RUNE. Some things downright bugged me. For example, sometimes a piece of explosion debris will bump into a wall, ďstickĒ there, and tumble forever. Canít climb on top of other players or monsters. Hugely exaggerated rebound effects (e.g. jumping on a tarp or bridge). Couldnít pick up items like bones and small stones that might make good weapons.

 

Ragnar, your character in RUNE, is maneuverable but not acrobatic. He can move forward, backward, sideways, jump, swim, climb, crouch, and turn. He can also execute a wide range of weapon-specific attack moves and basic defense moves. Moves I miss that would fit well with the Viking motif include run/walk control, rolling, and parrying.

 

Three other 3rd person games invite comparison to RUNEís movement system: Core Designís Tomb Raider, Tantrumís Die By The Sword, and Ravenís Heretic II. The movement system in RUNE is for sure better than Tomb Raider, which I didnít like. Die By The Sword offers more sophisticated and varied attack moves (but difficult controls). Heretic II offers more acrobatics and a generally more maneuverable character.

 

The movement system in RUNE is not the best Iíve seen, but itís very usable and fits the game.

 

RUNE offers a simple and straightforward combat and abilities system. There are no aimable ranged weapons (other than throwing an axe or hammer), so combat is a matter of getting within range, circling to find a vulnerable area, blocking with the shield, striking, and moving out of range of your opponentís weapon. Each weapon has a magical Rune Power, which is either offensive or defensive, and either an area effect (for example, auto-target all opponents in range) or a contact effect (for example, do extra damage on a hit, or increase difficulty of hitting user).

 

While the combat system works well in single-player mode, I found it a little simplistic and unbalanced in multiplayer. For me this diminishes immersiveness. RUNE deathmatch can suffer from the same boring degeneration as, say, Quake II Ė player gets super-weapon, camps, and kills everyone else forever. The lack of ranged weapons makes it especially difficult to take out the camper. The saving grace is this: because the camper doesnít have ranged weapons either, you can ignore him until he comes out into an area where heís a little more vulnerable.

 

Any game performs well on a high-end computer system. To get the real story, Mindless Games Network tried RUNE on several low-tier / mid-tier systems. We didnít run formal frame rate benchmarks on these systems, but rather evaluated the overall impression of playing RUNE on them. The Table 1, below, summarizes our results.

 

 

System

CPU

RAM

Sound

3D

API

Comments

System 1

Pentium MMX 266

64MB

Yamaha OLP3

Voodoo 3 2000 PCI

Glide

Choppy, not immersive

System 2

Pentium MMX 266

80MB

Yamaha OLP3

Voodoo 3 2000 PCI

Glide

Didnít suck

System 3

AMD K6 2 300

96 MB

ESS

TNT2 M64 AGP

Direct3D

OK

System 4

AMD K6 2 400

64 MB

Yamaha OLP3

Voodoo 3 2000 PCI

Glide

Choppy, not immersive

System 5

AMD K6 III 450

128 MB

SB Live!

ATI Rage Fury Pro

Direct3D

Pleasant performance, even above defaults; environmental audio unpleasant.

System 6

Pentium III 650

192 MB

Crystal

None.

NeoMagic chipset.

Soft-ware

Pleasant performance, even above defaults; unpleasant Z-buffering / depth cueing problems.

Table 1: RUNE Performance on Several System Configurations

 

System 5 and System 6 were very pleasant to play on, with two exceptions. On System 5, the environmental audio effects were awful and had to be turned off using the advanced options menu. On System 6, a Z-buffering and / or camera problem messed up depth queuing and obstruction effects making it very difficult to tell, for example, where a rope was relative to Ragnar.

 

The environments in RUNE are big beautiful, especially with the mesh and texture detail cranked up to maximum. The game takes you from a quiet Nordic village, to the depths of the ocean, through the fires of hell, a mountain fortress, and a land of ingenious dwarves, to the dwellings of the gods and back again. Each environment has its own character and your immersion in those environments is made more believable by the environment-specific clothing Ragnar obtains from unfortunate locals. Ambient ravens fly gracefully by, while schools of fish swarm and veer through submerged passageways and mushrooms emit clouds of green spores. Each environment has multiple dead-ends and secret places where power-ups and weapons are stashed.

