“Unearthed: Trail of Ibn Battuta” game development analysis

Original Author: Ameen Altajer

SPOILER ALERT!!

This game development review has many spoilers on the game, if you didn’t play the game yet and you’re intending to play it soon, then you may want to skip reading this until you play it.

 

 

Prologue:

“Unearthed: Trail of Ibn Battuta” is a game that has been developed in the Middle East, I go on and analyze everything about it from a game development point of view, criticizing storyline, game design, implementation and few other elements. This game tends to be one of the very first games to come out from the region so I wanted to go and state my findings in a very detailed manner, this article is taken from my website http://www.ps3code.com.

 

1. Introduction:

“Unearthed: Trail of Ibn Battuta” is a 3D adventure platformer game developed by the Saudi company Semaphore, the game is probably one of the very first games to be published on major networks like Steam, Playstation Network (PSN) and the like. The game was promised to support a variety of platforms ranging from mobile to consoles, the game has been delivered on some platforms and failed on some, the game also supports many languages, but noticeably Arabic text and dialogue.

Now as a game developer from the Middle East, I truly respect the endeavour, it’s a good opportunity for us – game developers of living in this region – to go and analyze what Unearthed has done wrong and – rarely – done right. I’m a game developer myself, and this game development analysis reflects my thoughts and comments of the game according to the humble experience I had in making games and in using the decent Unity game engine for quite sometime.

I want to clarify that I’m not criticizing the game because I want to, but I had to, all along from the time the game has been disclosed to the public, to the time it was published on Steam and other platforms, I just had to state many comments regarding many aspects ranging from story, game design, and implementation details. I wanted to share them here because I so believe that reiteration and taking constructive criticism is the best way to achieve accomplishments. I’m sure that the guys at Semaphore will be benefited from this detailed analysis, as I cover almost every important game developments aspect.

 

2. Story, dialogue and the musical score:

The main character in the game is Faris Jawad who is the protagonist of the game, along with his sister Dania they go ahead and try to follow Ibn Battuta’s trails to find out the secrets that he’s left behind, they travel to Morocco as well, where the story and some gameplay takes place too.

Now if you ask me, I would say that it’s from the first glimpse, I would definitely say it’s the Arabic version of the Uncharted franchise, more of a replica, and to your surprise that’s exactly what has been said all over the world, words of gamers and game developers.

Looking at the similarities between Unearthed and the Uncharted series – and there are many – you have to admit that the game has taken a huge chunk of ideas related to story, dialogue and game mechanics from the Uncharted masterpiece.

Treasure hunting is a good and – probably a very used – storyline idea for many games including Uncharted, Tomb Raider, but what makes those games so special is that they’ve taken the idea of “searching for a treasure” and twisted it a lot by utilizing fictional characters, theories and by encountering demons and extraordinary creatures along the way. Now the unique game mechanics in both of the previous games give them a different taste and an atmosphere even though in the end they’re both just adventure platformers.

Taking the short gameplay of “Unearthed: Episode 1″ into account, I don’t think that the game succeeded in delivering what you expect from an “Episode 1″ kind of a game. The beginning has used a very common storytelling method that – again – has been used by Uncharted, that is kickstarting the game with a scene that is almost near the ending while being narrated by the protagonist, then by getting to a critical scene in the game, suddenly you’re taken back to the very beginning portion of the story, where you try to figure out how you got to that critical scene of the story, pretty interesting story progress if you ask me.

One more similarity with Uncharted is a scene in the very beginning where you get to your treasure, and suddenly the place is filled with enemies and you have to make your way back to the entrance to save your sister, this is exactly what happens in Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune.

The car chase scene was a typical replica of Uncharted; I’ll just let you decide according to the image below:

Figure – vehicle-chasing level

Episode one didn’t deliver in terms of story, normally you want to be intrigued and excited about the ending so you would want to play the following episodes, Unearthed did the quite opposite, the ending was so normal that it has ended with a very short yet buggy car chase, I didn’t find the ending exciting, I honestly felt great that this was the end to a buggy game I was not satisfied paying five dollars on.

The dialogue is really horrible and was not to the level I was expecting at all, I’m talking about voice and acting quality, and what personally shocked me the most is when I read that the voice acting has been done in Hollywood! You would think that the name Hollywood would ring when quality is about to be seen, but hey that’s totally unlike what Unearthed has delivered. The Arabic voice acting is so bad that I thought it was done by a news anchor in the beginning, there is absolutely no immersion whatsoever in the voice act, the voice performance made me laugh many times, particularly when hanging on a bridge or climbing a platform, apart from that, the quality of the Arabic dialog is very low, material-wise and sound-wise, for a second it felt they were recording the act underwater.

