Giants: Citizen Kabuto – A Look Back at an Underrated Gem
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A lack of drive to create original gaming IPs and challenge genre conventions isn’t something that has just started to occur. The 80s had Mario clones, the 90s had developers scrambling to recreate the magic of Zelda, and the 2000s saw a boom in sandbox games after the release of GTA 3, but it is an accepted fact of life that there will always be companies looking to ride the wave of success that more creative people bring.
Often publishers will be wary of creating new IPs as it requires a lot of time and money and convincing consumers to buy a new game is harder than getting them to buy sequels, so it isn’t surprising that innovation is often pushed to the wayside to make way for tried and tested ideas. With that in mind, it is a great shame when a game that challenges conventional game design sells poorly at retail. One such title is Giants: Citizen Kabuto; a game that blended genre after genre seamlessly into its gameplay. It is a shooter – both first and third, depending on your preference -, RTS, base-builder and there are a handful of waterskiing levels.
However, unlike Psychonauts, Beyond Good and Evil, Blinx, Okami and other ambitious titles that failed to meet expected sales targets, Giants had had all the qualities of a sure-fire blockbuster. In fact, before it was released at the tail end of 2000, it picked up prestigious awards including runner up for Best of Show at e3, catching the media’s attention with it’s cutting edge graphical effects such as TCL and bump mapping and its genre-bending game mechanics.
Giants captivated audiences with its three unique playable races: Meccs or Meccaryns, a group of cockney, beer-drinking lads who are looking forward to their boozy holiday on Planet Majorca; Delphi, a quick moving, magical amphibian and daughter of the evil queen Sappho; the eponymous Kabuto, a hulking beast-of-burden who was created by the queen of the Sea Reapers, Sappho, to protect the island. Each race had their own storyline, soundtrack, strengths and weaknesses and a substantial amount of short missions.
Yet, despite receiving heavy publicity and almost universal praise from reviewers, Giants didn’t sell particularly well. This could have been due to gamers reporting glitches. Most notably, glitches that would cause the game to crash and difficulty connecting to the online server. Unfortunately, even though these issues were fixed by patches not long after release, the damage had already been done and it may have put some consumers off. In contrast, there have been a handful of recent games that have sold millions of copies despite suffering from far worse issues including crippling glitches, highlighting that established brand identity can sometimes allow companies to unfairly ride through waves of criticism.
There are many saddening tales of games that failed to translate great ideas into sales, but Giants is one of the more unfortunate stories in the history of videogames. It is an all-round great game and it wasn’t just the graphics and unique concepts that made it a classic; it also had a wonderfully vibrant orchestrated soundtrack, an electrifying range of powerful weapons and cracking comedy that didn’t once let up.
The understated soundtrack was composed by Mark Morgan and the incomparable Jeremy Soul. The music can, like the game itself, be broken down into three main segments. Each one having been specially composed to match the tone of a particular campaign: Symphony Meccaryn, a dizzyingly extravagant segment that includes brass, wind and string, captures the essence of an unpredictable adventure by regularly changing up the tempo; Sea Reaper Suite is ethereal and heavily uses wind instruments to encapsulate magical vibe of the Sea Reapers, but mixes in bongos, pitched percussion and flutes giving it tribal, ethnic undertones; Kabuto Concerto is bolder and heavier and hits the listener straight away with percussions to convey the titular character’s terrifying presence.
However, even though the graphics, story and soundtrack are all equally deserving of praise, it is the game mechanics and British humour that gives Giants its identity and makes playing through the campaign a memorable experience.
Each of the three campaigns take place on the large and expansive world of Azure, an enormous island location that features expansive terrains filled with large open spaces, mountains and smaller, offshore islands. Any and every part of these islands can be visited and it enables tactics to be developed that fully utilize the terrain.
The Meccs utilize a plethora of close and long range, high tech weaponry: sniper rifles, machine guns, grenades, mines, missile launchers, homing missiles and the devastatingly powerful Millennium Mortar. These weapons, in combination with the permanently equipped jetpack, allow Meccs to take full advantage of any terrain and quickly escape if the unpredictable Rippers – an enemy that moves in swarms – tries to flank the player. However, the jetpack can only be used for a couple of seconds before it needs to recharge and tactfully placed anti-air turrets nullify the advantage of the jetpack.
