Diablo-style isometric action enters a brave new world in Restricted Area, the first North American release from Germany's Master Creating. Initially reminiscent of the classic Fallout, the game is set in a dismal future, where pollution has destroyed the Earth's green places and only mutants can survive in the wasteland wilderness. A weak global government is regularly subverted by powerful mega-corporations, which are powerful enough to do as they please.
As the game begins, four diverse characters meet on a gloomy city street; players choose the one they will lead through the game. The character selected, and the choices made throughout the adventure, will determine the story's conclusion -- for better or for worse. Factors such as light, distance, and height influence combat, and AI enemies are designed to make smart tactical decisions based on the appearance of the player's party members and the weapons they carry. As the player's characters gain experience and discover new equipment, they can be upgraded with a choice of 75 different skills, each with ten levels of mastery.
Restricted Area takes place in a dark, cyberpunk future in the style of William Gibson. Corporations rule the world, while a token government force maintains the appearance of keeping them in line. Much of the Earth has been turned to irradiated wasteland, and the remaining crowded urban areas are a mix of smoke, shadows, and backdoor dealings. You play as one of four mercenaries taking odd jobs from suited representatives of the six major corporations. Some of the playable mercs are out for money, some to escape from their past, but all are looking for a new life in the lucrative field of dirty deeds done dirt cheap.
The structure is pretty straightforward. A barricaded city block acts as a mission hub, and features access to weapons dealers, doctors, and loan sharks. One mission contact provides you with the next story quest in a linear plot, while the other acts as a "job board" with randomized side-tasks you can take for more money and XP. As you progress through the plot missions, you'll run afoul of the one corporation everyone is afraid to cross - Oxygenetic - as well as get cameo appearances from the three mercs you didn't choose to play as.
It's certainly a looker, and sharp textures with a consistent sci-fi theme create a dingy atmosphere worthy of the cyberpunk term. Graphical options are limited, but you can engage flickering and dynamic lights, which help with shadows, strobes, and the occasional colored light (usually red). Many bunkers are dark, and in these areas, your mouse cursor acts a flashlight to shine around and spot monsters lurching from the dark. There's also a fair variety of locales in the story missions, but the job board missions definitely reuse the same bunker tile sets over and over. Animations for everyone are somewhat stiff, but rarely distracting. Some limited physics shoves barrels around when they explode, which has useful gameplay implications, but that's as advanced as it gets.
Gameplay is straightforward Action RPG. Your basic actions are a left-click to move and a right click to attack, though all three mouse buttons can be customized to a limited degree. Killing every creature nets you some experience used to increase the skill points of your character, and treasure chests in the level offer the potential for cool loot that does the same. Excess or unwanted gear is sold back at the city hub for cash monies. And if you happen to have an interested buddy, you can rock and roll through the game together in networked co-op.
The difference here is the focus on ranged combat. Guns are the weapons of choice in Restricted Area's world, and while there is one (and only one) character that has the option to use a sword, all others need to pick from pistols, shotguns, or automatic weapons. Each of the three types has its own skill branch (promoting specialization), and break out as you would expect - SMGs are fast but weak, shotguns are powerful but slow, pistols sit somewhere in the middle. Many foes don't have ranged attacks themselves, so the balance of combat is often in your favor - though you're still plenty screwed if you can't maneuver and end up surrounded. All guns have unlimited ammo, so your only concern is finding the one that boosts your stats in a way you approve of.
Armor is also given a futuristic counterpart in the form of cybernetic limbs and implants. Don't ask me how you can swap arms and eyes in the field, but you can, and their various listed effects engage immediately. These are typical for the genre, and include increased accuracy, movement speed, low-light vision, or damage resistance. How many parts you can equip is defined by your character's "tolerance" level, which can be improved as you level up. Parts come in cybernetic or bio-mechanical flavors, and generally, the biological parts have lower tolerance requirements. You can't change one type into the other though, so it always breaks down into finding the most effective combination of booster parts that your body can still support. Also worth noting is that each part comes from one of six manufacturers, and you get an exponential bonus for equipping multiple parts from the same company - the game's equivalent of an armor "set."
