I attended a preview event last week at EA’s headquarters, where I was able to play the first couple of hours of the single-player-only game, which debuts on the PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S and the PC. I didn’t know what to expect, but as a Call of Duty fan, the gameplay of the EA Originals title was pretty familiar to me at the outset.
Yes, that’s right. It’s like Call of Duty, where you shoot a variety of magic weapons that make you feel like you’re playing an FPS set in a fantasy world. It’s not so strange when you learn that the game director and CEO of Ascendant is Bret Robbins, who was the former senior creative director at Sledgehammer Games, maker of titles such as Call of Duty: WWII. He started Ascendant Studios five years ago after leaving Sledgehammer.
I interviewed him about Immortals of Aveum after I played.
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“I think the initial inspiration came from my time on Call of Duty,” Robbins said. “Learning how to make a big blockbuster shooter, what that meant, and then looking around and not seeing anything in the fantasy genre like that. That seemed like a huge missed opportunity. I was surprised that no one was making anything like that, and so I decided I wanted to make it.”
But it’s an original story, and it’s not all Call of Duty. It draws inspiration from titles like BioShock and God of War as well. In that way, it comes off as pretty original to me.
An original fantasy
Immortals of Aveum is set in an original fantasy universe called Aveum where factions are fighting the “Everwar” over the control of magic, which engulfs the world. You play as Jak, a battlemage. He can cast powerful spells against the legions of soldiers and bosses who are seeking to vanquish Jak’s faction.
Jak is a rare breed who can master the three different types of magic — Force (blue), Chaos (red) and
Life (green) — that allows him to cast many different kinds of spells. The colors also represent familiar weapon types for Call of Duty players: blue for a blast of magic that is like a sniper rifle, green for an assault rifle, and red for a shotgun.
Jak joins the Lucium faction after growing up destitute on the streets of Seren. He is an “unforeseen,” or someone who manifests magical abilities late in life. Five years after he begins his training, his faction is to the Rasharn faction, led by the evil Sandrakk, who has launched a final attack in the Everwar and put Lucium on the defensive. That’s where the story picks up.
The game starts out with a tutorial where you learn how to cycle through your primary weapons. Then you learn other controls like Furies. These powers enable Jak to join the Immortals, the champions who protect Lucium.
As I played with an Xbox controller, I could squeeze the left trigger, initiating a spell called Lash, which lets me lasso an enemy and bring them in front of me. Then I could fire my red shotgun weapon (Fragfire) at close range and take the enemy out with one shot. You can also invoke a spell that sends spikes out of the ground in a certain direction, injuring whoever stands in your way.
You’ll find, however, that lots of enemies don’t just stand in your way. They shoot at you and maneuver to surround you, and you have to stay moving. This movement is fluid because the game moves at a smooth 60 frames per second. The spells come easy, like shooting in an FPS.
But mastery comes with things like chaining attacks together and timing your counters so that you can unleash spells like Shatter, which can destroy an enemy’s shield, followed by Lash. There are more than 25 Spells and 80 Talents to improve your fighting skill and style. You can collect coins, sigils and totems along the way to grow more powerful and kill stronger enemies.
There are also puzzles involving the spell colors. You can shoot targets above doors to unlock them, but sometimes you have to find all of the colored emblems in a level before the door will unlock.
The Unreal Engine 5 environments have a lot of variety, including the lush forests of Lucium, the snowy peaks of Kalthus and the lava caves of Calderas. There are a dozen different biomes filled with enemies, side quests, puzzles and boss fights.
The voice actors include Gina Torres as General Kirkan (Firefly, Suits), Darren Barnett as Jak (Never Have I Ever), Antonio Aakeel (Slow Horses, I Came By) as Devyn, and Lily Cowles (Roswell, New Mexico, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War) as Zendara.
Fighting a dragon
The early bosses are warm-up targets that you can take out as you master the combat of shooting and dodging. If you stand still, you’ll die pretty quickly. But some of the bosses have the ability to disappear and reappear behind you. You have to listen or watch for the telltale signs and anticipate where they will be. I fought and died a lot, as, after all, I am Dean Takahashi.
But I enjoyed the combat and it felt good when I vanquished a rival. In the first few hours, it felt like the bosses were gradually leveling up until I got to some serious battles. I felt like I earned my cinematic rewards as the story advanced after each fight.
The dragon, dubbed the Howler, was a particularly tough beast, as I was stuck in an arena mostly without any cover while the dragon chased me around. It blasted me with type of fire and it took off into the air and strafed me with a kind of bombing run (kind of like a warplane from Call of Duty).
I died a bunch of times fighting the dragon.
Being the coward that I am, I found the only places in the arena where I could hide behind a building and then snipe at the dragon. I could use my spike spells while it was on the ground, recover my health when possible, and use the blue sniper fire while it was flying to take down its health. Eventually, this worked.
While it sounded a bit outlandish to blend Call of Duty with a fantasy game, I think that Ascendant Studios has done a very good job of it. The combat is tense and it has a lot of variety. The puzzles make you think, and mastery comes with developing a play style that makes use of magic combos. The voice acting is good, though it’s a bit jarring to hear fantasy characters speaking with some modern slang.
I’m looking forward to playing this title a lot. Robbins estimates there is perhaps 20 hours of gameplay for a straight shot, with 30 to 40 hours for completionists.
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