Delphi, like the Meccs, has weapons that can be used at a close and long range, as well as a range of spells that can called upon, but her close range item, a sword, can be ineffective without the aid of magic and can force her to fight at a distance. Delphi range of spells include a ring of fire, hailstorms, teleportation, a spell that slows down time and a super destructive spell that summons a huge tornado that sucks up smaller units and quickly inflicts a dangerous amount of damage to larger units. The tornado, in particular, is entertaining to watch as a giant vortex inflicts terror on nearby foes, picking them up off the ground, spinning them around and then spitting these units back out.
Kabuto, unlike the other two races, has difficulty reaching higher locations and if he attempts to clamber up onto mountainous areas, he will be left vulnerable. His large size means he is easy to spot and benefits from a more heads on approach. However, the developers managed to cleverly counter these weaknesses by allowing him to spawn smaller versions of himself who will do his bidding and it is fun to watch these units cause chaos from a distance. Kabuto doesn’t have to rely on minions, though, as he is a competent fighter and can use a quick dash or jump if an enemy is close enough, pick it up and either eat it to regain health or as a projectile weapon.
Another prominent aspect of the gameplay, base-building, is present in all off the races’ campaigns and multiplayer, but Meccs and Sea Reapers benefit from being able to build structures that will strengthen their defense and attack. Shops, defense shields, walls, turrets vehicles and other structures can be built, whilst fending off or attacking the opposition. These levels can be challenging as the player has to carefully micromanage their base and attack the enemy’s bases.
During multiplayer, each race is given the tools necessary to build a base and this shared game mechanic brings together three unique races. The multiplayer has been carefully balanced so they can all exist within one game without any one of the three overpowering the other two. Victories during the online mode never felt cheap; they each have their own inherent strengths and weaknesses and whether it is Kabuto’s slow movement speed, Delphi vulnerability to close range combat or picking off the Meccs one at a time and then retreating, each one has weaknesses that can be exposed.
It is gratifying revisiting similar -or the same- environments with each of the three races as the way they interact with these environments and enemies differs due to their inherent character traits. Each are distinct enough from one another that they could each headline their own games. The Meccs’ high tech and explosive smorgasbord of weaponry contrasts with Delphi’s bows and magic spells which contrasts with Kabuto’s direct, physical style of combat.
The tactically deep yet easy to understand game mechanics can be thanked to Planet Moon’s previous employees of Shiny Entertainment who used their experience of working on MDK to create a more accessible experience. Planet Moon achieved this by using focus groups to test the game. The results allowed them to create three unique races that were easy to pick up but difficult to master.
Giants was truly original and straight from the off hits the player with smattering of British-style humour. For example, one of the games secondary characters,Timmy, aka Akhmed, takes the Meccs down various mineshafts or ‘wells’ that plays with the age-old TV trope. The game humorously makes regular subtle references to other forms of media including Metal Gear Solid, The Magnificent Seven and South Park. During one scene, various characters start shouting out Timmy’s name in homage to a South Park character. The ludicrous humour doesn’t end there, though, as jokes punctuate the entire experience. Regardless of whether it is the cinematics, in game instructions, character design or gameplay, Planet Moon takes every opportunity to try and get the player laughing.
Until recently, only a few games have managed to incorporate comedy and the few that did would usually be point-and-click titles like Sam & Max or Grim Fandango. Of course, there were exceptions to the rule like Psychonauts or Conkers Bad Fur Day and, of course, Giants: Citizen Kabuto, but these games were few and far between so it was always exciting to stumble upon a new release that managed to be consistently humorous.
Fortunately, with the rise of platforms such as GOG, older releases have had the chance to be enjoyed by a new generation of gamers or by those who may have overlooked this cult gem at the time of its release. Similarly, other Interplay titles such as the truly brilliant Planescape: Torment and Sacrifice didn’t get the sales or love they deserved back in the day and I suggest everyone should add these titles to their wish list.
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