Human Head Studios came onto many gamer's radars in 2006 with the release of Prey. With a strong emphasis on Cherokee culture and outside-the-box shooting mechanics, the game was different than anything that had come before; in many ways its success hasn't been duplicated since. The sequel, Prey 2, was cancelled after a very troubled period of development, leaving the team to go back to the drawing board. The company decided to go both forward with a completely new project, see the fascinating debut of The Quiet Man, and backward to revisit a project that had long been in the works at Human Head. While Prey put the studio on the map, its history goes back farther than 2006. Rune, an action adventure title that takes place across the realms of Norse mythology, released at the turn of the millennium, and now the Wisconsin-based studio wants to return to their world of gods, magic, and mythological mayhem.
I was able to sit down with the developers and an alpha build of the new Rune for about an hour, peppering them with questions. The experience kicked off with a character creation process where players can tweak an avatar to their hearts' content. Gender, skin color, scars, tattoos, all of the major customization options players have come to expect are included, along with all of the corresponding sliders that govern muscle mass and facial structure. Each newly minted Norse warrior must dedicate themselves to a deity of their choice: Odin, Thor, Freya, or Loki.
Though Rune might lack Ragnarok in its name, the end times of its in-game world are at hand. The prophecy regarding the end of the world states that it must end with the death of gods. Loki, fearing his demise, has spirited himself away, prolonging the chaos of the apocalypse. In order to stop the end of all things, players must fight across the world of Midgard, gaining power and glory for their god while uncovering Loki's machinations. Of course, it's the apocalypse and the dead are rising to do battle, opportunists raid villages, and giants roam the lands searching for humans to crush.
While Rune can be played solo, the game has been designed to support up to 64 players running around a world at the same time. This will, ideally, lead to players cooperating or turning against one another while trying to bring glory to their gods. The world itself offers differently leveled sections that are suited to higher or lower level play, which should result in players of similar levels being pitted against one another. The build I played only had myself and one other person in it, so it's hard to specify exactly how social and gameplay interactions will shake out in the wild.
Combat in Rune revolves around directional inputs. Holding forward while attacking creates a different move than holding to the side or backward and each melee weapon offers its own moveset. Players can also perform plunging attacks from above, use consumables like magic runes, or running attacks. Each weapon can be thrown at enemies, too. This can prove to be ineffective or very effective depending on the type of weapon thrown. These Norse warriors can even dismember an enemy with a strong attack and use that limb as a weapon. So, yes, you can beat an enemy to death with their own arm. This can also happen to the player, so take care not to lose your main combat arm (though this usually results in death, players can actually heal and survive such a wound)!
As players complete quests given to them by the gods, they will earn funeral coins that can be used to unlock skills for the levels they have accumulated so far. Those skills include the expected combat abilities and magic enhancements one might expect, but they also offer crafting recipes that enable players to build things like campfires, weapons, and ships. Sailing becomes a big part of exploring the world once players advance through the initial areas of the game. Though boats crafting begins with dinky rafts, players will eventually be able to build longships that can hold up to 8 players or even warships that house 16 players. These structures will be able to house ballisti to combat sea monsters and rival vessels.
Surviving the environmental dangers of the world can prove to be as harrowing as the enemies that roam the land. Natural hazards like blizzards or meteor showers courtesy of Loki make surviving the world a harrowing and random experience. Savvy players will be able to take advantage of these survival challenges to defeat potent enemies.
Players are encouraged to explore the world to find powerful artifacts and weapons. I managed to steal a longship and sailed to another island on the horizon. The island appeared to be an ancient fortress. As I explored the ruins, one of the developers assured me that normally a powerful giant would have been in that location to defend the mysterious sword thrust into the center of the structure. Of course, I stole the sword and made my way back to the ship to continue my adventures on the mainland. The sword I had found sliced through enemies that had previously proved to be formidable threats, downing even giants in one or two hits. There are many of these artifacts and tools hidden around the world, some in locations that don't even appear on the world map.
Of course, Rune is still in alpha, so the occasional graphical glitches and draw distance goofs are forgivable. Some of the gameplay mechanics still feel a bit rough, with skill trees in need of expansion and some wonky physics, but at the end of the day Rune is about having awesome moments like climbing onto the thatched roof of a small fishing village hut and leaping onto two enemies with a spear, impaling both of them. Or, alternatively, fleeing from a giant while armed only with the arm of an undead warrior you used in a failed attempt to kill it.
Rune entered its closed beta testing phase earlier this week. Players can enter to win access to the closed beta by signing up for Human Head's newsletter. The game will exit closed beta later this year and enter Early Access on Steam at which point players can go through the game solo or join dedicated PvP or PvE servers. Currently the team is focused on PC, but there's always the possibility of a console release.
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