Game review: Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land
- Title: Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land
- Developer: Red Wasp Entertainment
- Platforms: Windows, iPhone, iPad
- Price: $4.99
Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land is a turn-based tactical RPG by Red Wasp Entertainment based upon Chaosium’s pen-and-paper role-playing game Call of Cthulhu RPG. Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land was initially released on mobile devices and later ported to PC via Intel’s AppUp program. Set in the trenches of World War I, CoC:TWL offers a focused tactical experience, solid writing, and good production values. But the question remains: is it any good as a game?
So here’s the story: the Germans are trying to awaken one of the Old Ones, cosmic horrors that threaten mankind’s survival. You take command of a squad of British soldiers duking it out in the trenches and proceed through a series of increasingly bizarre (and difficult) battles as the true nature of your enemy is revealed.
Combat is pretty much the whole game; but luckily, it’s quite good. You have elevation and line of sight to take account of, as well as aimed versus unaimed shots, action points, and terrain effects. There are also ever-present clouds of mustard gas to contend with. Characters have skills in different abilities as well as various types of weapons, ranging from melee to pistols to rifles and heavy weapons.
My only complaint about combat mechanics concerns the fact that your characters have absurdly low chances to hit (expect to see a 60% chance to hit with a pistol at point-blank range). This is not a huge problem, but it does make combat take longer than it needs to, with turns spent on every character missing every other character they shoot at.
Character advancement is a hybridized system that combines player choice and growth through use. Using weapons of a certain type increases a character’s skill in that weapon type over time. However, whenever a character levels up, you will also get skill points to distribute as you wish. In short, CoC:TWL employs a robust combat system that demands tactical thinking while giving you the best of both worlds when it comes to character improvement.
The setting is also a huge plus: I’ve never read much of H.P. Lovecraft, and I’m actively tired of zombies–but I love World War I. World War I is the quintessential ironic war. Young men signed up for the war driven by romantic ideals from the prior century, ideals which would be shredded by brutal new advances in weaponry (chemical weapons, long-range artillery) and the protracted horrors of trench warfare. World War I is perhaps the only war in human history where the soldiers on each side came to identify more with each other than they did with their own generals.
With all of these things going for it–solid tactical combat, a flexible system of character advancement that reacts to your actual choices in battle, and a setting custom-made for revealing the horrifying futility of war–Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land should have turned out to be a modern classic. Should have.
Theory is not reality, of course; concept, not execution. And speaking of executions: the controls absolutely murder this game. The truth is, I don’t know what was involved in the Intel AppUp transformation from mobile app to PC executable. However, I can confidently say that they stopped short of finishing the job properly.
Exhibit A: hitting the Escape key does not bring up the in-game menu–not unless you left-click on the screen afterwards. Further, there is nothing to indicate that you should left-click after hitting Escape; you hit Escape, and the screen looks unchanged. Of course, there is no sensible reason why you should need to left-click after hitting Escape: it’s just a weird, broken aspect of the user interface.
Once you do bring up the in-game menu, certain options do not work. Trying to restart a battle, for example, merely makes the screen go black, rendering the game completely unplayable. Worse, there are no save slots: only a single autosave. These two facts result in the player having no means of escaping a hopeless battle other than starting the entire game over again (which, in turn, overwrites your previous saved game). The developers, seemingly aware of the problem, have actually published a page on their website telling players to find and backup their saved games manually in order to restart missions.
If these were the only interface issues in CoC:TWL, I’d chalk them up to a couple of isolated bugs and a localized case of developer laziness. But there is nothing isolated about these problems. Playing CoC:TWL is a constant struggle against a multitude of horrid controls. Battlefield panning, for instance: you left-click and drag to pan, but the game treats it a bit like when you tap the middle mouse button in a web browser. Click the left mouse button, hold it and move only a short distance, and the battlefield will slide around underneath you like a hockey puck in a hurricane.
Clicking on onscreen graphical elements is also bizarrely difficult. Mind you, I don’t mean “difficult” in an “action game where that’s part of the challenge” sense; I mean it in a “you click on your characters, and then the game decides arbitrarily whether to register the click” sense. It is surprisingly common to click on your characters and have the game just not register the click.
A similar problem afflicts standard GUI elements such as the game’s buttons. For the first hour or so of play, I found myself regularly having to click two or three times to do extremely basic things like rotate the screen or advance a text bubble. Eventually, I realized what was happening: the game doesn’t register a button click unless your mouse is perfectly still at the moment of the click. If the game detects any mouse movement at all, it considers it a mouse drag, and won’t register it as a click on the button. To state the obvious: clicking buttons should not be a game of Red Light/Green Light. I find it remarkable that no one noticed this during testing–and if they did, that a simple mouse drag listener was not placed on the game’s buttons to avoid it.
You might think that this is as bad as it gets; you would be wrong. In their wisdom, the individuals in charge of porting this game kept the mobile phone controls, almost totally unmodified, in the PC version. This means that there are virtually no hotkeys in this game. You cannot use the keyboard to pan around or rotate the battlefield, much less issue orders. The only key that actually does anything in the game is the down arrow: it toggles on what I like to call “useless mode,” zooming you in so close to the battlefield that you cannot see more than 2-3 spaces away from the center of the screen.
With keyboard controls largely nonexistent, everything is handled by the mouse (which, as we established above, handles clicks like Lucille Ball handles chocolates). But even the mouse isn’t fully utilized. Forget the mouse drag issue for a moment: CoC:TWL does not even check for mouse-overs or right-clicking. At. All.
