Island of Nazeth is one of the games I saw, played and judged at Microsoft's Imagine Cup in Poland. Like all the games at the Imagine Cup, team Green Gears is made up of early 20s university students who are working on the game part-time while completing their studies. They designed it along the theme "Tackling the world's toughest problems", developed it using Microsoft's XNA suite and plan to eventually release it on Xbox Live Arcade.
Team Green Gears took out the third place prize in the Game Design category at the Imagine Cup. So, now that my judging duties are over, I thought I'd tell you more about their game.
What Is It? Yes, according to my helpfully concise summary up top, Island of Nazeth is a squad-based action/adventure role-playing shooter. What does that mean? For a start, there are three characters to control - a soldier, an engineer and a nurse. The engineer's abilities allow him to collect garbage, remove pollutants and also stun enemies. The nurse can heal her companions, restore health to the world once the engineer has rid it of pollution, and also persuade enemies to fight on her side. The soldier is perhaps the most interesting: his firearms allow you to take down enemies quickly, but at the expense of damaging the environment.
As you explore the world, you meet NPCs who give you quests. These typically involve clearing the land of pollution and restoring the world to its former glory. You'll spend much of your time switching between the three characters, managing their respective skills while fending off an assortment of enemies and completing quests. Your actions affect your "Eco" rating: the higher it is, the more abilities you unlock; the lower it is, the closer you are to destroying the world and facing the game over screen.
What We Saw? In the demo I played, I was able to explore one island, of which you can see maybe half in the screenshot above. I was able to control all three characters, switching between them on the fly. I completed the tutorial quests which explained the game concepts, character abilities and controls. And I worked my way through a handful of quests centred on the village you can also see in these screens. All up there was probably around 45 minutes worth of content to check out.
In addition, I saw a demonstration of the editing tools Green Gears are not only using to build the game but also plan to release to the community once the game launches.
How Far Along Is It? Right now, most of the game's features seem final. The characters' abilities and tools are all done nad the way your actions affect the environment - and your "Eco" rating - are all in place. Now it's just a matter of polish, balance and adding more content. The developers told me that they plan to include an entire archipelago of islands in the final game.
What Needs Improvement? The two features that all the Imagine Cup judges asked for were: a mini-map and the ability to run. Green Gears said they'd be adding both features as a matter of urgency. A good thing! Without a map, it was difficult to know where you were meant to go to follow quest objectives. And without being able to run, it was slow going to walk all the way there.
I would like to see some form of motorised transport introduced to travel those really long distances, especially since it could tie in with the environmental theme. A car or some sort of vehicle might let you get around faster but at the same time reduce your Eco rating.
I'd also like to see a more obvious visual reward when you fully heal an area of the world. Now it simply returns to its former, normal state; instead I'd like to see a genuine transformation, a joyous blossoming of vegetation as in Flower or the rainbow of urban renovation seen in de Blob.
Finally, with any squad-based game, the prospect of playing co-operatively with friends is an enticing one. I suggested it to the team and they said they were considering it. First, they wanted to make sure the engine worked seamlessly for the solo player supported by AI squadmates, but they do like the idea of co-op play.
To ensure co-op is a success though, they'll have to concentrate on balancing the abilities of the three characters. Right now I feel the nurse is the weakest of the trio, as her abilities are relatively passive. To heal, you just hit the appropriate button and make sure you're close to whatever you want to heal. That's not so much of a problem if you're switching to the nurse occasionally, but it'd get boring if that's all you were doing.
What Should Stay The Same? With its stylised, cartoony architecture and the exaggerated character design, the art direction is great. Green Gears said they wanted the island to feel like a paradise gone wrong. At times, the vivid colour palette and lighting recalls Super Mario Sunshine, especially when you see the lush green meadows covered in polluted goop.
I liked the maturity with which the team approached the environmental theme, particularly in the case of the soldier character. It conveys the important message that there is no magic wand that can fix everything. People leave a mark on the world, for good and for bad, no matter what we do. The Eco rating mechanic encourages you to be environmentally friendly, but doesn't punish you unduly for occasionally needing to take a faster, easier approach.
Equally strong is the core gameplay. The tools and abilities of the three characters complement each other nicely, with a satisfying blend of melee and ranged attacks with various crowd control tactics. The way your available abilities depend on your current Eco rating adds a further degree of complexity, necessitating flexibility in the heat of the moment and some strategy when it comes to planning your approach.
Even though I only saw one island and a handful of early quests, I was impressed with the variety on offer. Sure, the first thing I did was the typical "Go kill 10 rats" type quest - though in this case it was "Go kill 5 packdogs", albeit three green ones and two blue ones. But I also had to go rescue one villager's son, scrape through a boss encounter and shut down a factory facility. With more islands to explore, each sporting a different theme and geography, there should be no shortage of quest variety.
Final Thoughts The Island of Nazeth shows considerable potential. It's the kind of quirky mish-mash of genres that I personally dig, combined with some thoughtful risk/reward mechanics and all dressed up in some attractive Super Mario Sunshine meets Psychonauts visuals.
It still needs work, of course, in terms of both content and polish, as mentioned above. But it's a super impressive demo, moreso when you consider it was made by four guys in their spare time. Hopefully their success at the Imagine Cup will enable them to secure sufficient funding and resources to realise the potential on display.