Not only that, the content of the dialogue is really boring and was not immersive at all, I had the urge to skip most of the cut scenes, they were really “artificial”, I’m telling you no feelings at all. There were endeavours where they wanted to add a bit of comedy in the dialogue, but I personally felt it was vague and not funny, probably because the performance didn’t nail it, this also mimics Uncharted, where the protagonist Nathan Drake is a really funny guy in almost every situation, even risky ones, now if you compare Faris Jawad and Nathan Drake, you’ll tell for sure that there are very major similarities between the two, not only looks that are the same but even the sarcastic attitude is very similar – or at least it’s what Semaphore wanted to achieve.

Figure – lame jokes are not funny

Figure – Low quality cut scene and scattered colors

What was even more horrible is the pronunciation of the Arabic language is, it was really bad and had many mistakes, this gives you the idea that voice actors came unprepared and the director just wanted the session to finish, I can say it was done without even stressing on act quality.

I personally think that choosing native Arabic was a bad choice for the game, if this was an old-themed Arabian game then I would agree on the language choice, but since this game has taken place in the modern era, it’s totally not fit.

Language is not only the problem that I had but the sounds of weapons, explosions, enemies and almost every sound effect is low on quality, they felt really cheap as if they were extracted from old games like Counter Strike just to fill in.

Not everything was a downer for Unearthed, the musical score felt genuine and was a total fit especially when you visit Morocco in the game, but it was really bad when a specific scene comes up and you’re chase a thief, the score was cold and didn’t fit the atmosphere and the “intense” situation.

 

3. Game design:

Unearthed’s game design was a disaster from all angles. Character movement, combat, puzzles and almost every aspect was greatly flawed.

The camera system was an issue for me, controlling the player movement and the camera at the same time moves the character in a direction I never intended it to, this created a lot of issues while being in combat, especially where you needed to be quite fast in movement response. Even though it’s a platformer, platforming was not satisfying; your character doesn’t do the animation transition smoothly, especially on inclined surfaces and stairs.

Camera placement was just crazy, there is a point where you have to cross two points while hanging on a rope, the twist is to time the movement correctly so you don’t get hit by the shots, to my disappointment, the camera is placed in a position that you can’t determine how far you should advance in the rope to time your movements, I have no clue if this was intentional or not, but it was not a convenience nor a fair challenge. The camera system was really rigid, I didn’t like that the game didn’t switch camera positions smoothly, smooth transitions are definitely needed for such a platformer with a big environment where you have multiple points of focus.

Figure – bad camera angle placement

Figure – bad camera angle placement again

Traversing special objects like bridges, ledges and ropes while platforming just felt extremely unnatural and boring. Talking about boring, walking for a long time doesn’t sound very interesting when you realize you are forced to do it for almost ten minutes straight, and that’s the case for one of the level’s in Unearthed, it was really boring to keep my finger on the forward button all this time.

You can see a lot of enemies changing direction by a sudden animation and a direction change, this was really horrible to accept, because as a developer and a fan of this genre, it’s important to me that I get the platforming feel right in order to feel comfortable traversing the world, and so it’s really significant that you semi-perfect the very basic elements of platforming like movement and animation, and to my disappointment the guys at Semaphore didn’t share the same view, the platforming machinery was very bad for the experience and didn’t not bring joy. Character animations were poorly done, for more than a single moment I thought I was a playing a Playstation 1 (PSX) title. The way the protagonist throws grenades was very artificial and had little to no connection to being realistic.

Talking about the sound aspects of level design, I don’t really believe that the Semaphore team appreciates 3D sounds, the worst part of being in a combat is that you don’t know where the shots are coming from, the fire sound was implemented as a 2D stereo sound – or the 3D sound was mistakenly sat up, so when you’re in a combat there is no way to tell which direction the fire is coming from.

I do understand that the red arrow tells you the direction of the shots, but it’s normally not enough for players who are used to relying on sound feedback for combat movement, even if you’re a visual guy, the arrow tracking system – that is composed of pieces – is not helpful that much, just think about it, you as a player surrounded by a 360 angle, do you think that you would be able to tell where the enemy is by looking to one of the few direction arrows.

Figure – enemy directions

Figure – directions again

Sound was a big a problem here, especially that I was expecting some AAA quality work, few things would just frustrate you in just few minutes, there is a specific mini-mission where you have to break few jars to get something that is inside, now while breaking those jars, you can hear the protagonist making the same sound all over again, the lack of variety here really degrades the quality of the game and hits the experience hard.