Since everyone's using the same pool of guns, character specialization comes from the unique skills each of the four possesses. Johnson is a gruff man-in-black, and the least complicated of the group. He's the only character that can equip flamethrowers and plasma rifles (both advanced ordinance), and his unique skill tree focuses on damage reduction, critical hits, and tolerance boosts. Victoria is the "mage" of the group, sporting psionic powers that pull from a recharging energy pool. Her skills introduce new psi attacks and shields (in addition to her guns), and increase their effectiveness and reduce their costs. Kenji is a yakuza on the run, and can focus on either melee weapons or dual gun attacks, along with some martial arts attacks. Jessica is a hacker with a pet laser drone, which can be activated to attack foes at the cost of draining energy. Jessica is also the only character than can enter cyberspace (a ghostly techno version of the current level), where she can pull charge points for her abilities or regain energy for her drone.
Like the original Diablo, strategy isn't as important as the stats on both your character and their gear. Dodging attacks, for example, is a passive skill invoked automatically by your character's reflex value. You won't even see an animation signifying a successful dodge; your character simply ignores whatever attack connects. Similar story when attacking an enemy and not having a high-enough accuracy stat. This leads to combat feeling a bit bland - an issue I have with nearly all numbers-heavy ARPGs. You simply move forward, click to kill everything in sight, and repeat.
Challenge is offered in the form of tougher enemies, boss fights that lock you into the same room, and enemies with ranged weapons of increasing power. These all keep you from simply wading in and holding down the "win" button, but instead of promoting strategy, they simply require you to keep advancing your skills and stats to overcome them with literal numbers. This is where those side-missions come in.
I hesitate to even call them side missions, since the game's structure requires you to grind on them until you're at a level worthy enough to take on the next story mission. This can take a while. All side missions take place in bunkers with randomly-generated layouts and a cadre of enemies within. Missions essentially break out into two types: fight down to the level with the objective (allowing you to "rush" through as much as you can), or meticulously explore the levels and kill every mutant within (for which you are paid per kill). I suppose it allows for two different play styles, but as the levels only automap as you run through them, you're killing a whole lot of monsters anyway. Might as well get a bonus paid for each and every one.
The game also features no "town portal" spell, meaning there's no way to freely return to the hub and sell the accumulated crap in your limited inventory, then immediately and painlessly return where you left off. There is a way to return to town - forfeiting the mission - which makes you lose "reputation" points each time you do it (same if you are killed). Your rep points determine the quality of missions you get, so dying often or aborting missions keeps you doing scrub work for low pay (to be clear, the missions are functionally the same, but higher difficulties bring higher rewards).
You otherwise have the option to run all the way back your ship and dump extra inventory off to the cargo hold. Bunker levels you've cleared stay cleared, but you will have to fight your way back around the surface level; and, of course, make multiple selling trips when you're back in the city. I'm the kind of player that HATES leaving gear behind (even a piddly little starter pistol is leaving money on the table), so having no way to easily dump it off particularly ground my gears. At least there is an "auto-sort" button in the inventory, so you won't have to play "inventory Tetris" to get everything to fit.
So it's fair to say that Restricted Area gets repetitive as all hell, made worse (in my opinion) by forcing randomized, plotless side missions that simply scream "busy work." But is it worth the trouble? Surprisingly, those story missions are pretty great. Not only do they have their own cutscenes and different branches, but the crossovers between character stories work out pretty well. You can expect to play most interactions from both sides if you go back and play through the game as both characters. There are also missions referenced in one campaign that are playable in another's (so you get to see what Victoria is up to when she disappears, or perform the hack that Kenji requests). Each character also has a few exclusive missions, even playable flashback missions with very different situations and gear than the usual, all of which add value to playing through all four stories. It's up to you if you have the patience for it.
Restricted Area's fault is not in cloning Diablo, because it does this competently. It takes the best parts of a solid gameplay system and pulls off their execution well. Its fault isn't in being too generic or average, because the story is actually fairly creative and engaging. There's even legitimate incentive to play through as each of the four characters. Its fault, hands down, is the grind, which to me just feels like lazy padding. However, I have a particular aversion to obvious busy work in games. If this doesn't get you down - or if the endless quest for better loot and skills drives you enough to overcome it - Restricted Area is a pretty fine action RPG that's a worthy alternative to the fantasy genre.
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