 

The environments are good, but not perfect. For example, on one map we found we could climb up through a skylight into the mapís bounding box; on another, we found a missing triangle in a wallís mesh; on a third, that we could stand in lava forever without getting burned. These are pretty minor, nit-picky things that donít detract from overall enjoyment or immersiveness of RUNE.

 

RUNE uses a fully skeletal animation system for player models and environmental models. Skeletal animation calculates the location of each point of 3D object on-the-fly as the game is running. All this calculation requires a lot of floating point math, causing game performance to suffer on low-end CPUs like the Intel Celeron or AMD K6.

 

The alternative to skeletal animation is vertex animation. Itís used in older games like Quake 2. Vertex animation uses less CPU power, but more memory, because the location of every point on the object is calculated in advance for every possible pose of the model.

 

I find the skeletal animation used in RUNE creates a more immersive experience than vertex animation, because it allows RUNE to adapt to whatever frame rate and CPU power are available, while using less memory. Instead of the game engine having to choose the closest pre-calculated position of each point for each frame, the point locations are calculated exactly, reducing jerkiness in the animations. All things considered, youíll be really pleased with RUNEís skeletal animation system - if you have a CPU with good floating point performance.

 

The graphics in RUNE are just beautiful, especially at high detail levels. In addition to separate option settings for the level of detail of environments and models, the modified Unreal engine improves performance by automatically adjusting the level of detail based on an objectís range and other factors. Hereís a screen shot from RUNE taken in software mode at 800x600 to eliminate any texture enhancement from the 3D card Ė note the sharp detail in Ragnar, the ship, trees, and sky.

 

 

 

Despite the difficulties we encountered using EAX environmental sound, the sound effects and background music of RUNE are moody, beautiful, and a great fit for each of the environments. RUNE does not use CD sound; the engine plays all tracks from .uax files as the game runs, using additional CPU power Ė a performance issue on low-end systems.

 

Intelligence

 

The story line of RUNE is based loosely on Norse mythology and Viking legends. As RUNE opens, the hero Ragnar is inducted into an elite fighting force known as the Odinsblade, who serve the Norse god Odin. The story line of RUNE introduces us to two other Norse gods: a disturbed half-giant god named Loki, and a bitter underworld goddess named Hel. The story also introduces various creatures from Norse legend, such as dwarves, goblins, and the fearsome wendol (snowbeast).

 

Ragnar begins his life a simple warrior, but heís increasingly drawn into the plots of the gods. First duty, then vengeance, then epic destiny, and finally a decision to win - no matter what the cost - propel Ragnar through forty-three levels of story.

 

Other video games have attempted the Viking theme, including Gametekís Prophecy: The Viking Child (scrolling action adventure), and Blizzardís The Lost Vikings (puzzle). Both of these got positive reviews, but were criticized as lacking substance. RUNE is the first game we know of to bring the Viking mythos to the 3rd person 3D scene.

 

The story line of RUNE is enjoyable, but linear and predictable. The characters are interesting, but one-dimensional: Odin is portrayed as a kind of benevolent spiritual guide, while Loki is painted as a scheming madman.

 

A more complex treatment of Norse mythology might have introduced the idea that Viking warriors considered Odin to be a fickle god, and that Loki did some good deeds along with his mischief. This would make the player a bit less sure of his course of action, increasing tension and enjoyment.

 

A more complex treatment of Viking society might have exploited the high level of equality between men and women in Viking society. The only women youíll meet in RUNE are dead, or rule the dead.

 

As it is, thereís no need to worry that character development or plot twists will get in the way of RUNEís spacious environmental exploration, platform jumping, and hack-and-slash game play.

 

There are five types of puzzles in RUNE, all familiar. Can you guess them? They are:

1)  Platform Jumping puzzles (up, down, with ropes, over pits, across lava, on an ice field, etc);

2)  The-Way-Is-Not-The-Way puzzles (the obvious way to get somewhere or kill something turns out not to be the way, and you have to go around another way, which usually involves platform jumping, or running a maze, or smashing through a wall, or knocking something over, or doing something that seems very dangerous or inadequate but is neither);

3)  Timing puzzles (you pull a switch, then you have barely enough time to get to whatever the switch opened)

4)  Counting puzzles (you have to kill a certain number of creatures, or pass a spot a certain number of times, to trigger the solution of the puzzle)

5)  Combination puzzles (a sequence of switches have to be pressed in the right order)

In addition, the levels are nice and big, so just finding your way through a level is a puzzle in itself. And there are some cool traps to avoid, most of which have to do with things smashing you, burning you, or slicing you in half.