This wasn’t the only flaw in sound; the looping of the musical score was bad as hell, ever imagined as if you’re playing a song on loop mode? That’s exactly what’s happening with the musical score, the score is being replayed directly, and you can hear the cut in between the end of the score and its beginning being played again, this gave me the impression that those little details didn’t matter that much to the game director, I don’t have to state how important music is, as it controls feelings and they should’ve at least done that right.

The checkpoint system was one of the most frustrating parts of the game, that is when you finish a very hard poorly designed place in the game, you expect the game to save your progress, but instead I doesn’t, in fact, checkpoints were poorly placed in the game in a way you as a player wouldn’t really care about the checkpoint saving system anymore because you already anticipate yourself restarting the checkpoint anytime soon.

There is a specific scene in the game where you have to use stealth to silently kill the enemies, I didn’t understand why the developer forced the movement mode to switch to stealth mode, to me there was no sense of challenge here, I was expecting the developer to ask the player to focus on his input to slowly use the controller to silently get to enemies and kill them quietly, but on contrast, you can push your controller all the way to the top and you’ll get to enemies quietly, which obviously killed the joy of the challenge in hand. Something similar happened when you get near ledges, you simply can’t fall and die, where is the fun of being careful around those then? Case closed.

Figure – movement forced to be in stealth mode in here

Collecting pieces was one of the very first game challenges, the placement was somehow wise, and I’m saying somehow because the placement of some collectibles was smart, in a sense the developer wanted to teach the player the basics of few platforming skills such as hanging on objects and jumping among ledges, as for the rest for collectibles, they were scattered in some weird places, and you get to see the location of the collectable when you ask for a hint, to me this was more than sufficient, probably ruined a bit of the scouting experience. I was not happy at all with object placement, especially that part where you pick up the fire to use it to light the way, the object was placed in a place that you as player can’t get on yet the space tell you to please get up so you can pick up the item.

Figure – bad object pick up location

Many elements were not realistic; shooting barriers doesn’t destroy them but hey look! Kicking them does the job, doesn’t sound reasonable to me.

There is a specific puzzle where you can use a remote control car to help you traverse into the level, that specific idea had no place within the context of the game, everything feels disconnected, I don’t even know how the protagonist got the car to the ground or how he picked it up again, these ideas which could’ve been iterated on to be acceptable somehow were very disconnected and didn’t really fit into the atmosphere of the game. Apart from the idea, controlling the car was just bad, it was more of moving a brick rather than a car, and these noticeable details were disregarded horribly.

Figure – remote control car

While in combat, aiming doesn’t feel natural, I was really expecting a decent firing system that includes good feedback support and some vibration. Control while aiming is not really that professional, every slight movement can take the aim crosshair away from the target, I played the game with the “manual aiming” system, I don’t really know if the automatic is much better in terms of providing those missing elements, but I don’t think so.

There were few useless game mechanics in the game, taking cover for example, when an enemy takes cover from the players, throwing a grenade in front of the barrier kills the enemy straight, I really don’t see the point getting behind a cover if it doesn’t – somehow – protect you, this worked fine against bullets but as mentioned didn’t work against grenades.

The “street fighter” combat mode doesn’t really serve the genre, more to that, it was broken. What happens is, there are specific key moments in the game where you have to fight few enemies in a hand-to-hand fight, you can punch and kick, but the problem is that you can’t block kicks, I’ve personally tried to use every single button on my controller but I failed to black kicks, this got me the impression that even those important game design details are not counted for.

Figure – street fighter shot 1

Figure – street fighter shot 2

Figure – can’t block kicks

There is a specific location in the level where you have sharp pieces swinging left and right, there were many issues with such a machinery, one is such a machinery didn’t match the environment it was placed in, you can clearly see that the corridor where this killing machinery was in is almost empty, apart from that the velocity of the sharp things being swinged was totally not natural, to me this was just cheap animation with no feel of physics to those objects being swinged.

If you’ve played “God of War” you probably remember a specific level where a lot of giant burning rocks are falling and coming your way and you have to tackle them to move forward. Guess what? Unearthed has the same game mechanic, just made me scream “God of War” at that specific moment.

I think Unearthed’s input could have been utilized much better, especially when you have a controller in your hand with quite many buttons, input was laggy a bit, I had to press and hold the button more than a single time to get the action I needed, and no my controller is not malfunctioning.

