The Ship Review
Pentium M 2GHz CPU
2GB DDR2 RAM
GF Go 7800GTX Video
Valve Software has been doing a great job picking up independent developers on their download service / gaming network, Steam. After major action-based first person shooters like Half-Life 2 and SiN Episodes, now Steam gamers have the chance at trying a totally different kind of first person game: The Ship from Outerlight.
Starting out as a mod for the original Half-Life, The Ship has turned into a full-blown single- and multiplayer game using Valve's Steam technology, pitting players against each other on an old 1930s-style cruise ship. There may be over a dozen players at once, but everyone is assigned one person to kill - and only one. The unique part is that this means that you yourself are someone's target, and must avoid being killed by your secret stalker while you're looking for your own target.
The Ship winds up feeling a little like a first-person version of The Sims - the characters are drawn in a unique comic style, and they talk in an English-sounding gibberish. Every player also has certain needs: Conversation, Entertainment, Eating, Drinking, Showering, and, well, Bathroom #1 and Bathroom #2. All of these needs slowly become more pressing over time, and you'll need to use the facilities on the ship to relieve them. But where this game diverges from the Sims gameplay style is in the murdering going around. These needs will create a lot of tension if you know your killer is nearby yet you simply can't hold it any longer, or if you pass out from sleep deprivation.
Not everywhere on the ship is open game for murder, however. Certain guarded zones will have a player immediately arrested if they pull out a weapon, so you will sometimes have a creepy game of cat and mouse where the person you're stalking doesn't want to leave the room but knows they need to get out to relieve some kind of need. There's no stealth here; instead, you will simply have to wait for your prey to leave themselves open to attack in a non-guarded area. And as far as weapons go, The Ship includes a ton of them. From katanas and tommy guns, to candlesticks, knives, fire axes, sporting equipment and even umbrellas, the arsenal is quite deadly.
The aim of this game winds up actually being money in all but one gameplay mode. Kill your prey without getting caught by ship security, and you'll get a cash reward and the round ends after 90 seconds. Every round, there is also a changing list of bonus-cash weapons which will net you an even bigger reward if you can find one of those weapons on the ship somewhere and do your quarry in with it. This makes the game even more interesting, since it's rare that the fire axe, one of the game's more common weapons, will give those big bonuses. You might be better off trying to pick up a selection of The Ship's more rare weapons and keeping them with you.
Of course, if you die or get arrested, then you're going to lose all of the items (weapons, books, new outfits, food and drink) in your inventory, so keep that in mind when you ignore your character's needs and suddenly just commit suicide (no, I'm not kidding, and it's your Entertainment need that causes this if ignored). Sometimes your own prey can also get themselves arrested by mistakenly panicking and pulling out a weapon to defend themselves at the wrong time, and they will get a big fine and a minute or so of jail time. Of course, once you know your way around each of the game's different ship levels (The Ship starts out with six total), then you can quickly get down to the brig and ambush someone just after they're freed.
The Ship can be played offline with AI-based bots, but the real fun happens with online play. Sure, the first few days of the game had people running around and randomly killing each other (which does manage to ruin the fun somewhat) pretty often, but since then the serious players have stayed and the jokers have gone back to Counter-Strike Source. No offense to CS players, but let's face it; this is not really the kind of game an all-out, guns-blazing kind of player is likely to enjoy too much.
So after those who didn't like The Ship quit playing after a few days, those left online are trying to be smart, to hide from their own hunter, and to take advantage of the game's system that gives you an update on your prey's location every 30 seconds. It often happens where you might come across your quarry at the same time that your own hunter rounds the corner, leading to a hilariously weird battle of tennis racket vs. candlestick vs. tommy gun. This can often lead to people getting penalized for killing someone that's neither their hunter nor their prey, so often players like to be totally sure that the person they're about to kill really is after them, and this hesitation could lead to their own death as well.
There are also some great moments when you suddenly realize that while you've been chasing someone, you've gotten very hungry. Now you're doubled over and your target's getting away - there's nothing like suddenly having to put away your baseball bat and down a bag of chips out of your inventory to make for an oddly new kind of tension in an action game.
Additional complexity is added by the game's large creative license with modern conveniences. Expect to see vending machines and ATMs around, where you can deposit or withdraw money to and from your bank account and even buy various items to store in your inventory. You see, if you're killed then all your on-hand cash can be looted by another player, so make sure you're not walking around with a big chunk of change. Either drop your cash in a Night Drop deposit box or at a bank itself and make sure you've only got as much as you need on you.
The Ship comes in at a budget price of $20 and with that you're getting quite a bit of unique, quirky gameplay. The venerable Valve Source engine is in use here, but many of the textures and models are pretty simplistic, while very few objects are affected by the engine's powerful physics system. What you're getting is a completely novel style of multiplayer game rather than lots of powerful special effects, and while the graphics are not anything close to being horrible, those who just love the eye candy and not much else aren't going to be impressed. There was supposed to be a single player story mode, but those looking for that will have to wait for the upcoming retail release of the game - which is set for release in early 2007 in the US.
The Ship brings a hilarious, fun, yet totally odd style to the first person shooter community. When most players are playing along, this game is a blast and there are some really great moments to be seen here. The single player mode leaves a bit to be desired, as it mostly just acts as practice for online play, but it's still actually pretty usable and fun. For its budget price, it won't work if you're looking for great graphics or a lot of all-out action, but once you get into the game's wacky style of play I think you'll find it's wonderful and very satisfying.