 

RUNE has more platform jumping puzzles than I care for, but others may find it just right. Other types of puzzles I would have welcomed in RUNE include: psychological puzzles (who do you trust?); collection puzzles (find the pieces of an artifact); arranging puzzles (move things around to create a path); randomized puzzles (things that, once in a while, donít work the way they should); mental puzzles (you need to outwit your opponent).

 

The opponents you fight in RUNE can be shrewd warriors, or very inept, depending on the difficulty level you set. On the easiest difficulty, your enemies might not even react as you make a frontal assault on them. On the most difficult setting, they will fight defensively, maneuvering and carefully choosing their moment to strike.

 

Another important aspect of RUNE is its humor. There is certainly humor in RUNE, including some great ďeaster eggsĒ (funny surprises in secret places) scattered throughout the game. Your opponents spend a lot of time insulting you; some of the insults are funny but most have to do with Ragnar not being a real man, or how bad he smells. I also enjoyed some of the whimsical elements in RUNE, such as the music you can make by beating on the Goblin drums, the fun of skidding across pools on floating disks, the way-over-the-top tarp and geyser jumps, and the way Ragnar smashes his glass after drinking mead.

 

A Viking hoped to die in battle, with a jest on his lips Ė he valued a manís wit and luck as much as his battle skills. Thereís a lot more room for humor in RUNE. Good job this time, but crank it up a bit next time, Heads!

 

Inspiration

 

RUNE takes its inspiration from several sources: Norse myth; the long tradition of 1st and 3rd person shooter video games; the basic human appeal of good, evil, and a quest; the heroic fantasy.

 

I really like the fantasy element in RUNE. It feels pretty good to play a Viking in glorious 3D. As Human Head artist and co-founder Ted Halsted reportedly said of an early Ragnar concept drawing, ďWho wouldnít want to play this guy?Ē Ragnarís weapons, environments, and journey all keep me focused on the fantasy setting, and in this regard I think RUNE is truly inspired.

 

RUNE is a bloody, gory game in which, pretty much, everybody but Ragnar dies a horrible death. This is familiar, itís been done before, and it still has the same primal kick-butt appeal itís always had. Itís even novel (for a while) when blood drips from severed heads and limbs, or when you pick up an arm and use it as a weapon. These too have been done before. RUNE does them solidly.

 

The Norse gods are present in RUNE, and used as props to define the story or set up a conflict. Many pantheon members arenít introduced. We have Odin and Hel collecting dead warriors, but no Freyja. We have Bifrost Bridge, but no Heimdall guarding it. And whereís Thor? Iíd love to see more exposure, influence, interaction, and personality of the Norse gods in future RUNE titles.

 

Very little about RUNEís game concept or storyboard is provocative or intellectually challenging.

 

That said, RUNE is a solid and beautifully rendered action / adventure title that makes good use of a novel fantasy scenario Ė Viking vengeance Ė to give dedicated players a fun experience incorporating familiar and time-tested gaming elements.

 

Multiplayer

 

Tim Gerritsen, head of Business Development at Human Head Studios, has written on the RUNE fan forums that the initial release of RUNE emphasizes single-player, not multiplayer. RUNE is based on the Unreal engine, which was broadly criticized by reviewers in its early days for having weak networking code. So whatís the deal with RUNE multiplayer?

 

Well, itís fun.

 

RUNE has two built-in multiplayer modes: RuneMatch, and Team Game. RuneMatch is free-for-all deathmatch, while Team Game is team deathmatch. Teams are specified by color (red, blue, yellow, etc.), with a tint applied to your modelís skin to indicate team membership. Both players and indestructible, invisible spectators are allowed in each game type.