The adventure challenges were unacceptably short, an example is when you catch the thief you were after earlier, you are supposed to flee the scene before the cops catch you, and all it took me was just a jump to the next building, just a total of fifteen seconds!

 

4. Implementation:

The first thing that hit me bad when I played the game was the setting menu, I went there to change the resolution to a higher one, and whenever I chose the option next in line, the resolution changed directly and the game windows got reinitialized, this is just bad, switching resolution directly made me frustrated because I had to wait for my monitor to change its resolution almost ten times, traversing weird resolutions until I got to my desired one, and the worst thing happened when I passed a couple of unsupported resolutions, turning my screen to solid black. Not only that, when I got to my desired resolution, everything got reset when I wanted to reload the game for my second game session, this bothered me… a lot.

Rag doll physics was nice but was not done correctly, when you throw a grenade, you can see killed enemies landing in a weird shape like the screen below, setting environment’s colliders to be more tolerant to such physics behaviour, or tweaking the explosion force could have been potential workarounds for such issues.

Figure – bad rag doll landing

The reflection shader was noticeably incorrect, rotating the camera allows you to see the defect clearly, you would think it’s a shadow following you but it’s just your reflection on super clean surfaces!

Figure – reflection shader issue

Figure – reflection shader issue again

Coming back to Arabic, I do really respect the effort that Semaphore has put to incorporate Arabic text within their game, after all it was a must, but they’ve shipped the game with very noticeable hurdles nonetheless. Arabic subtitles were not synced with the dialogue, I’m not sure if it happens with other languages, what’s even worse is that Arabic was not correct syntax-wise in few scenes, look to the shot below:

Figure – wrong Arabic letters representation

And in few specific scenes, the Arabic subtitles went over and crossed the screen’s bottom, just like this one:

Figure – subtitles crossing the screen

I’m not sure how this bypassed the attention of quality assurance – if they had one!

I don’t know what the game is doing when you move to another screen or exit the game, but it’s too slow to react to my actions, choosing to exit the game or skip specific scenes takes a noticeable while, no clue about what this serves exactly, I can’t see any activity of deallocating resources or disk access throughout this process.

Along with scattered bugs here and there, like the one when you pause the game, the musical score being played stops unexpectedly, this is seriously one horrible bug, there was a moment where I was really tasting the music and for a reason I had to pause the game, suddenly no music for me.

Colliders are poorly done, there are moments when you get in a good position and you want to shoot enemies, but you can’t, the poorly placed invisible walls are to be blamed – and the level designer of course, I honestly think this killed the experience for me, there was no point of getting in a good cover.

Figure – invisible walls blocking my shots

Something almost serves this case happened to me when I was driving the car in the last scene, somehow the car got on top of the pavement and just stayed there without being able to come down, the colliders have been poorly place even in such a level where physics can take your objects somewhere you didn’t intend.

Figure – car-chasing level

Figure – car stuck bug

The GUI artwork is probably too raw and basic, I didn’t like it at all, as it was done really fast to cope with a deadline, it had the very same feel of Unity’s plain default settings.

Models were kind of not consistent in terms of size relative to the world, many objects we bigger or smaller to other objects, one noticeable sample was one of the submachine guns that you can use, the size of the gun was big that it felt so weird when you’re aiming down the sight.

I don’t have much to talk about the artificial intelligence (AI) of the game, it was basic and got the job done, most of the enemies were doing basic behaviours like wandering, shooting at me, but no sophisticated behaviours.

Semaphore couldn’t deliver to the other promised platforms, but nevertheless they had major problems on the platforms they managed to deploy to, such as Mac and iOS. I’ve tested the game on my friend’s iPad, and it was really slow, laggy and full of fatal errors that caused the application to exit unexpectedly after moments of inconsistent frame rate.

I was not impressed with this at all, because I do understand that running the game on a mobile device is a huge challenge, it requires fine performance tuning in order to have the same experience on such a low-speced device, other than this, other elements like input, GUI, Heads Up Display (HUD) and the akin must be suitable for such a platform. Publishing your game to platforms that your engine supports isn’t just enough for you to decide if you should consider porting your game to them.

I was really happy when I knew that Unearthed crew decided to go with the Unity engine to create their game, but after trying the game now, I can say that I’m not happy with what Semaphore has done technical-wise, allow me to explain more.