Hovering the cursor over a unit gives you no information whatsoever; right-clicking does nothing, either. As such, the one and only way to interact with units is to left-click them. Left-clicking a unit brings up its stats; but perversely, it also centers the camera on that unit, ensuring that you will struggle against the camera at length while trying to view the stats on different units.
If you left-click one of your own units, this also selects that unit to move and/or act. The rightmost eighth of the screen displays the weapons and other usable equipment of the currently selected character in big, easy-to-press buttons. Of course, pressing those buttons doesn’t actually use the items: it merely swaps them. To actually use an item or weapon, you have to left-click and hold down on the character to be targeted.
All of these design choices, nuisances on their own, culminate in the following nightmare scenario: you need to shoot at a far-away enemy with a rifle (not exactly an uncommon event in this game). What do you do? Why, just follow this easy-to-use chart!
- Pan the slippy-slidey battlefield camera over to the character you want to attack with. Keep going back and forth until you stop overshooting your character.
- Left-click the character to select him or her. If the game doesn’t register your click, keep clicking until it does.
- Now pan the battlefield camera over to your target. (Keep trying until you stop overshooting the target.)
- Left-click and hold down on the enemy you want to attack.
- If the game recognizes what you’ve just done as both (1) a long click and (2) a click on the enemy, then congratulations! You then get to select between a normal and a targeted shot–as it should be.
- If the game does not register it as a click on the enemy, you’ll probably end up flinging the battle camera around by accident, and have to pan back and try again. But woe be to you if the game interprets your click as a short click on the enemy! It will (1) fail to launch the attack, (2) deselect your character, and (3) center the game’s camera on the enemy. You will then have to pan all the way back across the battlefield to reselect your attacker, starting over again at Step 1.
Understand, this isn’t me picking on an edge case; I have actually lost count of the number of times that this has happened to me while playing this game. It is profoundly irritating, and would have taken very little effort to avoid.
If you have the patience of a saint and carpal tunnels of iron, then perhaps all of this wasted time and fruitless clicking won’t deter you from CoC:TWL. You may be surprised to know, however, that CoC:TWL’s broken interface is not the thing that made me want to stop playing this game. That honor was reserved for CoC:TWL’s heavily scripted missions and unavoidable enemy ambushes.
Let me tell you a little story, friends. A few missions into Call of Cthulhu, I found myself with my men at the mouth of a narrow bridge. They had no cover, were low on medical supplies, and had just crossed a river of mud that would make any sort of retreat extremely slow and difficult to accomplish. I had avoided taking any casualties until that point, and there were no enemies on the battlefield. (This game has no fog of war, so I can state this last fact with confidence.)
I ended my turn, suspecting that I was about to trigger enemy reinforcements by advancing onto the bridge. Enemy reinforcements appeared, as expected. What I didn’t expect was that there would be a dozen of them–including a machine gunner–all spawning within firing range and with a free turn to take shots at my soldiers. (To put this in context: machine gunners get five attacks per turn, each of which is capable of dealing damage equal to or greater than 50% of a character’s maximum health.) The machine gunner opened fire, hitting one of my characters with two out of his five shots. She died.
To summarize: upon ending my turn, I suddenly went from having a clear battlefield to having a dozen enemies firing on me–including an incredibly deadly machine gunner–without any chance to react. There was only one route toward the map’s objective (over the narrow bridge), and I had no way of dealing with the enemies from a different spot on the battlefield (the enemies didn’t exist before my advance onto the bridge). The only way for me to avoid taking casualties in this situation would be for the dice to roll differently.
This is fundamentally bad design. Forcing losses onto the player removes the only rationale the player has for putting up with those losses: namely, that their choices led up to the loss, and that it was therefore the player’s responsibility. My character died, but not because of any decision I made; it was a whim of the game’s random number generator and little else. Players have a word for this sort of thing: “unfair.” Me, I’d go with the slightly longer “completely antithetical to the whole point of a tactics game.”
Most of the game’s missions are less egregious than this one was, but they still tend to rely on dropping enemies onto the battlefield with a free turn and without warning. On rare occasions this led to desperate (and legitimately thrilling) retreats, but mostly it was just obnoxious.
The Verdict: 1.5/5. I really wanted to like this game. Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land has good mechanics and solid production values, but is crippled by some poor choices in level design and one of the worst interfaces I have ever seen in a game. Ultimately, its flaws are just too pervasive for me to recommend it; the developers seem to have taken the Lovecraftian notion of whittling away the player’s sanity just a bit too literally here.
Special note: This game is released exclusively through Intel AppUp, Intel’s attempt at aping Valve’s popular Steam client. I confess, I profoundly dislike these sort of clients. They’re obtrusive, they waste system resources, and they add another layer of downloading, installation and registration between you and the game you’re trying to buy. Worse, the more of these that show up with their own exclusive titles, the more of them I’m going to have cluttering up my hard drive.
AppUp refused my registration at first, requiring multiple attempts and activations before it recognized me. Even when I got it working, it refused to let me run the game when it wasn’t connected to the internet, throwing up some error message about how AppUp wasn’t up to date (even though it was).
I went back and forth about whether these annoyances belonged in a review about the game, particularly so given that this only applies to the PC version, and ultimately decided to note them in this post-script. These considerations did not contribute to the game’s score.