 

Thereís no co-op game in RUNE. Human Head Studios felt strongly that many of the gameís puzzles would have to be changed to make them co-op proof, and chose instead to concentrate on getting RUNE to market.

 

Six mutators are included to change the rules or physics of the selected RUNE multiplayer game. The server administrator can select any combination of these, from Fatboy, Infinite Powerups, Left Handed Mode, Low Gravity, Lower Weapon Damage, and No Powerups. In addition, you can set difficulty level, game speed, frag limit, time limit, and whether weapons automatically respawn.

 

Seven deathmatch maps are included, set in various environments from the game and designed for various numbers of players. If only a few people will be playing, avoid the larger maps like DM-AcidChamber and DM-Thorstadt. If more than a few people are playing, avoid tiny maps like DM-LavaPit.

 

You can select from more than twenty player models in deathmatch. Most of these have only one skin choice, which can be modified by selecting a team color. Youíve seen all of these skins if youíve played through the single-player game. There is also a special model that is unlocked once youíve completed the single-player game.

 

Mindless Game Network played RUNE deathmatch on a LAN, a cable modem, and on a dial-up modem. During our tests hosting a game for more than 4 players on a cable modem, everybody got significant lag. Using a dial-up Internet connection, RUNE was playable with pings up to about 300 but deteriorated quickly for higher pings. LAN play was a dream.

 

The effect of lag in RUNE is a little different than what Iíve seen in other games. The most common lag effect is to walk somewhere, get lagged during the movement, and then have your character suddenly jerk to a nearby (but usually inconvenient) place on the map when the lag subsides. Client prediction during lag is a tough problem to solve well, but I suspect thereís room for improvement in RUNEís client prediction code.

 

RUNE has a built-in multiplayer server locator, and built-in ability to launch either a dedicated server or a combined client / server. It works well. GameSpy will also be supporting RUNE server location, maybe by the time this review is published. RUNE has been a very popular title for deathmatch play. Even before RUNE hit store shelves, more than 30 pirate RUNE deathmatch servers spread around the world. At this writing, legitimate buyers of RUNE operate hundreds of on-line servers.

 

New RUNE Hordes Ė teams of players who compete against other Hordes in organized matches Ė are forming every day.

 

The Facts

 

System Requirements:

 

Minimum:

OS:

Win 95 / 98 / ME / 2000 / NT+SP3

CPU:

AMD K6-2 300, PII 300, Celeron 300A

RAM:

64MB

Video:

PCI/AGP Local Bus, 8MB Memory

Sound:

Any Direct X Compatible

Disk Space:

200MB + swap file

CD-ROM:

4X

Network:

via TCP/IP

 

Recommended:

OS:

Win 95 / 98 / ME / 2000 / NT+SP3

CPU:

AMD Athlon, PIII, Celeron, 450 MHz or higher

RAM:

128MB

Video:

3D Accelerator; Direct3D, OpenGL, 3Dfx, Glide, or S3MeTal

Sound:

SoundBlaster Live (EAX and A3D supported)

Disk Space:

650MB + swap file

CD-ROM:

8X

Network:

via TCP/IP

 

 

Why Buy RUNE?

 

Any of these reasons are good reasons to buy RUNE:

 

-          You want to play a beautiful 3D game with a Viking motif.

-          You love 3rd person melee combat, wherever itís set.

-          You have an illegal copy and canít sleep at night from guilt.

 

Our review of RUNE pointed out both positive and negative aspects of the game. Weighing these against each other, RUNE is still a buy in my book; Iíve bought two copies already!

 

Pros:

-          Cool Viking theme

-          Beautiful graphics and sound

-          Huge levels

-          Fun melee weapons

-          Five hours minimum single-player game (even with a walkthrough) Level editing tools included, easy to make mods Great price - $39.95 in U.S. stores Excellent first effort from a new studio

 

Cons:

-          Weak single-player story line and character development

-          Unexceptional traps and puzzles Limited built-in multiplayer modes and models

-          Several bugs in the production CD - download the Version 1.01 patch before playing.

 

Ratings:

 

Graphics:

9

Storyline:

5

Gameplay:

7

Sound:

9

Value:

8

Total:

7.6

 

 

This review originally ran on mindlessgames.com 11/9/2000. The site is now offline.