Unity is a mature 3D game engine, and there is no need for me to explain how mature Unity has come along the past years, there are decent titles that have been produced wit Unity, and so it’s proven to serve modern games and such a genre, but Semaphore begs to differ in this, why you ask? Well, apparently the Semaphore team is switching to Unreal’s UDK to create “Episode 2” of Unearthed; this was – to me – the worst decision ever made, why you ask again? Well, this means that whatever technology Semaphore has built has just became useless, and now they’ve got to rebuild the technology with a new toolchain, this is going to be a decision that they’ll be paying for a lot, in terms of duration and efforts.

As a Unity developer, I do believe that if Semaphore’s crew went back and reiterated on their Unity technology I’m sure they’ll enhance the look and feel of their game’s main strength points like platforming and combat, but instead, adopting a new technology means that this all has gone to waste.

Unearthed’s issue is not Unity; it’s the lack of ingenuity in game mechanics, and the horrible and buggy implementation. I’m not even sure if Semaphore has tested their product “Unearthed”, it’s full of obvious bugs.

 

5. Artwork and visuals

I was okay with the visuals of the game but not impressed, for a first title that was more than okay for me, the following snapshot that shows how beautifully the light penetrates the, and few cool additions to the scenery. Morocco level was very nice in visuals.

Figure – beautiful market scenery

Figure – cool environmental elements

The environment was nice, the first indoor level might not give you eye candy feel but visiting the temple definitely opens your eyes for what Unity and Semaphore are capable of, the shiny golden color was all over the place, gave me the feel that I was really in a place that held treasures, but most of the environment felt dry with very few objects, the game definitely lacked a lot of polish in terms of level design and object placement.

Figure – indoor level

Figure – cool environment in the temple

I’ve noticed that – as I said earlier – objects were slightly non-consistent in terms of size, objects were not following a specific scaling system. I really loved the taste of shaders being used in the game, even though as I mentioned earlier, the reflection shader had a noticeable problem, but all in all the shaders being used were cool. I honestly didn’t like the water system, seems very doll and superficial, didn’t look like a modern water system; Semaphore’s crew should’ve worked on it better, or at least got a plugin from the Unity Store.

Random people and characters share the same face most of the time, I’ve seen this guy like a million times across the level.

Figure – face redundancy

Figure – face redundancy again

Cut scenes were horrible and had very low quality to them, lips were not synced to dialogues and the low texture work gives you a terrible look on the materials being used on object are character characters, other than that, specific motions were more than just artificial, were really bad, like when a character picks up the phone, the way the character holds the phone is just awkward.

Figure – bad texturing

The artwork in Unearthed had a good start, but took a wrong direction with few incorrect decisions, but it was okay as a whole.

 

6. Cost, quality and gameplay time:

Normally when you’re spending five dollars – on Steam – on a game, you wouldn’t get a triple A title, but you at least would expect something with good quality.

This was probably the worst mistake Semaphore has done, pricing their game to five dollars, that was completely wrong, for such a buggy game, broken game mechanics, horrible sounds and dialogs, very unstructured ripped off story and game mechanics, short gameplay time of less than an hour… I’m really sad to say that this was the worst five dollars I’ve ever spent on a game, I really expected more from Semaphore after hearing so much about them. Especially the gameplay time, I don’t know why the developers priced such an uncomplete game for five dollars, and it’s only a single episode, that has no proper ending.

 

7. Notes and updates:

Now when I was about to finish this game development analysis, I was notified by the developers that they are releasing an update that would turn everything around in Unearthed to such a better game. Now while this is a very good move, I do disagree on few things.

Normally when you release updates, you don’t adjust game design elements like game mechanics and other intensive elements of your game, because this makes the experience different for your audience. I was going through the change list in the latest update, and I saw one change where they fixed the part where you can fall into a pit – as I talked about this in my analysis above, this ruins the experience for people, because this means you have to play the game again to experience more stuff on the actual game play, and yet it’s not new content. Updates are supposed to fix technical bugs and enhance content, not change the experience.

Again, I do respect the team’s efforts to follow up on their game by making it better, but planning beforehand would have definitely given it a better head start.

I’ll be back to update this game development analysis with more material when I have the chance to give the game another shot, and I’ll update the article with more findings.

 

8. Conclusion

“Unearthed: Trail of Ibn Battuta” didn’t deliver as I – and many others – expected, but I’m sure the team by now has a better understanding of game design and implementation, this will definitely give them the push they need to make better games, I’m sure that the Unearthed team are going to be so open to my criticism, coming from a game developer that belongs to same region.

I hope you found this article beneficial to you, in terms of game design, programming or whatever you relate to.

Make sure you contact me for any thing related to this on ameen [ @ ] ps3code.com.

Good luck in your future endeavours, Semaphore.

Ameen